2016 REVIEWS FROM LETTERBOXD.COM


  • The OA

    The OA

    ★★★★

    Don't ask me to explain or justify. I'll admit off the top that I didn't "get" it. I just submitted to this Netflix enigma wrapped in a mystery which somehow magically transformed into a TV mini-series...despite my usually rejecting anything remotely spiritual or new-agey. All the actors (most of whom were unfamiliar except writer-actress Britt Marley, Jason Isaacs, and my fave from Brooklyn, Emory Cohen) were amazing. I've added Patrick Gibson and Brandon Parea to my must-follow list of actors. Anyway, I'm not sure what I saw; but I'd love to see a second season, where ever it goes. In any case, the same year that produced two mind-blowing flights of fantasy like The OA and Stranger Things couldn't have been all bad.

  • The White Helmets

    The White Helmets

    ★★★★

    In rebel controlled Syria (particularly up to now in Aleppo), there is a group calling itself the Syrian Civil Defense, otherwise known as the "White Helmets" for their usual action headgear. These men devote themselves to saving lives of people buried under the rubble after air strikes by the government and their Russian allies. This documentary short follows three young family men who have devoted themselves to their humanitarian cause. We watch them in action during bombings, watch them training in Turkey for their life saving tasks, and hear their on-camera interviews about why they are doing this. The film really brings home the point of view of the civilians caught in the crossfire (ISIS on the ground, Russians in the air). One sequence on camera, where a 1-month old "miracle" baby is saved from having been buried under concrete rubble for 16 hours is truly thrilling. It is hard to watch the destruction and brutality of the Syrian conflict up close and personal; but it gives added perspective to the reasons behind the refugee problems. And more than that, the film is so involving that one cannot avoid thinking how easily such scenes could be transported to American cities if our political situation were to deteriorate under our new regime. Yikes!

  • Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds

    Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds

    ★★★★★

    HBO should telecast this wonderfully entertaining and insightful documentary as soon as possible. Just being in the presence for a while with these two forces of nature is thrilling and healing. In light of the events of late December, 2016, this doc may break your heart; but what a tribute to the indomitable, unsinkable pair of women this film is!

  • Watani: My Homeland

    Watani: My Homeland

    ★★★★½

    This documentary short picks up in 2013 covering a family living in Aleppo, Syria. The father, Abu Ali is a commander of the Free Syrian Army resistance. His wife and four children (older son Hammoudi, older daughter Helen, and the adorable younger daughters, Farah and Sara) live in a bombed out area of the city, exploring the neighborhood rubble and reacting with resignation to the explosions all around their home. When the father is kidnapped by ISIS, and presumed executed, the mother decides to flee with her children to Turkey. Then the family is allowed to emigrate to a small town in Germany, where as of 2015 the children are in school and in the process of assimilating...but never losing their love for their homeland.

    This is a touching, people oriented view of the terrible Syrian refugee problem. The film didn't go into the political situation, which still confuses this viewer. But it is impossible to watch this film without feeling empathy towards this family, and in turn to the plight of all the Syrian refugees. If this film were more widely seen, perhaps some of the current stigma in the U.S. against affording mid-east refugees asylum would be reduced a bit. The humanitarian problem can only really be understood through experiencing the lives of these people through films like this. And it is hard to imagine a more sympathetic family to teach this lesson than the one featured in this film.

  • Close Ties

    Close Ties

    ★★

    In this documentary short, an elderly Polish couple bicker through the preparations for a family dinner celebrating their 45th wedding anniversary. The dinner itself, featuring their extended family, was an interesting enough look into Polish life today. But I never had the feeling that this film had the necessary gravitas to merit an Oscar nomination.

  • The Other Side of Home

    The Other Side of Home

    ★★★

    In the course of making this short documentary, an Armenian American young woman visits Turkey and Armenia in April, 2015, during the Centenary of the "Armenian genocide." She meets up with a woman in Ankara named Maya, who is 1/8 Armenian, from her great-grandmother, who, as a 16 year old was the sole survivor of her family. The film tells the story of the events in 1915 (1.5 Armenians killed, many more expelled, and all traces of the Christian people in Eastern Turkey expunged...which Turks to this day deny was genocide); and illustrates the hundred years of pain of the survivors in diaspora. It concludes with the filmmaker and her friend attending the memorial in Yerevan, Armenia. The subject of genocide in general is fraught with controversy; and this film takes the Armenian one on full tilt. But the people story, represented by Maya, is somewhat undercut by her disinclination to refer to the events of 100 years ago as a genocide. The film had moments of pathos; however, the film making never fully engaged me.

  • The Mute's House

    The Mute’s House

    ★★★½

    The West Bank city of Hebron has a Jewish quarter, separate and cut off from the rest of the city. Only one Palestinian family lives there, in an old otherwise deserted building. Sahar, the eponymous "mute," is actually a deaf lady. Her pre-teen son, Yousef was born with one arm; but he's bright and a total charmer. The documentary short follows Yousef going about his life, both at home (among his chickens and goats living in the building), at his Palestinian boy's school, wandering between the two otherwise segregated parts of town, and occasionally shooting unsteady videos himself. The film is chaotically edited, sometimes confusingly so. But Yousef is an enormously friendly and sympathetic personality, who speaks Arabic, Hebrew and deaf sign language with his mother, while his father spends time in jail for selling illegal alcohol on the Arab side of the demarcation. The film was made by Israelis; but there is a universality to it that is remarkably positive.

  • Patriots Day

    Patriots Day

    ★★★★

    Gripping re-creation of April 15, 2013 events in Boston during the marathon and the aftermath. Peter Berg is a fine director when he is shooting docudrama style. The realism here, mixing TV news footage with original footage worked seamlessly. The acting ensemble was up to the task. However, the final coda, introducing the real people to comment on their point of view at the time, was not quite up to the quality of the rest of the film.

  • Joe's Violin

    Joe’s Violin

    ★★★★½

    Joseph Feingold survived the Holocaust in a Siberian work camp. Only his father and one brother survived the war. In 1947, Joe reconnected with his surviving family in a European refugee camp; and while there traded a pack of cigarettes for a violin at a flea market. Now in his nineties, living in New York City, and no longer playing, he donated his violin to to a program that places instruments in local schools. His beautiful violin found its way to a school for girls in the Bronx, where a deserving young lady named Brianna took possession of it for her time in school. This moving, sentimental documentary short follows Feingold's and his violin's journeys culminating with his meeting with Brianna and listening to her play a tune his mother used to sing. It left me in tears: a perfect documentary for Christmas morning, even if I'm Jewish. Or maybe especially since I'm Jewish.

  • Frame 394

    Frame 394

    ★★★★

    On April 15, 2015 Walter Scott was shot in the back five times by a police officer after a traffic stop in North Charlotte, S.C.. The shooting was preceded by a chase and an ensuing scuffle involving the policeman's taser. The shooting was taped by an onlooker; but the events as shown were somewhat ambiguous due to distance and a shaky camera. Nevertheless, the policeman, Michael Slager, was arrested and charged with murder. This documentary short presents the story of this case from the point of view of a Toronto computer nerd, Daniel Voshart, who used his own software to process and clean up the video, then posted it Reddit, where it went viral and along with other similar cases helped foment cop hatred nationally.

    However, Voshart noticed in frame 394 of the video something that hadn't been seen before. It presented a narrative that possibly disputed the original bad-cop-unlawfully-kills-black-man story that the media had gone with after the tape surfaced. The documentary follows Voshart as he dealt with the moral dilemma of what to do with this discovery, which ultimately involved a trip to South Carolina to meet with the policeman's defense lawyer and a representative of "Black Lives Matter." Fascinating stuff; and Voshart comes off as a consummate Canadian computer wizard, reluctant to become involved. The film ends without tying up loose ends, such as the results of the trial. But as far as it goes, it's a gripping behind the scenes take on a familiar news event.

  • 4.1 Miles

    4.1 Miles

    ★★★½

    During the past 2 years over a million refugees from the mid-east wars have attempted to make the 4.1 mile trip by water from Turkey to the Greek islands (particularly Lesbos.) Victimized by criminal smugglers, and in many cases left in the open sea by capsized boats, over a thousand have drowned, and the Greek infrastructure is crumbling under the pressure. This short documentary accompanies a coast guard captain as the men of his boat struggle night and day to rescue the drowning people (many of them young children.) The hand-held photography is often of amateur quality, with a propensity to catch only glimpses of action; and other than the captain himself there is little interaction with actual refugees. But it is impossible to watch this ongoing tragedy unfold up close and personal without feeling empathy for the plight of these victims of circumstances.

  • Extremis

    Extremis

    ★★★★

    This documentary short tells the stories of several ECU patients on ventilators, whose families (and doctors) must face the extremely difficult task of making end-of-life decisions. Two elderly women in particular are featured, both of whom have a loving young daughter and brothers. Donna is conscious, but her vitals are weak. Selina had arrested in the car on the way to the hospital and resuscitated after several minutes and is only occasionally conscious. The film is heart wrenching as it follows the two families discussing with the doctors how to proceed. The film is superbly edited, cross cutting seamlessly from patient to patient. If anything, the film could have sustained the drama for a lengthier time; but the tasteful conclusion feels just right.

  • Silence

    Silence

    ★★★½

    In the early 17th Century the Japanese shogunate instituted a war against the Catholic religion, killing Jesuit priests and persecuting (and worse) their proselytes. This film tells the story (adapted from a novel by Shusaku Endo) of two such priests (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) sent to Japan to find a lost apostate priest (Liam Neeson). For me personally, the film was too long, too serious and too "spiritual" for my tastes. I suppose it represented a commitment to historical truth and the search for faith by a true auteur. But it just wasn't my cuppa. Jesuit priests are low in my interest spectrum; but I'd watch Andrew Garfield read the telephone book. However, to the film's credit, the natural beauty of Rodrigo Prieto's cinematography (taking full advantage of the Taiwanese seashore), and the realistically natural soundscape won me over. And credit is also due to several of the relatively unknown Japanese actors (especially Issey Ogata who played the Grand Inquisitor villain with sly abandon). So despite my innate disinterest in the religious conundrums of the plot, the film was worth watching as a big screen epic.

  • Brillo Box (3¢ off)

    Brillo Box (3¢ off)

    ★★★½

    Director Lisanne Skyler's parents were amateur art collectors from the 1960s on. In 1969 they bought an original Warhol Brillo Box sculpture for $1,000 and asked for the artist to sign the bottom. Mr. Skyler eventually traded the box for another painting, and to some extent supported his family by buying and selling some pretty remarkable pop art pieces. This amusing and entertaining documentary short shows the passage of that little yellow Brillo Box from collector to collector until it was sold at Christie's in 2010 for about $3 million. Regrets? The Skyler family is doing quite fine.

  • Passengers

    Passengers

    ★★★★

    At some unspecified future time an automated spaceship is carrying 5,000 hibernating colonists on a 120 year trek to their future new world of Homestead. A deep space accident causes system failures, and one passenger, Jim, is awakened 90 years prematurely. He's alone, doomed to dying before he reaches his goal. The plot develops as a moral dilemma of what an ordinary man does in such a situation. I don't intend to go into plot details, except that after a year of tortured loneliness Jim unforgivably wakes up a fellow female passenger, Aurora. Jim and Aurora are played by two legitimate movie stars, Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, both at the top of their game. The design of the space ship environment is superbly achieved, more realistic and lived-in than in previous space travel films. Remarkably there were almost no glaring errors of physics which plague most films of this genre. I was transported completely into this insular world and found myself really caring about these people. If the object of this sort of film is escapism, then this flick was a roaring success. If the object was to finesse a critical moral dilemma with star power and romantic cliches, then the film also worked...although that may be because I found Pratt's character so easy to identify with. I'm at a loss to explain why so many people I respect are dumping on this excellent sci fi film.

  • Hidden Figures

    Hidden Figures

    ★★½

    In 1961 Virginia, segregation was ubiquitous, even at NASA which was utilizing the work of three little known African American women working as "calculators" on the Mercury program. This film tells their interconnected stories. I'm not going to go into the based on real people and events plot in detail. The acting was superb (especially the always interesting Taraji P. Henson, playing a diametrically opposite character from her work in "Empire"). The re-creation of the era was mostly spot on. However, the script lacked any degree of subtlety in depicting the time and place. As injustice correcting history, the film succeeded admirably. As drama, much of it was cringe worthy and too on-the-nose in depicting its point of view of the American apartheid.

  • I, Daniel Blake

    I, Daniel Blake

    ★★★★

    This is another of Ken Loach's social realism films about everyday life in England. In this case it is the story of 50-something Daniel who suffered a mild, but debilitating heart attack and is attempting to navigate the uncooperative social welfare bureaucracy for assistance. The film meticulously covers Daniel's frustrations, his accidental relationship with a newly arrived single mother and her two children, and the occasional good deeds of good people (few and far between.) Daniel's miseries are affecting...and I couldn't help feeling that his situation reflects a deep malaise in the social contract which goes far to explain Brexit (and to some extent also the Trump victory in the U.S.) Loach is a caring film maker whose liberal leanings shine through his films. It's hard to love such a bleak and pessimistic film; but easy to love these characters and sympathize with them.

  • Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

    Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

    ★★★½

    Let's face it, it's just space opera. I've never been a fan of Lucas's epic myth making. But if I had to watch an eighth film set in the galaxy far away, might as well have it be with an excellent cast and a fully lived design faithful to the look and feel of the entire Star Wars oeuvre (without any Jar Jar Binks miscalculations.) So, even if the story is entirely predictable, it's still occasionally rousing and I wasn't bored. I think that's the best I can ask of a Star Wars film for me...and kudos to director Gareth Edwards and his skilled cast and crew for bringing it off so seamlessly.

  • Fences

    Fences

    ★★★

    A black family in 1957 Pittsburgh goes through several crises in this 1980 stage play (by August Wilson, who also wrote the screenplay years ago on speculation) that is only minimally opened up for the big screen. The acting is superb, if a little hot and theatrical for a film. Director Denzel Washington plays Troy the family father, embittered, controlling, emotionally abusive. I disliked the character intensely, especially what he does to his wife (Viola Davis) and younger son (Jovan Adepo.) The entire ensemble is outstanding; but I had trouble identifying or even relating to the characters, unlike that other great African-American family play (which I watched originally on Broadway) A Raisin in the Sun, which worked for me on every level.

  • The Ivory Game

    The Ivory Game

    ★★★★½

    This year two documentary features were made exposing the worldwide illicit trade in ivory and the decimation by poachers of African elephants for their tusks. This film is by far the superior one, with superb cinematography, hidden cameras, and excitingly edited action sequences. This is a fine example of the "aiding a good cause" documentary, showing the stories of committed people in East Africa, Hong Kong, Mainland China and Vietnam who are exposing on camera the criminals and their crimes against nature. But it also delves into the government agencies, in Africa, Asia, England and the U.S. that are attempting to stem the ivory trade. The film presents a series of smoking gun scenes, of capturing poachers and exposing the traffickers and profiteers at the retail level. What the 2009 Oscar winning documentary The Cove did to expose the dolphin massacres in Japan, this film effectively does for the elephants: rousing audience indignation and furthering the cause for saving the endangered species.

  • 20th Century Women

    20th Century Women

    ★★★★½

    Writer/director Mike Mills makes idiosyncratic and intensely personal films. In his 2010 film Beginners, he told the fictionalized story of his father, who came out at age 75. In this film, his emphasis is most likely on his own mother, by conflating her story with the coming of age of her 15 year old son in 1979 Santa Barbara, utilizing incidents that are so novel and true to life that they can only be autobiographical.

    A film like this can live or die by the casting. Here Mills truly lucked out. To play Jamie, his youthful personal avatar, he found Lucas Jade Zumann, age appropriate (14 at the time of filming), superbly capable young actor. But even more important, he snagged Annette Bening, one of greatest film actresses of our time, to play Dorthea...55 year old divorcee and single mother. Dorthea owns this large old house, in which she has installed roomers (vividly played by Greta Gerwig and Billy Crudup). Added to the mix is Julie, a neighboring 17-year old girl played by Elle Fanning, burnishing her reputation as an ingenue with beauty and brains. Julie and Jamie are platonic best friends.

    The plot is a series of incidents from "Jamie's" life as a teenager in mild revolt against his mother, who is struggling to understand and guide her son while feeling out of the loop of the current Zeitgeist. To help her cope with her son's growing pains, she enlists the aid of her much younger roomers, to unpredictable and amusing results. The ambitious script broadens to encompass the entire culture, artistic, political, sociological of the late '70s, mainly through the music, film and literature trends these quirky characters observe at the time. The songs of the era, which are cleverly made organic with the plot, have a real role in telling the story. Bottom line, this is a wonderfully directed and acted film that is smart and illuminating of its time and place. Highly recommended.

  • La La Land

    La La Land

    ★★★★

    Girl meets boy. Girl loses boy. Regret. That's the plot in a nutshell; but that isn't the movie. What auteur Damien Chazelle has done is to lovingly (and not always successfully) collect the musical tropes of the 1950s and give them a post-modern twist. The two lovers, played with fervor by Emma Stone and muted passion by Ryan Gosling, break into song and dance fantasies to express their emotional, but unspoken inner lives. The fantasies rely heavily on a familiar, but reality-enhanced version of Los Angeles. And the music is mostly jazz inflected (except for one rock anthem sung by John Legend). The film requires a suspension of disbelief that can only happen if the viewer is transported by the beauty of the music and visuals, and the skill of the actors to bring it off. For me, the visuals dazzled; but the music fizzled. I loved the innocence that Stone brought to the role of Mia. And I admired the keyboard chops and dedication of Gosling, even though his character never quite meshed for me. But more than anything, as an Angeleno of over seven decades, I was entranced by Chazelle's nostalgic love letter to my city and to the passé musical film genre that I yearn for. But that's just me. I loved this movie despite its flaws.

  • Toni Erdmann

    Toni Erdmann

    ★★★½

    I'm not good with whimsy. In fact, you might call me whimsy deficient (case in point I generally do not like the films of Wes Anderson.) And apparently Teutonic whimsy is even worse. That said, there is a moment in this film which blew me away: Toni's daughter is singing a Whitney Houston song with total conviction, if not total tonality. I have no idea why she is singing this song. In fact, I have no idea why Toni and his daughter do just about anything in this film. Chalk it up to the Germans making fun of themselves, awkwardly, ironically, whimsically. I've had a week to cogitate on this film which I sort of disliked at the time. But then that moment: the "Greatest Love of All" moment got stuck in my head at a vulnerable time, and suddenly I decided that I should get over myself and appreciate this film for its...yes, very, very German whimsy.

  • Elle

    Elle

    ★★★½

    Cool S&M like The Piano Teacher. As in that film, Huppert is masterful at it. But Verhoeven lacks Haneke's je ne sais quoi.


  • Hairspray Live!

    Hairspray Live!

    ★★

    Colorful and energetic, but misbegotten from the start. The two young leads playing Tracy and Link (who will probably never be heard from again) lacked the charisma to bring it off. The musical was never that great to begin with. Better luck next time, NBC.

  • Nixon: Checkers to Watergate

    ★★★★

    Back in 1976 I co-directed (with Chuck Braverman) and edited this compilation documentary short film about President Richard M. Nixon. It was exhaustively researched (by Marshall Harvey); and I don't think I'm being immodest by saying that it does a pretty good job of distilling Nixon's political career in 20 minutes. At the time I was, to say the least, not a fan. Occasionally I inserted some editorializing in the way I juxtaposed scenes from different eras, which sometimes works, sometimes doesn't. But in the long perspective of history, I think there is a great deal to be learned about our present day political predicament from watching this film. I had assumed that it was lost in the great maw of unreleased films; but to my surprise it popped up in an internet archive and can be seen now at this site: Nixon: Checkers to Watergate

  • Things to Come

    ★★★★

    A well liked and respected philosophy professor, goes through the female version of a mid-life crisis in this reflective, wonderfully evocative reverie of a film. Isabelle Huppert gave a performance of rare subtlety and intelligence as Nathalie, scholar, mother of two young adults, a woman coping with the adversities of an unfaithful husband and her mother's impending death. She forms a platonic friendship with an admiring former student, aspiring author and anarchist Fabien (a charismatic performance by Roman Kolinka, whose career I plan to follow); and visits him at his newly formed farm collective in the remote (and gorgeous) French Alps. Not much really happens as the plot meanders through this woman's life. But as I experienced the film, I felt a kind of nostalgia, watching these intelligent, relatable characters being so wonderfully French. Hansen-Love makes films like her husband, Olivier Assayas, creating realities and moods that for the length of the film transport me to my happy place.

  • Jackie

    Jackie

    ★★★★½

    The familiar events of November 22, 1963 and the immediate aftermath are recounted entirely from witness and participant Jackie Kennedy's point of view in this brilliant script by Noah Oppenheim. The key to understanding the power of this film starts with the premise of its script, which bookends faithful re-creations of familiar events with an extended interview of Mrs. Kennedy by a journalist (Billy Crudup) in the immediate aftermath of those fateful days. Extraneous and speculative material have been jettisoned in favor of a lean, even surprising psychological portrait of an historical person whose legend has eclipsed her reality. Thanks to the script, and Chilean auteur Pablo Larrain's austere and exacting direction we've been given a biopic that really does break ground.

    But let's face it, without a performance of such depth of feeling and convincing verisimilitude as Natalie Portman delivers in the role of Jackie, the film would not have worked. Others in the cast gave fine performances, particularly Greta Gerwig, who is remarkably self-effacing playing Nancy, Jackie's close confidante and assistant in the White House. However, some of the other familiar presences, including Peter Sarsgaard's Bobby, strayed a bit from the physical and vocal reality in favor of nuanced acting...not necessarily a bad thing; but considering how faithful to the real person that Portman's characterization was, these departures stuck out.

    One additional note: Mica Levi has written the most effective score for a movie in ages...from the very first painfully atonal descending scream from the strings to represent the horror of the the actual assassination, to the haunting melodies accompanying Jackie's inner turmoil. This is one musician who was in total sync with his director and the script. Kudos all around.

  • Newtown

    Newtown

    ★★★★

    It was an all too conceivable tragedy: 20 first grade kids and 6 teachers gunned down in their Connecticut township public school class by a matricidal malcontent with a semi-automatic rifle. This documentary tells of the aftermath, the affect on the townspeople and especially the families of some of the victims. This should have been the straw that broke the NRA's back. But public memory is fleeting; and the federal government backed off. The film is moving, especially when it shows the grief of the families...distraught parents and siblings. It never mentions the perp's name; but that isn't what the film was about. However, I fear we've become inured to similar tragedies to the point that even the deaths of little children cannot inspire enough furor for anything to get done. It's 100% certain that another school tragedy will happen in the future. And another. And another. And we will have to experience the same documentary again, only in a different town with a different cast.

  • Mifune: The Last Samurai

    Mifune: The Last Samurai

    ★★★

    This is a pretty ordinary bio documentary, narrated by an affectless Keanu Reeves, and filled with film clips from the extraordinary career of Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune, who brought the persona of the samurai to its most iconic fruition. Mifune and Akira Kurosawa were connected for much of the great post-WWII era of Japanese cinema...master director and his muse. Of course both are dead now; but the documentary integrates, along with illustrative excerpts from Mifune's scenes, several interviews with other surviving cast and crew members, his two sons, and American directors Spielberg and Scorsese (who bring an educational understanding of film lore and the actor's psychology to the screen in their interviews.) Add this film to the growing number of documentaries about the film classics and those who contributed to them.

  • Maya Angelou and Still I Rise

    Maya Angelou and Still I Rise

    ★★★★½

    A life lived in poetry and prose on film. She knew everybody who was anybody in her many years of travel and celebrity and entertaining the world with her wit and wisdom. Miss Maya was dignified beyond measure. The documentary captures this...larger than life with a clear vision and brilliance, yet also presenting herself always at human scale for all to see. Even if I wasn't of her world, I knew she was special. But I didn't expect how much I'd be moved by her words and presence.

  • We Are X

    We Are X

    ★★★½

    This documentary about the Japanese heavy metal rock band "X Japan" came as a surprise to me. First of all, I'd never heard of them, even though they apparently have been one of the few non-Anglophone groups to break through internationally (although Japanese, their songs are mostly in English.) Led by a musical genius, Yoshiki (drums, piano and composing), and lead singer Toshi (with a vocal quality midway between Stephen Tyler and Dennis deYoung), the band has been marked by suicides and tragedies, breakups and cult involvement since their formation in 1982. If there is a classic American band they most closely resemble, it would be Kiss (and Gene Simmons is interviewed in the film professing how much a fan of X he is.) Their stage show is quite theatrical; and this documentary, covering much of their off-and-on-again career as a band, makes good use of the incredible visuals of their show. But what makes this documentary stand out is the depth of feeling and tragic life of their leader, Yoshiki...certainly one of a handful of great rock drummers ever to grasp the sticks (he's also a superb pianist). This film is similar in spirit to another important rock documentary, the 2004 film about Metallica, Some Kind of Monster, which also exposed the nerve wracking pressures of a lengthy career devoted to the mass hysteria of touring and power rock. Even if I'm too old a fart to have gotten into their music, I can appreciate the dedication and talent of these Japanese musicians.

  • The Trans List

    The Trans List

    ★★★★

    Twelve trans people from all walks of life are given voice to speak of their lives and experiences in this documentary. They all are photographed full-on against a neutral background; and all are remarkably well spoken and interesting. Some are famous (Caitlyn Jenner, Laverne Cox). Others not so much. But all have inspiring stories of individual heroism and self realization to impart. The sum total is a valuable, positive message for any young person who is going down this road with no positive role models to observe.

  • Silicon Cowboys

    Silicon Cowboys

    ★★★

    This is a serviceable documentary about the founding and growth of the Houston based Compaq computer company as a metaphorical David which took on the Goliath of IBM and won. I was interested in watching this documentary for two reasons. One: I bought my first computer in 1983, and it was a Compaq "portable." It cost $5,000 at the time; but I adored my Compaq...and had it not been stolen, I might still have it today, even though it only had 128K memory, lacked a hard drive and had a small monochromatic green screen. But still, for those days it was the epitome of cool if you were an actual computer user and not an Apple dilettante. Two: I recognized that one of my favorite TV shows of the last few years, "Halt and Catch Fire" was the thinly disguised story of the founding of Compaq...and I was curious to watch the true story and compare it with the fictional TV version. Upshot: the TV version was better.

  • Into the Inferno

    Into the Inferno

    ★★★★

    Werner Herzog traveled the world with British volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer exploring active volcanoes and explaining the many different myths which have arisen around these natural phenomena. Among the places they visited were the Vanuatu Islands, Iceland, Senegal, Indonesia and North Korea. The cinematography and sound design were superb, oceans of flowing red magma, eruptions and explosions. Frightening pyroclastic flows contrasted with beautiful, expansive calderas, remainders of cataclysmic past events. Herzog interviewed natives, utilizing his wry narration to contextualize the historic relationship between volcanoes and man. Fascinating stuff; but the main lesson I learned from the film was to stay the hell away from volcanoes.

  • Gimme Danger

    Gimme Danger

    ★★★★

    This documentary tells the history of the band The Stooges, told mostly from the point of view of their front man Jim Osterberg, AKA Iggy Pop. They were the prototype Michigan punk type band from the 1960s. It wasn't my scene; but they were influential, and the shirtless, masochistic Iggy character was sexy enough that I paid attention to their antics at the time (although I never bought one of their LPs). Director Jarmusch gathered interviews with the principals (several of whom are gone now); plus some fascinating amateur footage of the Stooges in action. The group didn't exist in a vacuum; and Jarmusch used some beautifully constructed montages to show how influential the band was to subsequent R&R history. The film is very entertaining, even if the music isn't ones bag. I'm pretty sure the title is a tribute to the seminal 1970 Maysles documentary about the Rolling Stones: Gimme Shelter. Fittingly, this film belongs in that company of important rock docs.

  • Floyd Norman: An Animated Life

    Floyd Norman: An Animated Life

    ★★★½

    Floyd Norman is a former Disney animator, whose career spanned many years and many specialties. At 80, he's still active and spry, on his second wife and well respected. This documentary covers his life story pretty well chronologically, utilizing interviews and footage from his varied previous jobs, and his current day to day activities. Many of the events in Norman's life story are shown through Norman's own animation, which is clever and amusing. This is a fine and interesting example of a biographical documentary of a relatively obscure artist and craftsman whose work has been universally admired behind the scenes. Also, for a workaholic, he's a really nice guy.

  • Defying the Nazis: The Sharps' War

    Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War

    ★★★★

    In January, 1939, Waitstill and Martha Sharp, at the behest of their Unitarian Church (Waitstill was a minister, Martha an activist later to run for Congress as a Democrat), left their two children in Massachusetts and sailed for Europe to aid refugees in Prague. Between the two of them, they saved countless children and other refugees from the Holocaust, smuggling them out of Czechoslovakia and occupied France. Utilizing interviews with the Sharp children and many of the people still alive that were saved by their mission, plus footage and photographs from that period along with some dramatic re-creations, the film documents the Sharps' efforts, culminating with a moving ceremony in Israel which honored the couple posthumously. In addition, the Sharps wrote letters and journals; and actors Tom Hanks and Marina Goldman read with feeling from their correspondences. The sum total is a well made documentary about the bravery and sacrifice of a humble American family in the face of Nazi oppression. As such it provides counterpoint to a similar documentary, the 2000 Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport, an Oscar winner which happened to be a film I worked on.


  • By Sidney Lumet

    By Sidney Lumet

    ★★★★½

    Sidney Lumet has always been one of my favorite directors. I've just felt a kind of sympathy for the themes of his films, without quite ever understanding why. That is before watching this documentary. In 2008, three years before Lumet's death, he sat for an interview on camera where he discussed his life, and expounded on his "luck" for getting to where he got. This interview is fleshed out by the compilation of dozens of clips from his films, most of which I recognized, having seen and admired over the years. The evidence of his work over 50 years of directing belied that luck. Instead, this N.Y. kid, son of a great Yiddish theater actor, a child actor himself, lived a liberal life which informed his films...perhaps subconsciously. Incident after incident in his telling, were mirrored metaphorically in his films. He knew what he was doing. If you're like me, you can't watch this film and not admire the intelligent, committed artist behind the camera, who brought passion to the screen as few directors have even dreamed of doing.

  • Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds

    Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds

    ★★★★

    Debbie Reynolds is a force of nature in her 80s, still a trouper. She and her daughter, Carrie Fisher, live in adjoining houses, and this wonderfully entertaining documentary follows them (and Carrie's brother Todd) through their contemporary activities and also examines their history as a show biz family. It's a rare, intimate, and even brutally frank look at these lives. One scene, of Eddie Fisher, revealed here as a drug addict for most of his life, being visited at his deathbed in 2010 by his daughter was particularly heart rending. But the film also successfully expresses the affection and humanity of these celebrities' private lives. In the 1950s, as a teenager, I lived 5 houses down the street from Debbie and Eddie (one of my strongest memories of that time was watching their friend Liz Taylor visiting the couple and exiting her limo), so perhaps I have a more than usual personal interest in the revealing stories from the family's past. But I have to admit that watching this film I came to admire the present day Debbie and Carrie as real people more than ever.

  • Boy 23

    Boy 23

    ★★½

    According to this Portuguese language documentary, Brazil was the last country to outlaw slavery (in 1888), and to this day has systemic racial biases. The film dispassionately examines one pretty much unknown facet of Brazilian society and history. In the 1930s, Nazi ideology and its component of racial eugenics, were popularized in the country. One powerful southern landowner, in fact, was able to take 50 black boys from an orphanage in Rio, and subject them to what amounted to slavery on his Sao Paulo farm. The documentary examines the lives of some survivors from that group, among them a preferred house servant, an escapee and an old man who stuck around. As an examination of Brazilian historical context, this was all new to me and quite interesting. But I never really connected totally with the personal stories...a failure of empathy in my part perhaps attributable to the dry interviews on film.

  • Audrie & Daisy

    Audrie & Daisy

    ★★★½

    This documentary examines the problems of high school binge drinking, rape and the resultant social media shaming through two parallel stories. Audrie was a small town California girl who was sexually assaulted and mutilated while unconscious. Hopelessly depressed by the outcome, she killed herself. Daisy was a small town, northwest Missouri girl who was involved in a similar situation; but ultimately survived, although psychologically wounded beyond repair. The film gives voice to the victims' families, and also examines, often with animated avatars, the boy perpetrators. This is strong stuff, a well covered examination of how social media presents real problems, especially for compromised girls in contemporary America.

  • Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened...

    Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened…

    ★★★★½

    In 1981, the musical team of Sondheim and Prince brought forth a Broadway musical called "Merrily We Roll Along," based on an old Kaufman and Hart play from the 1930s. The daring premise was to have really young amateur actors play their characters' life stories going backwards through time for the 20 years of their reverse maturation from 1976 to 1957. The musical closed to terrible reviews and audience confusion after 16 performances. End of story? Not quite.

    One of the young actors in that production, Lonny Price, has made the ultimate meta documentary about the making of that original show, interviewing many of the people involved 35 years later. Part of the magical effect of this film is that an aborted documentary had been shot back in 1980; and Price had finally received the supposedly lost material from that documentary. The combination of the burnished-by-time old footage and the experience-of-age new footage provides an interesting analog to the original musical's book. The nostalgia effect is quite touching.

    The musical itself lives on, of course. I actually saw the first revival of the show in 1985 in La Jolla, California, when some songs were added and the play was slightly restructured. It was thrilling...and I never quite understood how this musical had failed four years earlier. Now I know. This is an insightful show business documentary to cherish.

  • A Beautiful Planet

    A Beautiful Planet

    ★★★★

    This is another IMAX nature documentary. This one was mostly shot from the space station, showing Earth in its place in the universe as a life giving planet. The aerial shots of Earth are breathtaking; and Jennifer Lawrence's narration has an environmental message that our own Spaceship Earth is in danger. The shots of everyday life among the multi-national astronauts on the space station are fascinating enough. This is a very workmanlike IMAX documentary, with a similar theme to that other IMAX doc from this year directed by Terrence Malick. Maybe this film lacked the artistic pretension of the Malick film; but all in all it was for me the more successful and informative film.

  • The Beatles: Eight Days a Week - The Touring Years

    The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years

    ★★★★★

    This superbly entertaining documentary is a compilation film of Beatles performances from about 1962 through the end of their touring years in late 1966, including materials from newsreels and the group's movies. The production is fleshed out with interviews of principals from years past along with contemporary reminiscences of people involved with the group and the tours at the time who are still alive. The film also presented some former fans, now famous, like Whoopi Goldberg and Sigourney Weaver, who gave voice to their experiences of Beatlemania at the time. There are also some examples of the group's creative methods in the studio...emphasizing their work ethic. The film really doesn't delve deeply into individual lives; but what it does is emphasize with examples how extraordinary these four boys were as musicians and as a cultural phenomena.

    I'm going to get a little personal here, since this film affected me deeply. I was in London in the spring of 1963 when I first heard of the Beatles who were just breaking in England. So in 1964, when they famously landed in America (turning left at Greenland), I was prepared, and watched all their TV appearances and caught an early concert at the Hollywood Bowl. At the time I was 22, and not a screaming teenage girl. But I still was in love with Paul, and the Beatles were my fave group when that really mattered to me. Their music continued to blow me away, album after album. Later I had a professional relationship with the Beatles, making TV commercials for their albums through Capitol Records. So for me, this film was more than just a documentary, rather it was a hurricane of nostalgia. I'll bet that director Ron Howard had a similar passion, although he was only 10 when the Beatles came to America. Anyway, this film is a love letter to the group and to the 1960s. It filled my heart with joy to relive those times.

  • Anne Frank, Then and Now

    Anne Frank, Then and Now

    ★★★

    This documentary examines two contemporary stage productions of "The Diary of Anne Frank." One is planned for the Palestinian stage in Jaffa, Israel...and casting for the role of the young girl along with discussions of why Arab girls should be interested in this story took place in Gaza, the West Bank and Israel. Apparently the actual Arabic production didn't take place (as of the completion of the film). However a parallel production was being rehearsed in Kosovo, also by Muslims in that country. The two productions became connected in the making of this film, as the Kosovo actress was reluctant to do the play since she found no current relevance in the story...but was persuaded to do the play during a visit to Jaffa. The upshot was that the production did take place in Kosovo; and that Anne Frank's words proved to still apply to her audience. As I watched the film, I felt that the Kosovo portion was manufactured and dramatized for the documentary. However, the discussions with young Palestinian girls during the casting sessions for their production were quite revealing and heartening.

  • Amanda Knox

    Amanda Knox

    ★★★★

    The quintessential who-didn't-do-it documentary. It's true that I live in the kind of news blackout bubble that ignored this case as it happened. That's what results from no TV news and no newspapers (this last election and its coverage broke that pattern for a while; but I'm back to ignorance again, for now.) Maybe because I was in suspense about the outcome of this famous case, this documentary was a home run...had me enthralled throughout. However, the film itself didn't answer all my questions about the true nature of guilt or innocence as it pertained to the Italian justice system. Did that matter? Not a bit. The film did deliver a scathing indictment of the irresponsible tabloid media and junk TV news, which was a plus. Sometimes true life courtroom dramas can be superior to the best fictional procedurals on TV. Case in point...

  • Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience

    Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience

    ★★★

    First of all, I didn't watch this documentary in IMAX, so perhaps it lost something in the translation. Writer/director Terrence Malick made this foreshortened history of the universe for a little girl featured in scenes of present day America. Using CGI and fabulously beautiful footage shot in some of the most primitive places on Earth today, the film maker takes the audience on a trip through eons of time from the big bang to the formation of life to the present day. It's all done to a poetic, almost whispered narration by a subdued Brad Pitt. If this seems like out-takes from portions of Malick's previous narrative film, The Tree of Life...well yes. It's all gorgeous to look at. But to my mind, the totality is somewhat more pretentious than the usual genius fare from this singular film maker.

  • Thank You for Your Service

    Thank You for Your Service

    ★★★½

    This documentary tells the story of several ex-Marines who suffer from PTSD after returning from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The film explains with interviews and filmed footage why at least 22 war veterans commit suicide every day; and how the government is woefully lacking in facilities and mental health professionals to cope with post-war problems (nothing new, it happened big time after Viet Nam, too.) But the film also illustrates some heartening efforts by private organizations to cope with the problems. This is a fine example of a documentary which illustrates a problem and then movingly shows a possible solution.

  • Solitary

    Solitary

    ★★★½

    Virginia's Red Onion State Prison is a maximum security men's holding facility for dangerous prisoners who need to be segregated in individual cells for 23 hours a day (and even then held in solitary outdoor pens for their hour of recreation.) No judge or jury sends a prisoner here; rather they have abused general population in some way and are sent to Red Onion by the prison authorities.

    In the course of this documentary we get to know several of these inmates. Some are driven mad by the isolation and endless loneliness. Some, even lifers with little hope, are remarkably verbal and interesting people. Even the correction officers interviewed for the film, despite the precautions of super-max, still feel peril. Watching this documentary it is hard not to feel that this sort of confinement as punishment over the course of decades possibly is worse for these men than a death penalty would have been. Makes one think.


  • Notes on Blindness

    Notes on Blindness

    ★★★★½

    John M. Hull was a college professor of divinity, husband and father of 5, when at age 45, in 1980, he lost a long battle with total blindness. Determined not to give in to his disability, he continued teaching, and started recording for the next 10 years on cassette tapes his musings about life and his experiences as a blind person. This documentary featured these audio tapes as sound track and script, while having actors re-create the scenes on film, utilizing dubbing and voice-over techniques to bring the tapes to life on film. Thus, watching this film we're in something of a middle space between documentary as lived contemporaneously, and the controlled world of the created film. The result is a perfectly realized, impressionistic "vision" of the world of blindness. Yesterday, I was humbled relating to and comprehending viscerally James Baldwin's vision of what it means to be black. Today I had a similar experience with what it was like from the inside to be blind...and it was both terrifying and fascinating.

    One scene in particular was representative of how the film achieved this. The actor playing Hull steps out of door on a rainy day, and muses on tape how the rain drops falling all around defined the space he was in. And with brilliant camerawork and sound mixing the viewer is taken on a tour of the surroundings, hearing how the varied sounds of the falling raindrops provided an aural contour of the physical world that the viewer (but not Hull himself) was seeing. Bravo, to the technicians who created this scene, and in fact the entire film.

    At times the poignancy and immediacy of the experience of Hull's blindness is overwhelming, a tribute to the excellent acting and direction. But after watching this exultation of human tenacity in overcoming adversity, mostly what I could take from the film was thanksgiving that I still have my sight.

  • Magnus

    Magnus

    ★★★★½

    As many may know, I've been struggling to watch as many of the 145 documentary features submitted for the Oscars as I can before the deadline for preliminary nominations of November 29. I say struggling, because as great as many of these films are, the real world as shown in recent documentaries is a pretty shitty place. So, it's all the more positive to watch an inspirational upper of a film like Magnus.

    I guess I live a sheltered life, because I never knew anything before about this "Mozart" of the chess world, an instinctual child prodigy genius that rose to become in 2013 the youngest world chess champion in history at age 23. OK, if you're like me that is a spoiler. However, the film does cover a remarkable span of this boy's life, much of it from his father's reminiscences and a remarkable amount of footage covering Magnus Carlsen's early life and chess playing career (I just discovered that even as I write this review Carlsen is defending his world championship in New York which will finish on his 26th birthday.)

    The film is structured chronologically as a competition sports story, with highs and lows, but mostly highs. Carlsen is not the most verbal of subjects, and chess is not the most visually interesting of sports (actually the film wastes no time in actually covering the intricacies of the games themselves, just focuses on the psychology of the players.) But, by the very nature of the luck of covering a unique and seemingly unspoiled champion from the start, the resulting film is just a delightful experience.

  • I Am Not Your Negro

    I Am Not Your Negro

    ★★★★★

    With words (spoken by Samuel Jackson) from an unfinished book, "Remember the House," James Baldwin gave voice to the historic cry of pain and rage of the "negro." The title of this intelligent and important documentary is a bowdlerized version of Baldwin's actual quote, which used the N word. Baldwin's thesis in his 30 page unfinished manuscript centered on three of his dead friends: Malcom X, Dr. King and Medgar Evers; but the film delves much further into the history of race in the U.S. Director Raoul Peck brought together filmed interviews with Baldwin himself along with historic news footage of decades of racial strife up to the present day. He also used dozens of cultural references, mostly from old films and songs, to flesh out Baldwin's words. The result is like a bandage being torn off a raw wound, festering...but also, as only great art can do, illuminating.

    In my youth, Baldwin was a shining luminary...for me, a white northerner, it was as a gay artist who spoke thrillingly for me out of the literary silence of the 1950s. However, I was missing the real James Baldwin: impassioned, literate spokesman for the black experience (even though I read "The Fire Next Time" I really didn't relate to it back then.) Watching this film, hearing his words and seeing this side of Baldwin, I felt my reality turn on edge. And I internalized, maybe for the first time, certainly with the most visceral reaction, what it must mean to be a black man in America, something that all the news stories from Rodney King to Trayvon Martin didn't achieve for me the way this film did.

  • Do Not Resist

    Do Not Resist

    ★★★★

    This cautionary documentary starts with Ferguson, MO, where peaceful protests were turned into riots by the use of force and teargas. With escalating uneasiness, the film examines how our police forces are becoming more militaristic, more technological in ways that challenge privacy and civil rights. At times in the film we ride in military vehicles that once were used in the Middle-eastern wars, now occupied by SWAT teams serving no-knock warrants. It's like the TV series "Cops," only more so. But the really scary stuff is saved for the end, as security experts explains that the technology exists today for computers to quantify the chances that an unborn fetus will turn into a killer before age 18 (Minority Report?); and that computer controlled drones today have the ability to act on their own to control crime and riots faster than humans can (Terminator and "Skynet" anyone?) If you can watch this film and not be frightened for the future of this country, then you're living in denial.

  • Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

    Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

    ★★

    Too long, too convoluted, too effects laden, too not-Harry-Potter. Still, give credit where due: the special effects, all those fantastic beasts and the fantasy world of old New York City that they inhabit, were well done. But the story was flimsy, the characters cliches; and I doubt I'll be going to any of the sequels.

  • Rules Don't Apply

    Rules Don’t Apply

    ★★★★

    I get the feeling that Warren Beatty has been waiting all his life to play Howard Hughes in his late years. Acting the part in his own script cobbled from rumors and gossip that he'd heard through his years as a Hollywood A-lister, he is magnificently erratic and eccentric in the role. He's gathered a fine supporting cast, including relative newcomers Alden Ehrenreich and Lily Collines as youthful, innocent Hollywood wannabes drawn into the Hughes circle. The film seamlessly combines genres: biopic, romantic comedy, historical saga, Hollywood tell-all. And does so with rare faithfulness to the glamour and mystery of its era and milieu.

  • Allied

    Allied

    ★★★

    Surprisingly for a Zemeckis film, this was a resolutely retro WWII romantic drama. Unsurprisingly it opens up in Casablanca in 1942. Comparisons with another famous film are inevitable. However, this spy and resistance film is in color with gorgeous costumes and steamy sex scenes. And yes, Brad Pitt is hot; and there is evident chemistry on screen between him and Marion Cotillard. It's a potboiler, sure; but reasonably entertaining. However, Casablanca it is not.

  • Cameraperson

    Cameraperson

    ★★★★½

    Kirsten Johnson collected dozens of scenes from documentaries on which she had served as cameraperson (and quite an outstanding one at that.) The scenes ran the gamut from the profound to the banal, including such moving material as a Muslim family's experiences in the Bosnian ethnic cleansing, women and children suffering privations in Darfur, ordinary street life in American cities, and intimate, emotionally charged interviews with Johnson's own mother who was suffering from Alzheimer's. I'm sure that some will discount the meandering, unedited sequences, identified only by stark title cards naming the place where they were shot, and resembling out-takes which lacked a larger context. However, for me, the film represented the essence of what it means to commit to a life as a documentary film maker...especially that of the person behind the camera whose discerning eye is directly connected to a journalistic spirit, willing to go anywhere, brave danger and bring the real world to life on screen.

  • Before the Flood

    Before the Flood

    ★★★★½

    In his role as official United Nations Messenger for Peace for Climate Change, Leonardo diCaprio travels the world on camera to illustrate the ecological effects of fossil fuel overuse, and the steps that are being taken by world leaders (up to now) to deal with the problem. The documentary which results is a high gloss affair, beautifully shot and edited. It has an important message, which is well stated through an effective script. However, if it seems that this has all been told before...well, yes. And I thought the subject was more effectively presented in the Oscar winning documentary featuring Al Gore, An Inconvenient Truth.. But perhaps Leo's star power will matter, along with his interviews with people who actually do matter, such as President Obama and Pope Francis. As inconvenient as this truth is, it is still a truth that is perhaps the most vital and important issue facing the people of Earth in our times. This film takes us a few steps farther along the road to education and action.

  • The Bad Kids

    The Bad Kids

    ★★★★

    Black Rock High School in the high desert community of Yucca Valley north of Palm Springs, CA, is a model continuation high school. The school can only handle 11th and 12th graders, and is oversubscribed with students who need aid in recovering from family problems, chronic truancy and teenage child birth. The documentary follows several such students and their committed teachers (one of whom, a lady of rare empathy and effectiveness, is featured struggling to aid her problem students.) Some of the stories are inspiring, others cautionary. But all are well chosen, interesting and involving to various degrees. The film is shot varité style, with no narration or editorializing. It is a superior example of a probing examination on film of contemporary troubled youth.

  • When Two Worlds Collide

    When Two Worlds Collide

    ★★★★

    When the corrupt regime of Peruvian strongman Albert Garcia opened up the lands of the Amazon rain forest to the resource despoilers from the first world in 2009, the indigenous tribes revolted. Under the leadership of tribal activist Alberto Pizango, the traditionalists first fought in the parliament to rescind laws supporting destructive practices such as overlogging and environmentally destructive oil extraction. Then when the government went too far, battles were fought between the police and natives which led to casualties on both sides. Pizango was forced to flee to Nicaraguan exile to avoid imprisonment. The film utilizes copious contemporary news footage, interviews, and beautiful original film of the unspoiled rain forest contrasted with oil clogged river lands, in support of the cause of the natives (the film makers make no pretense at neutrality). I was particularly intrigued by the similarity of events in Peru a few short years ago compared to what is happening right now in Standing Rock, North Dakota between the Sioux tribes and the oil companies. It's a universal struggle. Unfortunately the film ends with many issues in Peru left unsettled, including Pizango's fate upon returning to Peru from exile.

  • The Uncondemned

    The Uncondemned

    ★★★

    In 1994 the world was shaken by the Rwanda genocide. But along with the million dead victims, there were also countless examples of women being brutally raped. This documentary tells the story of the women of the small Rwandan commune of Tasa, who survived the brutality at the time; and with the help of foreign legal teams managed to get justice from the International Criminal Tribunal. Never before had rape been defined as an act of genocide and a crime against humanity. But in the trial of the mayor of the commune, a certain Jean Paul Akayesu, the women of the town were heard, and Akayesu was sentenced to life in prison. The documentary showed some horrible footage of the aftermath of the genocide, acres of sculls and bones. But mostly the film was a series of interviews with the women victims and the legal team which prevailed, intercut into an informative narrative. The women were inspiring, and their stories were well told, if horrifying. But frankly, the constant use of big-head close-up interviews was fatiguing to watch. This is an example of a documentary with a fine message that was minimized by mediocre film making.


  • Under the Sun

    Under the Sun

    ★★★★½

    This is a strange, surrealistic documentary. Imagine if Frederick Wiseman went to Pyongyang, North Korea and made one of his meandering cinema verité creations about an 8 year old girl's everyday experiences. We follow young Lee Zin-mi as she attends school, learning to read from stories about how the glorious leader single handedly vanquished the Japanese and American invaders. Watch her enjoying her sumptuous meal of healthful kimchi with her skilled worker parents. Watch the family take part in huge pageants of singing and dancing celebrating Kim Jong-Il's birthday. But at the same time, as the camera lingers, watch the camera crew micro-manage every nuance, prompting the "actors" with dialog and stage directions, as snide subtitles explain in small type what actually is going on behind the scenes.

    Soon it becomes obvious that something unexpected is happening here. Turns out that the Russian director and crew hired to shoot this propaganda film were secretly running the camera non-stop and sneaking off with the extra footage to edit a non-approved version outside of the country. What resulted was an epic document extolling the virtues of the worker's paradise under the glorious leadership of the Kim family, which was also a deliciously subversive satire. I'm concerned for the safety of the film makers; but the film itself is dynamite.

  • Treasures (Trezoros)

    Treasures (Trezoros)

    ★★★★½

    Kastoria is a picturesque, hilly city situated on a lake in northern Greece. Since the Spanish expulsion of 1492, it has been the home of a large population of Sephardic Jews who have lived and thrived peaceably among the Greeks of the city. In 1944 the Nazi occupiers shipped over 1,000 of Kastoria's Jews to Auschwitz where most perished (only one Jewish shopkeeper remains in the city today.) That is the setting for this moving documentary film which uses interviews with the few, now elderly Greek Holocaust survivors, mostly immigrants living today in the U.S. But the film also contains some amazingly preserved historical film footage from pre-war Kastoria, as well as excellent footage from the death camps and the post-war era. The film is structured roughly chronologically. However, the direction and editing are excellent, with the emotional content building throughout the film to a shattering emotional climax. This is yet another documentary which uncovers a heretofore unknown aspect of the Holocaust. As the survivors grow older, their stories still have the power to surprise and stay relevant for our present times.

  • Theo Who Lived

    Theo Who Lived

    ★★★½

    Journalist Theo Padnos tells mostly with on camera narration and on site filming in several mid-East locations the story of his two years as captive of Al-Qaeda jihadists in Syria. His release came one week after fellow journalist James Foley was beheaded (a story that was told even more dramatically in another of this year's documentaries: Jim, The James Foley Story). As fascinating and well spoken was the story Padnos spun on camera, it still had a certain monotony of tone that made my attention flag at times. But what a saga it was, leaving this viewer aghast and unable to rationalize that the U.S. actions in Syria, for instance, are justified or humane.

  • Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

    Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

    ★★★½

    First of all, the movie. Essentially it's the story of an Iraq war hero, along with his platoon, who spend one day being celebrated in a Thanksgiving day halftime show at a Dallas Cowboy's football game. Newcomer Joe Alwyn, a promising young English actor whose eyes radiate intelligence and soul, plays Billy Lynn, a Texan and a soldier whose instinct for altruism and heroism were manifested in one tragedy infused battle, which was replayed in flashback. The film is at once gung-ho and pro-soldier (the two sergeants played by Vin Diesel and Garett Hedlund are inspiring in a non-ironic way); and also anti-materialist in the way it excoriates the exploiters (Steve Martin is particularly slimy as the Cowboy's owner.) I had mixed feelings about the film's politics and war-neutral message; but as a filmed story I was totally involved and entertained.

    Now to the elephant in the room. Director Ang Lee, for my money one of the all-time greats, chose to use a new technology to shoot and project the film (at least for a rare few viewers who were lucky enough to be near one of the few theaters playing the original version and curious enough to pay the hefty surcharge to view it this way.) Essentially the process uses 4K digital 3D at 120 frames per second, quite a bit more than the usual film formats at 24 frames per second (or even the 48 fps that Peter Jackson chose for the Hobbit films). The result is a smooth realism, where the screen virtually disappears and at least foreground details are sharper and more revealing than ever seen in a theater. That especially includes facial details...the actors inner emotions have never been more nakedly exposed through subtle nuances in the eyes and expressions. Fortunately, the actors here were up to the challenge. Some people apparently find these high frame rate screenings to be disconcerting, more an HDTV experience than a movie. I'm not in that camp. For me this process is a step up in conveying a realistic window into the film maker's vision.

  • Karma

    Karma

    ★½

    Overwrought, Buddhist monk ghost stories are not my thing.

  • Manchester by the Sea

    Manchester by the Sea

    ★★★★★

    At the start of this family drama, we're introduced to Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck, never better), a taciturn, divorced Boston area handyman with a chip on his shoulder. When he's notified that his beloved older brother has succumbed from a long illness, he drives to the small seaside village suburb of Manchester-By-The-Sea to handle his brother's affairs, including the fate of his 16-year old nephew Patrick.

    Lee is clearly psychologically wounded; and Patrick is an ebullient, typical teenage jock juggling girlfriends. Patrick is played by young Lucas Hedges, an actor of rare likability. His character's confident, centered mien contrasts tellingly with the depression of his uncle. That is the set-up for an insightful psychological drama, challenging, involving and deeply moving. Auteur writer/director Kenneth Lonergan proves once again that he has no match in current cinema at creating difficult family dynamics.

    In Q&A it came out that the original germ for the story came from Matt Damon and John Krasinski, both of whom at one time were slated to play Lee. Honestly, I would have loved to see Krasinski's take on Lee, which possibly would have added an additional shading of ironic detachment to the character. That isn't at all to minimize the achievement of Affleck here. His Lee is like a smouldering ember, threatening to blaze up into a disastrous fire at any moment (a telling metaphor.) The script is steeped in authentic New England reserve; and the casting of the subsidiary characters (especially Michelle Williams as Lee's ex-wife) is perfect. I'm honestly unsure whether or not this raw nerve of a film is a masterpiece; but I left the theater with a feeling that I had witnessed something important and illuminating about the human condition.

  • Lion

    Lion

    ★★★★½

    In 1987, Saroo, an adorable, confident 5 year old boy, became separated from his impoverished, rural family in the middle of the Indian sub-continent. After two days trapped on an out-of-service train, he found himself lost and homeless in the teeming slums of Calcutta, not knowing a word of Bengali and having only a hazy memory of his home or the name of his village. That is the set up for this enormously emotionally involving film...which spans 25 years and touches all the bases, child endangerment, the plight of the homeless, the goodness of the international adoption agencies, the resilience of the human species. I don't intend to go into any further details about the plot which was a based on a true story novelization. Suffice it to say that I was moved to tears for at least 50% of the film. The film contains some fine performances from Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman. But Sunny Pawar, a tiny powerhouse of a child actor, gives one of the great, unmannered kid performances ever. Despite the intricacies of Saroo's story, which at times defies belief, writer Luke Davis came up with a fine, surprisingly subtle script adaptation. But most of all, this was a triumph for first feature film director Garth Davis, who found a stunningly effective visual style for evoking lost, childhood memories. Some may point to the obvious thematic similarity to Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire; but for my money this is the superior film.

  • Fire at Sea

    Fire at Sea

    ★★★

    Lampedusa is a small island (20 sq. km) about 1/3 of the way between Tunisia and Sicily. It is Italian territory; and currently a way station right in the middle of a boat migration route for countless refugees from Africa and the Middle East trying to escape to the E.U. This documentary presents verité style (no narration or explanatory material) both the plight of the boat people and the placid lives of the inhabitants of the island. Especially featured is a pre-teen Lampadusan boy, Samuele. He wanders his island with a home made slingshot, explores the flora and fauna, copes with allergies and a "lazy eye" condition, attempts to grow his "sea legs," generally comes of age. His family and other islanders are also shown at various tasks. But the film lacks structure or a coherent point of view. Scenes of the utter deprivation of the boat people being rescued (including horror shots of the dead and dying) are randomly intercut with scenes of island life. It's often visually stunning, both for the beauty of the setting and the sickening events filmed on the refugee boats. However, for me the film failed to personalize the refugees in any way. They were presented as visual symbols rather than real people, which contrasted tellingly with the presentation of the island natives. That made for an emotional imbalance which detracted from my involvement with the film, despite the geopolitical importance of what was being filmed.

  • King Cobra

    King Cobra

    ★★★

    OK, I'll admit at the start that I was one of the pervs who was fascinated by the Brent Corrigan saga, as the gay porn star grudgingly admitted at the time on his web site that he was dealing with the consequences of the murder of his former director and mentor Bryan Cocis at Cobra Films. Other than that I really didn't follow the case, just appreciated that my one-time fave porn star wasn't accused of murder. So, with that in mind, I was looking forward to see what James Franco et al were going to do with this story. Bottom line, they made a pretty good, glossy looking movie about a subject that in the past would undoubtedly have been too taboo to film. I can't judge how truthful this "true story" was as adapted from book to film; and I suspect not much. But the acting was OK (especially Christian Slater's oddly sympathetic portrayal of Kocis as principled predator and ultimate victim), and Garrett Clayton as a surprisingly convincing avatar of the young Sean Paul Lockhart (aka Brent Corrigan). Despite the salacious content, the film was shot with coy realism. Only Franco's shameless mugging as one of the murder conspirators rang truly false. I can't say that I didn't enjoy this strange and transgressive film.

  • Miss Sloane

    Miss Sloane

    ★★★★

    Jessica Chastain adds another winning strong female role to her growing roster. Elizabeth Sloan is a take-no-prisoners lobbyist, who dedicates herself to the passage of a modest gun-control law, despite the dirty tactics of her former employer fighting on the NRA's side. The script is deeply involved in the process of lobbying, comprising more subtle manipulation and back-stabbing than overt action. Even the surprise twist which turns the story around is more complex than usual in political thrillers. However, there are still enough strong confrontations here to satisfy, especially one taking place in a Senate hearing where John Lithgow's compromised Senator confronts Chastain's lobbyist in a battle of personalities reminiscent of Nicholson-Cruise in A Few Good Men. Of course the film is particularly timely right now...it's hard to ignore the parallels of a strong woman fighting Congress and the patriarchy in D.C. Add to this a smart script, some fine acting, and a classy production which gives the corridors of power a fine gloss. Not necessarily a recipe for box office; but an intriguingly intelligent film to experience.

  • Doctor Strange

    Doctor Strange

    ★★★½

    I'm immune to Marvel comics story telling. The simplistic plots featuring supernatural heroes battling against ever more evil villains in various permutations fail to excite my intellect. However, this origin story of a character totally new to me, had enough grounding in a familiar sort of humanity that I didn't automatically roll my eyes in disbelief. And then something interesting happened. From the very start, the 3D special effects and soaring sound design were so dazzling, so unexpectedly mind boggling that I was in awe; and believe me I've been around the block a few times. The last time I felt this much sense of wonder watching a film was in 1968 experiencing 2001: A Space Odyssey on LSD. And for this one I didn't need drugs. Bottom line: story meh, f/x wow!

  • Shadow World

    Shadow World

    ★★★½

    This is a powerful, dense, often poetic, always violent and controversial polemic documentary about the corruption of perpetual wars in the 20th and 21st centuries. The film indicts the arm industries, which are shown to be gigantic bribery machines which pollute the political powers, in particular in Britain and the U.S. The film graphically presents with harrowing visuals the current morass of drone strikes and terrorism in the Middle East with unremitting horror. Nobody comes off well in this film, including the film makers, who perhaps go too far to indict every side and every politician in this "shadow world" of wars and corruption.


