Friday, December 30, 2016

LA LA LAND (2016)

Rated: PG-13

STARS: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend
DIRECTOR:Damien Chazelle
GENRE: Musical/Romantic Drama

Not since Fred and Ginger have I seen a couple trip the light fantastic as if they are dancing on air--in fact Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone literally do rise into the air and dance among the stars in one of their numbers in the feelgood movie of the year, La La Land.

Who knew what they were capable of?

The tone is set in the opening scene. A line of cars stuck in a traffic jam on an L.A. freeway. Then, one by one, the peeps get out and begin frolicking about--on top of their cars, everywhere--in an energetic and acrobatic number requiring part accomplished dancer and part stunt person to pull it off--to the tune of Justin Hurwitz's  bright and bouncy "Another Day Of Sun." 

Take the infectious energy and the sheer kinetic joy of the final scene in Slumdog Millionaire and ladle it liberally throughout an entire film and you have La La Land; set in present day Los Angeles and Las Vegas, yet unabashedly paying homage to the big screen musicals of the past. 

In many of those musicals that we recall, the plot could seem like little more than a vehicle to get you from one song and dance number to the next, but here we have a developed romantic set up that would stand on its own minus all the great music--with echoes of Streisand and Redford in The Way We Were.

Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is an accomplished jazz pianist (and he is really playing--no body double) who dreams of one day opening his own club. Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress who drags herself from audition to audition, frustrated by her lack of landing a significant part. From their initial "meeting" (she flips him off from her car window after enduring his incessant honking) they appear to be an unlikely couple, but the traditional rom-com formula--opposites attract--is in play here, as they keep running into each other, and eventually discover they are each pursuing a dream, and maybe they'd be better off chasing rainbows together than separately.  

And while La La Land soars into the stratosphere musically, kudos go to writer-director Damien Chazelle for keeping the plot grounded in down-to-earth reality. Couples meet...they fall for each other...all looks rosy at the start...time passes...they have their differences... the relationship is tested. Sometimes it all hinges on careless words uttered during an argument. 

After the screening, I ducked into the restroom and encountered a guy who was standing at the urinal, whistling and humming the haunting refrain from the main theme in the film, which goes: da da DA da da de da...da da DA da da da de...and doing it in a very accomplished manner! (Don't know if anyone has ever been discovered and put on America's Got Talent under such circumstances.) Obviously, he was taken with the movie. As was I. 

La La Land is likely up for a slew of Oscar nominations. It's a milestone of a film, coming along at the time it did, in the respect that we may not see anything quite as breezy or gleefully life-affirming in tone from Hollywood any time again soon (considering where the world could possibly be headed), for like, the next four years. 

Grade:  A


I give Tim's review a lot higher grade than La La Land. But readers of our jointly-written opinions tell me they much prefer when we don't see eye to eye. (Or, in this case, toe to toe-tapping!) My lack of enthusiasm may be due to a serious lack of sleep the night before I saw it.  Still, I felt La La Land was trying too hard to be original. (A poor man's version of the 2012 Oscar winning The Artist – which I thought was brilliant.)  Like The ArtistLa La Land takes us back in time to the glory days of Busby Berkeley. Huge production numbers, each one more lush and dazzling than the one that came before it. 

For me, the real star of La La Land is Mandy Moore. (No, not the actress in NBC's new hit series This Is Us. I'm talking about the choreographer who has honed her skills creating the production numbers on Dancing With The Stars and So You Think You Can Dance.) To quote Miss Moore, she admits that choreographing the numbers inLa La Land has been "the Super Bowl of my career." And she definitely deserves Super Bowl applause!

The fact that movie actors are now required to sing in roles that require it (i.e. Les MizRay, Walk The Line, etc. ) is proof that today's crop of superstars deserve their mega salaries. Gone are the days of lip-synching and cringing while watching Clint Eastwood as Pardner in Paint Your Wagon.... (Amen!)

For all the hoopla surrounding this film's seven Golden Globe nominations, I still say it doesn't hold a candle to The Artist. I also felt some of the musical numbers were way too long. It will be interesting to see if La La Landwins the same amount of awards at Oscar time. (If it does, I've promised Tim I'll kill him!)

