Tuesday, March 13, 2018


Rated:  R

STARS: Daniela Vega, Francisco Reyes
DIRECTOR: Sebastian Lelio
GENRE: Drama/Arthouse

The screen is a very powerful tool for social acceptance.
--Andie MacDowell

There still seems to be some confusion these days about transgender folks. I'm not sure that the Chilean drama, A Fantastic Woman, clears any of that up, but it is a poignant and sympathetic character study of one individual.

A transgender person is someone whose gender identity differs from their biological sex at birth. 
(Or as I like to say: the biology doesn't match the psychology!Simply put, one's sex is about the body...one's gender identity is in the mind. A transsexual is someone who has taken steps to more physically resemble the gender they identify with through the use of hormones and/or surgical procedures. So, if anyone should ask... 

Were you to begin watching a A Fantastic Woman with no prior knowledge of what's what, you'd be in for a surprise as it is slowly revealed that Marina (Daniela Vega) is not a biological woman. Ya coulda fooled me, as the saying goes. There's no indication as to whether it fooled her ostensibly straight older lover, Orlando (Francisco Reyes), in the beginning, so we don't really know how or why they hooked up. But they have real passion for one another. Orlando croaks unexpectedly after they share an evening in bed together, with Marina rushing him to the hospital where a tense life or death drama plays out. It's the beginning of an odyssey of suspicion and bigotry directed toward Marina by the authorities--who suspect she may have had something to do with her lover's death--and Orlando's family, whose attitudes and subsequent actions toward Marina reveal that Chileans may have farther to go than even we here in the U.S. do in developing a live-and-let live attitude toward those who fall out of the mainstream.    

28 year-old Daniela Vega, who gets to display her impressive singing talents in the film, gives an understated (with occasional bouts of explosiveness), perfect pitch performance. She was the first openly transgender person in history to be a presenter at the 2018 Academy Awards broadcast. 

A Fantastic Woman won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. And while Jill and I frequently fall outside the mainstream with our opinions (yeah, I gave The Shape Of Water a C +), this time I'm falling right in line.
Grade: A   


And I'm falling in right behind you.  Almost.  Whenever I go to see a foreign film, I have to adjust my mindset. The leisurely pace, original camera work, unglamorized actors catch me off guard at first.  But I soon forget about the escapist entertainment Hollywood churns out and drink in those subtitles with unquenchable thirst.

A Fantastic Woman is a fantastic film.  And I loved the fact that the lead actor Daniela Vega is herself a tranny.  As appealing as she was as a woman, there were some dead giveaways that made me think "Not so fast."  Her large masculine hands, for one.  And her overly broad shoulders, for another.  Still, the one thing most men (who transition into women) can't hide is their Adam's apple.  Ms. Vega's managed to remain unnoticeable.  

I would quibble with the opening of the film.  The whole bit about the key and finding the locker (I'm not giving anything away here) seemed totally unnecessary.  I would have started the movie when our heroine was singing in the club.  But my far-more-intellectual movie buddy pointed out the symbolism: by confronting her own masculinity, she found her true identity.  To me, it was an anti climactic subplot.  (Sorry, I hate people who go into too much detail about a film I haven't seen yet!)

The score was seamless.  And that aria Daniela Vega sang at the end?  Oh, my.  It kept circling around in my head for hours after A Fantastic Woman was over.  Kudos to composers Nani Garcia and Matthew Herbert.  Because I don't want to parrot Tim's grade and I think the ex wife, ably played by Amparo Noguera, was miscast (too young-looking to have a grown son), I'll go down half a grade. After seeing this film, I'm going to make a concerted effort to see more foreign-made movies in 2018!

Grade: B+

Wednesday, March 7, 2018


Rated:  R

STARS: Jennifer Lawrence, Matthias Schoenaerts, Jeremy Irons, Charlotte Rampling, Mary Louise Parker
DIRECTOR: Francis Lawrence
GENRE: Action-Thriller/Drama

Ever since she outgrew her Catnip...er, I mean Katniss Everdeen persona, Jennifer Lawrence has been  moving into edgier adult roles, and now she's "gone and done it" in Red Sparrow, a spy thriller with a plot designed to get those pesky clothes off of her as often as possible! There's even one scene that I'll call soft-core porn. If she gets any edgier, we'll be speaking of her and Stormy Daniels in the same breath!  

