Year Director Running Time MPAA Rating Title Comments
2015 David O. Russell 124 PG-13 Joy A funny, fictional account, of a real-life inventor, Joy Mangano (Jennifer Lawrence), famous for inventing the “Miracle Mop” in 1990 and started selling it on the cable TV shopping networks, QVC & HSN. This film is by the same director as “Silver Linings Playbook” (2012), which also features some of the same actors: Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, and Bradley Cooper, so if you liked that movie there is a good chance you’ll like this one. Also in this cast are Diane Ladd as Mimi (Joy's grandmother), Virginia Madsen as Terri (Joy's mother) and Isabella Rossellini as Trudy (girlfriend of De Niro’s character). Joy’s family in this movie is a strangely dysfunctional family, yet somehow they stick together. I doubt that the real family was like this but the real Joy was a divorced mother with 3 young children (not 2 as in the movie). Lawrence’s performance was excellent. Overall the film has received what they call “mixed reviews” so perhaps what I found funny won’t necessarily work for you. But I really enjoyed it.
2015 Alex Gibney 128 R Steve Jobs - The Man in the Machine It would probably take a Ken Burns mini-series to adequately document the life of Steve Jobs. This documentary is only a snapshot. It is very interesting as far as it goes, but so many things are left out that you’d have to call this a “highlights reel.” It does have the advantage of being an actual documentary. The other feature-length films about Steve Jobs have all been fictional dramas. So here you may see some historical footage of Jobs that you may not have seen before. There is a short segment about the famous “1984” TV commercial that introduced the Macintosh computer, which gives you a brief behind-the-scenes look at the making of that commercial. It also includes new interviews with people who were in his personal and business life. And because you can’t really talk about Steve Jobs without talking about his company, Apple, there is a good deal of time spent regarding some of the big news stories that brought unwanted attention to the company. I think that if you have a serious interest in the life of Steve Jobs, Apple, or the history of personal computers, you will find this documentary worthwhile, though as I said before, incomplete. I first saw this on CNN, which gave it a two-hour time slot and included about 22 minutes of commercials, for a net program length of about 98 minutes, suggesting that CNN cut out about 30 minutes. That extra 30 minutes probably contains the “R” rated portion of the film, as I did not notice anything in the CNN broadcast which would make it anything more than PG. But I will have to wait for it to come out on DVD to see and evaluate that missing footage.
2015 Adam McKay 130 R The Big Short I didn’t think that a movie about the financial collapse of 2008 could be so entertaining and funny, but I was wrong. This is a fictional version of what happened, but we all know the collapse really did happen. The dialogue does contain a lot of financial technical jargon, but they take the time to pause and explain some of the more important terms, in a way that is both humorous and educational. Some of the characters “break the fourth wall” and speak directly to the camera on several occasions, adding to the unique approach to telling this story, which is actually based on a non-fiction book, “The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine” by Michael Lewis (2010). The very well selected cast includes Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Marisa Tomei, Anthony Bourdain (as himself) and Brad Pitt. Although, as I said, this screenplay is fictional, Bale’s character, “Michael Burry” was a real person. In addition to the financial jargon, I must point out that the dialogue also includes a flood of profanity, which in this context does seem quite believable, but just so you know what you are getting in this R-rated film. The rating also includes brief nudity.
2015 Sam Mendes 148 PG-13 Spectre I had been generally disappointed by the previous James Bond movie, “Skyfall” (2012), and unfortunately “Spectre” is not really an improvement. We still have Daniel Craig playing James Bond, but “M” is now played by Ralph Fiennes. And now there is a new guy, “C” (Andrew Scott) who thinks MI6 and the “00” agents are outdated and should be replaced by a new system. There is plenty of exciting action here but the story was not all that interesting and at times rather confusing. It basically involves Bond investigating a secret criminal organization known as “SPECTRE,” whose leader, “Blofeld” (Christoph Waltz), has a surprising connection to Bond’s past.
2015 John Crowley 111 PG-13 Brooklyn This is the kind of emotional romance where you could probably say there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. It is based on the novel by Colm Tóibín (2009) and tells the story of a young woman in Ireland, Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan), who leaves her mother and sister behind to seek her fortune in Brooklyn, New York, in 1952. It may help to point out that “Eilis” is pronounced “AY-lish” (I actually thought they were saying “Irish”). Some of the Irish accents are rather strong, at least to my ears. In Brooklyn, the priest (Jim Broadbent) who arranged her travel, set her up in a boarding house for young women and found her work at a fancy department store. The romantic element begins when she meets a young Italian man named Tony (Emory Cohen). I can’t say any more without spoiling it, but it is a very good story.