Grade: C

Wednesday, December 14, 2016


Rated : R

STARS: Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler
DIRECTOR: Kenneth Lonergan
GENRE: Drama

The reasons why people behave as they do aren't going to be obvious to most of us unless we know their back story. But initially all we know about Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) in Manchester By The Sea is that he's a blue collar guy--employed as a janitor and handyman in the Boston area--who has two speeds: sullen and uncommunicative, or volatile and on the verge of exploding at the slightest provocation.  He gets into disputes with the tenants in the building where he works. He gets into bar fights. He's not the sympathetic character most are going to identify with. 

But then, through a series of flashbacks, we begin to learn what makes Lee, the time bomb, tick. It's rooted in personal tragedy and loss. His heart is broken. And so we begin to comprehend, and we soften to him. The story question is: will the man himself ever soften? Will we see the traditional arc of personal growth and conquering one's demons in the end?

Being haunted by the past is one thing, but then Lee's brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), passes away, and in his will he has assigned custody of his teenage son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), to Lee, who is ill-prepared for and resistant to the idea of taking on that level of responsibility.  But as it turns out, there is no one else remotely suitable.

The relationship that develops between Lee and his nephew--who is something of a ladies man at age sixteen--and just as hard-headed in his own way as his uncle, is stormy at times, darkly humorous at others. Patrick wants his uncle to move to Manchester, where he has his school hockey team and his girlfriends. Lee is stubbornly resistant and wants to move Patrick to Quincy with him, not wishing to return to the scene of painful memories.

The acting in Manchester By The Sea is superb, and Affleck is likely in line for an Oscar nomination. And I've been an ongoing fan of Michelle Williams, who plays Lee's ex-wife as a"tough broad" in the flashbacks to her life together with him, and then as the broken woman she has become in an aching scene where the two of them meet again after all that sea water has passed under the bridge. Some hurts you live with forever. 

It's not a film for everyone. It's two and a half hours long and slow paced. And the ending will take you unawares and likely expecting more--and make you gasp, perhaps, as the audience did audibly in the showing I attended.  But Manchester By The Sea is a film of subtlety. Subtle movement. Subtle changes, not marked ones. Much more like real life than the way life is normally portrayed in the movies. For some, that might be hard to live with. 

Grade: B


For those who know me, subtle I'm not! And Manchester By The Sea is, by anyone's standards, beyond subtle. The subject matter is not easy to make simple. Grief never is. And without giving away too much, the event that turns our once-loving character into an emotional stone would be difficult for anyone to get over. Casey Affleck—in my view a far better actor than his brother—turns in another stellar performance. For me, he has the same vulnerable qualities as a James Dean or Montgomery Clift. (Oophs, I'm dating myself.)

Being originally from New England and quite familiar with Boston and its environs, I give high marks to director-writer Kenneth Lonergan for his visuals of that area. The bay's bleakness, the unending snowfall, the row houses, cluttered interiors. They add to the film's claustrophobic darkness.

Okay. I've praised this Oscar-contender enough. Now let me tell you what I really think. The musical score was overdone and intrusive. The suddenness of the ending left me feeling both confused and resentful. The length of the film tested my patience.  Worst of all, the character arc—if there even was one—was way...too...subtle.

Grade: C-

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Nocturnal Animals (2016)

Rated: R

STARS: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Michael Shannon
GENRE: Drama/Thriller

This film is not directed by Brian De Palma, though if you're a fan (as I am), you may have to keep reminding yourself that Nocturnal Animals is Tom Ford's movie. Ford (A Single Man) admits to an Alfred Hitchcock influence in his work, and De Palma--as I like to refer to him--is the poor man's Hitchcock. He transported the essence of the master into the modern day, with all the realism (erotica, graphic violence, etc) that Hitchcock's repressive era wouldn't allow. Completing the noir effect in Nocturnal Animals is Abel Korzeniowski's mesmerizing score;  it had me flashing back to Pino Donaggio's equally captivating soundtrack in De Palma's Body Double.