The cold war hasn't ended, it's just gotten more sophisticated, according to the premise of Red Sparrow. Lawrence plays a former ballerina turned Russian spy named Dominika Egorova. Not your run-of-the-mill spy, but a "sparrow," mind you--a highly trained seductress who can get what she wants out of anyone or anything short of a turnip. She is compromised by the Americans and becomes a double agent, but in the end her sympathies will be swayed toward one side. Like any good spy thriller, Red Sparrow keeps you guessing as to which side that is until right near the end.  

To learn her trade, Dominika is sent to a Russian "whore school" where she and her fellow cadets, both male and female, practice the most degrading and appalling kind of sexual acts on and in front of each other--and when I'm appalled by something in the movies, you know it's pushing the envelope. Throw in a generous helping of gore as the twisty plot wends its way along, and you've got a film that stands out not for great acting or originality, but for those gratuitous elements alone. 

So here we have another "star vehicle" for Jennifer Lawrence. I find it rather obscene that a 27 year-old with journeyman talent is the highest paid actress in the world--more generously compensated than a Frances McDormand or a Meryl Streep. But then I  find it obscene when someone like Miley Cyrus can become a filthy rich mega-star simply for being obscene. Rome is fixin' to burn...

Now, back to our regular programming!

I've never watched a spy thriller where I didn't get lost somewhere along the way in the twisty plot. That's the nature of the beast, and Red Sparrow is no exception. You've got some of it, other parts you're shaking your head at and saying wha? Just make sure you're clear on who "Boo-Shay" is and you should be all right.

Interesting turns from Jeremy Irons, Charlotte Rampling, and Mary Louise Parker can't save a film where all the Russkies speak English only--for our benefit--in obviously manufactured Russian accents. Subtitles would have given it more of an air of authenticity.  

What Red Sparrow has going for it is that it's whorry and gory--perfect for the average American taste--so if that's your cup o' vodka...drink up my friends!

Grade:  C

As some of you already know, Tim writes his review first and then I add my two cents. (In this case, rubles.) Before I begin my rant, I must praise my co-writer for making this turkey of a film worth seeing. Why? If I hadn't seen it, I wouldn't have had the pleasure of reading Tim's very witty-yet-bitchy review!

Aside from nodding off during Red Sparrow, where slow doesn't begin to describe this movie's pace, I was totally lost throughout. So was my friend – who kept leaning over asking who was who and why were they doing what they were doing? Sure, thrillers are supposed to stump the audience until the very end. Sadly, I left the theater more stumped than ever!

The best thing about Red Sparrow? The casting of Matthias Schoenaerts as the villain. Why? His resemblance to Vladimir Putin is unmistakable. So many fine actors in cameo roles. Such a waste of great talent. But the one scene with Jeremy Irons made seeing this tautless thriller worth it. (Almost.)

In my movie reviews, I'm often hard pressed to find something to criticize. Such is not the case this time. I've already mentioned the slow pace, the confusing plot, the waste of talent. I might also add that director, Francis Lawrence, who also directed Ms.Lawrence (no relation) in The Hunger Games, has trouble cutting out unnecessary scenes that only befuddle the viewer. A cinematic hoarder, indeed!  

In case you haven't figured it out yet, I hated this movie. And for the first time since I began adding my two cents, Red Sparrow merits the lowest grade I can give it.

Grade: F

Monday, February 26, 2018


Rated:  R

STARS: Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Kyle Chandler, Jesse Plemons
DIRECTOR: John Francis Daley, Jonathon M. Goldstein
GENRE: Dark Comedy/ Mystery/ Suspense

It ain't over till it's over. In cinematic terms, that phrase was never more appropriate than to Game Night!