  • Moonlight

    Moonlight

    ★★★★

    A sensitive, taciturn boy grows up with his crack addicted single mother (a superb performance by Naomie Harris) in three stories taking place at different periods of his life. The film presents a uniquely realistic (at least as far as I could tell) view of African American life today in Miami and Atlanta. It also describes the experience of being black and gay in a cruel society of drugs and bullying. The casting of the characters as they age from pre-teen to late twenties is impeccable. All in all this was an exemplary American indie film which will garner deserved awards. However, for all its fine direction and acting, I felt an emotional remove from the story and characters. For me, the script lacked an identification factor, especially since the gay text was never satisfactorily presented or convincingly consummated, IMHO.

  • Nocturnal Animals

    Nocturnal Animals

    ★★★★

    An author dedicates his new thriller novel to his ex-wife, sending her a subliminal message as she reads the manuscript and imagines (flashback style) the story. Director Tom Ford shows a sure hand at telling a complex, multi-level story with style and subtlety. The casting is immaculate, with some of the finest acting of the year (particularly leads Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon and Aaron Taylor-Johnson. ) This was an impressive second effort by a budding auteur, maybe a tad too psychologically complex for the pop culture masses; but I can't wait to watch the next Tom Ford film.

  • The Handmaiden

    The Handmaiden

    ★★½

    Lesbian porn and torture porn served up in an artful confection by South Korean director Park Chan-wook in a departure from his ultra-violent oeuvre (like the Vengeance series and Oldboy). The production is gorgeous, a note-perfect re-creation of noble decadence in Korea during the pre-WWII Japanese occupation. The complex plot turns on an elaborate con, with so many twists that it is hard to follow at times. But like the equally stylish recent art film The Duke of Burgundy, the overt sexual and emotionally manipulative content squicked me out. Your mileage may vary.

  • Desierto

    Desierto

    ★★★½

    A crazed U.S. vigilante with a high powered rifle and a well trained dog, hunts down and decimates a group of Mexican migrants hiking through the desert border country in this nail biting chase film. Jeffrey Dean Morgan is cornering the market lately on psychopathic killers, here doing another take on his infamous Negan character on TV's "The Walking Dead." He plays the hunter. Gael Garcia Bernal plays his counterpart, wily prey trying to survive. Director Jonás Cuarón (son of the great Alfonso) shows an assured visual sense, taking full advantage of the hot desert landscape. It's hard not to think of this film as a metaphor for Donald Trump's America.

  • The Rolling Stones Olé Olé Olé! : A Trip Across Latin America

    The Rolling Stones Olé Olé Olé! : A Trip Across Latin America

    ★★★

    In 2015 The Rolling Stones toured South America. This wouldn't be such big news...except for two things. This band has been mostly together for over 50 years...and the major band members are in their f*cking 70s...my age!! They still have it, though, freaks of nature!

    The current documentary follows the band through 8 countries and eight concerts, culminating in an historic crowd-pleasing show in Havana, Cuba. Each major city has a sequence devoted to the native culture (although the print I watched didn't have sub-titles, so all the dialog other than by the band members and crew were gobbledygook to me.) Each concert featured one signature song, culminating with a remarkable performance of "Satisfaction" in Cuba. And each of the eight sequences followed one of the major band members as they absorbed the local atmosphere and reminisced about their lives.

    The film was shot in wide screen and looked great. Their music remains vibrant: Mick Jagger still has that voice; Charlie Watts is still tireless on the drums; and Keith Richards and Ron Woods still rock on guitar. So, why didn't it work all that well as a film? It just felt old hat and predictable. As a personal note: I saw the Stones live at the Forum in 1975; and the energy in person was spectacular. That was thrilling. This film just went on too long, and the very real energy of the South American crowds, no matter how frenetic the editing, just seemed synthetic. Still, it was the Stones on screen...and they still earn their sympathy for the Devil.

  • National Parks Adventure

    National Parks Adventure

    ★★½

    Gorgeous cinematography (including some spectacular aerial shots), and a nice song score are the good things about this nature documentary (was it shot for IMAX? disclosure: I watched it on video.) What didn't quite work was the sketchy framing narrative device about 2 men and a woman who were visiting various National Parks and climbing, hiking and bicycling throughout their adventures. Plus, the film was sponsored by Subaru and Expedia...which was done for an admirable cause, but the commercialism jarred. Finally, the writing of Robert Redford's narration was adequate; but not stirring. But did I mention the gorgeous cinematography?

  • Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

    Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

    ★½

    Maybe it's just me...but it seems that action movies generally are more unrealistic than ever. I suspect this is largely because CGI and video technology have advanced to the point that realism no longer matters to film makers in their zeal to present ever more thrilling fights, chases and stunts. Tom Cruise still has star charisma; but he's miscast here as a bruising fighter type [note: I haven't read the Lee Child "Jack Reacher" books or watched the first film in this series]. Cruise's persona has always depended on the appearance of smarts, such as in the "Mission Impossible" films; but here he is playing a taciturn, physically imposing type that goes against his strengths. The usually reliable Edward Zwick's direction is paint-by-numbers; and even the cinematography lacked crispness and verisimilitude. Shoddy job all around.

  • Marathon: The Patriots Day Bombing

    Marathon: The Patriots Day Bombing

    ★★★★½

    This documentary is an exhaustive examination of the famous terrorist bombing attack that killed four and maimed many others. In roughly chronological order it examines the crime, the lengthy hardships of the victims (many of whom lost their legs and underwent months and years of therapy and PTSD), the capture of the terrorists and the trial of the surviving brother perpetrator. The film makers were able to collect amazing video footage of one of the most recorded crimes in history. But they also told several simultaneous human interest stories of the survivors with original sequences of rare emotional resonance. The resulting film incorporates a vital historical document along with a chilling reminder that home-grown terror can happen at any time and plays no favorites.

  • The Accountant

    The Accountant

    ★★★

    This is a smart thriller featuring an autistic anti-hero being just about super-human (sort of a replay of Daredevil, except Affleck can see this time around). The story flaws (and there were several) were outweighed by the fine balance between action and character development. I was particularly impressed by the out-of-kilter chemistry of the central couple played by Affleck and Anna Kendrick. Because of my fascination with the unusual, yet interesting characters, I probably enjoyed this film more than it deserved.

  • American Pastoral

    American Pastoral

    ★★★

    This is a well acted adaptation of a sprawling Philip Roth novel about a family shattered by the daughter's radicalization during the Vietnam war times. Ewen McGregor's direction (and his ok American accent playing the emotionally fraught father) was more than adequate; but the script, at least for me, failed to present characters that always rang true to life. However, as a painful reminder of this chaotic period in American history, the film awakened fears about the course of our current national political dialog. Are we now about to be faced with a return to the violence of the Weathermen bombers? For me, no matter how accurate a picture of a tragic family drama the film presented, this subtextural reminder of a return to the terror of the '60s and '70s affected my response to the film. Your mileage may vary.

  • The Eagle Huntress

    The Eagle Huntress

    ★★★★½

    A 13-year old Kazakh girl from the rugged Mongolian Altai mountains breaks with tradition in this stirring documentary. Along with her relatively progressive father, she herself captures a fledgling eaglet, trains it to hunt and then undergoes the arduous task of becoming an eagle hunter, despite the doubts of traditionalists that this is unseemly and even impossible for a female. The film features gorgeous cinematography (and a ton of luck to be at the right place at the right time), plus a great score (the original Sia end credit song is Oscar worthy). Its third-world female empowerment story line is timely and audience friendly. This film illustrates that real life can be more dramatic than fiction if things play out exactly right.

  • Ivory. A Crime Story

    Ivory. A Crime Story

    ★★★

    Millions of elephants have been killed in Africa. Some for food, which on a starving continent is explicable. However most have been slaughtered by poachers for export of their ivory tusks to Asia, for carving into profitable art objects. China is the main consumer; but other countries, Vietnam, the Philippines and even the U.S. are not innocent of participating in this trade. This heavily narrated documentary drones on about the fight against poachers, illustrating with literally sickening examples of the wanton killings along with interviews with park rangers charged with protecting the vanishing herds. Just as revolting are scenes of the the burning and machine chipping of tons of raw tusks by customs officials, in the mistaken notion that this would discourage poachers (rather than jacking up the price of the tusks that do get through, which is now kilo for kilo more than twice as high as gold.) The film certainly gets the outrage right, making its case for a deserving cause. But the dry and didactic, even monotonous editing failed to inspire emotional response. The intended call to action fell short.


  • Iron Moon

    Iron Moon

    This documentary follows several Chinese workers and poets, whose poetry is full of metaphors for the tribulations of industrialization (they build nets below the factory that assembles iPhones to catch workers who jump). The film is informative about current day China with well photographed vignettes; but I bailed about half-way through. I'm just not particularly sensitive to sub-titled poetry and my attention flagged.

  • Holy Hell

    Holy Hell

    ★★★★½

    The Buddhafield cult, led by charismatic ex-gay porn star Jamie Gomez (AKA Andreas or Michel), started in West Hollywood in the mid-1980s, migrated to Austin, TX and then to Hawaii, where it still exists. For over 20 years, film maker Will "Francesco" Allen, was a committed member of the cult, denying along with dozens of others that this was even a cult. Allen also dedicated himself to recording on film the cult's activities with elaborate productions led by its beatific leader. Apparently only after revelations that Gomez was preaching sexual purity while secretly fornicating with many of the attractive male acolytes (including Allen), many of the cultists became disenchanted enough to leave.

    Utilizing almost 30 years of fascinating film footage and present day interviews with several apostate survivors (including his two sisters), Allen has constructed probably the best record of modern day cultism from the inside that exists today. This is fascinating and terrifying stuff, featuring mass hypnosis and brainwashing that defies belief. Except (personal note inserted here, sorry about that), in the course of my life many of my best friends have been seduced by various cult movements...and even I, life long skeptic with zero spiritual component, might have, at least at its inception, been drawn into this particular cult if I had ever been exposed to it. Or maybe not; but I do admit I was enthralled by this film, even as it left me aghast and dismayed for these attractive and otherwise intelligent victims of this spiritual con.

  • Harry & Snowman

    Harry & Snowman

    ★★★

    In the late 1950s a Dutch post-war immigrant to the U.S. named Harry de Leyer purchased for $80 a white plow horse purportedly scheduled for the glue factory named Snowman. Snowman and de Leyer then became the unlikely champions of the tony equestrian jumping world, winning grand championships at Madison Square Garden and other venues. In the process Snowman apparently became a famous celebrity (note: I lived through this phenomenon without ever hearing a word about it...but California wasn't a hotbed of horse jumping at the time.)

    The documentary tells the story of de Leyer (now in his late 80s and still active raising horses at his Nederland Farm in New York) and his horse. Utilizing vintage film footage of jumping meets and family home movies, along with present day on-camera interviews with de Leyer and his children, the film presents an entertaining view of a relatively unknown sporting life style. However, despite the emotionally uplifting central theme of a heroic horse thriving in a simpler time, the film feels more like an unironic version of a Christopher Guest mockumentary such as Best in Show...likable, but not earth shaking.

  • Colliding Dreams

    Colliding Dreams

    ★★★½

    This is an attempt at an even-handed documentary about the Zionist movement and the progression of strife between Jews and Arabs for a homeland. The film utilizes a massive amount of rare historical film footage, interviews with Israelis and Palestinians, and insightful narration to conclude that even after almost 70 years of conflict the situation is still fluid and unresolved. The film is exhaustively informative almost to the point of information overload. And by attempting to be unbiased and non-political, the film makers have curtailed much of the audience's emotional response. What results is a dry re-telling of history that is unsparingly objective, but also dispiriting and even a little boring.

  • The Birth of a Nation

    The Birth of a Nation

    ★★★★

    Honest Injun, I don't have liberal guilt. This turned out to be a heartfelt, realistic, gut-wrenching narrative of a famous slave rebellion that got almost everything right...especially the poisonous, humanity killing evil of slavery. That it turned its protagonist into America's Joan of Arc, and most Southern whites into satanic villains...well maybe that was deserved in the cold light of history. I expect that despite the newsworthy ill repute of the actor-director-writer-producer novice film maker hyphenate, this typical, over-achieving Sundance-ish indie film with its superb production values will do well come awards time. If it doesn't, that would be a disservice to the art of film.

  • The Girl on the Train

    The Girl on the Train

    ★½

    For the first 30 minutes of this confusing, time-shifting reverie on the fraught lives of three dysfunctional women, I just wanted to quit the theater. But about 20 minutes in I figured out what had happened and who-done-it and got curious to find out how they'd end up revealing it (obviously I never read the book.) But even that reveal took 'way too long to occur, was disappointing and flawed as a plot device. Too bad that Emily Blunt's performance (a change of pace from her recent kick-ass action flicks) was wasted on such a poorly conceived character. Fortunately I didn't pay to watch this mess. I should have left at the 30 minute mark.

  • A Billion Lives

    A Billion Lives

    ★★½

    This documentary advocates the legality and acceptance of e-cigarettes and vaping as a healthful alternative to smoking which would save a billion lives. It makes the case that the worldwide laws against vaping are the results of powerful entrenched interests such as the tobacco industry and big pharma (abetted by government health agencies) which are invested in tobacco profits and/or approved medical nicotine replacements. Personally, I recall the way marijuana has been unfairly stigmatized for years in similar fashion...so I am innately receptive to the message of this film. However, what was missing for me after all was said and done, was any convincing proof that vaping is safer and healthier than cigarettes. At least with marijuana, there is overwhelming evidence that the drug is safer and less destructive to society than legalized alcohol. I may be against the restrictive laws for any recreational drugs (e.g. Australia and other countries have out-and-out banned e-cigarettes). But I don't think this film was effective propaganda for its cause.

  • The Best Democracy Money Can Buy

    The Best Democracy Money Can Buy

    ★★★★★

    Investigative reporter and documentary film maker Greg Palast goes undercover to expose the nefarious billionaires who are subverting the American electoral process. Utilizing superb animation, celebrity cameos, and Palast's own on-camera, crusading detective persona that Michael Moore only wishes he could pull off, Palast goes after some of the worst wealthy abusers of the system: the Koch brothers, "vulture capitalists" Paul Singer and John Paulson, and of course their avatar Donald Trump. His smoking gun is the "Interstate Crosscheck Purge List," a nation-wide conspiracy stemming from Citizen's United to legally strip millions of mostly minority voters of their franchise to vote. This is frightening, revealing material, clearly and entertainingly presented. Bravo, Mr. Palast! Maybe this film comes too late to directly affect and clean up this voting process disaster in 2016; but one can only hope bringing this scandal to light will raise public awareness and outrage to stop this blatant attack by the plutocrats on our democracy.

  • Behind Bayonets & Barbed Wire

    Behind Bayonets & Barbed Wire

    ★★★★

    This documentary tells the almost forgotten story of the World War II Pacific front from the point of view of prisoners-of-war transported from the defeat in the Philippines to the Mukden, Manchuria camp run my sadistic Japanese guards. The story is told using current day interviews on camera with ex-prisoners (all of them now in their 90s), excellent stock war footage, and scenes with actors re-creating the events. The film starts with the Japanese invasion of China in 1931, covers Pearl Harbor and the surrender of Corregidor leading to the Bataan Death March in 1942, the prisoners' horrendous boat trip north, and the men's years-long incarceration under dire circumstances. The film culminates with actual footage of the Japanese surrender and, in the end credits, follows the survivors to the present day.

    Technically the film is very well made. The re-creations are skillfully acted and directed (an interesting comparison can be made between this documentary and the fiction films which portray similar scenes such as the 2014 film Unbroken and the 1965 film King Rat.) The current documentary actually does not suffer from these comparisons. As more and more of the veterans of WWII die off, films like this which bring to light the reminiscences of the hardships and heroism of the "Greatest Generation" are vital historical records and lessons in humanity.

  • The Abolitionists

    The Abolitionists

    ★★★

  • This documentary follows Tim Ballard, former lawman, now a leader of a group called Operation Underground Railroad, dedicated to rescuing child victims of sexual predators and bringing to justice the sex traffickers that enslave these children. The film follows this group as it operates stings in Central America and Colombia. For obvious reasons, most of the children and people involved in these operations are fuzzed out or in deep shadow. The film illuminates a serious worldwide problem, and highlights a group of civilians dedicated to the difficult battle against these predators. As a film, however, the diffuse, real-time action footage was often confusingly edited, a function of the fly-on-the-wall and ad hoc nature of the events recorded. Ballard's dedication was inspiring, in any case.

  • Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

    Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

    ★★½

    Fine magical special effects can't disguise a plot made up of warmed over time paradox tropes. Tim Burton proved again that his visual imagination consistently overcomes his ability to tell a cohesive story. And some of my favorite actors (Asa Butterfield, Chris O'Dowd, Terrence Stamp, Judy Dench and the as usual over-the-top Samuel L. Jackson) struggled valiantly to work within their cliché characters. Around midway through this bloated fairy tale I discovered to my dismay that I was bored.

  • Deepwater Horizon

    Deepwater Horizon

    ★★★½

    This is an old-fashioned disaster flick, in the same vein as those 1970s Irwin Allen thrillers like Towering Inferno and Poseidon Adventure. Except here all the advantages of 40-plus years of cinematic technology have achieved an unprecedented realism both visually and sonically in presenting the disaster event itself that couldn't have existed back then. However, in every era, the same problem of imposing a series of people stories into a disaster narrative has inherent problems. In this film particularly, the film emphasized one family's terror at the expense of creating an actual tapestry of other realistically written characters. Still, the main event was spectacularly well exhibited. This is one thriller that really thrilled on the big screen in an Atmos sound system equipped theater. Don't wait for the iPhone release!


  • 13th

    13th

    ★★★★

    The 13th was one of the post-Civil War amendment to the U. S. Constitution. This one banned slavery with one exception...criminals were still subject to involuntary servitude. This politically charged documentary posits that this constitutional out gave the majority culture the ability to continue to practice slavery for the ensuing 150 years...culminating in a present day when 2.3 million people (heavily disproportionately blacks and browns) are incarcerated in work-house prisons, and millions of others are in essence deprived of their citizenship and ability to make a future living by the disqualifying question on most employment applications: "have you ever been convicted of a felony?"

    Director DuVernay used ample historical film footage, interviews, music and graphics to make her point. The film is especially strong in indicting the for-profit prison-industrial-complex. Perhaps one might argue that the political agenda was slightly skewed to make the Clinton administration seem more guilty than previous or subsequent ones of transgressing minority rights...perhaps a fair point; but considering the present day milieu that seemed a little over-the-top polemical. Nevertheless, this was a particularly well written and structured documentary. I come to film making from at editing perspective; and I would like to particularly commend the film's editor, Spencer Averick, for an amazing job. It's harder than it looks, folks, to string together 100 minutes of disparate material into a cogent, continuously reasonable tapestry.

  • The Seventh Fire

    The Seventh Fire

    ★★★

    This impressionistic, meandering documentary tells the story of two native American men living in the tiny town of Pine Point on the west-Minnesota White Earth reservation (incidentally only a few miles west from where my Eastern Euro Jewish family settled at the turn of the last century.) Robert is 37, awaiting incarceration for some drug related crime. He'd already served at least 12 years in prison; and now is living a week of furlough before going away from his family and new born son for 57 months. Kevin is a 17 year old, on the cusp of turning 18, who aimlessly gets by selling drugs and longs to escape from a town and life that offers few ways to escape (and apparently none for him.)

    The film is shot cinema verité style, with a wondering hand-held camera which is ruthless in presenting the stark milieu. Time passes with little attempt at continuity...a snowy scene is followed by scenes in sylvan forests and farmland, followed by a small-town patriotic parade in no particular order. Kevin seems to get lost in the narrative as Robert's plight takes precedence. It's probably not a coincidence that the film was "presented" by Terrence Malick, since it portrays a world view that director has mined in his films. The film is resolutely bleak and offers little hope. Just like the lives it portrays.

  • Our Last Tango

    Our Last Tango

    ★★★½

    Argentinian tango stars Maria Nieves and Juan Carlos Copes, who together danced their way through almost 50 years of international acclaim, are featured in this documentary. The couple is in their 80s now; and they have gone separate ways in their professional careers. The film utilizes young actors/dancers to re-create their early years, along with some spectacular filmed footage from their middle years. But the meat of the documentary is made up of interviews with each principal today, describing the strains on their personal and professional relationship which led to acrimony and the ultimate breakup. The film equates the tango with sexism; and draws a picture of Copes as abusively macho. But it also glorifies the beautiful and indomitable Nieves as a symbol of feminine artistry. The dancing is impressive; and I liked the way that the script utilized the young actors' quests to understand the real life characters they played. The film became a different kind of documentary portrait of the artistic temperament, skillfully edited, almost scripted, but not quite.

  • Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You

    Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You

    ★★★½

    At age 93, Norman Lear is still active and relevant...a true cultural touchstone. This documentary examines his life with many examples of the television shows that he created, along with interviews with Lear himself and others in his productive life. It is hard to come up with a more culturally influential, groundbreaking late 20th century figure. Just as it is hard to come up with a show more culturally important than "All in the Family." Well, perhaps I'm prejudiced because his left-leaning Jewish sensibility matches my own. This particular film does attempt a certain artistry...using a young actor to metaphorically portray Lear's life in reflection. I'm not sure that this technique worked particularly well. This is a good example of a documentary with an exemplary and important subject that just doesn't quite jell as an entertainment. That is something that no Norman Lear show ever was guilty of.

  • Miss Sharon Jones!

    Miss Sharon Jones!

    ★★★★

    Sharon Jones is a diminutive, yet powerful, soul and gospel style singer. She sings and tours with a group of mostly white, Jewish New Yorkers called the Dap-Kings on an obscure label, Daptone Records. I'll be honest: until this film I had never heard of Jones and the Dap-Kings (even though I take pride in having my finger on the pulse of pop culture.) This is an omission I now regret.

    Jones has been around a while; but in 2012 she was diagnosed with 2nd stage pancreatic cancer. At that point, two-time Oscar winning documentary film maker Barbara Kopple started following Jones' years-long battle with the disease, the ups and downs, the remission, and ultimately (slight spoiler) her painfully difficult return to the road. This isn't the first documentary about a troubled soul singer (Nina Simone, Amy Winehouse, etc.); but it is definitely the most heartening one. A great talent, although an obscure one, triumphs over adversity. This is an impressive and entertaining film.

  • The Dressmaker

    The Dressmaker

    ★★★★

    In 1951, Tilly, a strikingly cosmopolitan woman, returned to the backwater Australian town of her birth. She had been ostracized as a young girl, having been accused of murdering a fellow student bully. Now in her 30's, she arrives as a skilled seamstress, a chic Parisian with a Singer sewing machine as baggage. Tilly is a role that Kate Winslet was born to play: gorgeous, smart, smoldering with resentment. Her elderly mother (a stupendous, comic performance by Judy Davis channeling Marie Dressler) has been living a precarious, demented life alone. And the town has never forgotten nor forgiven their wayward daughter in exile. That is the set-up for a revenge comedy/drama that has trouble establishing a consistent tone; but nevertheless is one of the most enjoyable films I've watched in a while.

    Some really good things: the entire ensemble is immaculately cast. Liam Hemsworth was literally dreamy playing Tilly's semi-outcast boyfriend (is there a better looking actor in films today? I think not...) Hugo Weaving proved comic gold playing a cross-dressing town constable. In fact, all the spiteful townspeople were recognizable types perfectly played. Also, for a film about an eponymous dressmaker, the costumes were absolutely and fittingly breathtaking. If I were Oscar emperor, the award for costumes would already be sewn up. Additionally, the memorable score and gorgeous cinematography were worthy of acclaim.

    However, as satisfying as the denouement ultimately was, the narrative road to get there was a little rocky. Characterizations became caricatures at times; and the shocking central event seemed gratuitous, and frankly shook me out of the story for a while. Still, on balance, I loved this film. It deserves to find an appreciative audience.

  • Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World

    Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World

    ★★★½

    Filmmaker Werner Herzog set out to examine the internet...history, concept, social import, and even the future of the beast...in several disconnected, albeit roughly chronological, chapters. There was much new information here, especially about the foundation and mathematics of the world wide web. And some important tidbits were gleaned from interviews with such visionaries as Elon Musk and others who are not household names. Herzog is a good interviewer, adept at asking pertinent questions from behind the camera. But all in all most of the information imparted was perfunctory, leaving this viewer edified to some degree, but also dissatisfied...rather like snacking on the information highway instead of dining.

  • Landfill Harmonic

    Landfill Harmonic

    ★★★

    The capitol of Paraguay, Acuncion, is solely served by a putrid landfill on the Paraguay river called Cateura. Thousands of people make their living by mining the landfill for recycled materials. One man, a skilled carpenter, scavenged materials and turned them into musical instruments, violins, basses, drums, reeds. Another man, a music teacher in a local school, had the inspiration to introduce his students to these fabricated instruments and founded a functioning youth orchestra, which eventually toured the world as the "LandPhilharmonic" (pun intended.)

    This inspirational documentary follows the carpenter, teacher and students (and their families) through the development and world-wide fame of this orchestra, which included concerts in the U.S. with the rock group Megadeth. There have been several documentaries in recent years about the role music plays in upscaling impoverished communities...but none quite as amazing as this story. Unfortunately for me, I was never able to identify with the people enough to feel inspired. The film felt predictable and manipulative. However, I have a feeling that others will feel differently, since this really is an amazing story well told.

  • Kate Plays Christine

    Kate Plays Christine

    ★★★

    Back in the 1970s, a Sarasota, Florida TV journalist named Christine Chubbuck committed suicide by pistol to the head on live (and apparently taped) TV. At this point, the kinescope of the act seems to have disappeared. However, the episode made the national news at the time; and was supposedly used by Paddy Chayefsky as a source for his Network screenplay.

    This documentary (or maybe docudrama might be more appropriate), tells the story of a present day actress (Kate Lyn Sheil) who has been hired to perform the role of Christine in a movie that may or may not have been an actual project (probably not). However, the current documentary does provide an interesting narrative of Sheil's preparation for the role. We watch as she obtains a wig, gets fitted for brown contact lenses, samples costumes, interviews technicians who were present at the original event, watches tapes of Chibbuck's unremarkable newscasts. Somehow, however, through Sheil's on-camera musings, we're given a revealing glimpse into Chubbuck's psychology which led to her otherwise forgotten act; but I just hesitate to call it a documentary.

  • Indian Point

    Indian Point

    ★★★★

    Indian Point is a nuclear power plant situated on the Hudson River a few miles north of New York City. For the past couple of years it has been operating without a valid license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and New York state authorities. Needless to say, its very existence has been a cause for NIMBY activists and conservationists concerned with the aging infrastructure and the effects on the Hudson River fish and environment, especially post-Fukushima. This effective advocacy documentary carefully attempts a balanced examination of all the issues involved. Especially pertinent was its examination of the dilemma that the embattled chairman of the NRC was under until his resignation, as he unsuccessfully tried to fight the nuclear industry.

    When I started to watch this documentary I was firmly on the side of alternative non-polluting energy sources such as nuclear. However, despite the film's unexciting, straightforward approach to the techniques of documentary film making (eschewing graphics and editorializing), by the end of the film my opinion had definitely shifted to anti-nuclear as it exists now. Quietly, unassumingly, this film had real-world impact on me. One cannot hope for a better outcome from advocacy film making. Yet, maybe because the message was so subtly presented, I found much of the film boring, didactic rather than arousing. Yet it worked, thanks to director Meeropol's steadfast objectivity.

  • Denial

    Denial

    ★★★

    This is a perfectly serviceable legal thriller...telling the true story of a trial which took place in England in 2000. In a case with international repercussions (I followed it in the news), an American woman author and professor was sued by a famous Holocaust denier for libel. The issues were well presented: especially the peculiarities of the English legal system, shifting the burden of proof in civil libel cases to the defendant. The acting was fine, although understated British style (but I'll be honest, in an otherwise fine portrayal, I found Rachel Weisz's attempt at a Queens, New York inflected American accent mostly annoying.) Tom Wilkenson was especially good as the barrister defending Weisz. David Hare's literate script was interesting...apparently all the courtroom scenes were shown verbatim from the original trial transcripts; and these scenes did play very authentic. But as drama, despite the stakes, the rest of the film was rather meh.

  • Snowden

    Snowden

    ★★★★½

    Edward Snowden is a polarizing figure: is he a heroic whistleblower? A traitor to his country? Both? Neither? Who cares?

    Oliver Stone is a polarizing figure: is he a right-wing ideologue posing as a film director? Or is he a left-wing fanatic? How can he be both? Does it matter if he makes good films?

    This particular Stone film, a thriller based on a true story, is just as polarizing as its subject and director. I make no bones about it: for me, Edward Snowden is a hero, a brave man who stood up to power to inform the U.S. public about long-term government abuses of process. And I was thrilled to watch a film which painted this truth in high relief, in the process humanizing a man who has been so demonized by the very powers whose abuses he outed.

    Despite the fact that it is impossible to remove the politics from any discussion of this film, I can testify that I was enthralled by the story, totally invested in Joseph Gordon-Levitt's superb performance, and respectful of Stone's artistic choices of camera angle as metaphor and heightened suspense as narrative device. This may be Stone's best film; yet the political controversy will likely keep it from ever being accepted as such.


  • Hooligan Sparrow

    Hooligan Sparrow

    ★★★½

    Ye Haiyan (AKA " Hooligan Sparrow" ) has been a woman's rights activist in China for years, much of it in official detention. Film maker Nanfu Wang returned to China after two years living the U.S. in order to surreptitiously film Sparrow's struggle against the patriarchal Chinese establishment. Specifically in this case it was about a terrible injustice when an elementary school principal coerced several 12 to 14 year old students to have sex for money...and the government insisted on jailing the young girls as prostitutes. When Sparrow's group attempted to protest, they became (along with the film maker) victims of abuses from shadowy men, abetted by the government and the police. Even the lawyer representing the girls ended up in jail. This is the kind of documentary that exposes horrible corruption in China, an exemplary cause. But by the very nature of the dangers to all involved, most of the film is shot and edited with footage that is poorly made (some with cameras disguised as eye glasses, or blank screen with only sound track.) Unfortunately that matters. So I give the film 5-stars for message and import, 2-stars for technical competence.

  • Gleason

    Gleason

    ★★★★½

    Steve Gleason was a journeyman college and professional football player, most famous for blocking a punt for the New Orleans Saints in their first game after Katrina. He retired in 2008 and married that year. In 2011 two things transpired: he was diagnosed with ALS, a degenerative disease that is usually fatal (Lou Gehrig and Stephen Hawking are famous victims); and simultaneously his wife became pregnant. This moving documentary tells his story, based around a series of selfie videos he shot to communicate with his unborn (and eventually newborn) son after the disease made such interaction impossible. It also is a harrowing depiction of a life falling apart...with a protagonist who has the pluck and support system to survive and even become the founder of Team Gleason, a foundation devoted to aiding other ALS victims and perhaps eventually finding a cure.