All that aside, Ford has given us what surely is the most memorable film of the year!  It grabs you from the opening scene, which cannot be adequately described (nor would I want to ruin it for you)--you've got to see it to believe it!

Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) is a Los Angeles art gallery owner who selects themes for their shock value, but she's bored nonetheless. She has a pretty good life--married to a pretty boy businessman who replaced her first husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), of twenty years ago. Edward was the sensitive type. A writer. A romantic. She figured he was going nowhere. 

When current hubby exits early on for a business trip, Susan is left to her own devices. She receives a novel manuscript in the mail. It's from Edward--after all this time. The book is dedicated to her, and as she begins to read, it's clear that the main characters closely resemble herself, Edward, and Susan's teenage daughter. The novel unfolds upon the screen, and suddenly we are following the fictional narrative right along with Susan, drawn into an intriguing world of danger, violence, remorse and revenge.  We alternate between parallel universes--the fictional one and Susan's present day reality-- interspersed with flashbacks to dramatic moments of her previous life with Edward.  

Something happens that causes Susan to question her current relationship, and as she reads on she's becoming emotionally drawn back to Edward through the fictional world he has created. Then he shows up in town. 

They agree to meet for dinner.

I become more and more impressed with Amy Adams' talent with every film of hers I see. She has that rare ability to convey a ton of emotion with nothing more than the slightest twitch up of her upper lip. (Elvis had that same ability, but he was conveying only raw sexuality!) Amy Adams is one fine actor. In fact, there are great performances galore here (perhaps my collaborator will expand on that). 

The themes of loss, betrayal, and revenge are explored in multi-layered and multi-level fashion--and you'll be ruminating on them...connecting the dots...before you hit the theater exit. The only thing that seems slightly out of balance is the amount of time devoted to the the fictional tale in relation to the present day reality. I thought the "real" story could have been more developed. Then again, if all reality stems from imagination (which it does) then who's to say what is real (as The Moody Blues so poignantly posited), and what IS an illusion?  Have you ever been so engrossed in a book--so in love with the characters--that you grew saddened at the prospect of it ending as you turned those final pages? Imagination has grabbed hold of your reality (as indeed it has for Susan) and become part of it. 

And here's my epiphany from this movie: While it appears on the surface that Nocturnal Animals is Susan's story--indeed we are led down that path by the sheer weight of her onscreen time--it's actually Edward's story. But I didn't grasp that until the very end. 

Now go, and tell me what YOU get out of it!

Grade:  B +       


I always read what Tim writes before I add my "take." And this time, when I came to the line "She receives a novel manuscript," I laughed out loud. Yes, the manuscript is a novel which is what I believe Tim meant. But it is also novel as in "different from anything seen or known before." That definition could easily apply to Nocturnal Animals in general. It's a disturbing as well as memorable film from start to finish. And trust me, the beginning sequence – one I wish I could forget! – sets you up for a whole lot of discomfort throughout.

Nowadays, when I walk out of a movie theater, I usually ask the same two questions, i.e. "What did you like?" and "What didn't you like?" This time, however, my queries were more script-centered, i.e. "What do you think the meaning of X was?" and "What was the film's ultimate message?" Nocturnal Animals is definitely a thinking man's movie.

As Tim's "collaborator," I shall follow his lead and give Amy Adams' costar Jake Gyllenhaal his due. Anyone with such a complicated last name that can become a bankable movie star deserves special praise. But even if his moniker was Jake Smith, his acting would shine through. He's been in so many movies I've enjoyed (NightcrawlerSouthpaw and, of course, Brokeback Mountain) and those eyes of his? Chick magnets for sure.... I'd also like to mention another extremely talented actor in this film. Michael Shannon. He plays the fictional cop in Edward's 'novel' novel. The minute I saw him on screen, I recognized him from HBO's "Boardwalk Empire." Talk about intensity? This guy has it in spades.

I could go on and on (and probably ruin the movie for you) but before I sign off, my one miniscule criticism would be that sometimes the director/writer Tom Ford lingered a bit too long on closeups. Who wouldn't with two such beautiful actors' faces?