Max and Annie (Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams) are the nucleus of a group of friends who love their game nights! Charades, Pictionary, Jenga--you name it--they play like their lives depend on it. Ironically, that's just what develops when Max's more successful older brother, Brooks (Kyle Chandler) shows up and invites them to play at his house. It's a murder mystery party--great fun, eh? But it becomes all too real when a group of violent thugs invades the premises and kidnaps Brooks. All part of the game, right? The couples proceed on that assumption, as they begin a frantic search to find him. Hey, there's a classic Corvette Stingray that goes to the winners! But they will run into some truly scary hombres along the way, and suddenly it's confusing as to what may be real and what may be part of the game. 

Joining Max and Annie on the adventure are Ryan and Sarah (Billy Magnussen, Sharon Horgan)  and Kevin and Michelle (Lamorne Morris, Kylie Bunbury). Each couple has its own quirky relationship issues that play out against the action/mystery/suspense backdrop. The pacing of the plot sometimes takes a back seat to the personal relationship gags, but the little detours are comically rewarding and well worth it. Don't worry, there's plenty of wild and crazy action to come...in spades!

Inventiveness abounds, as in the rugby metaphor where a priceless Faberge egg is being tossed about like a hot potato...everything's a game...life is a game!

Stealing the show is Max and Annie's deadpan somber policeman neighbor, Gary (Jesse Plemons). Gary makes Keely Smith look like the life of the party (ya gotta be pretty old to remember her routine with Louis Prima--uh, I'm only familiar with it through YouTube videos!)  Needless to say, Gary is a buzz kill, and the running gag is that he wants to join the couples on their game nights, with Max and Annie using every comically transparent deception to throw him off the scent and convince him there's "nothing to see here." 

Game Night, brilliantly conceived and executed, is the wildest and goofiest ride you're going to take all year, and it'll keep you guessing right up to the final moment. It truly is the most fun you can have with your clothes on! 

Grade:  A     


(Or your clothes off, as far as I'm concerned.) Game Night is a winner all around. If you don't see any other film this month, or year, or in your lifetime, go see this one! It's a laugh-out-loud, movie trivia buff's orgy of a movie. If you've seen the trailer, or read Tim's review, you already know what you're getting into. What you don't know is how engrossing it is. The audience where I was—disappointed that they couldn't get into the theater playing Black Panther—forgot feeling miffed the minute Game Night started. Like me, they were hooked!

If any of you have see Jason Bateman in the Netflix original Ozark, you already know what a good actor he is. And if you seen Kyle Chandler in the Netflix original Bloodline, you know what a good/bad guy he can turn into. A word I seldom use but feel compelled to in describing this script, skillfully penned by Mark Perez, would be "seamless." Not a false moment slinks by. And each pair of game-players has an individual story that'll entice you even further. But be forewarned: you'd better suspend your disbelief at the door!

As a flaw-finding film critic, I'm at a loss to point out anything in Game Night that I didn't enjoy.  And if you, like the rest of us, are currently experiencing bad weather?  (It's cold as a witch's you-know-what here in Del Mar!)  This movie will make you forget your woes entirely. It's Entertainment Personified!

Grade: A

Monday, February 12, 2018

THE 15:17 TO PARIS (2018)

Rated:  PG-13

STARS: Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler, Alex Skarlatos, Jenna Fischer, Judy Greer
DIRECTOR: Clint Eastwood
GENRE: Drama

We're all familiar with the inspirational story of three young American buddies who thwarted a terrorist attack on a train from Amsterdam to Paris in 2015, saving the lives of the 500 passengers on board. In The 15:17 To Paris, director Clint Eastwood brings the story to the big screen in a way that no one else likely would have dared--he got the real heroes to portray themselves. The film is peppered with teaser shots of the intense and masterfully done climactic scene in order to tide us over through the somewhat bland but not uninteresting backstory of their lives.   

Airman 1st Class Spencer Stone is singled out to be the fully developed character, ostensibly because he had the biggest--or at least the bloodiest--role in subduing the heavily armed bad guy. We follow Spencer from the schoolyard (he was something of a rebel) through Air Force basic training, and much of the first half of the film plays like a recruitment video for the military. But to Eastman's credit, he's not jingoistic about it. No veiled jabs at Muslims. He's telling a story and everything in the story speaks for itself. 

Eastwood's bold, and as it turns out, brilliant move in casting the real heroes as themselves has likely created more buzz for the film than anything else.  For me, the curiosity factor of how these non actors would do was the major reason I wanted to see it---that and the fact that it's a totally compelling story. 