    This isn't the first ALS documentary. Last year we followed the plight of Patrick O'Brien, also a father surviving for his son, in the film TransFatty Lives. And before that was a groundbreaking documentary about the life and long-time survival of physicist Hawking. But the similarity of those films does not detract from the emotional power and effectiveness of this year's Gleason. I was moved to tears by this superbly made film; and that's really about the best thing that an inspirational documentary can offer.

  • Equal Means Equal

    Equal Means Equal

    ★★★★

    Women are systematically discriminated against in the U.S. And worldwide it is a disaster. That's the message of this well made advocacy documentary. Utilizing superb graphics, interviews with "feminists" and victims, and the on-camera filmmaker's intelligent historical perspective, the case is made for actively re-instating the stalled struggle for the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution. The film tries (and mostly succeeds) to cram as many issues as it can into a fast paced hour and a half: workplace and maternity leave inequality, spousal abuse, campus rape, child prostitution, gradual erosion of the laws already in the books by the courts. If anything, the fast editorial pacing and the sheer number of issues presented are both incendiary and mind-boggling to the point of exhaustion. However, too much equal meant too much to process at least to some degree for this viewer. Except that these issues are really important; and this comprehensive documentary does effectively and energetically get its point across by the righteousness of its message.

  • Don't Blink: Robert Frank

    Don’t Blink: Robert Frank

    ★★★½

    Robert Frank, still alive in his 90s, is a seminal American realist photographer and experimental documentary film maker. His greatest claim to fame was as a participant recorder of the New York City and American heartland panoramas stretching from the 1940s and the Beatnik era to the present day. His realistic B&W photos, often modified by graphic techniques that he pioneered, were groundbreaking, as were his relatively obscure super-8 documentaries. He was a central figure in avant-garde American culture for decades. This documentary film presents in scattershot fashion a review of his life and career, through interviews with Frank over the years, and fast cut montages of his vast oeuvre (photos and films). I had problems with the editorial structure of the current film. Time after time I felt that scenes were edited too quickly to appreciate the artwork, and sequenced haphazardly to the point of confusion. Still, Frank as a subject, was so interesting that the film held my interest. Much of this was unfamiliar to me even though I was a younger contemporary doing somewhat similar work in Los Angeles. Now, I wish I had paid attention to this fascinating artist and his career at the time. Fortunately we now have this documentary, flawed as it is, to further his legend.

  • The Light Between Oceans

    The Light Between Oceans

    ★★★

    Well acted, beautifully photographed schmaltz is still schmaltz (definition: "music, art, etc., that is very sad or romantic in usually a foolish or exaggerated way.) OK, made me cry; but it felt manipulative and overwrought. Living in lighthouses seems to bring out the worst in people, a bad thing unless they're as attractive as Fassbender and Vikander. In which case it's just fodder for melodrama.

  • Other People

    Other People

    ★★★★½

    This is simply a superb semi-autobiographical film about a gay son and his dying mother. I loved it the first time I watched it last May; and second time around it was even better. It features a series of astounding performances, especially by Molly Shannon and Jesse Plemons, plus several immaculately cast supporting players. But more than anything, this is a great script, sensitively directed. I just hope it finds its audience, because this one is worth watching...even twice.
    Original review here

  • Sully

    Sully

    ★★★★

    Another top-flight Clint Eastwood film about the consequences of heroism in an era that celebrates the anti-hero. Once again he has elicited really fine acting from his large cast (although poor Laura Linney must have had most of her scenes left on the cutting room floor). Tom Hanks is sure to get another Oscar nomination playing the eponymous flight captain, Sully, who in real life landed his commercial jet in the Hudson River one January day, saving all aboard (if this is a spoiler, then where have you been hiding?) But the script was bizarrely structured, clearly to wring maximum drama out of a an event which lacked obvious suspense except for about 2 minutes of action. It's a tribute to Eastwood and his cast that the film was as thrilling and moving as it turned out to be, despite the clunky script.

  • Morgan

    Morgan

    ★★★½

    A group of scientists working for a shadowy tech corporation have been secretly growing a genetically modified girl android named Morgan in a remote security compound. When something apparently goes wrong with the experiment, a corporate fixer (Kate Mara) along with a psychiatrist (Paul Giamatti) are sent to assess and control the situation. What ensues is a modern sci-fi horror flick that plays somewhere between Frankenstein and Terminator. Anya Tayler-Jones plays Morgan with an eerie lack of affect; and the rest of the A- cast valiantly cope with the unsubtle script. I saw the final plot twist a mile off; but the creepy action was gripping enough to sustain my interest.

  • Command and Control

    Command and Control

    ★★★★½

    On the night of September 18, 1980 a trivial accident in a Titan II missile silo in Arkansas led to an escalating series of human and systemic errors that could easily have led to a catastrophic H-bomb explosion. This gripping documentary tells the story of that evening, along with the frightening history of other U.S. nuclear accidents. Filmmaker Kenner has managed to re-create that evening with new narrative footage shot in an abandoned Titan II silo in Arizona. He seamlessly combined this with interviews with survivors and actual news footage from that evening. This is an astounding, titanic achievement in creative documentation. It is also a frightening indictment of the infrastructure that only by luck and chance hasn't caused a major nuclear accident due to human or mechanical error as of yet. Just for importance, impact and relevance this film deserves 5-stars. I've reluctantly subtracted one-half star because I was always distracted by the knowledge that many of these incredibly realistic scenes had to have been manufactured; and I couldn't discern the intersection of reality and re-creation, a backhanded tribute to the skill of the creative team. Despite that caveat, this vitally important film scared the hell out me, it's that effective.


  • City of Gold

    City of Gold 2015

    ★★★½ Watched 06 Sep, 2016

    Jonathan Gold is a famed restaurant reviewer who has made career out of exploring the vast number of ethnic restaurants which cover Los Angeles like a crazy quilt. You might not have read him, you might not even be interested in the obscure pod mall restaurant culture of L.A.; but this man won the very first Pulitzer Prize for food journalism, and his influence on American restaurant culture has spread far and wide. I've lived in L.A. for over 70 years, and believe me this man has impacted my life and that of many others with his emphasis on the inexpensive, spicy hot cuisines of my city.

    This documentary features Gold doing his eating thing, raising a family, struggling with writer's block. It places him in the context of the vast city he has studied and written about while following him as he drives his gas guzzling pick-up truck around L.A. on his tours of the local dining scene. During his travels he visits several restaurants, usually obscure Asian or Latino places, among which are several of the food trucks that are so important in today's L.A. The way the camera photographs the food is spectacular...don't watch this film hungry. But we also get real insight into Jonathan Gold the man, whose early life was devoted to the cello before he became a punk rock musician in the 1980s, and then almost by accident found his calling as a reviewer for the L.A. Weekly underground newspaper (and later the L.A. Times). But for all his years of fame, I had never really had a clear picture of the man, who turns out to be a hulking hippie type with a nimble mind and entertaining patter.

    The film itself is sprawling and randomly edited; but it does provide a native's positive overview of Los Angeles that is an interesting contrast to the "fire this time" view of L.A. that was the subtext of the recent O.J. Simpson documentary. For a simple foodie and biographical documentary, the film bites off a little more than it can chew...but does it entertainingly.

  • Citizen Soldier

    Citizen Soldier 2016

    ★★★ Watched 05 Sep, 2016

    This documentary recounts the 2011 Afghanistan tour of duty of some members of the Oklahoma National Guard. It was mostly shot with helmet cameras during some particularly hairy skirmishes during that war, which lent an immediacy to the fighting scenes...but also presented a shaky camera that was disorienting and even nausea inducing. The battle scenes were intercut with two moving military funerals and some present day round table reminiscences by surviving guardsmen. At the end, the film presented titles showing all 900 plus fatal guardsmen casualties from all states and territories. The film had a powerful message; but as a film its scattered editorial scheme and its emphatic patriotism detracted from my appreciation. If anything, I kept asking myself why, and for what purpose were these brave men on that field of battle...and the film didn't even attempt to answer that question.

  • The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things

    The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things 2004

    ★★★★ Watched 08 Nov, 2004

    [I'm reposting this review from a festival screening in 2004 for reasons explained at the end of this review.]

    This mindblowing film is based on stories by J.T. LeRoy, apparently based on his life, that I was totally unaware of. Jeremiah is a 7 year old boy (a truly fabulous performance by Jimmy Bennet) who is taken from his middle class foster parents by his totally unfit mother and thrust into a wandering life of drugs, molestation by her "boyfriends", occasional respites with his religiously fanatic grandparents, and other degrading experiences. The film covers Jeremiah's life from 7 through about 12, and is one of the most unsparing looks at unabating child abuse I've ever experienced. The director, Asia Argento, plays the trashy mother like a junky Courtney Love. She is brilliant, no other word for it. I can imagine how this polarizing film could be hated; but I'm still haunted by the characterizations and imagery. J.T. LeRoy himself was in the audience, a shy waif clearly uncomfortable with his public acclaim. He didn't speak; but just his presence validated the truth of the film.

    [In 2016 retrospect, the J.T. LeRoy who stood before us was a literary hoax. The actual author was a middle age lady named Laura Albert; and the young boy was actually Albert's husband's younger sister in disguise. This is the subject of the the fascinating recent documentary Author: The JT LeRoy Story, which I wholeheartedly recommend.]

  • Author: The JT LeRoy Story

    Author: The JT LeRoy Story 2016

    ★★★★½ Watched 03 Sep, 2016

    In the 1990s, Jeremiah "Terminator" LeRoy wrote seminal novels about boyhood and sexual molestation. His first novel, "Sarah," purported to be about his prostitute mother. His second reputedly autobiographical novel, "The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things" was made into an intriguing film by Italian diva, Asia Argento in 2004. I even personally was drawn into the LeRoy sphere when I watched the film at the AFI Film Festival that year, with the "author" of the book (which I had never heard of at the time) present, a shy waif hiding behind sunglasses.

    But by 2006, the pop media was full of the fact that young JT LeRoy had been exposed as a middle aged woman named Laura Albert. And the person whom I had witnessed myself as JT LeRoy turned out to be Albert's husband's younger sister. What might have been the simple case of an author disguising herself under a pseudonym, instead became a literary hoax for the ages.

    This fascinating and complicated documentary tells the story of this hoax from the point of view of the real Laura Albert, recounting her life story through home movies, animation, and obsessively taped phone conversations with a gamut of people, some quite famous. All of these reminiscences are intercut with the present day Albert commenting on camera about the hows and whys of her literary rise and fall. It made for a gripping narrative, in sum even more revealing of the psychological makeup of Ms. Albert than she probably intended.

  • Almost Holy

    Almost Holy 2015

    ★★★½ Watched 01 Sep, 2016

    For several years, Gennadiy Mokhnenco has been the embattled pastor of the Pilgrim Republic, an Orthodox church devoted to saving street children in Mariupol, Ukraine. This often inspiring documentary follows the crusading pastor as he energetically pursues his quasi-political ministry, culminating with his battle against the potential Russian takeover of his city. But the meat of the documentary is Gennadiy's struggle to save the kids...from abusive, drunken parents, from drug dependency, and from the gamut of deprivations of a society in ruin. For all the importance of the message, the film itself is organized somewhat confusingly, centering the narrative around a cautionary speech Gennadiy is giving to a group of female prisoners while cutting away to specific stories of needy children presented non-chronologically. Still, the images and stories are powerful indictments of the Ukrainian status quo; and Gennadiy is an authentic hero.

  • The Hollars

    The Hollars 2016

    ★★½ Watched 28 Aug, 2016

    In this wan dramedy, The Hollars were a dysfunctional, middle-American family who came together when the elderly matriarch, Sally (the always wonderful Margo Martindale) was diagnosed with a brain tumor. The story was told from the point of view of the younger son (played by director John Krasinski), returned from self-imposed exile in New York City where his marriage and career were on the rocks. The rest of the family were variously neurotic; but all were dependent on the possibly terminally ill Sally to keep them together. Director Krasinski showed a sympathy with his fellow actors, who made a fine ensemble. But the unoriginal, paint-by-numbers script failed to catch fire.

  • O.J.: Made in America

    O.J.: Made in America 2016

    ★★★★ Watched 26 Aug, 2016

    A 7 1/2 hour slog through the muck which was the life and times of racially divided Los Angeles in the last quarter of the 20th century. Oh, yes, it was also a documentary about a football player, a typically charming sociopath who for a while actually got away with murder.

    It took me 3 days to get through the "film" version on DVD, pausing the recording when it became personally too hard to watch. Not that it was uninteresting...however, there was just only so much tolerance I could muster for watching the familiar story over again after having lived through those times. Some parts of the film were extremely well done. The sequence of the Ford Bronco chase was superbly edited. The final section (after the 2nd intermission...and covering O.J.'s life after the "trial of the century") had revealing material new to me. But 22 years after the verdict in the original trial, the emotional trauma for this white L.A. native still is too raw to process in one indigestible lump. Still, I give great credit to the film makers for bringing it all together so comprehensively.

  • Zero Days

    Zero Days 2016

    ★★★★★ Watched 23 Aug, 2016

    Zero Days is this year's Citizenfour, a documentary that exposes the reality of 21st Century cyber-warfare and should scare the hell out of every viewer. The film starts with the revelation that a mysterious nation state had developed a secret, sophisticated worm virus called "Stuxnet."

    Utilizing state-of-the-art graphics and interviews with disguised whistleblowers on and off camera (and one computer simulated "expert"), filmmaker Gibney relentlessly bored into the truth behind this virus...that it was invented by U.S. intelligence organs to infiltrate and destroy the Iranian nuclear program. And then carelessly released into the world by the Israelis who were partners in this endeavor.

    But as the details became known through the efforts of the anti-virus companies, cyber-warfare among nations turned out to be a frightening reality. And Gibney's film goes there. Stuxnet opened a Pandora's box of dangers that were intended never to see the light of day. Our entire computerized infrastructure, banking, commerce, the electric grid etc. are vulnerable. The implications of this film are explosive. And our government has attempted to classify the entire affair out of public purview.

    Gibson is one brave and perhaps foolhardy filmmaker. But thank god he had the cojones to make this documentary and expose this subject to the light of day. Cyber-warfare needs international treaties similar to those that curbed nuclear proliferation and biologic and chemical warfare. Secrecy is no longer a viable option.

  • The People vs. Fritz Bauer

    The People vs. Fritz Bauer 2015

    ★★★★ Watched 21 Aug, 2016

    Fritz Bauer was a German lawyer, a Jew who spent WWII in Sweden and later Denmark. Upon returning to West Germany after the war he became chief prosecutor for the state of Hesse. Bauer is played by the fine German actor Burghart Klaußner, with a gruff, convincingly stolid mien. This impressive German language procedural film tells the unpublicized at the time story of Bauer's obsession with bringing, among others, Adolf Eichmann to justice...in the face of opposition by entrenched post-war Germans fearful of disclosure of their Nazi pasts. Bauer was a real person, who in an episode a few years later in his life was instrumental in bringing ex-Nazis to justice (a story told in a previous German film Labyrinth of Lies.) This latter film told Bauer's story through the activities of a fictitious assistant prosecutor; and oddly enough, the present film also presents a fictitious assistant prosecutor whose illegal homosexual dalliance with a drag singer was presented as an ethical dilemma for the supposedly gay real-life Bauer. Despite this overly dramatized sub-plot, the actual mechanisms that Bauer used to involve the Israelis in Eichmann's capture makes for fine, suspenseful cinema.

  • Ben-Hur

    Ben-Hur 2016

    ★★½ Watched 21 Aug, 2016

    The action scenes, especially the Ionian Sea battle (and to a lesser extent the culminating chariot race) were extremely well done. The sound design was especially effective, as were the 3D effects. That is obviously why a master craftsman like director Bekmambetov was chosen. However, every time the script delved into the lives of the characters and the saccharine religiosity of the original novel, the film failed to a spectacular degree. On balance, however, it definitely was worth watching on the big screen just to revel in the state-of-the art technical achievements.

  • The Witness

    The Witness 2015

    ★★★ Watched 20 Aug, 2016

    Over 50 years ago, the stabbing death of Kitty Genovese on a Queens, NY street, became a cause célèbre. It started with a New York Times article about 38 onlookers to the murder who did nothing, an exemplar of contemporary urban anomie. The controversy and symbolism has lasted to this day.

    Only, as this documentary showed with almost tedious repetition, the legend was fallacious. The film follows Genovese's younger brother Bill, Viet Nam war paraplegic survivor, as he attempts to uncover and understand what happened that March evening. Many of the people around at that time are dead; but Genovese does find and interview enough survivors to come to some conclusions, and the evening in question is replayed with actors and animation to some good effect. But lacking a big news smoking gun, the film ultimately falls flat.

  • Kubo and the Two Strings

    Kubo and the Two Strings 2016

    ★★★½ Watched 20 Aug, 2016

    The most elaborate, even amazing, use of stop-motion animation ever. The Portland, OR production house Laika utilized 3D printing and computer generated imagery in ways never before attempted to tell this Japanese mythology tinged fantasy epic about a young boy searching for his roots. Give credit to the voice actors, especially Matthew McConaughey and Charlize Theron for bringing their characters, a beetle and a monkey, to life. And nice casting Ralph Fiennes as the ultimate villain, hearkening the specter of Voldemort, which along with the main character's constant use of magic to advance the plot ties this story to the Potter series. However, for all that, the plot is the weakest part of the film, both confusing and predictable. But those visuals...!

I'm A Porn Star
  • I’m A Porn Star 2013

    ★★½ Watched 19 Aug, 2016

    This documentary examines the history of gay pornography, telling the story through interviews with four exemplars of men (straight, gay, bi) who work as porn stars. With an editing schema that can only be described as frenetic, the film covers many aspects of the profitable industry. The film goes to great length to eliminate the possible prurience of its theme, carefully fuzzing out any genitals in its examples of actual porn. With its choice of voluble and personable interviewees, it managed to sanitize to a great degree the sleaze factor of the profession. Anyone looking to get off on the porn factor will be disappointed. However, the film did hold my interest based on its honest examination of a profession that usually remains shrouded in unexamined mystique.

  • Under the Gun

    Under the Gun 2016

    ★★★★½ Watched 19 Aug, 2016

    This documentary comprehensively takes on the NRA with statistics, interviews, superb graphics and incisive persuasiveness. The slick production values are impressive, the emotional power of its examples and interviews is more than effective. In a rational world this would be the coup de grace for the gun lobby, the film is that good. But the undercurrent throughout the film is that this is simply not a cause for rational debate since the powers that be have been systematically corrupted by the NRA. I guess the final message is that only by initiatives in various states will it be possible to get partial control over our firearms policies nationwide. As a moderate leftist and a Californian, I'll admit that the film is preaching to the choir in my case. Yet I guess I ended up feeling that no matter how effective and truthful the message is in a film with such a firmly stated and persuasive point of view, the dispiriting fact is that nothing is going to be achieved towards any kind of rational gun control in my lifetime. I ended up depressed. This documentary is simply too real for its own good.

  • Trapped

    Trapped 2016

    ★★★★½ Watched 19 Aug, 2016

    This is an awesome and effective documentary that tells the stories of embattled abortion clinics and brave, committed practitioners, mostly in the Southern states of Alabama, Mississippi and Texas. It particularly focuses on a Texas law (HB2) that mandated restrictions designed to close clinics; and the legal struggle to overturn that law. The film ended with a spare, white on black title card reading that the Supreme Court was possibly going to decided on the appeal in June, 2016, which immediately led me to a Google search which brought me to tears (as a 75 year old gay male, no matter how pro-choice I am politically, I must admit to failure to keep up with every struggle.) It's a tribute to the quality of every aspect of this film (cinematography, editing, direction, writing) that I became so involved with the subject (abortion) which has only peripherally affected my life. I would gladly award this film 5-stars; but I can't help feeling that it simply ended too soon...that waiting for the actual SCOTUS decision might have made for a slightly better film. Still, bravo! to all involved, especially those caregivers featured in this film, people fighting in the front line trenches, even at risk to their lives, to protect women's rights to control their own bodies.

  • Presenting Princess Shaw

    Presenting Princess Shaw 2016

    ★★★½ Watched 18 Aug, 2016

    Semantha Montgomery was a lonely young lady living in New Orleans with a cell phone. Under the nom de tube of Princess Shaw, she posted frequent You Tube vlogs, including some which featured her singing songs she composed a capella. Meanwhile, a musician living on a kibbutz in Israel, Ophir Kutiel, under the stage name Kutiman, was doing montages of You Tube videos set to music. When Kutiman discovered Princess Shaw's songs on-line, without prior permission he set about to score them instrumentally and create and post the enhanced videos. This documentary covers this process from both sides, leaving the actual chronology somewhat vague. There's much to admire here: Montgomery's blues tinged songs are pretty wonderful, and Kutiel is a fine instrumentalist and video editor in his own right. The feel-good documentary really does feel good, even if it does come off as having manufactured events.

  • The Syndrome

    The Syndrome 2013

    ★★ Watched 18 Aug, 2016

    This is an example of a documentary which has an important message to convey, involving multiple examples of abuses of judicial process. However the film making, photography, editing, music, interview direction etc. is so poor that the message is almost lost in sheer tedium. The subject is the history of "shaken baby syndrome," a form of criminal child abuse; and how scientific evidence has debunked the science of the syndrome, how innocent people have served time in prison for crimes that they didn't commit, and how there is a profit motive for the rabid supporters of this false syndrome (particularly three quack-ish physician perpetrators of the false mythology.) Or at least that is what the film purports to do with testimony of other doctors who have devoted their lives to debunking the syndrome...thereby aiding parents and caregivers who have been falsely accused and often convicted and serving prison sentences for non-crimes (or granted hugely advantageous plea bargains to avoid trials.) All well and good. This is a major issue of vital import. Too bad the film is so poorly made that it makes the cause of perverted justice boring.

  • Nuts!

    Nuts! 2016

    ★★★★ Watched 17 Aug, 2016

    This inventive and entertaining documentary tells the stranger-than-fiction story of "Dr." John Romulus Brinkley, a clever medical quack from Kansas (and later Texas). Brinkley was a pioneer in using radio in the 1920s through the 1940s to sell his snake oil (starting with a cure for impotency involving transplanting goat gonads into humans.) Director Penny Lane utilizes various animation styles, copious old home movies, recordings from the time, and voice actors to recreate Brinkley's rise and fall. It's a tight, smart script about an amazing, little known piece of American history. It all occurred before my time; but I somehow connected to the story when it was disclosed that XTRF, and ubiquitous radio DJ of my youth, Wolfman Jack, were the remnants of Brinkley's radio empire from decades before.

  • My Love, Don't Cross That River

    My Love, Don’t Cross That River 2014

    ★★½ Watched 16 Aug, 2016

    This Korean documentary follows 15 months in the lives of an elderly couple who had been married at least 75 years. Initially it shows their playful, loving relationship in their rural homestead, then delves into their family (12 children, of which 6 survived). Finally it recounts the husband's gradual failing health. The film was shot verité style, with a silent, observing camera. Yet, this viewer never quite was able to shake the feeling that much of the activities were somehow stage managed by the participants. Still, there were moments of honest emotional involvement; and watching the everyday lives of these nonagenarians gave me (at age 75) a cautionary glance at what may be in store in my own future. Yet I had trouble engaging with this couple, accepting their authenticity, being moved by their plight. Your mileage may vary.

  • Florence Foster Jenkins

    Florence Foster Jenkins 2016

    ★★★½ Watched 14 Aug, 2016

    Florence Foster Jenkins was a doyenne of New York society, who famously self-promoted herself as a coloratura singer, despite a singular lack of talent. That is the basis of this tragi-comic period piece, which gets its 1944 era with perfection and contains a trio of superb performances by Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant and especially Simon Helberg (who shines in the role of Jenkins's pianist accompanist with his authentic, live musicianship.) It is a diverting entertainment, watching Streep massacre the music and tug the heartstrings. Kudos to the production design team and the wonderful costumes. All credit to director Frears, who gave the project just the right, light touch of sophistication and frenzy.

  • Hands of Stone

    Hands of Stone 2016

    ★★★★ Watched 14 Aug, 2016

    This involving biopic tells of the early life and career of famed Panamanian boxer Roberto Duran (a powerful performance by Edgar Ramirez.) The script is written from the point of view of 70-ish American Ray Arcel, who became involved with Duran as his trainer, confident and cornerman during much of his career. Arcel was played by Robert De Niro, in his best performance in years...convincingly earnest and emotionally committed. Weirdly enough, in this role De Niro is playing a real-life character that mirrors the fictional elderly Rocky Balboa that Stallone played in the recent film Creed...and the two roles represent high points in their respective careers (recall De Niro's own boxing film triumph, Raging Bull which parallels Stallone's Rocky.)

    The current film absolutely joins the handful of really great boxing films. Venezuelan director Jakubowicz choreographed the fight scenes with furious authenticity (and his casting of Usher to play Duran's ring antagonist Sugar Ray Leonard was inspired.) Duran's career arc, mostly spanning the early 1970s, was just idiosyncratic enough to be surprising and unpredictable, which adds to the appeal of the film. But most of all, this is a character-driven drama, with a flawed, yet inspiring hero. Highly recommended.

  • Anthropoid

    Anthropoid 2016

    ★★★ Watched 13 Aug, 2016

    This is a reasonably accurate accounting of an important event in WWII that has had scant coverage in film lore (although I knew about it): the assassination of the Butcher of Prague, Rudyard Heydrich. It was carried out by Czech paratroopers sent from the government in exile in London, two of which were played rather low-key by Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan. The action is rousing enough, although the editing during the actual assassination itself is confusing. But the film has two major flaws that bothered me. First, the script was paint by numbers mechanical...insert romance here; time for treachery here, shoot-em-up here etc. Second: maybe it is time to re-invent the filmic convention of having anglophone actors use ridiculously obvious accents when representing foreigners in movies. In this film the Germans spoke German without subtitles, while the Czechs (including the paratroopers) spoke heavily accented English. It didn't work for me, constantly reminding me of the film's artificiality, for the sake of anglophone box-office. Oh, well. The film got its gung-ho, heroic, albeit retro message across...so it is what it is.

  • The Music of Strangers

    The Music of Strangers 2015

    ★★½ Watched 13 Aug, 2016

    In the year 2000, cellist Yo Yo Ma founded a workshop at Tanglewood devoted to ethnic music and musicians. That group was eventually transformed into the Silk Road Ensemble. This documentary follows that group in concerts around the world, sometime in ad hoc street corner get togethers, other times in concert situations. But it also tells the story of some of the musicians, from as disparate places as Syria, Iran, China, Galacia, Japan and the U.S. The film is earnest, the music is fun to watch. But other than its feel-good ecumenical content, it didn't have much of an effect on me.

  • Mavis!

    Mavis! 2015

    ★★★½ Watched 12 Aug, 2016

    Somehow I missed knowing much about Mavis Staples, youngest member of the Staples Singers, a family singing group that bridged the genres of gospel and blues in the decades following the late 1950s. From watching this entertaining bio documentary, I'm sorry I missed out. Mavis does intersect with some more famous stars in the film: Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, The Band, Prince. However, the revelations about her innovative guitar/singer dad, Pops Staples, and Mavis's recent career resurgence in her 70s make some very entertaining viewing.

  • Marinoni: The Fire in the Frame

    Marinoni: The Fire in the Frame 2015

    ★★★ Watched 11 Aug, 2016

    Giuseppe Marinoni is a French Canadian bicycle maker from Quebec. He grew up in an Italian town north of Milan known for its bicycle racing; and he himself raced as a young man. In this documentary Marinoni reluctantly allows young filmmaker Girardin to follow him around as he welds bike frames and trains to beat the over-75 world record for a one-hour solo bike race. The film is something of a slog. Marinoni is a curmudgeon who only gradually thaws on camera. However, his driven quest which culminates in a trip to his Italian homeland to set the world record gathers steam as the film progresses. Ultimately it is a triumph of the human spirit. Too bad the film took too long to get there.

  • Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures

    Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures 2016

    ★★★★ Watched 10 Aug, 2016

    This often fascinating documentary tells of the life and works of the world-class, obsessive, and controversial art photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. He was a gay icon, whose work broke boundaries of S&M imagery...but that was only a small portion of his entire oeuvre, which is exhaustively shared with the viewer. The film also delves into his personal life through interviews with people close to him: family, models, ex-lovers, not all of them fans of his. Much of this material is prurient on the surface; but provides an insightful view into the late 20th century New York art scene (and the decimation of that community by AIDS) that is groundbreaking for its veracity and frankness. The film is occasionally hard to watch; but it is an important document about a period of time that has mostly existed in the shadows of rumor and innuendo. [A personal note: I never met the man; but I had a close, first degree contact with him. I can personally attest to the accuracy of much of the scandalous content of this film.]

  • Look at Us Now, Mother!

    Look at Us Now, Mother! 2016

    ★★★ Watched 09 Aug, 2016

    This brutally honest personal diary type of documentary tells of the lifelong relationship between artist/filmmaker Gayle Kirschenbaum and her stereotypical nudge of a Jewish mother, Mildred. Normally, such a self-indulgent film might be a waste of time. After all, I, too, had a Jewish mother. But even though, like Gayle, I have hours of 8mm home movies from my childhood, and I'm a documentary filmmaker myself, I would never have the chutzpah to air my family's dirty laundry on film. However, Mildred Kirschenbaum, today an outspoken nonagenarian, is worth the celluloid spent on her. She's a lovable (sort of) monster who has retained all her marbles; and there is much to admire about the way that her filmmaker daughter makes peace with her mother through a thorough examination of Mildred's past, including her parent's marriage, and her two older brothers' points of view of the family dynamic. However, I found the entire process painful to watch.

  • Life, Animated

    Life, Animated 2016

    ★★★★½ Watched 07 Aug, 2016

    At the age of three, Owen Suskind (whose father Ron is a well-known journalist) disappeared into incommunicado autism. This beautiful and touching documentary chronicles one family's process of overcoming such a traumatic experience. Owen was eventually able to start communicating through subsuming Disney cartoon movies into his reality. Utilizing original animation, pointed excerpts from Disney films, and years of fly-on-the-wall, reality TV style cinematic coverage of Owen's and his family's lives, the film presents a fully integrated view of how severe autism can be attacked and ameliorated. Owen is like the poster man-child of autism; but this film actually gets beneath the surface of his disability and presents a three dimensional person. Nicely done.

