2017 REVIEWS FROM LETTERBOXD.COM




  • 4 Days in France

    4 Days in France

    ★★★½

    Pierre, a 30-something gay Parisian, leaves his sleeping lover Paul, and sets out alone on an automobile odyssey of sex and self-discovery through southeastern France. Pierre, good looking and modern, utilizes the Grindr app to search out tricks and trysting spots. And upon awakening, Paul, bereft, sets out to find his errant lover using the same smartphone app. That's about it for plot. But the film was more travelogue and reverie than sex tour (in fact the most erotic scene finds Pierre making love to a blank motel wall.) Pierre was played by Pascal Cervo with a stolid reserve that concealed a caring nature. Like a gay Odysseus, he encountered several vivid, quirky personalities on his travels. The scenery, which stretched from peaceful green forests to the snow capped Alps, was the real star of the film. One could fall in love with the French countryside, even as the story occasionally bogged down in Pierre's passivity and the languished pacing of the scenario. But for me, I was never bored. I found much to identify with, vicariously living Pierre's journey along with him. Director Reybaud and his intriguing cast conveyed just the right balance of real and neurotic, beauty and ugliness. I left the theater feeling more optimistic about life and love than when I entered.

  • The Only Living Boy in New York

    The Only Living Boy in New York

    ★★★★½

    Let's set the parameters: I love quirky. Marc Webb proved to be the master of quirk with his 2009 film [500] Days of Summer.. Then he took a detour into the Hollywood money machine with his two Spider-Man flicks, films which oddly quirked up its eponymous hero. With this new film he's back to relatively low budget quirk...and I loved it. I'm not getting into the convoluted Oedipal plot with its unexpected twists and turns and farcical elements. This is basically a character driven romantic dramedy...and the cast delivers. This might be Jeff Bridges best role since "The Dude," here playing a gruff, Salinger-ish, reclusive, best-selling author. He mentors a young wannabe writer, Thomas, rebelling against his uppercrust New York, success oriented family by living in a lower Eastside hovel. Thomas is played by the youthful Brit actor, Callum Turner, sporting a flawless American accent, and delivering an impassioned...here it is, quirky...performance of ingratiating intensity. The film isn't going to be everybody's cuppa. But it was mine.

  • The Glass Castle

    The Glass Castle

    ★★★★

    A dramatized true story, based on a memoir by journalist Jeannette Walls, about a girl growing up along with her brother and two sisters in an itinerant family dominated by a crazed redneck father and a dotty artist mother. The film spans decades of personal anecdotes, with different, excellent child actors portraying the kids at various ages, up to their various escapes from their poisonous family situation in the 1980s. It's Jeannette's story; but the theme is her love/hate relationship with her parents...spectacular performances by Woody Harrelson as her father Rex, and Naomi Watts as her mother Rose Marie. Rex especially was a monster: smart, mentally abusive, alcoholic, borderline bipolar. I hated him for the harm he caused his family; but he epitomized the charming rogue, too. It's been a while since a characterization got under my skin the way Harrelson's did here. Director Destin Cretton proved with his previous film Short Term 12 (also starring Brie Larson, who plays Jeannette as a young adult here) that he has few peers among relatively young directors in bringing vivid characterizations to life. The film ends with a protracted documentary sequence of the real Walls family from home movies and modern day interviews. Bottom line, this is an excellent depiction of a dysfunctional family brought to life by a superb cast and a sensitive director. But be prepared to have strong mixed feelings about what is depicted here.

  • Chosen and Excluded – Jew Hatred in Europe

    ★★★½

    This documentary was originally made for public television in Germany and France. It was rejected in both countries for broadcast because of its incendiary contents. The film I watched at a screening at the Museum of Tolerance in L.A. was full length and mostly dubbed into English. The main point raised by the film, utilizing interviews and examples, is that both extremes, left and right, are in rare agreement in their anti-Semitism. The neo-Nazis and skinheads on the extreme right are obvious examples. However, the activist left disguises its extreme anti-Semitism by diverting the issue to anti-Israel propaganda. Examples: Israel poisons Palestinian wells (PLO head Abbas to the EU congress.) Israel slaughters children in Gaza (false...footage shot in the real Gaza belies this, and even Palestinian children interviewed in Gaza talk about Hamas corruption.) And the constant bombardment of Israel from Gaza is ignored by Euro activists. Bottom line: overt anti-Semitism by the left is out of fashion and no longer exists; but overt anti-Israel demonstrations and provocations by the left are totally acceptable. And violence against Jews by terrorists and thugs are commonplace throughout Europe. No wonder this is an issue too hot to handle.