Eastwood used non actors before in Gran Torino, with some embarrassing results, and I was hoping that these guys could raise that bar at least a bit. No problema. They're not going to win any Oscars, but their chemistry together is quite literally the real thing. It helps that they are affable guys...the kind you'd bring home to mom (or mom might bring home after a night out at the beer joint).

The three of them end up backpacking through Europe together. We're treated to panoramic views of Venice, and the introduction of a comely American girl who decides to tag along with them. If only they could have come up with something more authentically Italian than "Volare" to be playing in the background. That's like going to a French restaurant and ordering a cheeseburger, but then The 15:17 To Paris is tailored to heartland American tastes. Ah, but just when you start thinkin' it's gonna be goody-two-shoes all the way, they throw in a sexy, let-it-loose disco scene with some unmistakably European babes shakin' their booty! 

Stone has premonitions, and the theme of fate has something big in store for us is played up throughout. The train rumbles toward Paris as the film proceeds toward its inexorable climax, the scene we've all been waiting for. The ten minute terrorist take-down sequence, filmed in real time is riveting, soul-stirring cinema at its best. Well worth the wait. And at just over an hour and a half in duration, The 15:17 To Paris doesn't take an interminably long time to get you there. 
Grade:  B +  


OMG. I can't believe two reasonably intelligent, visually savvy people could differ so wildly. But this is one case where I couldn't disagree more with Tim's assessment of Eastwood's latest faux film. I think he chose to cast the real guys because he realized that, without them, there was no story. (I hate to tell you, Clint, but there still was no story!) Yes, there was an incident on a train that was, indeed, brave and heroic. But since everybody in the audience knew that from the get-go, building a movie around it—with three basically bland characters to work with—was a challenge that would've had even Willie Shakespeare pulling his hair out.

Of the three non actors, I felt Anthony Sadler was by far the most authentic. I had to laugh at the striking physical resemblance between non actor Alek Skarlatos and actor Scott Eastwood. (I'll just bet he was furious that his dad didn't cast him in the role!)

The only redeemable thing in this paean to patroitism was the score which I was certain Clint Eastwood had composed himself. I was shocked to find that Christian Jacob scored the film. (He also composed the score for Sully so he's good at disaster-avoidance flicks.) But one cheap musical shot I just have to point out was a scene in Germany, where the tour guide corrects our third hero Spencer Stone about where Hitler and Eva Braun are buried. As he cycles away, he sings "Springtime for Hitler In Germany...." A song fromThe Producers that was totally out of place. (But Mel Brooks must have been pleased.)

Save your money!

Grade: D- 

Sunday, February 4, 2018


Rated:  R

STARS: Christian Bale, Wes Studi, Rosamund Pike
DIRECTOR: Scott Cooper
GENRE: Western/Action-Adventure

I like a good western now and then. Part of it, I think, is because back then men looked like men. They had facial hair! (And they weren't waxing their chests.) So I was looking forward to seeing Hostiles because not so many of these manly pictures come around anymore. And from some of the buzz about it, I thought there might be a message in there. 

And indeed there is one in the opening two sequences. Some white settlers are slaughtered by Comanches. After that, some Indians are brutally murdered by the paleface. Graphic stuff, and a pretty clear message that war is futile. Nobody's right if everybody's wrong. In retrospect, of course, we know who was right and who was wrong, if defending your homeland against alien invaders is what any noble people would do.   

It's 1892, and U.S. army captain Joe Blocker (Christian Bale) has been charged to lead a mercy mission of escorting a dying Cheyenne war chief (Wes Studi) and his family from New Mexico back to their native lands in Montana. That's a long ride on horseback. Blocker balks at first. He's seen too much killing, and he hates those "savages" with every fiber of his being. He reluctantly gives in (after being threatened with court martial) and the party sets out. Along the way they'll be attacked by marauding Comanches and nefarious types of his own race. Blocker is quickly faced with the reality that if his little band of soldiers and Indians are to survive, they must all stick together. He must dig down and find the humanity in himself, so he can recognize it in others.  