  • The Last Man on the Moon

    The Last Man on the Moon 2014

    ★★★★ Watched 06 Aug, 2016

    Eugene Cernan was an astronaut who took three trips into space in the 1960s and 1970s. This documentary tells his life story, mostly from the point of view of the in-shape, committed octogenarian that he is today. The film is filled with enough excellent historical footage and present day reminiscences of the space program (by those involved that are still alive) to be consistently interesting and involving. Cernan performed the first walk in space in the Gemini program, circumnavigated the moon in Apollo 10, and then walked on and explored the lunar surface during the last American trip there with Apollo 17. That is enough material to successfully carry any documentary, especially for the many viewers who weren't alive during the moonwalk era. But the film isn't solely devoted to history. In becoming at the end a personal, and often rueful meditation by today's Cernan on his life and mission, the film presented a perplexing mixed message. Maybe that added depth to the film; but for me it lost some of its edge.

  • Suicide Squad

    Suicide Squad 2016

    ★★★ Watched 06 Aug, 2016

    A comic book flick like this doesn't have to make any sense...and this one especially doesn't. That said, it's loud, action filled, has an interesting cast that didn't phone it in (mostly), has a dynamite score of songs that are from my era, and to top it off I loved the main titles. Did I say it didn't make a lick of sense? Who cares! I'm not a concerned fanboy; and at least I wasn't bored.

  • Keepers of the Game

    Keepers of the Game 2016

    ★★★ Watched 05 Aug, 2016

    Lacrosse has been for centuries a game sacred to the Iroquois native Americans that invented it. Only for them it is a sacrilege for girls to play the game reserved as a male rite. This documentary tells of a public school in Mohawk country...home of the Salmon River Shamrocks, in a predominately native reservation area of upstate New York. In 2015, despite the lack of phys ed funds, the school mounted a girl's lacrosse team made up predominately of native Americans. The film follows the lives of several of these girls and their families, along with a running filmed record of their memorable season. It joins a familiar series of uplifting sports documentaries...and in some ways the success final film depends totally on the luck of picking the right team in the right year. No spoilers; but rest assured that there is an emotional payoff to the otherwise pretty ordinary documentary.

  • Jim: The James Foley Story

    Jim: The James Foley Story 2016

    ★★★★ Watched 03 Aug, 2016

    It isn't a spoiler to reveal that after several months of captivity by ISIS, American journalist Jim Foley was executed by shadowy terrorists on the internet. Fortunately this documentary film doesn't replay the grizzly conclusion of that scene. But the Foley story, a story of an all-American family, a foolhardy, risk-taking hero, an unquenchable spirit in captivity...that is a story worth telling.

    The film itself is somewhat unbalanced. The first half, which contains ample visual materials including home movies, Foley's journalistic videos from Libya and Syria, and interviews with family and friends, is pretty ordinary stuff. Good looking, unfocused boy finds purpose in risking his life as an independent war correspondent. Ordinary stuff, repetitious and even a little boring. Then he is kidnapped by unknown terrorists (at the beginning of the ISIS insurgency), and held captive, effectively incommunicado for almost two years. There is no filmed record of that time...only the harrowing and moving testimony of his fellow captive journalists who were somehow released before Foley's execution, told in interviews and some clumsy, darkly lit re-creations with stand ins. Yet the second half becomes a transcendent and moving testament to human resilience. A little judicious editing of the biography half, and this film could win the Oscar.

  • The Infiltrator

    The Infiltrator 2016

    ★★★½ Watched 31 Jul, 2016

    The is a tense, inside look at how the FBI busted the international banking conspiracy to launder money for the Medellin drug cartel, using undercover agents with fake identities. The threat to these agents was real...the cartel was ruthless when crossed. Cranston is fine at showing what a great real-life undercover agent Walter White would have made. The plot is complex and believably authentic, with even the evil drug lords and bankers having a human element that almost arouses sympathy...except for what they did behind closed doors. However, around two-thirds of the way through the film I had to check my watch...an indication that the story wasn't as gripping as it might have been.

  • How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can't Change

    How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change 2016

    ★★★★ Watched 01 Aug, 2016

    Filmmaker Josh Fox travels to the ends of the world to prove his climate change warrior bonafides in this informative (if slightly overlong) documentary. He starts out in his native Delaware River homeland decrying the death by beetle of the tree he planted years earlier (beetles that are being implacably driven north by global warming.) From there his filmed travels take him to New York City devastated by Hurricane Sandy, the Amazon, Iceland, Australia, China, and the imperiled Pacific islands to show the effects of global warming, and illustrate how people are attempting to cope around the world. Fox becomes personally involved in the film, both as narrator, witness and participant (along with his banjo and dancing shoes) in the struggle against the environmental damage of under-regulated coal use and fracking. The China segment, where he had to literally hide the damning video disks from the authorities, was particularly effective and scary. The film is skillfully shot and edited. Sure, it's yet another in a long, exhausting series of environmental disaster documentaries. Maybe one day the message will get through...if it actually isn't already hopeless.

  • Jason Bourne

    Jason Bourne 2016

    ★★★½ Watched 30 Jul, 2016 1

    As mindless and nihilistic a script as they come. Yet the action is so furious, the editing so skillful that all I could do was watch the screen mouth agape. In the ever escalating race to top every previous automobile chase...the culminating scene wins first prize. But I would really like to have had one cutaway to an innocent victim in one of the 170 wrecked vehicles on the Las Vegas strip. For sure they were all gamblers who lost their final bet. However, in the final analysis, just watching a summer action flick with a modicum of smarts despite the hyper-violence merits 3 1/2 stars. Or zero stars. I guess it's just up to my mood at the moment; and tonight I'd like to punch Donald Trump in the face with Jason Bourne's fists. So 3 1/2.

  • Looking: The Movie

    Looking: The Movie 2016

    ★★★★ Watched 24 Jul, 2016

    The superbly realistic gay HBO series gets a welcome, if grudging, final send-off with this TV movie. I was disappointed that the series wasn't picked up for another full season...but thankful that we got an additional hour-and-a-half with these characters. Sure, Andrew Haigh movies are more talk than "action" filled. But, frankly I love his realistic dialogue scenes. And his actors, for the most part (how wonderful is Jonathan Groff here!), do justice to the lines. The criticisms I've heard from my gay friends (among them San Franciscans) is that these characters don't represent their kind of gay men. Well, I may be almost 50 years older than these characters...but to me they are absolutely familiar and identifiable as people I know (and would like to know.) The personal stories in this film pale in interested compared to the humanity and realism of the characters. Maybe that is why this isn't the perfect gay TV movie. But it is better than we probably deserve.

  • Star Trek Beyond

    Star Trek Beyond 2016

    ★★ Watched 23 Jul, 2016

    Justin Lin is an action director without an ounce of subtlety, only a smidgen better than the tone-deaf Michael Bay in developing characters that are deeper than caricatures. This is a film of relentless bombast, somewhat saved by its technology. Yet even here, the unrealistic models and unbelievable physics which has plagued Trek from the start were annoying, and in this case not redeemed by any optimism of a livable future. OK, I've vented my spleen. I've watched all the Trek films, understand the mythos. But honestly, I found myself bored about three-quarters of the way through, after experiencing so many genre clichés and predictable plot developments. The film mostly looked realistic...the 3D special effects were mostly fine. But I guess I'm just too old and jaded to be transported by such a simplistic revenge and nick-of-time-heroics plot.

  • Captain Fantastic

    Captain Fantastic 2016

    ★★★★★ Watched 23 Jul, 2016

    A father takes his family of six children off the grid into the Washington State wilderness, where they must deal with the consequences of their bi-polar wife and mother's suicide. That's the capsule synopsis of this timely and deeply affecting drama. But it doesn't even come close to describing the intellectual challenge and emotional turmoil the film engendered in this viewer. Is the father (by the way, a brave and altogether perfect characterization of an updated and idealized hippie by Viggo Mortensen) an irresponsible child abuser? Or is he the epitome of the 21st century free man, imbuing in his children the ideal mechanisms for survival in a world despoiled by consumerism? This capsule review cannot possibly delve into the way the film resolves the dichotomy of those questions. Let's just say that the film reached me on an emotional level that few films ever have. It's gorgeous, it's timely, it illuminates the current culture with brutal truthfulness. I don't hand out 5-stars to fiction films very often (I'm pretty sure this is the first such film this year); and I do so only when a film deeply affects me on a visceral level for good or for bad. And when a film manages to do both at the same time maybe it deserves six stars.

  • Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words

    Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words 2016

    ★★★★ Watched 21 Jul, 2016

    This entertaining documentary follows the career of iconoclastic rock star Frank Zappa. The film (presented in standard 4X3 format) is comprised of roughly chronological TV interviews with Zappa, along with some very rare performance videos of the "Mothers of Invention" in action, along with Zappa's forays as an atonal classical music composer with mainly British orchestras. I was never particularly a fan of Zappa during his career; and this film proves that I was dead wrong. Not only was he an outspoken observer of the culture that proved to be eerily prescient...but his creative output also turns out to have been ahead of his time and genius level. I regret I didn't catch on back then; but I appreciate it that this film has given me the chance to make amends. Based on the subject matter I could easily have rated this film higher; however there is a lot of thematic repetition in the interview portions. The film could have been edited tighter. But maybe it took a German filmmaker to provide such insight into a musician that was so under-appreciated in this own country and era.

  • Be Here Now

    Be Here Now 2015

    ★★★½ Watched 19 Jul, 2016

    Andy Whitfield was a struggling Welsh actor living in Sydney when he was cast as Spartacus in the STARZ American TV series. 39 years old, married, with two young children, and at a promisingly successful point in his career, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. This long, well edited documentary, organized as a personal diary, tells the story of his years long fight against the disease. He was initially told that it had an 80% survival rate, given that he was strong and in good shape. The course of treatment would be chemotherapy followed by a stem-cell transplant. What ensued was a tortuous, agonizing view of a man and his family living and coping with illness through pluck and a philosophy of "Be Here Now." It's not an easy film to watch; but Whitfield's courage and his beautiful family are worthy subjects. Because of Whitfield's celebrity, it isn't a spoiler to disclose that ultimately he lost his final battle. However, the film handles this outcome tastefully, and manages somehow to make a positive statement out of tragedy.

  • The First Monday in May

    The First Monday in May 2016

    ★★½ Watched 17 Jul, 2016

    The first Monday in May refers to the date that super-exhibits are opened and celebrity-rich charity events are thrown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. This documentary tells the story of the 2015 event, an immense exhibition of fashion and art that somehow connected with China called "China: Through the Looking Glass." The film extensively covers the frenetic preparations taking place over months...featuring Vogue luminaries (the magazine sponsored the party) and overall artistic director of the show Wong Kar Wei. However, the plodding, unimaginative editing structure (featuring interviews, poorly edited meetings, and endless montages of pop glitterati attending the party) made me appreciate all the more how much better a similar subject was handled as cinema vérité in Frederick Wiseman's National Gallery. The costumes were spectacular, however, almost worth watching the film and certainly made me regret missing the exhibit.

  • Eva Hesse

    Eva Hesse 2016

    ★★★½ Watched 16 Jul, 2016

    Eva Hesse was a modernist artist/sculptor. This traditional biographical documentary follows her life from her Jewish childhood in Germany (she and her older sister were two of the last children sent to Holland in the kindertransport!). The film continues more or less chronologically and informatively through her fruitful artistic phase in the 1960s, to her untimely, premature death in the 1970s. Hesse has been undergoing a career resurgence lately; but her large, amorphous sculptures of mixed materials are hard to film (and not to my personal taste.) Still, this glimpse into Hesse's life and art is a valuable resource and a fine tribute to an an artist who certainly deserves recognition.

  • Café Society

    Café Society 2016

    ★★★★ Watched 16 Jul, 2016

    With impeccable production design and an excellent cast, this most recent Woody Allen film is probably my recent favorite. Especially notable: Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart have authentic chemistry...the last, wistful scene featuring an amazing dissolve is simply awesome. And kudos to the location scout...really pegged L.A. in the 1930s. One cavil: Woody's narration was annoying. But despite all odds, the film played young and fresh. How does he do it?

  • The Brainwashing of My Dad

    The Brainwashing of My Dad 2015

    ★★★★½ Watched 15 Jul, 2016

    This delightfully partisan (but totally realistic) documentary uses personal filmed anecdotes, interviews with experts, graphics and examples to illustrate how Fox News and the vast conservative conspiracy of talk radio brainwashed the filmmaker's elderly father (and by extension many similar Americans.) It has a happy ending (deprogramming by natural means); but I don't expect that the film would appeal to the people most in need of watching it. I've never been able to stomach watching even a minute of Fox News (and Limbaugh and his ilk made me retch whenever I stumbled upon them while twiddling my car radio dial). So I'm a member of the choir this film is preaching to. But it felt really good to watch and listen to the examples of institutional brainwashing by the media without guilt or fear of being entrapped by such tactics. Yay me!

  • The Legend of Tarzan

    The Legend of Tarzan 2016

    ★★★ Watched 09 Jul, 2016

    Good enough for a diverting, retro couple of hours, with some ok special effects and a great score which raises hackles. The raised-by-apes back story told in flashbacks still works, even if the main story of fighting despoiling Belgian colonialism makes no sense historically or dramatically. Alexander Skarsgard makes an ideal Lord Graystoke ne Tarzan; but Christophe Waltz's stock, mustache-curling, villain characterization needs a retooling. However, just as with the failed retro action flick John Carter of Mars, updating Edgar Rice Burroughs is a losing proposition. Even bringing 19th century geopolitics, colonialism and slavery into the forefront does not make the film relevant to a modern audience.

  • The Fundamentals of Caring

    The Fundamentals of Caring 2016

    ★★★½ Watched 06 Jul, 2016

    Ben is man living through a midlife crisis (he blames himself for the death of his child and subsequent divorce proceedings.) He decides on a career change, passing a course to become a caregiver; and then is hired to effectively wipe the butt of Trevor, a bitter and sarcastic youth severely disabled with muscular dystrophy. That is the set-up for an off-center, wryly comic relationship drama that turns into a somewhat predictable road trip. The film depends on the central relationship of Ben and Trevor, respectively played by the superb Paul Rudd and young Welsh actor Craig Roberts (previously notable in the British indie film Submarine.) Since both performances are spot on perfect (along with a sardonic turn by Selena Gomez as runaway hitch-hiker), this Netflix original feature film is definitely worth watching.

  • Becoming Mike Nichols

    Becoming Mike Nichols 2016

    ★★★★ Watched 06 Jul, 2016

    Celebrated stage and film director Mike Nichols sat down and reminisced about his early career with his literate colleague Jack O'Brien, both in front of a theatrical audience and just the two of them. The two conversations were then intercut into one fascinating and informative narrative. Eschewing the biographical documentary form, the film falls somewhere between a conversation - something like My Dinner with Andre - and a Q&A session with an aging, but still sharp, celebrity. The conversation was limited to Nichol's early life and career, from his improvisational collaboration with Elaine May to his first theatrical and cinematic directorial achievements, with frequent insertion of illustrative filmed and video excerpts (comedy sketches, his first play, "Barefoot in the Park," and early films like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and The Graduate.) [personal note: I happened to be working as an assistant editor on another project at the Goldwyn Studio when that latter film was in post-production, and stumbled into one of the scoring and dubbing sessions...as close as I ever came to being in the same room as Nichols, though I didn't actually encounter Simon & Garfunkel, who were my heroes at the time .] Bottom line: spending time with Nichols just before his untimely passing was an unmitigated pleasure.

  • Independence Day: Resurgence

    Independence Day: Resurgence 2016

    ★★★ Watched 25 Jun, 2016

    It isn't as bad as it could have been. I checked my critical faculties at the theater door and just enjoyed the ride. Subtract a star for a totally lame-ass script which contained every alien attack cliché in the book. Add the star back in tribute to the 15,000 peons who worked on the more than adequate special effects. Still, 3-stars is too generous. I'm only rating it thus because Liam Hemsworth is so pretty and Travis Tope, who plays the obligatory comic relief sidekick, kept me wondering throughout the movie: who is this guy?

Maggie's Plan
  • Maggie’s Plan 2015

    ★★★★ Watched 22 Jun, 2016

    Maggie has a history of quickly losing interest in relationships with men. So she hatches a plan to find a sperm donor and raise the child as a single mother. Only she falls for an unhappily married man; and her "plan" goes farcically awry. Gretta Gerwig plays Maggie with her usual off-beat persona (smart, but slightly ditzy). The married man, a college professor and novelist wannabe, is played by Ethan Hawke, who has proved in recent Linklater films that he is great at delivering verbal comedy dialog with the best of them. Julianne Moore is simply wonderful as the spurned ex-wife, Georgette: foreign born college prof whose accent is somewhere between Teutonic and lisp. What results is an old-fashioned screwball romantic comedy with a 21st century sensibility, great dialog and a tone-perfect acting ensemble (including Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph as the obligatory best friends, and Travis Fimmel as the savant potential sperm donor.) Writer/director Rebecca Miller proves to be adept at turning the clichés of the genre into something clever and fresh.

  • Now You See Me 2

    Now You See Me 2 2016

    ★½ Watched 22 Jun, 2016

    If, like me, you enjoyed the original...skip this confusing, overlong and patently ridiculous sequel at all cost. I do like the actors; but watching them struggle with a plot that totally defies belief is painful.

  • The Neon Demon

    The Neon Demon 2016

    ★★½ Watched 19 Jun, 2016 1

    I'm a huge Refn fanboy...ever since being stunned by the Pusher trilogy at a film festival a few years ago. His films are transgressive, his direction fearless. He has arguably the most developed visual sense of any living director, along with a deep understanding of the evil tendencies of the male psyche at its breaking point (for instance Bronson and Only God Forgives.) The Neon Demon exhibits all of Refn's talents...it's gorgeous to watch, eerie and creepy. However, this is Refn's first film that I've watched which is female centered; and the man's apparently innate misogyny is here front and centered. And honestly, it was just too much for me to take. I didn't walk...Refn is too mesmerizing a talent to walk out on. But I left the theater feeling shaken and somehow unclean. I guess that's the mark of greatness, in a way.

  • Genius

    Genius 2016

    ★★★★ Watched 18 Jun, 2016

    Thomas Wolfe was my favorite author when I was a teenager in the 1950s. His sprawling novels (written 20-years earlier) spoke to me the way I imagine that David Foster Wallace possibly speaks to today's youths (although all I really know about Wallace is from the recent film End of the Tour, so I may be off-base.) However Genius is not really about Tom Wolfe. Rather it is a vividly evocative biopic about his relatively obscure editor at Scribner's, Max Perkins, who also edited the works of such immortal American authors as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. But make no mistake, the core of the film is actually about the surrogate father-son relationship between the unquenchably incandescent author and his staid, family man mentor.

    Colin Firth as the elderly Perkins is steady as a rock, hiding his usual fire under an intellectual bushel. But it is Jude Law's over-the-top (yet controlled, even charismatic) performance as Wolfe that lights up the screen. Amazingly, this literate and beautifully written script managed to make the process of editing a novel into a fascinating vocation. I guess it helps that Wolfe was the consummate enfant terrible of his time (today's television talk shows would have eaten him up.) The film briefly digresses into the tragic story of Scott Fitzgerald (a remarkable supporting performance by Guy Pearce); and takes us into the world of Wolfe's rich, married patron and lover played by Nicole Kidman. But Wolfe himself, the barely controlled genius, is the heart and soul of the film. If the film inspires a renewed interest in this great, but today almost forgotten, author, it will have done a huge service to literature.

  • Diary of a Chambermaid

    Diary of a Chambermaid 2015

    ★★½ Watched 18 Jun, 2016

    Léa Seydoux gives a subtle, even anachronistically modern, mien to this 19th century French chambermaid, a girl whose beauty and pretended servility disguised her guile. The story tells, in a confusingly fractured timeline, how she interacted with a variety of bourgeois families...especially one with a lecherous old master and his termagant wife. But for me, her most interesting liaison was with the terminally ill grandson of one of her clients (played by Vincent Lacoste, who is an up and coming ingenu), although the crux of the drama is her fateful relationship with a taciturn, anti-Semitic footman (Vincent Lindon). The period film had great costumes and production design; but I couldn't engage with the characters or the story.

  • Last Cab to Darwin

    Last Cab to Darwin 2015

    ★★★★ Watched 12 Jun, 2016

    70-something Rex (Michael Caton) is a cab driver living in the town of Broken Hill, in the Australian desert outback. He's white; but has a somewhat more than casual relationship with his Aborigine neighbor lady. Upon being diagnosed with terminal cancer, Rex decides to drive the 3,000 km. route to Darwin, where a doctor (familiar actress Jacki Weaver) has become famous for fighting to be able to perform assisted suicides. That is the set-up for an amusing and inventive road trip where the crotchety old man meets up with a series of adventures and interesting companions. Especially vivid were a young English nurse on hiatus working as a bar-maid in Alice Springs - and an ingratiating Aborigine, a rowdy, alcoholic, ex-rugby player, out for adventure (a star-making turn by young Mark Coles Smith).

    Yes, this is another "dying of cancer" film, at least the fifth movie with that theme I've watched recently. But this film was done with such humor and realistic humanism that it was one of the true highlights of the year, and a great way to end my six weeks-long, 109 film orgy of total immersion into the varied cinematic worlds on view at the Seattle International Film Festival.

  • 11:55

    11:55 2016

    ★★★½ Watched 12 Jun, 2016

    At the start of this well written and involving American indie film, Nelson (Victor Almanzar) is a marine sergeant, just returned home to the small town barrio of Holyoak, MA from serving in Iraq. Turns out he originally enlisted to escape the consequences of an Hispanic gangland self-defense shooting. But upon his return, he discovers that the past, in the form of his victim's brother, is coming for him on the 11:55PM bus bent on vengeance. His friends and former gang members refuse to come to his aid (except for a wheel-chair riding former marine buddy played by the always reliable John Leguizamo.)

    I believe that the film sets out to be an updated version of the famous 1952 Gary Cooper western High Noon (seems to me that the 11:55 title and constant use of clocks to show the same-day passage of time are clear references.) However, the film makers were intent on subverting the usual western genre tropes, mainly the inevitable shoot-em-out. That was the factor that raised this well acted film to semi-classic status.

  • News from planet mars

    News from planet mars 2016

    ★★½ Watched 11 Jun, 2016

    This dark French farce tells the story of Philippe Mars, divorced from his TV news reporter ex- and father of two surly and difficult teenage kids. When the ex-wife must absent herself to cover an EU crisis in Brussels, Philippe is left with the kids, along with his impulsive sister, and a literally crazy work colleague...all jumbled together by happenstance in his chaotic apartment. The plot is complex and increasingly unlikely as Philippe's life falls apart. François Damiens struggled heroically with the lead role; but the quirky script did him no favors.

  • Frank & Lola

    Frank & Lola 2016

    ★★ Watched 11 Jun, 2016

    Frank is a middle-age man obsessively involved with his younger girlfriend, Lola. They have recently settled in Las Vegas. He is the jealous type; and she has masochistic sexual tendencies. That is the set-up for a psycho-sexual thriller that has all the trappings of film noir with that genre's murky cinematography, but no feeling for the dark reality of the characters' personas. Much of the film's failure for me was due to the casting of Michael Shannon as Frank. He is a fine actor, with a deep aura of mystery in most of his films. But he simply lacks the charisma of a romantic lead character. And as alluring as Imogen Poots is physically as Lola, she is no vamp...her clean-cut American look played against her sexually screwed up character. The chemistry between the two leads just didn't exist. And the film, despite its noirish look and rich production design, just felt totally inauthentic.

  • Amama

    Amama 2015

    ★★★½ Watched 11 Jun, 2016

    The setting of this family drama is Basque country of northern Spain, among sylvan farmland near San Sebastian. The Basque tradition has always been that the oldest child inherits all the land; but increasingly, the inheritor has become a matter of choice...in the case of this land-rich farming family a choice made by the elderly grandmother, who ruled with steely silence. When the eldest son opts to escape his heritage, the future responsibility falls on Amama, the artistic middle daughter (the younger son is considered a wastrel.) That is the set-up for a drama of conflict...tradition vs. modernity. The film is gorgeously shot, and makes great use of Amama's sensitive artistry as she illustrates her photographic skills in a one-woman art exhibition. However, I just couldn't engage emotionally with the characters. So as much as I admired aspects of the film making, the plot seemed contrived and the pacing so lugubrious that I lost interest before the somewhat predictable outcome.

  • The General

    The General 1926

    ★★★★ Watched 11 Jun, 2016

    This is a classic 1926 Buster Keaton silent comedy that somehow I had never watched before. It was presented with an amazingly pristine B&W print and a wonderful new symphonic score (complete with orchestral "sound effects" and familiar American folksong motifs) by Studio Ghibli composer Joe Hisaishi. I was impressed by the sheer scope of the Civil War production...cast of thousands of men and horses, vintage trains. The slapstick comedy seemed a little antiquated; but occasionally struck my funny bone. And there were some uncomfortable moments of pro-Confederacy propaganda that really seem dated for the 21st Century (cf. Griffith's Birth of a Nation). Still, I understand why this has remained a cinematic classic...the film making and humorous, clever stunts hold up quite well.

  • Holding the Man

    Holding the Man 2015

    ★★★★½ Watched 10 Jun, 2016

    Tim (Ryan Corr) and John (Craig Scott) became friends while attending a Jesuit high school in Melbourne, Australia in the mid-1970s. Tim was the the artistic type, an aspiring actor introduced in the film playing the role of Paris in a school performance of "Romeo and Juliet." John was a shy rugby star at school, from a pious Catholic family led by his stern father (Anthony LaPaglia). Tim's father, on the other hand (Guy Pearce) was more liberal and accepting when the two boys fell in love and formed a lasting bond.

    The film is adapted from the apparently well-known actor Tim Conigrave's memoir of living through the AIDS years, watching his lover die of the disease, and eventually dying himself at 34 years of age in 1994. I'm sorry if the bare bones of the story is something of a spoiler; but this moving film is really not plot centered. Rather it is arguably the most realistic depiction ever put on film of the personal consequences of living with AIDS before medicine started to saving victims in 1996. [On a personal level, it is hard for me to be objective about this film. I can only say that everything about this film: script, acting, music, watching a loved one die...were eerily resonant with my own experiences, a kind of déja vu that only great art can provide.]

    Not that the film was flawless, being overly sentimental at times. And one could quibble with the editorial scheme which was somewhat disorienting as it skipped around the time line strangely. But the film depicted its milieu with absolute truth and sensitivity, that I can attest to from experience. The two lead actors were superb on every level, portraying love, sexuality, sickness and their inner life and turmoil brilliantly. Add in the first class production values, and the ambitious scope of the concept, and this film is simply the definitive AIDS drama, on a par or superior to any previous such film.

  • Americana 2016

    ★★ Watched 10 Jun, 2016

    A film editor (stalwart David Call) and his sister (Kelli Garner), while driving on a deserted San Francisco road, accidentally kill a child and perhaps unknowingly drive on (the film here and elsewhere is maddeningly non-specific about details.) The trauma and its consequence drive him to alcoholism and the solitude of a remote mountain cabin...at least until he is offered a job by a movie producer friend (Jack Davenport) to re-cut the troubled film "Americana" that stars his sister. He has been given a chance for redemption; but other dark factors are at play. That is the essential set-up for this murky drama that was for me, at least, too enigmatic and pointless to enjoy.

  • Claire in Motion 2016

    ★★★½ Watched 10 Jun, 2016

    Clair (a strong performance from "Breaking Bad" actress Betsy Brandt) is a math professor at the University of Ohio. Her husband, also a professor, leaves one morning on a wilderness survival hike, and then disappears...leaving Clair and her young son Connor (Zev Haworth) in limbo. Is he dead? Was this a planned runaway? That is the set up for this character driven drama, as Clair gradually learns that she really didn't know a lot about her husband's life that he had kept from her. The enigmatic script was quite good at keeping the audience in suspense while staying true to the characterizations.

  • Being 17

    Being 17 2016

    ★★★★½ Watched 09 Jun, 2016

    Damien is a sensitive high school student, living with his physician mother and mostly absent soldier father. At the outset of the film he seems to have a fixation on a fellow student, Thomas, a dairy farmer's son living precariously in a small remote farm in the high, French Pyrenee mountains. However, Thomas becomes combative under Damien's gaze, and the two become enemies at least for a while. That is the set-up for a beautifully made gay coming-of-age story. Damien is played by teen-age Kacey Mottet Klein, who as a kid actor stole the 2008 movie Home from Isabelle Huppert, and here just about repeats that feat with his interplay with the fine actress playing his mother, Sandrine Kiberlain. Rounding out the cast, the first-time actor Corentin Fila has extraordinary presence playing Thomas.

    I love what the great director André Téchiné did with the relationships in this film, they rang truthful...especially when it got down to the convincing sexual awakening of the boys. Téchiné certainly isn't afraid of male nudity; and the film is refreshingly frank without being particularly prurient. This was for me one of Téchinés most emotionally resonant films.

  • Mountains May Depart

    Mountains May Depart 2015

    ★★★★½ Watched 09 Jun, 2016

    This contemporary character driven drama tells the story of Tao, a clever and pretty young woman living in Fenyang, an industrial town in Northern China. Tao is played by Tao Zhao, the famed director Jia Zhangke's wife and muse. The film is divided into three parts, each shot with expanding aspect ratios. Part one (in the old 4:3 ratio) takes place in 1999, and tells of 19-year old Tao's dilemma of being involved with two men, choosing to marry the one on the capitalist road to wealth, rather than following her heart and going with the the coal miner prole. The consequences of this decision are shown in part two (shot in 16:9 HDTV format) in 2014, when the divorced Tao, a successful business woman, has been separated from her 7-year old son "Dollar," who is living with his rich father and step-mother in Shanghai, but is briefly reunited with his mother for her father's funeral. The third part (in 2.25:1 scope) takes place in 2025 in Australia where the now 20-something son has followed his exiled, wealthy father...but both are beset with alienation, while Tao remains in China, still in touch with her roots.

    The film resonates with authentic characterizations and encapsulates a Chinese society in transition...both at home and in diaspora. I was emotionally moved, totally involved; and by the end of the 131 minute intimate epic film I was so into the story that the unresolved ending left me longing for more.

  • Chicken People 2016

    ★★★ Watched 09 Jun, 2016

    This semi-serious documentary pokes gentle fun at several people whose hobby (and in some cases vocation) is raising and exhibiting pedigree chickens for poultry shows. Their goal is to breed the Super Grand Champion chicken, a perfect specimen according to some arcane 20th century book. Even a feather out of place could disqualify one of these obsessive chicken farmers from achieving their victory. The film makers chose their subjects well, including a young man who is also following his dream to be a jazz singer performer in Branson, MO, a housewife, and a full time poultry farmer. But, honestly, after the amusing concept is introduced, there simply isn't enough interesting material to sustain a feature documentary. The film seems padded, and overlong.