As Tim was reminded of Brian DePalma, who got his MA from my alma mater, Sarah Lawrence College (the first male student to do so, I might add.), I was reminded of Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress. When you see the movie, you'll understand why.

Grade: B ++

Saturday, November 26, 2016

ALLIED (2016)

Rated: R

STARS: Brad Pitt, Marion Cotillard
DIRECTOR: Robert Zemeckis
GENRE: Drama/Action-Adventure/Romance

Allied has a little something for everybody. Action...adventure...intrigue...espionage...suspense... romance...and the eye candy of Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard. (So I guess they can be forgiven for not coming up with a more imaginative title!)

Pitt is Canadian intelligence officer Max Vatan. Cotillard is French resistance fighter Marianne Beausejour (don't make me spell that name again). Eye candy meets eye candy behind enemy lines in 1942 Morocco, where they devour each other upon first glance. It's not love at first sight, but it is marriage at first sight, as their cover story is that they are husband and wife. They hit the ground running with their act for the benefit of friends and Nazis. Their mission is to assassinate a high ranking German official and high-tail it outta Dodge (or Casablanca in this case).

Playing a role can sometimes put you in the mood for the real thing, and Vatan wants to make her his wife for real, which they take care of in London. Before you know it, a little one--Anna--pops out, and the three of them have one idyllic year together before the feces hits the fan. Max is called to Special Operations headquarters where he is informed that Marianne just might be a double agent, working for the Germans. Imagine his conflicted emotions when he is informed that if suspicions are true, HE will be expected to eliminate her. His wife...the mother of his child! Everything that comes after that would be a spoiler. But there's a lot to reflect on, primarily about how loyalty to duty and country trumps all human considerations in time of war. Could he carry out such a mind-bogglingly horrific order--if it comes to that--or will love conquer all (or at least take a valiant stab at it) in the end?

There is one quirky little scene in Allied that seems out of place. Vatan is shuffling cards like a magician to prove to a skeptical Nazi that he's a serious poker player, but the sequence goes on for so long it becomes cartoonish. I started to wonder if we were going to veer off into serio-comic territory, a la Raiders Of The Lost Ark, but fortunately the rest of the film plays it straight.

Pitt and the doe-eyed Cotlllard create some onscreen steam together, which probably wasn't difficult since rumor has it they were hooking up romantically for real throughout the filming.

That's called taking your work home with you.

Grade:  B +


Tim pretty much covered the main points of Allied and he'll get no arguments from me. As for the two lead's pheremone-filled chemistry? I definitely feel Angelina had just cause to worry! And all through the movie, I kept being impressed with how well-preserved Brad is at age 52. Nary a wrinkle graces his cherubic face -- and he's got a nice ass, too! But enough about the film's more profound points...

Allied is definitely an attention-grabber. Just as I thought I knew what was happening, a new plot twist would emerge and foil my assumptions. Is Vatan's wife a spy? Will he be forced to execute the woman he loves? This brings up my one bone of contention which is how Brad Pitt's character could be, on the one hand, such a cold-blooded killer and, on the other, so blinded by love? I'm not sure director Robert Zemeckis (Back To The FutureCast Away,Forrest Gump) could have directed it any differently. And if he had, the film might have lost a lot of its impact.

I won't give anything away by this, but I do want to mention and praise the acting of Marion Bailey who plays Mrs. Sinclair, a kindly baby sitter. 

Grade: B+ (sorry to be such a copycat, Tim)

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

DENIAL (2016)

Rated: PG-13

STARS: Rachel Weisz, Timothy Spall, Tom Wilkinson
DIRECTOR: Mick Jackson
GENRE: Docudrama

In 1996, American academic/historian Deborah Lipstadt was sued for libel by British historian David Irving for characterizing him in her book as being a holocaust denier. Among other "Nazi friendly" assertions, Irving had maintained that there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz. Despite the damning nature of his stated positions, Irving sued for damage to his reputation, essentially denying that he was a denier.  Denial is the docudrama of the ensuing trial, which took place in Britain in 2000.