Christian Bale's Joe Blocker is one of the best fleshed out characters I've seen in some time. We see his internal struggle all the way through. Can't say as much for the rest of the cast, as there are some uneven acting performances--some pretty good, some not so hot. But what really bugged me throughout the film was that many of the characters--especially the Indians in the traveling party--didn't look authentic. Their faces (other than the old chief) weren't weathered enough. Their skin is baby smooth, lacking the character lines that a hard life of subsistence upon the prairie would bring. They look more like...well...like Hollywood actors!  

If little "details" like this don't bother you, and you're willing to trade believability for edge-of-your-seat action and suspense, you'll enjoy Hostiles. As I heard a guy who was heading for the exit after the movie say: Whole bunch of Indians gettin' shot and killed...and white people too!

That pretty well sums it up.

Grade:  C +


(Ha, ha.) That guy in the audience pretty well summed up Hostiles. I do, however, want to add a codicil to Captain Blocker being threatened with a court martial if he didn't escort those "savages" to Montana. For me, the game changer was when his superior threatened him with the loss of his pension. Something any modern day racist can readily identify with... ("Money talks, bullshit walks.")

This was a long movie. It had to be in order to make the attitudinal changes believeable. But as this was oh-so-slowly happening, I got to wondering how the average western loving movie goer would react to such psychological meanderings. 

The scenery was gorgeous. Those aerial shots made me aware, as every western does, of just how vast this country is. (Or was.) And if I knew how to say 'great job' in Cheyenne, I'd certainly tell Oklahoma native Wes Studi he was terrific. The final words he shared with homesteader Rosalie Quaid (ably played by yet another Brit, Rosamund Pike) really moved me. But they also made me think about how today's Native Americans would react to this retributive film. Forgiveness—like the proverbial rattlesnake—is a slippery creature....

For me, the slowness of this tale got in the way of the story.

Grade: C

Thursday, February 1, 2018

I, TONYA (2018)

Rated:  R

STARS: Margot Robbie, Allison Janney, Sebastian Stan
DIRECTOR: Craig Gillespie
GENRE: Drama

No wonder Tonya Harding was a train wreck. Her nasty-ass, white trash mother may have thought she was dispensing tough love by driving her daughter relentlessly, smacking her around both verbally and physically--all in the name of developing her into a champion--but if the events as portrayed in the movie are anywhere near accurate, it was child abuse. 

It's all there in tragicomic style in  I,Tonya, from the precocious 4 year-old on skates to her rise to international prominence--competing in two Olympic games--and her subsequent downfall resulting from her involvement in the brutal attack that put rival Nancy Kerrigan out of commission. 

Australian Margot Robbie is five inches taller and too pretty to play Tonya Harding, but as the film progresses you forgive these things because Robbie nails this role like a triple axle. But if anybody deserves a perfect score (and her Oscar nomination), it's Allison Janney as LaVonna Golden, Tonya's steely-hearted mom. Man, is she nasty!

The Nancy Kerrigan subplot with hubby Jeff Gilooly (Sebastian Stan)--while essential to Tonya's story-- could have been tightened up some because it slows  down the pace, especially when juxtaposed against the dizzying high of the skating scenes (brilliantly edited) where Tonya Harding triumphed--and what made the story of her fall from grace (which she had in her skating but not in her life) so tragic.    

You'd naturally wonder--as did I,Timmy--how much of the actual skating Margot Robbie did. Kudos to her for learning to skate from scratch, training for weeks to become competent enough to do the more basic moves. Two professional doubles, Anna Malkova and Heidi Munger, were inserted, seamlessly, to land the difficult jumps. 

I,Tonya ain't no Ice Capades, so I wouldn't take the kiddies, but it's a real eye opener into the gritty world of someone who remains to this day a household name--for better or for worse--Tonya Harding. 

Grade:  B + 


The trouble with co-writing these reviews is that Tim writes his opinions first – so I'm left with the challenge of not sounding repetitive. In this instance, however, I am going to repeat what Tim has already said: Allison Janney should win this year's Best Supporting Actress. Although she's up against some pretty stiff competition (Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird, Lesley Manville,Phantom Thread, Octavia Spencer, The Shape of Water), her performance is unforgettable. (On a part with Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter.)