  • Middle Man

    Middle Man 2016

    ★★ Watched 09 Jun, 2016

    Lenny (Jim O'Heir) is a middle aged momma's boy from Peoria, an accountant who aspires to be a stand-up comedian. When his mother dies, he sets off on a road trip to Las Vegas in the '53 Olds that he inherits...to live his dream. Only Lenny is about as funny as cancer. Anyway, on this trip he encounters a psychotic hitchhiker (Andrew J. West, vividly satanic here); and the film becomes a repetitive, darkly comic noir that is a pale version of early Coen Bros. films like Blood Simple, with a plentiful body count of senseless murders. Although funny at times, the film was too distasteful to even be considered a guilty pleasure.

  • Sand Storm

    Sand Storm 2016

    ★★★★ Watched 08 Jun, 2016

    Layla is a young Bedouin woman living in the Lebanese desert. She is being somewhat spoiled and allowed to attend university by her doting, if traditional father (who is in the process of taking a second wife, a rebuff to Layla's strong mother and first wife.) When it is accidentally outed that Layla is seeing a boy from another tribe while at school, she is forbidden by her parents to ever see him again. But Layla is a strong, modern young girl; and how she deals with this situation makes for compelling drama with chilling consequences.

  • Arianna

    Arianna 2015

    ★★★½ Watched 08 Jun, 2016

    The eponymous Arianna is 19, with budding breasts but slow to become a menstruating woman despite the application of daily hormone patches. Her parents are sympathetic; but Arianna suspects that something is wrong with her that is being withheld. Going against her physician father, Arianna sets out to find the solution of her sexual mystery. Italian actress Odina Quadri is ideal for the role: feminine enough, but also physically boyish. Early on, the script gives away to a knowing audience any mystery or suspense about Arianna. Still, the subject is so sensitively handled that we care about her.

  • L'odeur de la mandarine

    L’odeur de la mandarine 2015

    ★★★★ Watched 08 Jun, 2016

    This beautiful and involving romantic drama took place in northern France towards the end of WWI in early 1918. The sound of artillery at the war front can be heard in the distance; but Charles (a strong performance by Olivier Gourmet), a former cavalry captain, has returned to his bucolic horse breeding property after losing a leg in the war. Needing a nurse to aid in healing the stump, he hires young Angèle (luminous Georgia Scalliet), who has a pre-teenage daughter by her dead soldier boyfriend. That is the set-up for an unconventional romantic match-up between two strong individuals whose most compelling reason to get together is a love for racing through forests on beautiful, galloping steeds. The production design is sumptuous and perfect for the period; and the acting ensemble is flawless. I was fascinated by the characters, and the practicality and realism of their war-scarred relationships.

  • La adopción

    La adopción 2015

    ★★★ Watched 08 Jun, 2016

    A Spanish couple fly to Lithuania attempting to adopt a reasonably healthy young child using the corrupt system in place. This film tells the story of their endless bout with red tape and money grubbers. The point of the film was to show how difficult the procedure was, and how stressful it became for the couple's relationship. To that end, the film worked. Still the endless repetition of problem after problem made for one of the longest 96 minutes I've spent in a while.

  • Spy Time

    Spy Time 2015

    ★★★½ Watched 07 Jun, 2016

    This unabashed Spanish spoof of the Bourne and Bond films is just good fun. A father and son battle an evil terrorist escapee from prison and his seemingly endless gang of thugs. The mayhem is inventively shot (thankfully no car chases), and the satire is both pointed and effective. As silly as some of the stunts were, still they were often laugh-out-loud funny and original. This is audience pleasing cinema; and it wouldn't surprise me if the film wins the Golden Space Needle popularity award at this festival, like its predecessor OSS 117, a similar spy spoof with a larger budget, but for me, less amiability.

  • The Mobfathers

    The Mobfathers 2016

    ★★★ Watched 07 Jun, 2016

    The several Hong Kong triads, under the loosening leadership of a dying godfather, go to war to establish the next Dragon Head kingpin. The contest reduces to choosing one of two faction leaders...either Chuck, ex-con, conscientious family man, or Wulf, upstart, vicious (and gay) ex-cop. The gangster gangs are pretty well evenly split come election time, as the mob elders' influence wanes. What ensues is a violent, combative film that I found only occasionally engaging.

  • Coconut Hero

    Coconut Hero 2015

    ★★★★ Watched 07 Jun, 2016

    At the start of this wry comedy, Mike Tyson (no, not the boxer) is a teenage boy, living in a small Ontario town with his nagging mother and absent father. When he fails at a suicide attempt, he discovers to his delight that he has a brain tumor. That is the set-up for a unique and unpredictable coming of age story that vastly benefits from its lead, 23-year old Alex Ozerov, who immigrated from Russia with his family at age 13 (he reminds me of another young Russian immigrant actor, Anton Yelchin...there is a certain fateful Russian mien to both actor's flawless English.) Ozerov nails Tyson's teenage angst; and Elena von Saucken's script is filled with inventive and playful dialogue, which somehow manages to overcome the many plot holes. I loved this film, despite its flaws, leaving the theater with the up-beat message that life is worth living.

  • The Paradise Suite

    The Paradise Suite 2015

    ★★★★½ Watched 06 Jun, 2016

    This amazingly affecting drama tells six stories of people living in the Netherlands, some natives, some foreign. The stories are intricately inter-cut, seemingly unconnected. But the audience is aware that somehow the characters and their dilemmas will eventually meet up. Each story in itself is compelling and could make a separate film. The beautiful, young Bulgarian girls imported as sex slaves by criminals (who have their own stories). The African illegals scratching out a living in fear of deportation. A native Dutch family of classical musicians who are ignoring their piano prodigy young son. I became totally involved with the suspenseful script and these characters. The production was near flawless, beautifully shot, acted and edited. The film also incorporated into the fine script a spectacular production of Mozart's Requiem. I was blown away by this film, and regret missing the screening last autumn for the foreign language Oscar. Maybe my vote would have qualified the film for deserved recognition.

  • You'll Never Be Alone

    You’ll Never Be Alone 2016

    ★★★ Watched 06 Jun, 2016

    Pablo was a gay teenager living in Santiago, Chile. He was flamboyantly femme in front of his mirror, but closeted to his work obsessed single father and homophobic contemporaries. He was open to his lesbian girl friend; and surreptitiously having sex with his long time, straight acting friend Félix and other pick-ups. But after a savage, brutal gay bashing by youths in his neighborhood, he was left comatose. That is the set-up for this dark drama roughly based on a famous 2012 Chilean murder. However, in Q&A, director Anwandter made it clear that he was not interested in making a biopic about Pablo. Rather his focus was set on the traumatic effects on the people around Pablo after the bashing, especially Pablo's father Juan (Sergio Hernandez). The plot was compelling; however for me the film was marred by poor direction: dark cinematography which concealed details, poor editing with endless closeups that didn't quite convey the inner dialog, and inappropriate, eerie musical cues that worked against the action (to my critical sensibility.) At least the film wasn't at all coy about the gay sex scenes, even if they seemed to be placed in the film as random non-sequiturs.

  • Sommeren '92

    Sommeren ’92 2015

    ★★★ Watched 05 Jun, 2016

    This sports oriented drama tells the story of the unlikely Danish soccer team competing in the European championships in 1992. It is told mainly from the point of view of the unpopular coach (the fine Danish actor Ulrich Thomsen). The low-budget production combines locker room drama with actors with lower resolution TV footage of the actual games that were played at the 1992 event. The effect is somewhat cheesy on the big screen compared to previous soccer films such as Goal! Still, despite my lack of interest in soccer, the film was emotionally affecting.

  • Transpecos

    Transpecos 2016

    ★★★½ Watched 05 Jun, 2016

    Three U.S. border guards manning a southwest checkpoint become involved in a fatal road trip and ongoing conflict with a powerful, mostly unseen drug cartel. The film is a tense and violent low budget thriller with convincing performances and an authentic feel for the desert and the drug wars.


  • Evolution of Verse

    Evolution of Verse 2015

    ★★★★★ Watched 05 Jun, 2016

    I watched this amazing short film on a Samsung GEAR VR player. There is no story, only an unforgettable surround experience involving an onrushing train (an homage to the early silent film that provoked gasps from audiences at the time), and other natural and surreal phenomena occurring in gorgeous landscapes. Finally, the film travels inside a womb, greeting a friendly, full-term fetus that was clearly an homage to the "space baby" that concluded Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. The immersive effect was total: sound and 3-D picture wherever the eye traveled. If this is the future of film, I'm there!

  • The Innocents

    The Innocents 2016

    ★★★★ Watched 04 Jun, 2016

    The setting of this disturbing drama is wintry, post-WWII Poland where Mathilde (Lou de Laâge), a young, relatively inexperienced French Red Cross doctor, is taking part in an aid mission. While working, Mathilde is approached by a young nun who implores her to visit her convent. Turns out that when Russian troops had sacked the convent months earlier they had raped and inseminated many of the pious and naive nuns who now were en masse awaiting births of children that because of their vows they could not accept. That is the set-up for an upsetting, difficult to process story of rigorous piety versus the horrors of reality, as seen through the eyes of a non-believer who risks all to help these poor women. Director Fontaine is working far afield from her usual contemporary French dramas. However, she shows her usual flair for eliciting great performances, particularly from the women in the film. The film could have been trimmed a bit, since much of the action repeats. But the harrowing story is quite affecting.

  • Battle for Sevastopol

    Battle for Sevastopol 2015

    ★★★★½ Watched 04 Jun, 2016

    Luda is a student in Odessa, Ukraine in 1937 at the start of this epic film. She proves to be a superior marksman; and when the Germans attacked Russia in 1941 she became a famous sniper ("Lady Death" who was credited with over 300 German kills.) In late 1942 she was sent by Stalin to the U.S. to help plead for the Americans to start a second front in Europe, where she was befriended by Eleanor Roosevelt. That is the set-up for this totally engrossing film which combines a hugely effective and realistic war story (the siege of Sevastopol) with a fascinating personal story of love and war through the eyes of a female soldier.

  • Murmur of the Hearts

    Murmur of the Hearts 2015

    ★★½ Watched 04 Jun, 2016

    A brother and sister are separated in childhood when their parents divorce... one moving to Taipei with her mother, the other staying on culturally remote Green Island (off the coast of Taiwan) with his father. This complex film tells their parallel stories both as children and adults as their separate stories fatefully intersect. The film's pacing is slow and reflective. It took me most of the film to figure out the relationships within the four story lines. Director Chang (a famous Chinese actress) handles her fine cast well. And the contrast between the sunny childhood scenes and drab current day scenes is well thought out. But I never really connected emotionally with the story.

  • Rainbow

    Rainbow 2015

    ★★★ Watched 04 Jun, 2016

    A cute 9-year old orphan boy, living with his older sister among family in rural India, has been totally blind from age four. When his sister reads a poster that a famous movie star is offering to provide aid to the blind, the two set out on perilous a road trip to find the man. Incidentally, the boy is a wonderful singer, which fits right in with the Indian musical cinema. This is a feel-good, kid-friendly film...predictable and fun to watch. Maybe a little too saccharine for my jaded tastes.

  • Paralytic 2016

    ★½ Watched 03 Jun, 2016

    Carson is a mysterious contract killer (played by David Hogan, dreadfully miscast) who gets involved with the evil Chutro drug cartel in some nefarious plot. It goes wrong; and the cartel boss wants to eliminate Carson. The now hunted killer hatches a plot involving a woman sheriff and a paralytic drug that the cartel manufactures, to avoid the torture and punishment the cartel has in store for him. That's the bare bones of the plot. But this turgid Washington state produced film-noir misfires on every cylinder. The thriller plot is ridiculously inane, the actors are almost all too young and wan to do authentic noir melodrama (only Darlene Sellers as the sheriff is even a smidgen convincing.) And for me, worst of all was the totally inauthentic use of East Washington state to represent Los Angeles and the Santa Barbara countryside. This film tested my tolerance for the inane. But for all its flaws, it was so laughably bad that it was almost good as an unintentional satire.

  • Spa Night

    Spa Night 2016

    ★★★½ Watched 03 Jun, 2016

    The milieu of this family drama is Korea Town in Los Angeles (incidentally where I live today, so the setting is very familiar to me.) An immigrant family is beset by problems. The family restaurant went broke. The dutiful teen-age son, no scholar to begin with, is flunking his SATs with little interest in college, disappointing his parents. Unemployable father is drinking, and mom is working a menial job. Topping it off, the son, having gotten a job working in a Korean spa-baths, discovers that he might be attracted to men. Oops. The film was sold as a gay story; but it is too steeped in homophobia, with sex scenes too coy to qualify as that. It is really an immigrant family saga and coming-of-age film, with an involving enough script, good low-budget technical credits, and convincing acting (especially Joe Seo as the diligent, if conflicted son).

  • Tower

    Tower 2016

    ★★★★★ Watched 03 Jun, 2016

    Fifty years ago, on August 1, 1966, a sniper perched on top of the signature campus skyscraper with a high powered rifle reigned terror on the University of Texas below, killing and wounding scores. This extraordinary documentary tells what happened that day, stories of the dead and the survivors, and the heroes who managed to end the siege. The film utilizes news footage from that day, along with survivor interviews. But, above all the film offers superb rotoscoped animated sequences (shot with actors, and then artistically enhanced) re-creating that tragedy in detail impossible by any other means. In Q&A the director made it clear that this was to be the stories of the relatively unknown victims, heroes and onlookers...that the story of the infamous killer had already been told in detail, giving him more credit in history than he deserved. And these survivor stories are immensely moving. But even more, the audience is reminded that this 50-year old tragedy is one that eerily mirrors future campus gun massacres. This is one of those rare documentaries that is both technically advanced and skillfully edited; but also of vital importance in relating its history to the present day audience.

  • La Novia

    La Novia 2015

    ★★★ Watched 03 Jun, 2016

    Seen at the Seattle film festival under the title The Bride

    Adapted from Garcia Lorca's "Blood Wedding," this overwrought, operatic and visually ravishing drama tells the story of a woman (gorgeous Inma Cuesta) who married her rich childhood friend (Asier Etxeandia) as a family obligation. However, she really had long simmering passions for another childhood friend, poor and already married Leonardo (darkly handsome Alex Garcia) who reciprocated that forbidden love. The film never quite managed to make all the complex, generations-old family feuds and relationships clear to me; and I was left admiring the film making and the austere Spanish countryside, but bored by the predictably tragic story.

  • While the Women Are Sleeping

    While the Women Are Sleeping 2016

    ★★★½ Watched 02 Jun, 2016

    In this mysterious and atmospheric drama, novelist Kenji is vacationing at a Japanese seaside resort with his wife Aya. Kenji (a fine, emotionally clenched performance by Hidetoshi Nishijima) is blocked trying to write his third novel, when he becomes obsessed with a mismatched couple he espies across the hotel's swimming pool. He eventually identifies the man as Sahara, old and thuggish (played by "Beat" Takeshi), who apparently is dallying with a very young and beautiful girlfriend Miki. Soon, Sahara draws Kenji into an obsessive game of cat and mouse by disclosing a secret about his relationship with Miki. Or does he? Maybe most of the story is a film-within-a-film invented by the blocked writer as he plots his next novel? Prolific Chinese-American director Wang never made it clear what was real and what was dreamscape. Still, the film was beautiful to watch, with sumptuous production design and cinematography which made full use of the seaside setting. I suspect the film (adapted from a Spanish short story) was a kind of homage to the cinema of early Antonioni, particularly L'avventura, along with glimpses of Hitchcock's Vertigo. At least I had the same sort of mystified confusion I felt watching those great, suspenseful films when they first came out. Wang's film is not in that class; but it's a quality effort.

  • The Queen of Ireland

    The Queen of Ireland 2015

    ★★★★½ Watched 02 Jun, 2016

    This affecting, even endearing documentary tells the story of Irish drag queen "Panti Bliss" ne Rory O'Neill. Rory grew up gay in a culture where homosexual sex was shunned and illegal until the mid-'90s. In his 20s she developed his fabulous drag personality working in drag clubs in Japan (note the pronouns carefully: Rory always was a personable gay man who performed in flamboyant drag and was comfortable in both roles.) Back in Ireland in the 1990s, she became an infamous performer and television personality who ultimately became instrumental in the historical passage of the Irish marriage equal rights constitutional referendum in 2015. The film makes great use of vintage home movies, old TV and news footage, and interviews with Rory and "Patti" among others. But more than anything, what gives the film its vitality and importance is the historical context and Rory's and Ms. Bliss's incisive intelligence and persuasive oratory in furthering the cause of gay acceptance in Catholic Ireland.

  • Morris From America

    Morris From America 2016

    ★★★ Watched 02 Jun, 2016

    Morris (a sullen, yet sympathetic performance by pudgy Markees Christmas) is a 13-year old African-American kid whose father (Craig Robinson) is working as a soccer coach in Heidelberg, Germany. The film develops as a fish-out-of-water coming of age story, as Morris unhappily copes with the all-white, German teen culture. He befriends an older rebellious girl, aspires to be a rap singer, runs away, does drugs. But his bond with his understanding father remains strong. The film is insightful, with realistic characterizations. But I never really emotionally connected with Morris or his dilemma.

  • The Sound of Trees

    The Sound of Trees 2015

    ★½ Watched 01 Jun, 2016

    The film is set in rural Québec, and tells the story of mildly rebellious 17-year old Jérémie (Antoine l'Equyer, a cute but emotionally vacant actor). Jérémie works at this father's economically stressed saw mill (the local forests are being destroyed by big industrial companies.) Honestly not much happens in the film. The boy has adventures, and subsidiary characters do strangely unexplained things. The script rambles along to its vague conclusion; but I never got involved enough with the characters to care.

  • One Kiss

    One Kiss 2016

    ★★★ Watched 01 Jun, 2016

    Lorenzo is a fabulously flamboyant gay high-school student, new to his Italian public school after being adopted by a pair of liberal parents. He befriends bad-girl Blu, a rebel co-student who was shamed by an earlier sex scandal involving a much older boyfriend. Additionally, Lorenzo has a crush on handsome, straight and psychologically wounded basketball player Antonio, who also has a thing for Blu. They make a disparate, and ultimately tragic trio of friends. All three actors are fine; but Rimau Grillo Ritzberger is especially vivid as Lorenzo. The director throws a lot of technique into the film, including colorful animation, fantasy and even hallucinatory scenes to enhance the story; but some of these are tricky distractions which impede the narrative. The director in Q&A confirmed my feeling that the story was loosely based on a true-life American tragedy that famously happened in my Southern California environs. The film contains an important message; but I don't think the screenplay was effective enough at delivering convincing characters to convey that message.

  • Un homme à la hauteur

    Un homme à la hauteur 2016

    ★★ Watched 01 Jun, 2016

    Seen at the Seattle film festival under the title Up For Love.

    Diane (Virginie Efira) is a lawyer involved in a messy divorce with her former husband and current law partner. At the outset of the film she becomes acquainted with attractive, rich architect Alexandre (Oscar winner Jean Dujardin)...an ideal lover whose only drawback is that he turns out to be only barely over 4 ft. tall. That's the set-up for a mismatched-lovers, lame French farce that was so resolutely non-PC that it bordered on the distasteful. I'm not a big fan of recent French romantic comedies to begin with. And this one misfires, depending on really poorly executed special effects to show any interaction between the exaggeratedly tall actress and the foreshortened actor. The actors were game, however, and the film's lush production design made up slightly for the ridiculous story.

  • Burn Burn Burn

    Burn Burn Burn 2015

    ★★★★ Watched 01 Jun, 2016

    At the outset of this involving road-trip dramedy, Dan had already lost the cancer lottery at age 29, dying while bequeathing to his two best friends, Steph and Alexandra his ashes and a thumb drive with video instructions for them to follow. They are to travel by car to four disparate British destinations out of Dan's past and strew his ashes at each place. What follows is part travelogue, part revealing character study, but certainly an original take on the dying young genre. Dan is played entirely as a voice from the grave on a laptop screen by Jack Farthing, a performance mixing wry humor and pathos in equal measure. Blonde Steph (Laura Carmichael) and lesbian Alex (Chloe Pirrie), gamely go along with Dan's quest; and the journey is never less than entertaining and emotionally resonant. Novice director Button proves to have a fine eye for details...I would love to follow the girls' itinerary from York through Wales and up to Scotland one day. But she was equally adept at eliciting wonderful performances from her three main actors. I was reminded of another English ash-strewing saga, Fred Schepisi's Last Orders, only here the dying young element and technological advancements of the computer age added vigor and timeliness to the well written script.

  • Sleeping Giant

    Sleeping Giant 2015

    ★★★★½ Watched 31 May, 2016

    In this brutal and chillingly realistic drama, three adolescent boys have a fateful encounter on their summer vacation visiting the gorgeous provincial park Sleeping Giant on the Canadian side of Lake Superior. 15-year old Adam (Jackson Martin) is a relatively naive kid vacationing with his upper middle class family. He befriends a pair of cousins his age: smart-Alec Nate (an incandescent performance by Nick Serino), and stolid Riley (Reece Moffett.) The cousins are lower class, spending the summer at their grandmother's cabin. Nate in particular is a clever underachiever, quick witted, but consumed by class envy. Riley is more congenial, content to follow his alpha cousin. Adam is a shy, smart manipulator. The combination of these three mostly unsupervised boys as they experiment with alcohol, drugs and sexual rivalry is combustible. And the film goes there. Through brilliant performances and perceptively sharp dialogue, the film just punches the audience in the gut.

  • L'oeil du cyclone

    L’oeil du cyclone 2015

    ★★★½ Watched 31 May, 2016

    Seen at a film festival under the title Eye of the Storm.

    The setting of this intriguing courtroom drama is the former French colony of Burkina Faso. Emma is a barrister from a privileged family who with great reluctance takes on a middle aged terrorist client whom the corrupt government desires to publicly execute after a heavily publicized show trial. Facing entrenched opposition, Emma discovers that her client was once a brainwashed child soldier named Blackshouam Vila. What ensues is a well directed and acted procedural, as gripping as some of the best legal thrillers Hollywood offers. Vila turns out to be a large man consumed by rage, but reluctant at first to communicate at all. In highly dramatic scenes in his cell, the cool lawyer gradually discovers a case that might shake the government regime if she dares to go there. The film is impressive; but maybe ultimately hits its message of the enduring repercussions of the children ruined by endless war too on-the-nose.

  • The Pretty Ones

    The Pretty Ones 2016

    ½ Watched 31 May, 2016

    This was the 65th film I've watched so far at the 6-week long Seattle International Film Festival (probably another 50 to go)...and my first walk-out. It's a documentary about a group of alpha Argentinian girl friends who as young kids loved to dress up, wear makeup and have their photos taken. Now 20-somethings, one of their number has made a documentary about this fatuous, materialistic group which was, at least for me, virtually unwatchable. As much as I hate shopping, about half-way through this vanity project I decided I'd much rather go to the Nordstrom Rack and find some impractical and very expensive piece of clothing to buy, which I did...70% off original price. Made me feel as shallow as the girls in the film.

  • Chucks

    Chucks 2015

    ★★ Watched 30 May, 2016

    Mae (Anna Posch) is a rebellious teenager sporting straggly dyed red hair and an attitude. She and her single mother were traumatized by the death of her ill older brother when she was a kid; and at the start of this youth-oriented drama she is a runaway living ad hoc with her tagger friends on the streets of contemporary Vienna. She is soon busted, and sentenced to a month of community service at an AIDS clinic. There she meets a sick patient, Paul (Markus Subramaniam); and despite everything they become romantically involved. Despite what seems like a realistic view of contemporary Austrian youth culture and the plight of AIDS victims (which I personally have seen all too much of with friends over the past decades), I just never could get sufficiently involved with these characters to care about their fate. However, the pulsating musical track, grungy production design and realistic hand-held cinematography were good enough to hold my interest.

  • Les Cowboys

    Les Cowboys 2015

    ★★★½ Watched 30 May, 2016

    In this updated French version of the classic American Western film (John Ford's "The Searchers,") director Bidegain tells the story of a young girl induced in the late 1990s by her secret Muslim boyfriend to escape into his religion and its Euro-terrorist network, whereupon her father and younger brother spend the rest of the film in an obsessive, years-long search to find and maybe rescue the girl. In the original it was a stalwart John Wayne looking to rescue his niece from American Indian captors. In the update François Damiens plays the father, and youthful Finnegan Oldfield is particularly effective as the determined brother. The script jumps through years of the search, paying scant attention to time and place, which is occasionally confusing. I fear that some will be put off by the slow pace and the sense that perhaps the characters' obsessive search lacked sufficient motivation. However, the empathy I felt for the characters (especially in the touching and truthful denouement) made the film work for me.

  • Our Kind of Traitor

    Our Kind of Traitor 2016

    ★★½ Watched 30 May, 2016

    This is a flaccid update of the John Le Carré thriller, where the Russian mafia replaces the Soviets as neo-villains. The film benefits from a fine cast, especially Stellan Skarsgärd as the convivial mafia money launderer who becomes a whistleblower to MI-6 to save himself and his family from the predatory, novice king-pin of the organization. However, Ewen McGregor as a British civilian that Skarsgärd involves in his escape plan, and Damian Lewis as the MI-6 operative who is determined to bring the mafia down despite his own government's corruption, both characters are pale shades of previous Le Carré heroes. For all the film's high production values, the effort fails to match previous spy films - even the recent TV series "The Night Manager," an updated version of a '90s Le Carré novel, left this film in the dust. Too bad. I love the spy genre; but there were just too many holes in the plot here for believability.

  • Eternal Summer

    Eternal Summer 2015

    ★★★★ Watched 29 May, 2016

    Isak is a normal 20-something Swedish young man who works hard as a carnival barker and has a somewhat strained relationship with his single father (mom deserted them years earlier.) He meets up with Em, a psychologically damaged girl with impulse control issues. Em invites Isak to run away with her in her father's Saab convertible; and the film became a road trip crime spree reminiscent of the American film Natural Born Killers...except that director Öhman (who made the wonderful 2010 film of brotherly affection Simple Simon) has humanized his characters to the point that their horrible crimes seem to be irrelevant. That's quite a feat; but credit attractive actors Filip Berg and Madeleine Martin for fully engaging the audience's sympathy. Writer-director Öhman makes good use of the beautiful, mid-summer landscapes of the sparsely populated north Swedish countryside. He is definitely a young, world-class auteur whose career I intend to follow.

  • From Afar

    From Afar 2015

    ★★★ Watched 29 May, 2016

    Armando (Alfredo Castro) is an older man who picks up young men on the streets of Caracas, paying them apparently just for touch-free stimulation. One day he convinces 17-year old Elder (Luis Silva) to come home with him and gets brutally beaten and robbed for the effort. However, over the course of the film the man and boy become psychologically co-dependent, until they enter into a sexually explicit relationship with dire consequences. The film is bleak and slow to disclose its secrets; and the director overuses annoying soft-focus cinematography as a device that I suspect is meant to illustrate each character's isolation. But the actors have convincing chemistry, even if their ultimate motivations didn't quite add up for this viewer.

  • The Lobster

    The Lobster 2015

    ★★★½ Watched 29 May, 2016

    Even in his non-native English, Lanthimos' satire stings with a bite. He's the Jonathan Swift of contemporary world cinema, even as the meaning of his fables eludes me. Oh, and Colin Farrell turns out to be great at meek.

  • Equals

    Equals 2015

    ★★★ Watched 28 May, 2016

    After a planet-wide apocalypse, the survivors formed a society called The Collective. In their futuristic, utilitarian city, all the inhabitants have gradually been homogenized, with all emotions effectively bred out of the gene pool and relationships forbidden. However, one young man, Silas (an immaculately coiffed Nicholas Hoult, never more attractive in any of his previous films) contracts the disease of attraction to a co-worker Nia (Kristen Stewart, perfectly cast for her usual cool demeanor). What ensues is a kind of "Romeo and Juliet" ill-fated romance abetted by a couple of older rebels (Guy Pearce and Jacki Weaver.) The film is enhanced by its austere, futuristic production design and all-white identical costumes. And the eerie, hypnotic musical score adds much to the tension and pathos of the story. However, as much as I wanted to like the film, director Doremus paced the film so slowly that I literally was lulled into a trance and slept through some of the film. Not a good sign.

  • The Intervention

    The Intervention 2016

    ★★★★ Watched 28 May, 2016

    Eight 30-ish friends gather together in couples for a weekend at the Savannah, Georgia plantation house where some of them grew up and formed lasting relationships. One couple is unhappily married, and the others have colluded to form an intervention to persuade their friends to divorce. However, each couple has their own problems, which get thrashed out during the weekend. Every generation needs a Big Chill type film of its own. All eight actors in this ensemble (which include familiar indie players such as director DuVall, Melanie Lynskey, Natascha Lyonne, Alia Shawkat, Jason Ritter and Ben Schwartz) are fine. And I was impressed by how truthful and insightful the script was at portraying the various relationship dynamics of the non-married sextet (the lesbian couple, the older guy-younger girl pairing, the engaged to be married couple with doubts). This sort of film only works if the viewer can identify with the plights of the characters; and for me, despite the predictability of the outcome, it worked.

  • The Tenth Man

    The Tenth Man 2016

    ★★ Watched 28 May, 2016

    Ariel (Alan Sabbagh) is an overweight, 30-something Argentinean man who has been living in New York. At the start of the film he returns to Buenos Aires to visit his father Usher for the Jewish holiday of Purim. Usher is mysteriously missing on an errand; but Ariel is plunged into the chaos of his father's market in the heart of El Once, the crowded Jewish district. Ariel meets a resolutely non-talkative Orthodox woman, Eva, who turns out to have problems of her own; and a romantic spark is lit (possibly planned all along by Ariel's father.)

    Ariel was director Burman's 20-something main character (played by charismatic Daniel Hendler) in the wonderful 2004 film A Lost Embrace, which took place in a shopping mall in the same urban district. The current film is as steeped in Jewish culture as all of Burman's films that I have seen before; but with this film, the film maker's frenetic hand-held style, unsympathetic characterizations, and enigmatic scenario left me disappointed and wondering where the once fine director has gone. ** 1/2

  • Goat

    Goat 2016

    ★★★ Added

    Let's get the negatives out of the way first. This hyper-violent, even sadistic film is about two brothers involved in a college fraternity hazing week that has repercussions. If the viewer can get over that (and I could), the film offers some trenchant commentary on today's alcohol sodden college life along with an involving enough story and some fine young actors in extreme situations. Ben Schnetzer played Brad, the sensitive younger brother who at the start of the film was a high school senior who got soundly beaten in a car jacking after attending a drunken party with his older brother Brett (Nick Jonas, who has outgrown his pop teen heart-throb start, becoming a quite competent actor.) Next thing Brad has decided to attend his brother's college and pledge his brother's macho fraternity. The story goes downhill from there as the fraternity bros relived their own horrible hazings as pledges through increasingly violent pranks. I found the college milieu convincingly real enough; but on occasion I just had to look away from the screen. Anyway, James Franco has a cameo as a boisterous frat old-boy returned to enliven the start of hazing week. I did enjoy that.