2015 Lenny Abrahamson 118 R Room A powerful emotional drama based on the novel by Emma Donoghue (2010). Joy Newsome (Brie Larson) and her 5-year-old son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay), live in a 10x10-foot room, from which the outside can only be experienced though a high skylight. Jack has never been outside this room his entire life. Joy has been captive there for seven years. Will they ever escape? How will Jack handle the real world if he does get out? The intense bond between mother and son and the world-view they have created for themselves in the room are the heart of the film. Very good performances by Larson and Tremblay. The cast also includes Joan Allen and William H. Macy. I consider this to be very good, but my one complaint would be that the first act could have been a bit shorter. Although the film is rated “R” for limited profanity, I barely noticed it.
2015 Duke Johnson + Charlie Kaufman 90 R Anomalisa This is a very strange movie, and is probably popular because it is boldly different. But don’t let the fact that this is an animated feature fool you; it is a very adult film, as the “R” rating suggests. It features a sex scene that is more explicit than in most live action films and other sexual content may be very offensive to some viewers. And while we’re on the rating, it also features nudity and pervasive profanity, but no violence. The animation style is what they call “stop-motion” and the characters look surprisingly lifelike (and ”anatomically correct”) given that they are actually filmed puppets (not computer graphics). Their faces are weirdly split horizontally at the eye-line, I guess to ensure they don’t look too lifelike. The story is about Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis), who is on a business trip from Los Angeles to Cincinnati, where he stays just one day to give a lecture. While there he visits with an old girlfriend and also meets a new woman, Lisa Hesselman (Jennifer Jason Leigh). So the whole movie is just Michael’s experiences on this short trip. Another odd thing about this film is that although there are more than three characters, they only hired 3 actors to do all the voices. But whereas Michael and Lisa are voiced by actors of their respective sexes, all the other characters regardless of sex and age are voiced by one man, Tom Noonan. And he makes no attempt to alter his voice to match the characters, so it is slightly disturbing to hear women and children speaking with a man’s voice. The story is at times engaging and amusing, but in general I can’t recommend it. Afterwards I found that many people came away with a very different interpretation of the story, that I did not get from my single viewing, but I won’t give that away here. If you do decide to watch it, read the Message Boards on the IMDB web page for this film after you see it.
2015 Alejandro González Iñárritu 156 R The Revenant An overly long action adventure about survival and revenge, but with an Oscar-winning performance by the lead actor. It was inspired by the real life of Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), an early 19th Century fur trapper, famous for his encounter with a grizzly bear. The film itself makes no explicit indication of where or when the story takes place, other than the general style of clothing and the appearance of native peoples (Arikara and Pawnee), but the scenery is all in a very remote mountainous and very cold climate (filmed on location - no fake snow). By the end of the film I was wishing I was in front of a warm fire. The film oozes cold. Glass was a guide for a group of fur trappers. After escaping a vicious attack by natives, he is severely injured by a large bear. The challenges he encounters surviving in the wilderness are almost unbelievable. Impressively filmed and edited action sequences. It is rated “R” because of very graphic violence, sexual assault and strong profanity.
2015 Tom McCarthy 129 R Spotlight Well-acted dramatic recreation of the investigative reporting done by the Boston Globe in 2001-2002, which uncovered the scandal in the Catholic church, involving the abuse of children by priests and the associated cover-up. A small group of reporters in a unit of the Globe, known as “Spotlight,” worked tirelessly to uncover the individual cases of abuse and expose the full extent of what proved to be a systemic problem within the church. Those reporters were, Walter 'Robby' Robinson (Michael Keaton), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) and Matt Carroll (Brian d'Arcy James). This specific investigation began shortly after the paper hired a new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber). Also featured is Stanley Tucci as Mitchell Garabedian, the lawyer representing many of the abuse victims. As you might expect, the stories told by the victims are disturbing and some explicit language is used to describe them (contributing to the “R” rating). The scandal is certainly not news to anyone today, but this inside look at how it was exposed to the light of day is the main focus of the movie. The film’s strengths are the acting and writing and it was well paced for a two-hour film. It won the Best Picture Oscar at the Academy Awards, along with Best Original Screenplay. Ruffalo and McAdams received nominations. I have to say, though, that it wasn’t my choice for Best Picture; I was leaning towards “Bridge of Spies” or “The Big Short,” but the competition in that category this year was tough. It’s true that I did not see “Spotlight” until after the awards were handed out, but that didn’t change my position. However, this is still a worthy contender and if you like investigative journalism stories, you will probably enjoy this.
2015 Baltasar Kormákur 121 PG-13 Everest Beautifully photographed dramatization of a large group-climb up Mount Everest, that took place in the spring of 1996. But of course, if it was easy, it wouldn’t be much of a movie, so it should come as no surprise that there was both victory and tragedy. In fact, the real life events have been called the “1996 Mount Everest disaster.” The greatest difficulties were experienced on the way down. So the ascent, which occupies the first hour of the film, is not as eventful, but serves to introduce you to the characters and show what it takes to attempt such a challenge.