A few weeks ago, I saw a documentary on TV about the real Tonya Harding and, as much as the interviewer tried to make us like and sympathize with her, Tonya came off as a bona fide bitch. True, her mom was no saint (the real mom looked a lot prettier than Allison Janney) but there's no doubt in my mind that Tonya played a big part in the Nancy Kerrigan debacle.

I liked this movie. A lot. The filming was imaginative; the skating sequences breath-taking; the violent scenes visceral. I especially enjoyed the bumblers who committed the assault on Kerrigan. Even though his part was minimal, I tip my hat to the crowbar-wielding Ricky Russert for his scared-as-shit performance. I also loved the portrayal of a fat-kid-gone-wrong by Paul Walter Hauser, as well as Bobby Cannavale's interpetation of local reporter Martin Maddox.

As disgusting as the real life events were, I, Tonya makes you laugh in spite of yourself. But if colorful language isn't your idea of fun, I'd stay clear of this foul-mouthed film...

Grade: B +


Monday, January 29, 2018


Rated:  R

STARS: Daniel Day Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville
DIRECTOR: Paul Thomas Anderson
GENRE: Drama

There is a mindset that we should indulge the "mad geniuses"--and all of their idiosyncracies--because of the contribution they are making to their art, or whatever their chosen field of endeavor may be. Phantom Thread is two plus hours of such indulgence--a character study of Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day Lewis), dressmaker and designer for the rich and famous in 1950s London, who reveres his deceased mother in a way that suggests he might have been a mama's boy--and that may provide some insight into his difficult nature. He's obsessed with his work, and therefore annoyed by anything that distracts him from it, and will lash out at you on the slightest provocation. 

Woodcock, a confirmed bachelor, is easily bored with women. Until one day he is smitten by a young girl named Alma (Vicky Krieps), whom he brings into his world as his muse and companion. She's an extremely patient girl--she would have to be--and puts up with his crap because she sees something in him that anyone on the outside--such as the film viewer--would miss. But his petulance wears on her after a time, and she discovers a clever but dangerous way of cutting him down to size--of making him human again and realizing how much he really needs her.  Who wears the pants in the family isn't always apparent upon first glance.

Phantom Thread is all about the characters, and they are richly drawn. Daniel Day Lewis goes out with a bang (he says he's retiring from making movies) with this portrayal of a man at war with his own obsessions. Vicky Krieps, a 34 year-old find from Luxembourg, is perfectly cast in her role as his feisty paramour. She has the face of a Madonna (not that one), and she has the rare ability to convey emotion with economy...the long gaze that gives nothing away initially, but indicates the wheels are turning furiously inside her head. And Lesley Manville, as Woodcock's sister and adviser, Cyril. Behind her prim demeanor, she's tough as nails.  

But not having the same emotional investment in Reynolds Woodcock that Alma did, and still having to put up with all of his boorish behavior, I found Phantom Thread to be as tedious as was the relationship between the two of them...just wishing that he would bite the big one so I could scoot out of there and go get some lunch. 

Grade:  C +


I had the pleasure of seeing this film with, not one, but two shrinks who enjoyed these characters' skewered psyches a lot more than I did. The first half was so slow that I feared I'd fall asleep and disturb the audience with a loud and unladylike snore. (But they were probably nodding off, too!)

If Phantom Thread had started the moment our young lovely discovered (and acted upon) a culinary way to chill out her unpredictably cruel lover, I wouldn't have been so droopy-eyed. Still, I would've found more than a thimble full of flaws. My shrink friends were able to enjoy the way the director/writer Paul Thomas Anderson captured the true essence of OCD and sado-masochism. But even they disagreed over whether certain scenes were fantasy or reality. Me, I don't like murky messages; endings that leave the viewer puzzled. (Or, in my case, pissed off!)

Two things I did like: Jonny Greenwood's score (eclectic and a definite mood-setter); and whoever was in charge of the sound. I especially appreciated it when Woodcock would fly off the handle at breakfast because of the noise, i.e. bread being buttered, coffee being poured. These sounds were heightened so we heard them from his ears. A brilliant touch, really.

Still, I'd much rather watch "Project Runway."

Grade: C -