  • My Blind Brother 2016

    ★★★½ Watched 27 May, 2016

    Adam Scott plays 30-something Robbie, blinded in an accident years before caused by his older brother Bill (Nick Kroll, who really is the heart of the film.) At the start of the film, the guilt-ridden Bill is aiding his blind brother to finish a marathon to support charity when he hooks up for a truncated one-night-stand with a super-neurotic woman, Rose (the skilled comic actor Jenny Slate). The film develops as a heart-felt farce from there, as the three character interact romantically all the while keeping secrets from each other. There's much humor in the feel-good script. It's one of those romantic comedy indie trifles that are fun to watch on video and at festivals; but are probably going to be lost when the film is released theatrically.

  • Ma ma

    Ma ma 2015

    ★★★★½ Watched 27 May, 2016

    At the start of this inspiring melodrama, Magda has separated from her philandering husband and is trying to relate to her pre-teenage son Dani's interest in soccer. When she is diagnosed with breast cancer by her concerned gynocologist (Asier Etxeandia), and coincidentally meets and falls for the pro soccer scout who is watching her son play (Luis Tosar), it sets in motion a profoundly moving, realistic portrayal of a good woman and mother who is bravely coping with a possibly fatal disease.

    Magda is played by luminous Penélope Cruz, who has never been better even in Oscar winning roles. Her relationship with her young son Dani (a winning kid performance by Teo Planell) is so well played by both actors that by itself it would have made a fine film. Add in the jeopardy of cancer and found true love (and one amazing plot development that I won't spoil in this review), and one gets a three-hanky weeper that left me devastated. Basque director Medem has long been a favorite of mine, with an emotional sensitivity that resonates with me in all his films that I've watched. Here he plays editorial tricks with time that never seem forced and add poignancy to the drama. He has his actors underplay their painful emotions, which added all the more to my appreciation of the film. Kudos all around.

  • As You Are

    As You Are 2016

    ★★★½ Watched 26 May, 2016

    Set in upper New York State in 1994, this involving film is a character driven family and relationship drama disguised as a murder mystery. Jack (familiar young TV actor Owen Campbell) is a quiet, loner-type teenager living with his mother (Mary Stuart Masterson). His mom falls for an ex-Marine security guard (Scott Cohen) who has a son Mark of Jack's age (played by charismatic Charlie Heaton). The boys become friends, even brothers of sorts when their parents move in together. The pair befriend intelligent classmate Sarah (Amandla Stenberg); but the relationship dynamic is adversely affected by Jack's increasing attraction to straight Mark, an attraction that is not entirely one-sided. In the complex story, somebody gets killed; and the film is structured around police videos interviewing all the surviving characters. For me, the film worked as an extremely realistic tale of repressed homosexuality and all of the hardships caused by this during the mid-1990s (and of course in earlier decades as in my own similar life experiences in the 1950s and 1960s.) But the plot mechanics to make the film more of a mystery thriller just got in the way of the people story, at least for me. Still, 25-year old director Joris-Peyrafitte is potentially a real film making talent to watch for.

  • If There's a Hell Below

    If There’s a Hell Below 2016

    ★★ Watched 26 May, 2016

    Abe (Conner Marx) is a journalist for a Chicago independent weekly paper. At the start of this enigmatic thriller, he has arranged a secret rendezvous with Debra (Carol Roscoe), a national security analyst and potential whistleblower who has promised to deliver to Abe a big scoop. Debra is cautious, and her paranoia meant meeting by car on dusty deserted roads in Eastern Washington state. Except that it turns out that the two are possibly being followed by a mysterious car. What follows is a tense cat-and-mouse chase film which I followed with rapt attention, until it dissolved into a series of unfathomable plot developments that made no sense to me. These puzzling developments were obviously intended by the writer-director who admitted as much in Q&A when he said that all the clues are in place...but it is up to the audience to come to their own conclusions. I just threw up my hands and decided that this regressive puzzle of a plot was simply not worth shedding brain cells over.

  • Hunt for the Wilderpeople

    Hunt for the Wilderpeople 2016

    ★★★ Watched 26 May, 2016

    At the start of this comic fable, Ricky is a rowdy sub-teener, a ward of the state who has failed in previous foster homes. Sulking, he's brought to a new home by a tyrannical social worker. His new foster mom Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her lay-about husband Hector (a crusty Sam Neill), are so nurturing that Ricky starts to come around when Bella suddenly dies and Ricky and Hector are forced by circumstances to head into the New Zealand bush to avoid Ricky's being sent off to a borstal institution. That is the set-up for a totally unlikely story of two weirdly mismatched fugitives evading capture in the wilds. There is genuine humor in the script, and the director has a real feel for the characters and the setting (Ricky was played by roly-poly young actor Julian Dennison who delivers a classic smart-aleck performance of wit beyond his age.) But ultimately as much as I enjoyed the journey, I had trouble believing in any of the story.

  • Sparrows

    Sparrows 2015

    ★★★★ Watched 26 May, 2016

    Ari (youthful Atli Oskar Fjalarsson, expresssively unemotive) is a Reykjavik teen-ager whose mother and step-father emigrated to Africa, sending the boy to live with his drunkard father (Ingvar Eggert Sigurdsson) in the small north-western Iceland backwater town that Ari originally grew up in. His life is mostly one of despair for the displacement...except for his supportive grandmother, the independence of a summer job at a local fishery, and Lara, once his childhood best friend, now girlfriend to a local bully. The film is just an ordinary coming-of-age story...but for the gorgeous scenery of the mountainous seaport village and Ari's stoic humanity when faced with some really terrible events that mar his life. It's rare to watch such a downer film that is ultimately edified by the actions of an unexpectedly heroic protagonist.

  • The Wounded Angel

    The Wounded Angel

    Watched 25 May, 2016

    This enigmatic Kazakhstani film tells the story of four teen-age boys variously caught up in troubled lives in the 1990s, when the Soviet economy was breaking down. That's about all I can say about the film since I couldn't make sense out of any of the stories and how they interconnected (maybe because the pacing was so slow that I think I slept through some initial exposition that may have explained things.)

  • The Land

    The Land 2016

    ★★½ Watched 25 May, 2016

    Four teen-age skater dudes living in the Cleveland projects, were cutting school and jacking cars for fun and chump change at the start of this despairing contemporary indie drama. When they jack the wrong car, and rob illicit drugs belonging to a rough adult motorcycle gang of killers, trouble for all four ensued. The film has a fine cast, especially familiar young actors Moises Arias and Rafi Gavron (and the lead youth Cisco, played by Jorge Lendeborg, Jr., new to me but a real up-and-comer). The decaying city setting and hopelessness of the slum life for the kids and their families were central themes. This was one of those American indie dramas that may be realistic and convincingly written and acted, but was almost too much of a downer to watch.

  • Paul à Québec

    Paul à Québec 2015

    ★★★★ Watched 25 May, 2016

    In this amiable family saga, Paul (François Létourneau) is a type-setter and amateur cartoonist who lives contentedly in 1999 Montreal with his girlfriend Lucie (Julie LeBreton) and young daughter Rose (sprightly child actor Shanti Corbeil-Gauvreau). On holiday, they drive to Québec city for a family get-together to celebrate Lucie's elderly parents' anniversary. Turns out Lucie's father, retired Roland (superbly played by Gilbert Sicotte), is ill; and Lucie's mother Lisette (Louise Portal), along with her two sisters are charged with caring for the old man. What ensues is a moving tribute to a loving extended family in crisis, with a fine acting ensemble and non-flashy direction that emphasizes the good in its characters. It's a touching story that rings familiar...at least it brought me to honest tears of recognition. The film is based on a series of autobiographical graphic novels by Michel Rabagliati; and the film makers made fine use of the author's artistic style in a lovely end-credit animation. Simple premise, well told.

  • Little Men

    Little Men 2016

    ★★★★ Watched 24 May, 2016

    Resolutely indie auteur Ira Sachs has, almost under the radar, become my favorite filmmaker in the gay film genre. His subtle and revealing screenplays have sensitively covered all ages and shades of the gay sensibility. This film is somewhat a departure for him, in that there is no overt gay subtext at work as he tells the story of two seemingly heterosexual 13-year old boys living in contemporary Brooklyn who become best friends despite their different personalities and their parents feud over money. Jake (Theo Taplitz) is the sensitive artist type, whose parents (Greg Kinnear and Jennifer Ehle) inherit a walk-up apartment above a storefront dressmaker's store. Tony (Michael Barbieri, a young actor with a huge future, if this film is any indicaton) is the hyper-active son of the dressmaker (feisty actress Paulina Garcia), who can not afford a new lease on her store. The film tells the story of these families from the boys' points of view; and it is both wonderful to witness and heartbreaking in its truthfulness. Sachs in Q&A stated that this film is the end of a trilogy about three disparately aged, involved couples living their lives in New York City that included Keep the Lights On and Love is Strange. This film about the youngest couple of the three is perhaps the best, and most illuminating of all.

  • Illegitimate

    Illegitimate 2016

    ★★★ Watched 24 May, 2016

    This Romanian dysfunctional family drama involves incest, abortion (a recurrent theme in Romanian cinema lately), politics...all in a talk-filled stew of family squabbling. That it works at all is due to the shock factor, and a kind of realism and humanism that seems to pervade the best of contemporary Romanian cinema. The superb acting ensemble does their best to tell such a distressing story, of which any attempt to summarize would be too full of spoilers. I think this film might have been upsetting to many in the audience, since its themes are hard to take, and the Romanian dialog is spoken almost too fast for the sub-titles to handle. But I actually enjoyed the film for its utter realism and how many rules of cinema it broke.

  • Family Film

    Family Film

    ★★★ Watched 24 May, 2016

    The family in this picturesque Czech drama is uniquely dysfunctional. Mom and dad and family dog go off on an extended vacation sailing around the world leaving their barely adult daughter and teen-age son to fend for themselves with scant supervision by their uncle (or maybe family friend, I was confused by the connection for most of the film.) What ensues is a coming-of-age film combined with a travelogue and an inspirational (if occasionally unlikely) story of a family overcoming life-shattering obstacles. The family drama is absorbing enough; and elements of the plot are surprising and unpredictable. The characters are attractive, even as they consistently act totally irresponsibly (except for the family dog, the most heroic and likable of the bunch.) I enjoyed this film despite its flaws.

  • A Man Called Ove

    A Man Called Ove 2015

    ★★★½ Watched 24 May, 2016

    At the outset of this bittersweet Swedish comedy, Ove, a grumpy 59-year old widower is laid off from his job. He has also lost his self-important position as head of his condo association; and figuring that he has nothing left to live for, he's determined to join his wife by killing himself. What ensues is an ultimately uplifting story of a old man whose faith in life is reborn through unexpected means. The film examines Ove's life through increasingly revealing flashbacks. In some ways this film resembles closely the 2013 Swedish film The Hundred Year Old Man etc.. in that it uses the passages of a man's life to create a mirror reflecting current multi-cultural Swedish society. The film is fun to watch; and actor Rolf Lassgard gives an indelible performance as Ove. But the story, apparently adapted from a popular novel, was a tad predictable.

  • Other People

    Other People 2016

    ★★★★½ Watched 23 May, 2016

    David is a 30-year old struggling TV comedy writer (failed pilots and a gig at Saturday Night Live). He's gay, in a troubled long time relationship with Paul (the wonderfully geeky actor Zach Woods), when he has to return home to Sacramento from his New York City domicile to care for his mother, who is dying of a chemo-resistant, rare cancer. David is played by pudgy actor Jesse Plemons, familiar from the TV series "Friday Night Lights," whose physical imperfection as a character actor provides him with the ability to be totally realistic as a neurotic, gay momma's boy...plus have the acting chops to carry the film. David's mother, Joanne, is played by Molly Shannon (her second role this festival as the mother of a gay son...type-casting?). Shannon is astonishingly good in this role, totally convincing as she literally physically disappears into her illness. If Shannon is deprived of an Oscar supporting nomination, I'll be surprised (hopefully the film will get a release to showcase this performance.) This is a family drama, with impressive work also by Bradley Whitford as David's homophobic father, who still loves his children and nurtures his ill wife.

    I was immensely moved by this film, which resonated with my own life. Maybe some will find the cancer and gay son story to be overly familiar territory (it's a staple of indie films, after all.) But for me, every facet of the script rang true; and the acting and direction were extraordinary. Except for the familiar plot, I could have given this film a rare for me 5-star rating.

  • Disorder

    Disorder 2015

    ★★★★ Watched 23 May, 2016

    At the start of this French thriller, Vincent is a soldier flunking his latest physical exam with hearing loss and a clear case of paranoid PTSD. Now an unemployed mercenary, he takes a job as bodyguard protecting the wife and young son of an absent, shady Lebanese billionaire, which turns into a horror show when mystery ninjas attack the high-security compound (called Maryland), maybe to kidnap the wife or kid...it's never spelled out. Vincent is played with steely physical charisma by the wonderful Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts; and the married lady he is protecting is portrayed by the multi-lingual, resourceful German actress Diane Kruger. Director Winocour is very effective at ratcheting up the tension, utilizing an effective score and a script that never fully explains what is happening, right up to a mysteriously unresolved final scene. Still, for all the narrative flaws, the film was totally absorbing.

  • Paths of the Soul

    Paths of the Soul 2015

    ★★★½ Watched 23 May, 2016

    Some of the inhabitants of a small Chinese-Tibetan village decide to undertake the Buddhist pilgrimage to see the Potala Palace in Lhasa and visit their Holy Mountain. They must undergo the 7-month trip of more than a thousand miles by prostrating themselves (kowtowing) on the road every few steps. This 2-hour film follows these pilgrims on their arduous journey. It's exhausting just thinking of their efforts. The film is a bit over-long and repetitive, and is actually neither a documentary… more

  • Warehoused

    Warehoused 2015

    ★★★½ Watched 22 May, 2016

    In this two-character, one-set Mexican film, Senor Lino (veteran actor José Carlos Ruiz) supervises a warehouse for a manufacturing company. Lino is a week away from retirement, when his replacement, clever, young Nin (Hoze Meléndez), appears to be taught the rigid and boring details of his new duties. However, Nin soon discovers that the warehouse seems to be perpetually empty, which serves as a metaphor for the plight of the youthful work force in general in today's Mexico. This is basically a one-act filmed play which has been compared to "Waiting For Godot." The actors are fine; and the director manages to solve the problems inherent to shooting in a confined setting with creative camerawork. From the start I expected to be bored; but gradually the clever interplay between the two characters caught fire and kept my interest.

  • Weiner

    Weiner 2016

    ★★★★½ Watched 22 May, 2016

    Sex scandal prone politician, Anthony Weiner, ran for New York City mayor in 2013 when fresh allegations of internet improprieties, mostly tattled by a publicity seeking 23-year old woman, surfaced during the campaign. This documentary was apparently pitched as a "fly-on-the-wall" depiction of the mayoral campaign with full cooperation by subject Weiner and his "good wife" (and Hillary campaign confidante) Huma Abedin. But circumstances turned it into much more: a fascinating depiction of a fine politician brought down by his own character flaws. Fact is, despite everything I'd vote for Weiner for any office. His honesty, his courageous liberal stances, and his likability superseded his sexual peccadilloes for me. But not for the NYC electorate, alas.

  • Miles

    Miles 2016

    ★★★ Watched 22 May, 2016

    At the start of this film Miles Walton is a gay high school senior who is desperate to get out of Springfield, IL and get admitted to a college in Chicago. His father has just died suddenly, having spent all Miles's college money on a car for his girlfriend; and his mother (Molly Shannon) is supportive...but no financial help. So Miles joins the high school girls volleyball team to hopefully get an available athletic scholarship to Loyola U. The film runs with that scheme, which encounters problems.

    Miles is played by good-looking, authentic teenager Tim Boardman; and he's the best thing in this film with his fresh-scrubbed enthusiastic performance. The film is roughly based on the young director's actual experiences in 1999 (despite the "based on a true story" opening tag, the end credits show the usual "fictitious characters, not based on real people" bug.) The film was an amiable watch, with a good cast; but the uninspired, slow-paced direction and predictable script just made for a middling coming of age film.

  • 13 Minutes

    13 Minutes 2015

    ★★★★★ Watched 21 May, 2016

    In 1939, a true-life, devout Christian German man named Georg Elser attempted to kill Hitler and other Nazis by planting a bomb at a Munich meeting hall. The bomb exploded 13 minutes too late; and Elser was captured and tortured to provide information about the supposed plot. This film tells Elser's story, mostly in a series of flash-backs which show in brilliant detail from 1932-on the way Germany gradually succumbed to the Nazis. Elser is played by Christian Friedel, in one of the most incredibly taxing and beautifully played performances I've ever witnessed. Director Hierschbiegel made one of the best, most insightful Hitler films ever, Downfall; and he clearly understands the period. The current film, for my money, is a masterpiece of pre-WWII historical movie-making, part character study, part thriller, but always a probing study into the cultural Zeitgeist that created the Nazis. I couldn't help myself from making the horrendous connection that 1932 and the start of the Nazi ascension to power is eerily like the Trump/tea-bagger movement in today's America. Yikes!

  • Love & Friendship

    Love & Friendship 2016

    ★★★★ Watched 21 May, 2016

    Director Whit Stillman, bard of the modern hipster talk-fest genre, turns his quirky intelligence to a total change of pace: a period costume drama and comedy of manners based on a Jane Austen novella, "Lady Susan." The eponymous Lady Susan is an impoverished, faintly scandalous, upper-class widow with a grown eligible daughter. Lady Susan is a schemer, who uses her considerable wiles to affect the men of wealthy families, both in London and in their country mansions. She is played with quick wit by Kate Beckinsale, who lights up the screen as she toys with handsome eligible young nobleman Reginald De Courcy (a star-making turn by actor Xavier Samuel) and plots mischief with her American best friend (Chloë Sevigny.) Stillman proves to be quite adroit at creating an authentic eighteenth-century world. The script is talky and complicated; but also smart and fun to watch. I'm not sure I caught all the implications of the fast-paced story...especially who was supposed to be dallying with whom. But I think that confusion was intentional in Austen's world.

  • Rainbow Time

    Rainbow Time 2016

    ★★★½ Watched 21 May, 2016

    Shonzi is (how to say this in PC language?) a developmentally challenged, mid-30ish adult living with his elderly father. When his father has a heart attack, Shonzi goes to live with his older brother Todd (Timm Sharp) and Todd's girlfriend Lindsay (Melanie Lynskey) who is undergoing a divorce from her sarcastic ex- (Jay Duplass), largely caused by Lindsay's earlier affair with Todd. Shonzi develops an inappropriate longing for his brother's girl. That is the set up for an involving, character driven family dramedy. Shonzi is a character invented and played by writer-director Linas Phillips, who worked earlier in his career making "rainbow time" videos with special needs kids. Phillips vests his character with a unique authenticity, especially when it comes to Shonzi's sexually stunted development, which is sometimes hard to take. But the screenplay is well crafted and often quite funny when it goes farcical. And the acting ensemble, like the best of the mumblecore genre, works together flawlessly.

  • The Architect 2016

    ★★★★ Watched 20 May, 2016

    Colin and Drew are a yuppie married couple living in contemporary Seattle. He's a successful investment maven, she's a dabbling artist. As played by Eric McCormack and Parker Posey they epitomize the modern up-scale couple in their late 30s, whose child bearing clock is ticking. To that end, they need a bigger house, and find a gorgeously situated tear-down on the Sound to buy and renovate. They hire a neurotic architect (James Frain), who offers a plan for a home that is a hideously modern, out-of-control expensive, architectural wonder of impracticality. From there the film develops as an original and entertaining replay of the 1986 film The Money Pit.

  • Ants on a Shrimp

    Ants on a Shrimp 2016

    ★★★ Watched 20 May, 2016

    This foodie documentary recounts the inner workings of world-class Copenhagen restaurant Noma. In early 2015, owner and chef René Redzepi moved his entire staff to Tokyo for a 5-week long experiment of bringing his exciting cuisine to Japan and giving it a Japanese flavor using local ingredients. The film tells of the months long experimentation phase where Redzepi and his hard-working under-chefs worked to create an original, multi-course tasting menu. The results were tantalizing to see on screen, and undoubtedly very expensive and delicious. But the film, mostly about the processes of high-end food service, became a mite tedious before the final triumphant opening and visual disclosure on film of the mouth-watering, exotic courses served.

  • A Bigger Splash

    A Bigger Splash 2015

    ★★★★ Watched 20 May, 2016 1

    This witty, incisively directed and superbly acted film is a remake of the 1969 French film La Piscine (a film that I really must watch!) In the current iteration, Marianne (Tilda Swinton, luminous) is a famous rock star reduced to whispering after a throat operation for bruised vocal chords (from now this will probably be called the Adele operation.) She is recuperating at a lovely Sicilian villa, built around a much-used swimming pool, with her caring younger lover, Paul (played by the magnetic Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts, a fave of mine. [note: in the original film this role was played by Alain Delon, another all-time fave of mine].

    Into this bucolic idyll arrives uninvited Marianne's former lover, Harry (Ralph Fiennes in a powerful, boisterously repugnant and frenetic characterization), along with his new-found, sex-kitten, teenage-ish daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson, the fourth wheel in this sterling cast.) Harry is still holding a torch for Marianne; but Marianne is just annoyed by his sudden presence. That is the set-up for a fascinating menage à quatre, that is exciting to watch as these characters cavort among the gorgeous Sicilian countryside. I loved every minute of the film, even when it eventually goes completely off the rails dramatically in an unlikely way which kept the film from my rating it a 5-star masterpiece.

  • Ice and the Sky

    Ice and the Sky 2015

    ★★★★½ Watched 19 May, 2016

    This documentary recounts the life story and experiences of French scientist and explorer Claude Lorius from the mid-1950s, when he took part in the first real scientific expeditions to Antarctica, through his eventual breakthrough explorations which provided incontrovertible evidence of global warming gleaned from evidence he gathered by digging deeply into the Antarctic ice shelves. The film is rich with old 8mm and 16mm films showing early Antarctic explorations by Lorius and others, which is intercut with present day footage of the now 82-year old scientist returning to his beloved continent and reminiscing about his life with voice-over (by an actor in rather florid English.) The documentary is fascinating, even important, for its historic content and its scientific revelations.

  • Rara

    Rara 2016

    ★★★ Watched 19 May, 2016

    Sara is 12, almost 13, attending a Chilean middle-school where she is mildly embarrassed that she is living in a home with two moms - in the tentative shared custody (along with her younger sister) of her re-married father. That is the starting point of this family drama about institutionalized homophobia and the effect it has on one fractured extended family. There are no evil characters here, only irresolute and confused ones. This issue-oriented film raised important questions about family and legalities that make for questionable decisions about family matters. However, I found it hard to empathize with the characters as written in the screenplay. This was more my failing of empathy than the fault of the film maker.

  • Where Have All the Good Men Gone

    Where Have All the Good Men Gone 2016

    ★★★½ Watched 18 May, 2016

    Sofia (Julie Andersen) is a Danish teen-age girl whose step-father, along with his gang of rowdy friends, is tyrannical and physically abusive to her mother, herself and her older sister. When the two girls run away to find the younger girl's natural father, it sets in motion a series of morally challenging events. Sofia's father they discover is a crazy ex-soldier, paranoid, a victim of PTSD living a hermit's life as a dairy farmer. The film becomes a tense drama of broken family ties...but with a ray of optimism due to Sofia's strength of character. The script is downbeat; but the fine acting and assured direction overcome some of the more unlikely story developments.

  • Tickled

    Tickled 2016

    ★★★★ Watched 18 May, 2016

    In this involving documentary, New Zealand journalist David Farrier becomes intrigued by a sport he discovers while browsing the internet: competitive endurance tickling. A straight youth is strapped down, and other strapping boys then tickle him mercilessly, in a kind of S&M sporting ritual. Farrier is determined to discover more about this sport, which leads him to identifying a mysterious New York millionaire lawyer and ex-con who he finds bankrolls the sport under various fake women's names. I have to admit that I found the "sport" sort of intriguing to watch. But Farrier's obsessive detective work on camera which involved trips to the U.S., coping with unceasing litigation, and secretly shadowing his suspect...somehow all this left me incredulous. Still, just like in that other similar documentary which coined the word "catfish," Farrier does manage to find the smoking gun.

  • Kedi

    Kedi 2016

    ★★½ Watched 18 May, 2016 1

    This Turkish documentary is the account of thousands of wild and semi-tame cats that roam the streets of Istanbul. Much of the film is shot using wide angle cameras at street level, sort of a cat's-eye view of the world. These scenes are intercut with beautiful aerial and scenic shots of the city. The cats and kittens are cute, of course; and the people interviewed in action, who devote time and treasure to caring for them (mainly with food and love) are verbal in their devotion. Being allergic to cats, and not an admirer of the species, I found that the 79 minute film just seemed endless and repetitive. I'm sure cat lovers will eat it up.

  • Don't Think Twice

    Don’t Think Twice 2016

    ★★★★ Watched 17 May, 2016

    In 2012, Mike Birbiglia directed an obscure, fun comedy about a stand-up comic played by Birbiglia himself (obviously somewhat autobiographical) called Sleepwalk With Me. Birbiglia as auteur in that film was like Woody Allen doing a mumblecore genre film. In this followup, Birbiglia plays a member of a funny, but failing New York improv group called "The Commune." All the members of the group aspire to act or write for a thinly disguised "Saturday Night Live" type show called in this film "Weekend Live." What ensues is a moderately funny, bittersweet film about the hardships of the comedy marketplace, and how the performers and writers are either eaten alive by the system, or go on to success or failure in life. That's a hefty burden for a comedy to aspire to...but Birbiglia succeeds by having a wonderfully adroit comic cast and a smart script. The title refers to one of Birbiglia's rules of improv: "Don't think twice" about what to do next in the skit. The film felt both improvised and tautly written. I really enjoyed this film.


  • Demon

    Demon 2015

    ★★★ Watched 17 May, 2016 1

    Back in 2001 I watched a great Russian film directed by Pavil Lungin called The Wedding (Svadba). It was a madcap farce, and my favorite film of the festival. Demon is also about a madcap Polish wedding that goes amok; but in this case the groom, a successful Polish ex-pat living in Britain, became inhabited by a "dybbuk" (Yiddish: דיבוק‎, from the Hebrew verb דָּבַק dāḇaq meaning "adhere" or "cling"), a malicious possessing spirit believed to be the dislocated soul of a dead person. The dybbuk in this film was a Jewish woman murdered on the wedding property sometime in the past; and I believe it served here as a metaphor for the Polish-Jewish Holocaust victims. However, the symbolism is somehow lost in the confusion of other symbols...failed Catholic exorcism, xenophobia, doddering Jewish elders, incompetent doctors, the bride's family's adherence to despoiling capitalism. If the film was meant to be just about a comic wedding ruined by a ghost's appearance, somehow the fun got lost in the confusion of direction and editing that was just too out of control.

  • High-Rise

    High-Rise 2015

    ★★★ Watched 17 May, 2016

    After a short intro, the film flashes back three months to what may be the most beautiful visual of the year: Tom Hiddleston's naked body. Unfortunately that's the high point of the film. J. G. Ballard's dystopian satire about a futuristic, high rise condominium and its self-destructive denizens has been frenetically brought to the screen by transgressive English director Ben Wheatley. His film making style here is sort of like Fellini's grotesque characters inhabiting Greenaway's most visually over-the-top environments. There's a point to be made about human nature run amok; but this film overdoes it to extremes.

  • The Free World

    The Free World 2016

    ★★★½ Watched 16 May, 2016

    Mo is a tough ex-con, released from a falsely convicted prison stretch, who now works in a dog shelter, determined to stay on the straight and narrow. He is played by Boyd Holbrook, a good looking actor that somehow has never before made much of an impact in several of his films and TV shows that I've watched (lately in Narcos)..but here gives an indelibly deep performance. When Mo encounters a needy girl on the run from murdering her abusive cop husband (Elizabeth Moss, great in a role that is something of a departure for her), the two outcasts embark on a desperate road trip to freedom. The film engrossed me despite some inexplicable plot developments. The magnetism of the two leads and the propulsive story of their jeopardy was that strong.

  • Bugs

    Bugs 2016

    ★★½ Watched 16 May, 2016

    This documentary follows three crusading foodies who run the Nordic Food Lab and the Danish restaurant Noma, as they travel the world exploring the use and preparation of various insects and bugs as food. Theoretically this under-utilized source of protein could help solve the world's upcoming population explosion and food shortages. Some of the images of edible grubs and maggots are revolting; but the enthusiasm of the multi-national trio of gastronomes, Josh Evans, Ben Reade and Roberto Flore, is catching. Except that I think I'll definitely avoid some of their culinary creations if offered. Technically, the film could use a more logical editing schema. As it is the film jumps around confusingly from cooking lessons to insect hunting, to boring, repetitive lectures on sustainable farming. The message got lost in the verbiage.

  • Belle and Sebastian: The Adventure Continues

    Belle and Sebastian: The Adventure Continues 2015

    ★★★½ Watched 16 May, 2016

    This is a sequel to a marvelous French kids film of a couple of years back, where an adorable 6-year old boy befriended a fearfully large wild dog during the Nazi occupation.

    The current film takes place post-war, and Sébastian is now 9, but still wild and totally at home in the gorgeous Alpine terrain. His dog Belle is now his constant companion; and his adoptive grandfather (once again played by Tchéky Karyo) is awaiting the return by plane of his daughter who had served in the French resistance. When the plane crashed and the girl was reported to be missing, the film became a kid-friendly search and rescue adventure.

    Frankly, the plot had enough logical holes to drive a herd of buffalo through. Nevertheless young Félix Bossuet is such a charmer as Sébastian, so perky and physically adroit for his age, that all my cynical disbelief in the story simply disappeared.

  • Green Room

    Green Room 2015

    ★★★ Watched 16 May, 2016

    A punk band gets a gig to play at an outlaw Oregon venue, which turns into a fatal horror show. The film was well acted, and tensely directed; but the film's incessant violence was just a tad too over the top for my tastes. And some character motivations and plot contrivances were too sketchy to be believable. Patrick Stuart as the chief villain was a long way from Jean-Luc Picard; while the young cast of good guys, including a game Anton Yelchin, Joe Cole and Imogen Poots, made sympathetic victims and avengers.