Given the subject matter, I was expecting fireworks, but for the most part, Denial is as staid as the British courtroom where most of the "action" takes place. He-said-she-said. The fascination that does exist revolves around the larger issue: By having to defend her statements about Mr. Irving, Lipstadt essentially has to call the holocaust as a witness to prove its own existence.

In preparation for the trial, Lipstadt and her team visit the real Auschwitz--a desolate looking place that time has softened into a haunt for ghosts. You must use your imagination now--not hard to do--to conjure up the unspeakable depravity of what took place there. It's a sobering moment.

It's a pedestrian turn for previous Oscar winner Rachel Weisz, as Lipstadt. When she's pleased, she's bubbly. When she's perturbed, she's frowny. But there's no nuance or subtlety of emotion. And an inordinate amount of time is spent drinking wine with her chief defense strategist, Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson). Maybe it was real wine. Wilkinson gives a more fleshed-out performance as he calls the shots for Lipstadt's defense strategy. Timothy Spall, as David Irving, is pompous and jowly, and comes off as being more obnoxious and annoying than villainous.

Conspiracy theories abound. Social media is crawling with them. 9-11 was an inside job. The moon landing was fake. The Sandy Hook massacre was staged. On and on. Few of them ring of credibility to the logical mind--the JFK assassination notwithstanding. It appears obvious that there was more to that than just a lone malcontent named Lee Harvey Oswald. But compelling evidence is in play there. The holocaust denier is a breed apart. He tries to tell us that we didn't see what we saw in all of the ghastly newsreel, documentary, and photographic evidence that exists. Not only does he insult our intelligence, he aligns himself with a dark energy that needs to fall back into the cesspool of history from whence it came.

I was expecting more HEAT in Denial...something on the order of what I just felt in penning the preceding sentences. But for the most part, it left me cold.

Grade:  C +


Finally, Tim and I disagree! (But not by much.) I went to this film, curious to know how holocaust deniers rationalize their beliefs. And right at the beginning, Rachel Weisz as Professor Lipstadt points out the four explanations deniers give. The one that really made my eyes pop? It was a publicity stunt promoted by the Jews to promote Israel. (Are your eyes popping now, too?)

I knew going in that Denial would be a courtroom drama but I found the subject matter so preposterously fascinating that I never got bored. I also learned a lot, not just about holocaust deniers but how different the English legal system is from ours. There, you're basically guilty until proven innocent. All of the actors involved did admirable performances but I especially admired how fanatic Timothy Spall was David Irving -- whose rabid intensity out-Hitlered Hitler's.

On a personal note, a few nights later I was having dinner with some friends and mentioned Denial in passing. One of them then told me about an interview she'd read in Hadassah Magazine where Rachel Weisz talked about the fact that all her own relatives perished in concentration camps.

Talk about art imitating life!

Grade: B+

Monday, October 10, 2016


Rated:  R

STARS: Emily Blunt, Justin Theroux, Rebecca Ferguson, Luke Evans, Haley Bennett, Edgar Ramirez
DIRECTOR: Tate Taylor
GENRE: Thriller

Watching a film adaptation of a book you've read is different than if you were totally unfamiliar with the story. Since you know all the plot elements, you pretty much are just looking to see how true the film is to the source material. We can say that The Girl On The Train, starring Emily Blunt, is a lot more faithful to the best-selling book by Paula Hawkins than any of the married characters in the story are to each other, with a couple of notable exceptions.

Rachel  is a lush of the first magnitude. A furtive alcoholic who blacks out and can't remember a thing about what she did the night before. In the book she's overweight and no longer terribly attractive. In the movie she's Emily Blunt. So there's the first change. They do a pretty good job of making her look haggard and stressed out, but she's still Emily Blunt. So who was going to put more butts in the seats--Melissa McCarthy or Ms. Blunt? The bottom line is still king.