    However, for all its important message, the film's narration (at least with the dubbing into English) was somewhat heavy handed; and the scattershot editing blunted the film's affect, giving the false impression that the film was somehow totally unbalanced pro-Israel and anti-Palestine. From the Q&A, we learned that 9 hours of the first cut was pared to 90 minutes. However around the 75 minute mark in I had to check my watch. That is not a good sign that the film was working as well as it might have.

  • Good Time

    Good Time

    ★★★★

    This stomach churning, involving crime thriller tells the story of two 20-something brothers from the outer boroughs of NYC. Nick (a stone-faced, authentic performance by co-director Ben Safdie) is mentally challenged and cared for by his marginally normal brother Connie (an amazingly energized performance by the underrated Robert Pattenson.) In a misguided effort to get away from the city, the two commit a botched bank heist. Nick is caught, and Connie spends one increasingly frenetic night attempting to get him out of jail and escape a subsequent hospital internment. Think a modern film noir shot in vivid colors with a loud, energetic synth score. Something like a Dog Day Afternoon crossed with Nightcrawler, as directed by Godard or Noé. I cringed as I watched it; but the screen crackled with so much energy due to Pattinson's performance and the stylish direction of the Safdie brothers, that I was transfixed.

  • Can't Stop, Won't Stop: A Bad Boy Story

    Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A Bad Boy Story

    ★★

    This documentary recounts some of the history of Bad Boy Records, mainly from the point of view of founder Sean (Puffy) Combs. The centerpiece is the feud in the 1990s between the East and West contingents of gangsta rappers, culminating in the shooting murders of Tupac Shaakur and Biggie Smalls. The latter was Combs' friend and one of the major stars in the Bad Boy stable. The drama of his murder and the following celebration concert (featuring Lil' Kim, among others) is shown using shaky, poorly shot videos edited at a frenetic fast pace that is difficult to watch. Maybe if I had more initial information about the hip hop movement and its stars, I might have found this documentary more informative. As it is, the film simply failed as a historical document despite brief moments of insight. But it also fell short as a concert video, since the sequences of performances were sparsely covered and edited too fast to entertain.




  • The Book of Henry

    The Book of Henry

    ★★★★

    Jeez, from the reviews here on letterboxd you'd think this was the worst film ever to come down the pike. Well it isn't. I think the problem is that people are taking the story seriously, rather than as the children's moral fable it was meant to be (cf Stranger Things, an apt comparison.) So, 11 year old Henry (Jaeden Lieberher, great at playing weird as in last year's Midnight Special) is a super genius with psychic prophetic powers in the guise of a normal kid. He protects his diminutive younger brother (Jacob Tremblay, proving as he did in Room that he is an accomplished actor well beyond his years). But Henry is especially protective of his insecure mother (Naomi Watts) and a troubled young neighbor girl.

    The plot is almost irrelevant, a series of contrivances adding up to a gifted child saves practically everybody even from his grave (oops! was that a spoiler? doesn't matter.) What makes this film special is the positive presentation of a uniquely tight-knit family. Naomi Watts is never better than when she is mothering gifted boys. Remember "Spiderman" Tom Holland playing her imperiled son in the tsunami film The Impossible? Watts has the rare gift of radiating maternal love without sentimentality.

    Director Trevorrow uses a creepy synthesizer score by Michael Giacchino and an Oscar contender song (sung by Watts in the film and Stevie Nicks in the end credits) to add to the eerie unreality of the story. But it is his assured direction of the fine cast and sensitivity to the subtleties of family life that stood out for me. The film is something of a throwback tonally...sort of a modern day E.T. in feeling; but in this skeptical era, apparently a family oriented moral fable doesn't fly. I was moved and enthralled.