  • Captain America: Civil War

    Captain America: Civil War 2016

    ★★ Watched 15 May, 2016

    OK, I get that my inattentiveness to the Marvel Avengers universe might have been the source for my feeling that the script was confusing and the overall direction pedestrian and derivative. After all, with heroes pitted against each other it would help to know beforehand why and how they got that way...and I guess I just didn't care enough in previous films (I've watched them all) to keep track. But even the many special effects sequences seemed badly choreographed and full of technical glitches to my eyes. So I guess I'll just never be a Marvel fanboy. However, I do like the third version of Spider-Man...and the most enjoyment I got out of this film was the obligatory post-end-credits scene where we're promised that Tom Holland's Spidey will return!

  • Sing Street

    Sing Street 2016

    ★★★★½ Watched 13 May, 2016

    A 15-year old Irish schoolboy, attending a new school because his parents were having money and relationship problems, impulsively formed a pop-music band to impress a 16-year old girl. That's the set-up for a remarkably involving film that gets its mid-1980s period exactly right, with wonderful original songs and convincingly live performances of those songs that could only happen in the movies. Except that such Irish bands seem to have spontaneously appeared all the time...the film rings of truth and authenticity.

    A lot of the credit goes to writer-director John Carney, who based much of this story from his own youthful experiences and also wrote many of the up-beat original tunes that made me nostalgic for the flash of '80s pop (I'm more of a '60s and '70s music fan...but the songs in this film were the bomb!) Even more credit goes to the talented and appealing actor-singer discovery Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, cast in the lead-singer role, and the rest of the unknowns that were cast as his band mates. The plot may have been simplistic; but this filmed pop musical still enthralled and thrilled.

  • Microbe and Gasoline

    Microbe and Gasoline 2015

    ★★★★ Watched 12 May, 2016

    Two misfit high school boys in Versailles, France become friends. Daniel (nickname "Microbe") is small and undeveloped for his age, Théo is the new kid in class, from a troubled home, but an accomplished mechanic (often smelling of gasoline, thus his school nickname.) Together they build a makeshift go-cart disguised as a house, and set out for summer vacation on a road-trip through France. This coming-of-age film is a departure for director Michel Gondry, depending less on animation and filmic invention than his recent work, and concentrating more on character, realism and whimsy. What has resulted is a superior family film (at least the PG-14 variety of family film), that avoids clichés and is totally involving. Much credit to the two young actors, Ange Dargent and Théophile Baquet, who are convincingly age-appropriate, and a script that is never predictable and quite entertaining.

  • Tudo Que Aprendemos Juntos

    Tudo Que Aprendemos Juntos 2015

    ★★½ Watched 12 May, 2016

    Watched at the Seattle International Film Festival under the title of The Violin Teacher

    At the start of this film, a former Brazilian violin prodigy found himself creatively stalled. He took a temporary job teaching high school students from the favela (Brazilian slums) to perform as an orchestra, especially identifying with one promising violin student who was unfortunately involved with local gangsters. That's the set up for a film steeped in the appreciation of classical music; but also impaired by a clunky, predictable plot.

  • The Lure

    The Lure 2015

    Watched 12 May, 2016

    This scattered and virtually incoherent film tells the story of two mermaids who go to work in a Polish music bar and sex club. The film is visually dazzling; and the musical numbers are wonderfully performed. But none of that makes up for a plot that is so annoyingly obscure and bloodthirsty (don't even ask), that it defies why anybody would ever want to watch such a film. Of course, your mileage may vary. But if I could conveniently have fled the festival screening I certainly would have after the first half-hour or so of sheer torture, which didn't improve.

  • Eye in the Sky

    Eye in the Sky 2015

    ★★★★ Watched 11 May, 2016

    This is a taut, dramatic accounting of a British supervised and American performed drone strike on terrorists in the middle-east. It was well acted (Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman in his last role were particularly convincing as British soldiers, while Aaron Paul was sort of wasted as the drone pilot conflicted by doubts.) And the ethical dilemma of remote drone warfare with its calculations of "collateral damage" (in this case a very young, sympathetic little girl) was convincingly portrayed. Good script, tight direction (Gavin Hood, a director I'm certainly watching for). In the end I wasn't quite sure what the point was...anti-war? ends-justify-the-means? we are all complicit in making more terrorists? that remote, modern warfare is hellish and soul killing? all of the above?

  • Southside With You

    Southside With You 2016

    ★★★ Watched 11 May, 2016

    This film dramatizes the first date of two lawyers in Chicago's southside in the 1980s. That these two lawyers happen to be Barak and Michelle Obama in their youths is a fitting start to the ongoing legend of the 44th American President. Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers as respectively Michelle and Barak are physically and vocally convincing. The film is talky (hard to imagine these two being anything else on a first date), and intellectually satisfying, with a smart, illuminating script. I think if I had been able to watch this film in 2008 I would have been a lot more supportive of candidate Obama, who was a relative unknown to me at the time that I didn't quite trust. What this film does very well is define what a "community organizer" actually is, and the source of Obama's appeal and oratorical skills that ultimately propelled him to the Presidency. What it doesn't do is make for a gripping romantic drama. Too cerebral for that. Still, it's enjoyable and worth the time to get involved with these people.

  • The Olive Tree

    The Olive Tree 2016

    ★★ Watched 11 May, 2016

    The setting is an olive tree grove and farm in present day Spain, where a young girl watches her adored, dementia afflicted grandfather mourn the previous sale and uprooting of their favorite 2,000 year old olive tree at the instigation of the girl's father and uncles. The girl hatches a plot to recover the tree which involves a clever deception; and the film becomes an eco-friendly road trip north to Germany, and a girl's coming-of-age story. Unfortunately for me, I just couldn't get all that involved with the unlikely deception and the film was too slow to arrive at the bittersweet resolution.

  • Midsummer in Newtown

    Midsummer in Newtown 2016

    ★★★½ Watched 11 May, 2016

    One year after the shocking and tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, CT in 2012, the town came together to perform an original musical production of Shakespeare's "Midsummer Night's Dream," utilizing the school's children of all ages as performers. This documentary tells the story of the making and performance of this event from the point of view of some bereaved parents, traumatized kids and the Broadway professionals that volunteered to write, compose and direct the show. The subject of a town's attempting to heal is important; and the kids and parents that were mainly featured were well chosen for emotional impact. However I couldn't help but come away with the been-there-done-that feeling that I'd experienced the same sort of straightforward, chronological film making about talented kids triumphing over adversity before.

  • Zoom

    Zoom 2015

    ★★★★ Watched 10 May, 2016

    This Brazilian-Canadian co-production has a fascinating and original premise, a live action and animation composite film where three stories blend into one another circularly, with the characters in each story somehow creating the characters in the next story in line. Thus there is no "original" "real" story, just an endless loop of characters creating other characters. I won't even try in a spoiler free review to explain the details. Suffice it to say that the various film techniques (including some superb rotoscoped animation) used to join the three stories together are superbly realized. The film uses some familiar actors: Alison Pill, Gael Garcia Bernal, Don McKellar and Jason Priestly were the most familiar to me; but the entire ensemble is quite good. I was entertained from beginning to end by the concept and story, a filmic equivalent to an action filled graphic novel.

  • Tanna

    Tanna 2015

    ★★½ Watched 10 May, 2016

    On the south Pacific volcanic island of Vanuatu in the 1980s, two indigenous tribes waged a territorial war. This film dramatizes a kind of Romeo and Juliette story of the granddaughter of one of the tribes put under pressure to bring the tribes together by making an arranged marriage with the son of the chief of the other tribe. However, the girl has a mind of her own and is in love with a man of her own tribe. The film looks authentic, using unknown amateur actors that are actual people of the island, and a setting centered on the local volcano which is used as a metaphor for the couple's passion. For me the story was too simplistic, and the pacing too slow to keep me enthralled. However, as an example of pure film making, it had an authenticity that others might find worth watching (I had trouble staying awake.)

  • Sonita

    Sonita 2015

    ★★★★½ Watched 10 May, 2016

    Sonita was a young Afghani girl living illegally in Iran. In this suspenseful and inspiring documentary it is disclosed that she was an accomplished rapper (it is illegal for women to sing in Iran) whose mother traveled from Afghanistan to Iran to insist that her daughter submit to the family by returning home to an arranged marriage so that her older brother could use her marriage settlement of $9,000 to buy his own bride. This documentary tells of the amazing strength, wisdom and luck of this young girl as she fought back against custom with her music and her actions. As she interacted on screen with the Iranian woman filmmaker, the viewer is alternately terrified for Sonita and elevated by her creativity and courage. This is one of the better documentaries you'll see this year.

  • Hockney

    Hockney 2014

    ★★★★½ Watched 09 May, 2016

    In my opinion, David Hockney is the most accessible and wonderful of modern artists. I've admired many of his large pieces at museum shows; but until this inspiring documentary I never really understood how close I personally have been to the actual man (living in Los Angeles and having acquaintances in common.) The film covers much of Hockney's life and works through interviews with his friends, family and he, himself (now a spry, still brilliantly productive 79.) The film is edited roughly in chronological order; but it is much more than just Hockney's life story. Rather it is an intricately edited and startlingly honest view of the development of an artist and a true gay luminary without compromise. I loved this film, and wish I had known Hockney in person.

  • Sunset Song

    Sunset Song 2015

    ★★★★ Watched 09 May, 2016

    On a bleak, Scottish farm in the years pre-World War I, Chris (played by the beautiful young actress Agyness Deyn) and her three brothers are growing up ruled by their stern, cruel, abusive father (Peter Mullen), whose treatment of their mother is even more terrible and fraught. That is the set-up for director Davies' epic family drama that spans the WW I era from the point of view of Chris as she grows to womanhood and marries a supportive local boy (Kevin Guthrie) who is scarred irrevocably by his war experience. This may be Terence Davies' most accessible drama, an emotionally traumatic roller coaster of a film that runs the gamut of degradation and despair to triumph of female will reminiscent of Scarlett O'Hara's and Tess d'Ubervilles' to name two influences I detected in this story. The film is sub-titled, which considering that the Scottish brogue is not all that impenetrable, is still appreciated. And much credit must go to cinematographer Michael McDonough, for the amazing imagery which brings the austerity of the Scottish countryside to life.

  • Closet Monster

    Closet Monster 2015

    ★★★½ Watched 09 May, 2016

    Oscar as a pre-teener accidentally witnessed a horrendous gay-bashing which crippled its victim. The sensitive boy was left emotionally scarred, not helped by his parents' bad marriage and breakup. Oscar is played as an older youth by the wonderful young actor Connor Jessup, who for whatever reason is getting type-cast as a sexually confused, gay teenager (recently in the second season of the great TV series "American Crime"). In this film, despite the horrible trauma of his youth, and despite his father's mental illness and mother's semi-desertion, Oscar does explore his attraction to a straight fellow worker (Aliocha Schneider). The film is a beautifully realized coming of age story; but the script is somewhat scattered and episodic; and I never quite understood the underlying psychology of Oscar's possibly bipolar father (Aaron Abrams).

  • The IF Project 2016

    ★★★ Watched 09 May, 2016

    The "If Project" is an ongoing outreach program by the Seattle Police Department to offer advice and aid to women incarcerated in the Washington Correction Center for Women. This documentary tells of the founding and current operation of the program through the cooperation of a prisoner, Renata Abramson and a policewoman, Kim Bogucki. The film is informative and at times uplifting; but also repetitive and somewhat over-long for its content.

  • The Wait

    The Wait 2015

    ★★½ Watched 08 May, 2016

    Juliette Binoche is luminous as ever in this beautifully shot film of which the plot and characters' actions made no sense at all. Perhaps the film was meant to be obscure and ambiguous (who really died? why lie about it?) Maybe I missed something when the pacing just about put me to sleep. Still, the Sicilian countryside has never looked more alluring, and young actress Lou de Laâge is a fine match for Binoche, giving an equally strong performance.

  • Indignation

    Indignation 2016

    ★★★★½ Watched 06 May, 2016

    The year is 1951, and Marcus, son of a New Jersey Jewish butcher, is avoiding the Korean War draft by accepting a scholarship to a Lutheran college in Winesburg, Ohio, where he falls for a mentally ill blonde shiksa goddess (Sarah Gadon) and tussles with the stern Dean of students (a great performance by playwright Tracy Letts). Marcus is played with searing intelligence and atheistic passion by one of my favorite young actors, Logan Lerman. His intellectual battle of wits with the Dean reminds one of the feral battle between student and teacher in Whiplash. The film is adapted from a late novel by Philip Roth, and is apparently a fictionalized account of that author's college experience. It is also the first director effort from successful indie producer James Schamus, and it was worth the wait! I haven't read the book; but this is a great script, smart and insightful. I couldn't help but compare this with a recent film that blew me away, Brooklyn. This film takes place in the same year, with protagonists that are the exact same age as those in the earlier film. Both films get the feeling of the early 1950s exactly right; but this one is the male oriented, twisted, polar opposite of that Irish immigrant romance. Except for a disappointing, disturbing final scene, this film affected me as deeply as any film I've seen in recent years...just as Brooklyn did last year.

  • The Last King

    The Last King 2016

    ★★★½ Watched 06 May, 2016

    In the early 13th century, Norway was legendarily in the grip of a civil war when an usurper assassinated the king and attempted to find and kill the king's infant son and rightful heir. Two loyalist adventurers set out to save and protect the infant; and what ensued is a fast paced chase film on skis with great action cinematography and a touch of unreality (for instance the 1-year old boy never seems to need a diaper change or even cries from hunger...and wounds miraculously heal very quickly.) I guess this film is no more unlikely than a fantasy that it has been compared to (Game of Thrones on skis without dragons.) The film is a lot of fun to watch if one can suspend the feeling of disbelief.

  • Horizons

    Horizons 2015

    ★★ Watched 06 May, 2016

    This documentary tells the story of three Cuban ballerinas. First and foremost is the now 94-year old Alicia Alonso, who surmounted blindness to become one of the most famous ballet dancers in the world. Alonso's story is intercut with that of up and coming principal dancer Viengsay Valdes, and teenage ballet student Amanda De Jesus Perez Duarte. I didn't find any of the stories all that gripping or informative, and the overly impressionistic artiness of the presentation was annoying at times.

  • Slash

    Slash 2016

    ★★★★ Watched 05 May, 2016

    Neil is an introverted, 15-year old high-school student, secretly into writing "slash" fan fiction stories featuring his favorite sci fi character as a gay adventurer. He is played with utter, age-appropriate conviction by Michael Johnston. Naive loner Neil hooks up with a fellow student, Julia (Hannah Marks), a more sophisticated upper classman who shares his interest in slash. They set out together to attend a comic-con event. That is the beginning of a tender coming of age story that develops in surprising and illuminating ways. It's a wonderful script, and the casting is ideal. My one reservation is that the film and its director can't quite surmount its low-budget, indie constraints. But I enjoyed every minute of the film, one of the best portrayals of modern teenage social awkwardness that has ever been portrayed on film.

  • How Most Things Work

    How Most Things Work 2015

    ★★★ Watched 05 May, 2016

    Celina (a vibrant performance by Veronica Verez) longs to escape the rut of a dead-end job in an Argentine backwater while taking care of her dying father. Freeing herself from these constraints, she embarks on a career of traveling salesmen hawking door-to-door an encyclopaedia "How Most Things Work." What ensues is a bittersweet comedy of self-discovery and personal liberation. The fine acting and sharp dialog are good enough to make the film worth watching.

  • Truman

    Truman 2015

    ★★★★½ Watched 04 May, 2016

    Thomás (Javier Cámara), a Canadian entrepreneur immigrant, leaves his wife and family to visit his old friend Julián (Ricardo Darin), an Argentinian actor living in Madrid. Julián is dying of lung cancer, and his main concern is finding a place for his aging dog Truman. That is the set-up for a wonderfully touching story of friendship and the essences of living, loving and loss. This may be Ricardo Darin's most defining role in a long series of superb portrayals. The film spoke volumes to me personally, maybe because few films in my lifetime have ever been so true to the experiences and reflections of men of a certain age as well as an affirmation of life that was as humorous at times as it was poignant. Plus the dog actor who portrayed Truman with a sad-sack personality delivers one of the great canine performances ever.

  • The Violators

    The Violators 2015

    ★½ Watched 04 May, 2016

    Three teenage siblings living in a lower class English housing project on their own (with occasional help from social services) find out that their father, who apparently had abused all three, was about to be released from prison. The film focuses on the 15 year old Shelly (Lauren McQueen) and her struggles to live and support her younger brother while dealing with predators (including another young teenage girl stalker, and a local gangster/enforcer) and the terror of anticipating her father's return. The film's cockney dialog badly needed subtitles...I missed half of the conversations because of the accents and a poor sound mix. The film reminded me of some other British lower class family dramas, such as Lynne Ramsay's Ratcatcher, only without the poetry and visual panache of that film. Instead we're subjected to constant degradation and hopelessness. I could have skipped this film entirely.

  • Concerto: A Beethoven Journey

    Concerto: A Beethoven Journey 2015

    ★★★½ Watched 04 May, 2016

    Superb Norwegian concert pianist Leif Ove Andsnes spent four years exploring in depth the five Beethoven piano concertos, utilizing in part his own chamber orchestra where his piano was front and center and he conducted the orchestra in the parts in which he didn't play the soloist. The film basically divides itself into five parts exploring each concerto in depth while relating them to the various parts of Beethoven's life when he wrote them. The music is superb (Andsnes makes his case that Beethoven was the greatest composer that ever lived.) Andsnes' commentary is illuminating; but the film bogged down at times when its five part structure became repetitive.

  • Victoria

    Victoria 2015

    ★★★★ Watched 01 May, 2016

    Laia Costa shines in the title role playing a young Spaniard woman recently moved to Berlin. The film opens late at night at a frenetic dance bar, and the camera slowly pulls out to reveal Victoria writhing with the beat, and then follows her as she leaves the dance floor. On the way out she encounters a group of 4 rowdy young men who are being turned away from entry for lack of funds. And then in one continuous 2 1/4 hour steady-cam take we follow Victoria as she hooks up with the foursome (especially attractive Sonne played by Frederick Lau) as they undergo a sunrise adventure which involves fun, crime, death and somehow redemption...again, in one continuous, deliriously fantastic take. Credit goes to the cameraman, Sturla Brandth Grovlen, whose mobile camera never is in the wrong place as it transitions in and out of cars and multiple locations.

    I've recently seen four other films that attempt the difficult task of being one-take films (only possible since the invention of digital cameras, of course); but nothing holds a candle to this amazing technical feat. Oh yeah, lets not forget director Schipper and the remarkable actors. I may have a slight quibble with the psychology of why this level-headed girl went off on this adventure with four strangers to begin with. But the entire film, beginning to end, was an astonishing tour de force which captured me in thrall.

  • Compared To What: The Improbable Journey Of Barney Frank

    Compared To What: The Improbable Journey Of Barney Frank 2014

    ★★★★½ Watched 29 Apr, 2016

    If there is any true hero of the left, for my money it has to be Barney Frank. He served in Congress for many years, many of them regretfully and spirit-killingly in the closet. Yet, he has been perhaps the most influential gay politician of our time. This documentary tells the intimate story of his life. His feistiness, his incisive intelligence, his undiminished support of the downtrodden working people and LGBTQ people of all strips are legendary. The film uses numerous clips from newscasts and interviews. But it also delves into Frank's personal life. I have rarely cried at weddings; but when he and his partner were married in a ceremony amusingly presided over by the governor of Massachusetts, I was in tears. This is a deeply moving, smartly edited documentary about a contemporary of mine (a year older) who paid more than his dues. And let me end this review with a quote from a Barney speech that he gave supporting Joe Kennedy, Bobby's son, for Congress. "Vote Democratic...we may not be perfect, but they're nuts!" Bravo, Barney. Bravo filmmakers.

  • Fast Convoy

    Fast Convoy 2016

    ★★½ Watched 22 Apr, 2016

    Eight French-Arab men in four souped-up cars have formed a convoy to transport drugs from Spain to Paris. What follows is a fast paced film noir road flick, with propulsive editing and a pulsating score. It's ultra-violent, well acted (Benoît Magimel is the team leader), and at times sickening to watch. Set entirely in fast speed cars on the super-highways of southern Europe, the characters communicate mostly by cellphone. It's reminiscent of that Tom Hardy one-character road trip film, Locke, only with eight desperate characters instead of only one. The in-car cinematography is fine, the stunt driving first rate. But the total anarchy of the plot was for me a turn-off.

  • Au nom de ma fille

    Au nom de ma fille 2016

    ★★★ Watched 22 Apr, 2016

    Watched at City of Light/City of Angels film festival under the title Kalinka

    Daniel Auteuil is extraordinary playing the real-life André Bamberski, a Frenchman who spent 30 years obsessed with bringing to justice the man who he thought raped and killed his teen-age daughter. Sebastian Koch plays the German physician who married Bamberski's ex-wife, and allegedly drugged and raped several young girls in addition to the daughter in question...making for a messy family squabble in addition to an international case of court intrigue over jurisdiction and extradition. The nuts and bolts of the 30-year obsession become tedious after a while; but Auteuil's genuine passion in the role make the film worth watching.

  • Don't Tell Me the Boy Was Mad

    Don’t Tell Me the Boy Was Mad 2015

    ★★★★ Watched 22 Apr, 2016

    April 24, 1915 is the date commemorated even today as the start of the Armenian genocide when up to 1 1/2 million of those people were exterminated by the Ottoman Turks during WWI. This film recounts a century of pain and terrorist reprisals by the survivors, starting with the famous assassination of the Turkish ambassador to Germany in 1921 by the Armenian hero Soghomon Tehlirian. This film starts with a B&W flashback of the trial of Tehlirian, and then shifts to the 1980s when disaffected youths resorted to terrorism to remind the world of the Turkish perfidy.

    The film tells the story of one family who run an ethnic grocery in Marseilles in 1980. The hot-headed son (Syrus Shahidi) joins a terrorist group which is determined to assassinate the Turkish ambassador to France. In the course of that act, an innocent bystander (played by one of my all-time favorite actors Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet) is crippled for life. The film is the story of how that family deals with the consequences of the initial act, with a telling emphasis on the activities of the Armenian terrorists operating out of Beirut in the '80s. French-Armenian director Robert Guédiguian uses the instructive and moving story of this family as a symbol of the resounding pain of his heritage and the ultimate folly of terrorism.

  • En mai, fais ce qu'il te plaît

    En mai, fais ce qu’il te plaît 2015

    ★★★★ Watched 19 Apr, 2016

    Watched at the City of Lights/City of Angels film festival under the title of "Come What May."

    In May, 1940 up to 10 million French citizens were displaced by the German invasion and their country's instruction to head south. This is the story of a small village which sets off en masse on their ill-fated journey. The story centers on an anti-Nazi German man and his 8-year old son who had been seeking refuge in France (played by the fine German actor August Diehl and new-comer Joshio Marlon) who hook up with a Scottish soldier separated from the British forces trying to escape by way of Dunkirk (played by one of my favorite actors, Matthew Rhys.) The film is complex in terms of characters, and has the same sort of plucky sentimentality that characterized the director's previous war film Joyeux Noel. It's hard to imagine a "feel-good" film coming from such a horrendous historical era; but the director based this film on his mother's experiences at the time. And there is a ring of solemn truth to the film that cannot be understated. And as icing on the cake, the director managed to get Ennio Morricone to provide one of his best scores ever, which added immensely to the gravitas of the characters' plight.

  • Everybody Wants Some

    Everybody Wants Some 2016

    ★★★½ Watched 17 Apr, 2016

    Four freshmen baseball players arrive at an off-campus South Eastern Texas U residential unit for one wild weekend of carousing before the start of school in 1980. Director Richard Linklater returns to the spirit of his breakout 1993 flick Dazed and Confused, this time with even more alcohol and drugs and rock and roll. The cast of mostly unfamiliar actors, led by bound to be the breakout star Blake Jenner, are just as wild and crazy and amped up as the original cast of relative unknowns back in '93. Of course, Linklater excels at getting the era right; and the script may be predictable, but it's enormously fun to watch anyway. Also, stick it out through the end credits for one of those amazing throw away, add-on scene stealers.

  • Nothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt & Anderson Cooper

    Nothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt & Anderson Cooper 2016

    ★★★★ Watched 16 Apr, 2016

    This is the second HBO documentary I've watched this week about a son's attempt to understand and communicate his famous mother's story (the first was Jacob Ephron's paean to Nora.) However, in this case another film maker shaped the narrative; and all in all Liz Garbus does a good job of straightforward, chronological film making. Anderson Cooper, who spends more time interviewing his mother than being the subject of the film himself, is famous in his own right. But "Poor little rich girl" Gloria Vanderbilt is still alive in her nineties, still producing paintings that illustrate her fascinating, often tragic life. While not particularly probing, the film nevertheless succeeds as filmed biography. And as it reaches an emotional catharsis when it explores the mysterious suicide of Anderson's older brother Carter, the film touches a raw nerve of pain. Even the rich and famous are real people.

  • Everything Is Copy

    Everything Is Copy 2015

    ★★★★½ Watched 13 Apr, 2016

    Nora Ephron's older son, Jacob Bernstein, weaves a tapestry of archival footage and interviews with Ephron's friends and family into this fascinating and uplifting tribute to his mother's spirit. The title is supposedly a quote from Nora's mother; but it is also a mantra that Ephron lived by her entire life (except for her 6 year battle with the blood disease that eventually killed her that she kept secret from the world.) Bernstein avoids the usual pitfalls of a documentarian who is too close to his subject by using his familiarity and contacts to ask probing questions in the interviews. And frankly, by having a mother who was so inherently and publicly out there, smart and interesting. [Personal note: when I was a freshman at Bevery Hills High School, Nora Ephron sat directly behind me in Mme Lillard's French 1 class. She was a year ahead of me in school; but it wasn't uncommon for different classmen to share electives like French. She wouldn't remember me from Adam; but, boy, do I remember her and her acid tongue, which always seemed to be poking fun at me in particular - maybe because I, as a budding francophile, had a much better accent than she did. I disliked her then for her pompous aura of intellectual superiority; but also never forgot her. When she became famous, it certainly came as no surprise.]

  • Stealing Cars

    Stealing Cars 2015

    ★★★½ Watched 06 Apr, 2016

    Basically Stealing Cars is a youth oriented remake of the 1967 film Cool Hand Luke where a charismatic felon battles the entrenched, all-powerful prison guards (in this case a teen-age youth against the authorities of a boy's reformatory camp.) And to boot, the impressive lead (Emory Cohen, the breakout actor in last year's great film Brooklyn,) has some of the star qualities of that other Jewish mega-star, Paul Newman...at least the magnetism and acting chops if not the looks. For most of the film, this old formula works thanks to its star...until the script meanders into an ending that seems too rushed and unmotivated by what went before. Still, the ride in the stolen cars with Cohen was worth the ticket.

  • Louder Than Bombs

    Louder Than Bombs 2015

    ★★★★½ Watched 03 Apr, 2016 2

    In my opinion, Joachim Trier is the most accomplished young writer-director currently making films. If you don't believe me, then make an effort to watch his first two Norwegian films: Reprise and Oslo, August 31st, both masterpieces. Louder Than Bombs is his first film in English...and it is a spectacularly smart and illuminating family drama, with hints of Strindberg and Arthur Miller in the writing, and a multi-layered filmic complexity that is the signal attribute of this maturing auteur.

    The casting is perfect, starting with Isabelle Huppert as the mother, a successful and work-driven war photographer shown only in flashback, whose death by auto accident two years earlier is the fulcrum for the dramatic dissolution of her family. Gabriel Byrne is left with their two sons: troubled, professorish Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg), uncomfortable in his role of husband and new father; and teenage Conrad (a remarkably deep characterization by newcomer Devin Druid), suffering from typical adolescent insecurity without the benefit of any mothering.

    The film's editorial schema is complicated by frequent flashbacks and each character's internalized dialogue manifested with clever film maker techniques. In the hands of a lesser director, this might have been confusing; but I was just astonished by how easy it was to separate the reality from the impressionistic dreamscapes. Maybe the film was a trifle too long; but I was left both emotionally moved and intellectually intrigued to continue to follow this family as they most likely are on the road to healing.

  • Lolo

    Lolo 2015

    ★★★ Watched 03 Apr, 2016

    A perfectly likable French farce with a barely concealed dark side (single mother whose 20-year old son has been sabotaging his mother's love affairs since he was 7, like a charming, Oedipal bad seed.) Director and lead actress July Delpy gets the tone right, glossy cinematography, screwball characters. And her casting of lithe, young Vincent Lacoste as her sociopathic son Lolo is perfect. But I've never understood the appeal of Dany Boon, miscast as Delpy's romantic interest and the victim of Lolo's manipulative subversion. The film is diverting enough to eventually watch on Netflix.

  • Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

    Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice 2016

    ★★★½ Watched 02 Apr, 2016 1

    OK, truth, I hated Man of Steel. But, once I got over the plot absurdities and contradictions of this sequel, with its uncomfortable mixture of the Batman and Superman mythoi, frankly, the action sequences really kicked butt and I submitted totally. The film is dark and loud...and even a little touching at times. I figure I'll get reviled for this: but I really prefer Snyder's noirish vision thing here to Nolan's. And truthfully, I find the angsty DC universe more complex and interesting than the Marvel one, in any case. I think the critics are just too hung up on the plot problems, and not receptive enough to the furious visual and sonic excitement of sequence after sequence. Great score, by the way...propulsive and not at all derivative. And the three leads (Affleck, Cavill and Eisenberg) are convincingly larger than life.

  • Knight of Cups

    Knight of Cups 2015

    ★★ Watched 12 Mar, 2016

    This is Malick's anti-narrative paean to life among the Los Angeles glitterati, as seen through the eyes and experiences of Rick (played with stoic solemnity by Christian Bale), a lost soul film writer searching for fulfillment through varied relations with six ravishing L.A. women, personified by metaphorical tarot cards. Along the way we're treated to gorgeous cinematography (again Emmanuel Lubezki, does the man ever take a day off?), which features hyper-posh Los Angles and Las Vegas milieux at their most alluring. However, as a long time denizen of the L.A. scenes depicted, I was continually put off by the way Malick's script jumps unrealistically about town with no discernible pattern...an editing schema gone amok.

    And to add to the feeling of a film adrift from story, Malick doubles down on his increasing tendency to use voice-over stream-of-consciousness narration in the place of dialogue. This is particularly disorienting when there was actual back story and exposition about his family (father and younger brother) and the women he briefly conjoins with. They become abstractions devoid of connection with the audience (at least for me, personally.) The sum total for me was a tone poem that was all tone and no poetry.

  • Whiskey Tango Foxtrot