Rachel drinks because of her divorce from Tom (Justin Theroux), who is now happily married to Anna (Rebecca Ferguson). She got fired from her job due to her drinking, but rides the train everyday from the suburbs to Manhattan to keep up the appearance of still being gainfully employed. (In the book it's London--that's the second notable change.) Along the route Rachel passes a house where a happy looking couple are frequently observed getting frisky on their back balcony. She entertains fantasies about who they are and what they are like. One day while riding by she sees the woman in the arms of another man. Rachel is shocked and disillusioned. Then the woman, whose name is Megan (Haley Bennett), disappears. There is a police investigation. Megan's husband, Scott (Luke Evans), becomes a suspect. But who was the other man Rachel saw Megan with on the balcony? She's going to get to the bottom of it (before she bottoms out herself). It's the stuff that taut thrillers are made of. 

Emily Blunt, surrounded by a cast of relative unknowns, turns in a gritty performance--one of her best. But as The Girl On The Train speeds toward its gotcha conclusion, much of the nuance of the characters in the novel is left at the station. 

Grade:  B 


From my perspective, the best thing about The Girl On The Train is Tim's review. Well done, Timoteo! There's always a danger of turning off an audience when the main character is so unlikable. And Emily Blunt's character is definitely not someone you'd want to befriend. Until the very end when the wife of her ex husband's boss, played by Lisa Kudrow of "Friends" fame, reveals a shocking truth.

Quite honestly, I went to this film with the wrong attitude, convinced that it would never be as good as the book. And I was right. That's the second danger with making a movie from a hit novel. Author Paula Hawkins' best seller was such a literary blockbuster that expectations about the movie version were unrealistically high. Even though screenwriter, Erin Cressida Wilson, wrote one of my all-time spooky film favorites (Secretary with James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal), many of the scenes in this thriller dragged on endlessly.

As I watched the final credits roll, I at least felt a frisson of recognition when I realized that the actor who played Emily Blunt's ex, Justin Theroux, is the current husband of Jennifer Aniston. My advice? Read the book and forget the movie...

Grade: C -

Tuesday, September 20, 2016



STARS: The Beatles, Brian Epstein, Whoopi Goldberg, Elvis Costello
DIRECTOR: Ron Howard
GENRE: Documentary

There's not much you can criticize about a Beatles documentary (Eight Days A Week--The Touring Years) that showcases the music above everything else--directed by Ron Howard, no less! Howard and company worked some auditory magic with archival footage of live performances at clubs, concerts, and on television. The result is that you're immersed in the exhilarating feeling of being right there, live, in the front row.

And THERE THEY ARE--John and George--up there big as life...just as if they had never left us. The incongruity, of course, is that they are their forever younger selves, while present day Paul and Ringo drop by to fill us in on some of the intimate details of those touring years--1964 through 1966. 

The real eye-opener--for anyone who wasn't around at the time and has only heard about the craziness second hand--is that we get the full brunt of Beatlemania. Hordes of young girls going bananas, screaming their heads off and passing out and being lugged off like sacks of potatoes by dutiful cops to the recovery station. And everywhere the Fab Four went, the crowds mobbing them as they made a mad dash for the limousine. And then there is the concert in Shea Stadium where 56,000 people were so loud that the lads couldn't hear themselves, and yet they rocked out and delivered those songs without a hitch. They were that good.

Brian Epstein, the architect and engineer of the group's rise to musical immortality, is prominently featured. Whoopi Goldberg and Elvis Costello provide some personal anecdotes. Whoopi, for one, was a huge fan. And who wasn't? 

The documentary only briefly touches on the Beatles' psychedelically induced period that followed, which was beyond the scope of the film. But this was where the real "Revolution"started. Suddenly, music became a medium with a message, not just a beat. And so many of us grew up making personal transformations that paralleled the transformation in the Beatles' music. In a very real sense, they were the soundtrack to our lives.  

 Grade:  A


The night I went to see Eight Days A Week at La Paloma, a funky little theater (built in 1929) in Encinitas, California, it was packed with diehard Beatle fans. Mostly baby boomers, eager to relive their youth. But even if you weren't born back then, this documentary is more than just a musical tribute to the Fab Four. It's about a cultural phenomenon.