  • Handsome Devil

    Handsome Devil

    ★★★★

    Ned (played by cute, red-headed Fionn O'Shea), was a 16-year old Irish prep-school student. He was an introvert, interested in music...enrolled in a boy's school that is batty for rugby, which made him a picked-on outcast. His new roommate, Connor (attractive Nicholas Galitzine), was mysteriously expelled from his previous school; but he turned out to be a talented rugby player, so he instantly became a BMOC. Also new at the school was a closeted gay English teacher (ingratiatingly played by Andrew Scott). Ned and Connor surprisingly became friends; but there is some sexual ambiguity surrounding both boys...which became the crux of the drama. I was totally involved in this well written and acted gay-friendly coming-of-age story. It made a fitting and positive ending to my 6-week long, 110 film Seattle Film Festival marathon!

  • Free and Easy

    Free and Easy

    ★★½

    In this trenchant, if ploddingly slow, Chinese satire, two con-men, (a soap salesman and a fake monk) attempt to prey on a series of country bumpkins. They must elude two local cops and cope with their increasingly canny victims. The film almost degenerates into slapstick; but actually presents a rather amusing take on the greed and money fixation of modern Chinese society. It's just that the torpid pacing just about put me to sleep.

  • This Is Our Land

    This Is Our Land

    ★★★½

    This timely French political drama tells the story of Pauline (Emilie Dequenne), a home-visitation nurse who was invited to run for her small-town mayorship by the right-wing anti-immigrant party led by a woman who somewhat resembled Marine Le Pen. Director Belvaux (who made the impressively contemporary "Trilogy" a few years ago), presented an informative and apparently accurate, if fictitious, portrayal of the people and issues that are consuming Europe today. But it also resonated with our own current American political situation.

  • Mr. Long

    Mr. Long

    ★★★★

    A taciturn Taiwanese hit man (Chang Chen) was assigned a target in Tokyo by his triad gang boss. When he failed to assassinate his victim, he went on the run, settling in a semi-deserted enclave populated by a friendly group of impoverished citizens (one small boy, in particular, whose Taiwanese mother was addicted to heroin.) Needing money to return to Taiwan without his passport, and with the aid of his inventively capitalist neighbors, he started a surprisingly successful mobile noodle stand...at least until his past caught up with him. That's the set-up for modern day samurai tale, a heartfelt thriller with comic elements. The frequent bloodshed was stylized, and frankly a little unbelievable; but I left the theater with a smile on my face.

  • Trouble

    ★★

    A 50-something brother and sister (Bill Pullman and Anjelica Huston) are feuding over their inherited New England property in this family drama with farcical elements. Despite a fine supporting cast, the script and direction never quite jelled for me...character motivations were suspect. And worse, the interaction of the characters with the local police and the laws of property ownership rang false. I kept rolling my eyes at the ridiculous plot mechanisms. Too bad. I liked the cast and wanted to like the film.

  • The Witches

    The Witches

    ★★★★

    I missed this 1990 kid's flick when it came out...so I was delighted to actually watch the pristine revival print at the Seattle film festival. The film was adapted from a fairy tale by Roald Dahl, utilizing the animated creature skills of the Henson studio and some of the best witch's make-up ever portrayed on screen. In essence it is the story of Luke, young orphan boy (Jasen Fisher) who while visiting an English hotel with his grandmother (Mai Zetterling), encounters a convention of witches led by the Grand High Witch (Anjelica Huston), and is transformed into a mouse. Well, that's only a small part of the magically entrancing story, which works on two levels: scary cautionary tale for children, and a wry satire of primordial, fear-of-the-other superstitions for adults. It was good fun and a superbly crafted film to boot.

  • Escape Room

    Escape Room

    ★½

    A set of over-privileged, whitebread L.A. millennials end a birthday celebration for one of their members by accepting an invitation to play in person a game that they found on the internet. By using their intellect, they must within an hour escape from a locked room. However, it was not disclosed, nor did the group choose to ponder, the penalty for losing the game. What ensued was a typical horror film in the mode of "Ten Little Indians" (one by one the characters expire.) It was all ridiculously unmotivated; and the puzzles of the game seemed to be cheats, at best. The film had fine cinematography and special effects; but the over-broad acting and poor sound recording detracted from the film's production values. And to cap it off, the characters were so unsympathetic in their hubris, that I found myself wishing that they would all die...the quicker the better.