I don't usually share personal anecdotes when adding my two cents to these movie reviews. But this story deserves re-telling: I was living in New York City when the Beatles came to town and I had a good friend, a classy lady named Jackie Rutherfurd, whose 12-year-old daughter "Moo" was dying to go see the Beatles perform at Radio City Music Hall. Jackie begged me to accompany Moo, fearing for her daughter's life. I agreed to go, thinking Jackie was being a bit over dramatic. Believe me, she wasn't. The screaming and hysteria in that auditorium was truly terrifying. I couldn't wait to get out of there. (Moo, of course, was crying like all the other little girls, totally in love with Paul.)

Which brings me to my one criticism of the film. The Beatle I had a secret crush on was George Harrison. And I felt his musical talent was not featured enough in Eight Days A Week. Granted, his songs emerged later but still – he was a lot cuter to me than the other Beatles. (Sigh.)

When the film ended, people clapped long and loud; and when they left the theater, I swear they looked a good twenty to forty years younger.

Grade: A -

Thursday, September 1, 2016


Rated: R

STARS: Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham
DIRECTOR: David MacKenzie
GENRE: Drama/Action/Thriller

Your bank deposits are guaranteed by the FDIC. But other than Jeff Bridges, who is always on the money, I can't give you that same ironclad guarantee that you'll go crazy for the new bank heist film, Hell Or High Water. 

For me, it's always worth the price of a ticket to watch "The Dude" in action, and here Bridges is a down-home boy Texas ranger on the verge of retirement--but as fate would have it, he's got one more messy situation to mop up.

That messy situation being the two brothers who are hitting up branches of the Texas Midland Bank--the same institution that happens to hold the mortgage on the family farm, and is threatening to foreclose and kick their mother out on her butt.  The brothers have a certain figure in mind, and when they reach their goal from the cash grabs they will pay off the debt and save the day. It's Robin Hood with a different twist; steal from the rich and give back to the rich.  

But here is Reason No.1 for the non-guarantee: These brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) are not exactly Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid--the hapless and affable bank robbing duo immortalized by Robert Redford and Paul Newman. It kept nagging me that Pine, as Toby, was too pretty for the role. Really, anybody as pretty as that could have easily had a career as a model, or a movie star (heh heh), and wouldn't have to resort to such desperate measures. Ben Foster, as his adrenaline junkie sibling, Tanner, is perfectly cast though. Tanner is the loose cannon, and Toby, it seems, is rather reluctantly along for the ride. But a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do, even if it is incredibly stupid. I guess we're supposed to have some empathy for these guys, as they stick it to the greedy bankers, making a statement that will resonate with a lot of folks these days. But it's too great of an end-justifies-the-means stretch. 

Reason No. 2: There is no chemistry--zilch--between Jeff Bridges' Marcus, Texas Ranger, and his half-Indian partner, Alberto (Gil Birmingham). I place that on Birmingham, who could have smiled a little more...or something. Yes, there is playful banter between the two, but it falls flat.

Reason No. 3: Certain elements of the plot are telegraphed, not only verbally, but musically as well (in the soundtrack song choices). You can see it coming from a Texas mile away. It gives me no joy when I I have to sit there and grimace, waiting for what I know is going to happen to happen.

What Hell Or High Water has going for it is that there's plenty of dramatic tension--never a dull moment--as Marcus and sidekick Alberto try to outwit the brothers by anticipating where they will strike next. Hardcore action/thriller fans will probably dig it. 

Grade:  B -


For someone who wasn't overly taken with this film, you were certainly generous with your rating, Tim. To begin with, I found the musical score completely in tune (pardon the pun) with the overall darkness of Hell Or High Water. At first, due to the ineptness of the bank robbing brothers, I didn't know if I was watching a comedy, dramedy, or a thriller-in-the-making. And it didn't really matter because the chemistry between these two bunglers kept me both laughing and on the edge of my seat.

As for the racial slurs Jeff Bridges kept peppering his half Indian, half Mexican partner with? I felt it worked very well, giving them a special bond – albeit a dicey one in this day and age of political correctness.