  • The King's Choice

    The King’s Choice

    ★★★½

    This was a large scale, involving war epic telling the story of the German 3-day invasion of Norway in April, 1940. It was centered around the actions of the democratically elected Royal family as they coped, on the run, with the political situation of a parliamentary government in turmoil (for instance the eponymously quisling traitor Vidkun Quisling, who pronounced himself puppet Prime Minister; and the overmatched Norwegian army). King Haakon VII (Jesper Christensen) was forced to meet with the German envoy who was directly representing the Fuhrer; and fateful decisions ensued. The film effectively portrayed the King's heroic thoughts and actions; and while not being exactly a gung-ho patriotic movie; still it was an effective portrayal of actual history unfolding.

  • The Inland Road

    The Inland Road

    ★★★

    In this intimate New Zealand family drama, Gloria Popata plays Tia, a troubled 16-year old Maori runaway girl. In an effort to avoid spoilers, all I'm going to disclose is that Tia gets involved with two bereaved, white farming families; and with painfully slow steps involving Tia's inappropriate crush on married older men, she gradually comes of age. Like most films from New Zealand, the setting is beautiful. The family drama is well played (especially a blonde 6-year old girl actor, Georgia Spillane, who can't quite understand the death of her father); but I never quite was able to identify with Tia or the other characters; and the film lacked emotional resonance for me.

  • Say You Will

    ★★★★

    The setting: the summer of 2006 in Orange County, CA. Sam, a sensitive loner, was in the process of graduating from high school, and spending one last summer working at a video store, before heading to a music college back East. His father had recently committed suicide; his mother was chronically depressed; he had an unrequited crush on a troubled girl from grammar school, and he busied himself composing songs of love and loss. That is the set-up for a well-observed, achingly authentic, coming-of-age film that was clearly semi-autobiographical. Novice film maker, writer-director Nick Naveda was able to draw some superb performances from his cast. Travis Tope and Katherine Hughes were ideally cast as the mismatched teen-age pair. And Michelle Forbes, gave a moving performance as Sam's bereaved mother (coincidentally Forbes played a meth-addicted mother in a film I watched yesterday, Columbus...she is apparently getting type cast as a troubled mom these days.) Even the subsidiary characters were immaculately cast: especially Israel Broussard in the quipster, formerly best friend role, and Sam Trammel as a different kind of father surrogate. The film could easily have gone off the rails into maudlin, teen film angst cliché territory. But Nevada's script played amazingly true-to-life, and was even inspiring...a fine debut effort anticipating more to come from this talented film maker.

  • Nocturama

    Nocturama

    ★★★½

    This disturbing, but gripping film tells the story of a group of young Parisian radicals, who plot and carry out a horrendous feat of domestic terrorism: multiple murders and bombings around the city. Their motivation is murky and not well defined...seemingly sheer nihilism; but the plot execution is shown in exhausting detail, which held me in thrall. The group ends up hiding in a huge closed-for-the-night department store, where they variously interact and do their anti-materialistic thing. The film is suspenseful, and there is a feeling of impending doom. But as an audience member, I found myself surprisingly ambivalent about these young people who were acting out so destructively. Maybe some of this had to do with the attractive cast of unfamiliar young French actors; but also, the assured direction and excellent, vivid steady-cam cinematography added to my involvement, despite the revolting violence portrayed.



Columbus

Columbus

★★½

Columbus, Indiana (not Ohio, as I originally thought), is a small city with outsized modern architecture, including buildings by Eero Saarinen (who incidentally was the architect of Baker House, my famed dorm building at MIT.) In this slow-to-develop, meditative, character-driven story film, Casey (Haley Lu Richardson, a fresh and radiant performance) is a young girl, spending her post-high school year as an intern in the local library in lieu of college, and a fan of the local architecture. Her boss, a youthful MLA librarian amusingly played by yet another Culkin brother (in this case the youngest, Rory, possibly the most talented of all if he is ever given the right leading role) has an unrequited crush on Casey. But she is more interested in the older, Korean intellectual Jin (John Chu), in town because his famous academic father has been hospitalized and is on life support. The ubiquitous Parker Posey also has a small supporting role. I wanted to love this film; but honestly, the slow pacing and ambling plotlessness just never fully engaged me (I think I dozed off a few times, missing nothing, apparently).