But for my money, the star of this film was Giles Nuttgens' cinematography. Those expansive shots of flat nothingness, winding roads without a tree in sight, or even a tumbleweed, set the stage perfectly. Isolation and desperation make men do terrible things. Not unlike Fargo or No Country For Old Men, this film was relentlessly tense – with just enough humor to make it watchable. Having said that, I must admit there were times—not many—when British director David Mackenzie could have picked up the pace a bit. And the ending—I won't give it away—was not very believable. Still, when Jeff Bridges is on screen, who cares!

Grade: B

Thursday, August 18, 2016


Rated: PG-13

STARS: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg
DIRECTOR: Stephen Frears
GENRE: Comedy/Drama

Florence Foster Jenkins was an heiress and New York socialite whose life-long love of music spurred her to become an opera singer. Only trouble was, her "singing" would make alley cats plug their ears.

In Florence Foster Jenkins, Meryl Streep takes on an enormous challenge to come off as tone deaf as the real deal. (Check out the clip of the real Ms. Jenkins at the end of this review!) I'll give Streep a B+ on that score. It's DIFFICULT to sing, it's difficult to sing badly and sincerely--with a straight face. Streep, who is actually a good singer,  gives a yeoman's effort.

Hugh Grant plays her mate, the opportunistic St. Clair Bayfield, a failed Shakespearean actor who must have seen her as his meal ticket initially--they live in a posh New York hotel--but nonetheless possesses a sincere platonic devotion to the lady. So much so that he orchestrates her singing engagements and packs the house with friends and acquaintances he knows will lend a sympathetic ear. Everyone is expected to play along with the colossal delusion, as Florence is in ill health, and he wants her to spend her remaining days pursuing her dream.(What she's suffering from I will not reveal, because it's an audience "ooh" moment, and most reviewers today GIVE TOO MUCH AWAY--one of my recurring pet peeves.)

As good as Streep and Grant are in their roles--and they are superb--Simon Helberg, as Florence's fidgety and high-strung piano accompanist, Cosme McMoon, steals the show with his comically expressive mug and mannerisms. McMoon--reluctantly at first--backs Jenkins from her initial appearances before The Verdi Club (an organization she herself founded), to her crowning achievement--a 1944 engagement to a packed house at Carnegie Hall.

Florence Foster Jenkins is also a (probably unintentional) commentary on the ability of the rich to buy their way to the immortality of lasting fame, while the masses of  mere "mortals"--many with astounding  talents and abilities--quietly labor through lives of anonymity, their brilliance ultimately recognized by no more than family and friends. But that comes as an afterthought for me, as during the movie I was rooting for Florence all the way.

And while the film is a hoot on many levels, there are moments of unexpected poignancy that may leave you misty-eyed here and there. Because what glimmers through every pore of Florence Foster Jenkins is one person's lifelong love affair with music...and as we all know, love is blind.

Not to be missed!

Grade:  A


Damn! You stole my thunder, Tim. About the brilliance of Simon Helberg's Oscar-worthy performance? To set the record straight regarding how we write these reviews, Tim writes his impressions first and then I add my two cents afterwards. (Usually five!) I'm not in Tucson right now so we see these reviewable flicks separately. This time, my west coast film companion was quick to whisper in my ear that Simon Helberg has been wowing TV audiences for 10 Seasons in "The Big Bang Theory." What an expressive face!

Knowing the premise of Florence Foster Jenkins beforehand, I didn't think I'd enjoy being treated to an afternoon of off-pitch singing. How wrong I was! Meryl was magnificent as the barrel-sized would-be opera singer. I found myself feeling guilty for belly laughing at Ms. Jenkins' painful vocals, knowing how badly she wanted to be another Lily Pons. And I wasn't the only one in the audience laughing, either.

It reminded me of another film,The Producers – where Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder wanted to produce a bad musical, hoping it would be a flop so they could rake in the investors' money. Instead, it turned into a Broadway blockbuster. Same basic idea applies to Florence Foster Jenkins. For me, though, her popularity (albeit camp rather than coloratura) seemed to seriously stretch credibility. As did many of the other moments in this distinctly delightful film.

Kudos go out to British director Stephen Arthur Frears whose film credits include some of my all-time favorites: My Beautiful Launderette and Philomena. He was able to make an incredibly hard-to-believe situation mostly believable.

Grade: B+