2015 Paolo Sorrentino 123 R Youth Not much of interest happens during a summer holiday at a Swiss spa. Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) is a retired composer/conductor, who has been coming to this spa for the last 20 years, though is wife is no longer able to come with him. Also there at the same time is his daughter, Lena (Rachel Weisz), her husband Julian (Ed Stoppard) and Julian’s father, Mick (Harvey Keitel). Mick is a film director who is there developing the screenplay for his next movie. Late into the film, Jane Fonda appears as “Brenda Morel.” It would appear that most of the guests of the spa were or are in the entertainment industry. A lot of mostly boring conversations. The “R” rating is based on gratuitous profanity, numerous instances of “graphic” nudity (only one instance being worthy of your glances) and a bizarre fully-clothed outdoor sex scene.
2016 Tim Miller 108 R Deadpool A different though not necessarily better approach to telling the origin story of a Marvel Comics superhero (this is not the first film appearance of this character; he previously had a part in “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” (2009)). A guy named Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) tells the audience, through voice-over narration and sometimes even by looking directly at you through the camera (“breaking the 4th wall”), how he acquired his super-human abilities, and started wearing a red body suit and head mask under the alias, “Deadpool.” The storytelling process also makes use of long flashback sequences. An important supporting character is Wade’s girlfriend, Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) and there are a couple other superhero characters, “Colossus” (Stefan Kapicic) and “Negasonic Teenage Warhead” (Brianna Hildebrand), whose mission it is to try to get Deadpool to join the X-Men. The visual effects in this film are quite impressive, especially when combined with slow motion. Historically, most of the superhero movies have been PG-13, but it is worth warning you that this one is rated “R” and for good reason: very graphic sex and violence and frequent profanity. Even the end-credits featured some rather obscene animation. So this is a superhero movie intended for a more mature audience. In general I did not appreciate that they decided to make it an R-rated film; not that I can’t enjoy R-rated films but that it’s not what I’ve come to expect from Marvel Entertainment. However, it was apparently intended to reflect the violent and profane nature of the original comic book character. Also I didn’t care much for the voice-overs and the 4th-wall thing. I will say, though, that the writers did occasionally throw in some very funny lines. And for those expecting an extra scene after the end-credits, you will be rewarded if you wait for it, though it is not a preview of any future Marvel film; in fact, it is an homage to a much older film.
2016 Byron Howard + Rich Moore + Jared Bush 108 PG Zootopia A classic tale of a young girl with high hopes for her future, going off to the big city to make her dreams come true. Except that in this feature-length cartoon, that girl is actually a rabbit named Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) who lives on a carrot farm and wishes to one day be a police officer in the big city of Zootopia. There don’t appear to be any humans in this particular cartoon world, at least none that are seen; only animals who wear clothes. It’s a great comedy for both young and old. Some of the humor is based on pop-culture references that young children won’t get but the parents will appreciate. And of course plenty of animal humor that is often quite hilarious. Also many sight gags that go by quickly and are easy to miss. On Judy’s first day on the job in the Zootopia Police Department, she quickly learns that being the first “bunny cop” may be more of a challenge than she was prepared for. Definitely one of Disney’s better efforts in recent years.
2015 Andrew Haigh 95 R 45 Years Two fine British actors portray a quiet rural couple suddenly faced with news that threatens to push them apart, just as they are planning to celebrate their 45th anniversary. Geoff (Tom Courtenay) and Kate Mercer (Charlotte Rampling) live in the county of Norfolk, England (and the entire movie was filmed there). Geoff receives a letter, that bears some shocking news about an ex-girlfriend, one that Kate had heard about, but didn’t know the whole story. The tension builds as the facts slowly come out. It’s a slow-paced drama but Courtenay and Rampling give quite good performances. The only problem I had with it was what I considered to be gratuitous profanity, which of course is the main reason for the “R” rating (the other reason is a “senior” sex scene).
2015 Woody Allen 95 R Irrational Man For the first twenty minutes or so, I was beginning to wonder if this story was ever going to get interesting, but when it did, I had to keep watching. The plot reminded me of a certain movie from the 1950s, but I won’t say which one because that might give something away (actually there is also a 1940s film I know quite well that also has strong plot similarities but I have to give credit to another critic for thinking of that one). The main character is a self-destructive philosophy professor, Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix), who is just starting a new teaching job at Braylin College. He manages to get romantically involved with one of his students, Jill (Emma Stone), and with Rita (Parker Posey), wife of another professor. But a chance occurrence at a diner, changes his life. If voice-over narration bothers you, you might have a problem with this film. And in this case, both Abe and Jill do it frequently, though I can see where it made sense for some scenes. Some of the dialogue is very classic Woody Allen intellectual, so that may be another detail that turns some people away. It’s not his best film but certainly not the worst. The “R” rating is for a little profanity and sex, but not much.
2016 Michael Bay 144 R 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi Very intense dramatization of the disastrous attack on U.S. installations in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012, which resulted in the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens (Matt Letscher) and various other U.S. personnel. But be prepared for very graphic violence and bloodshed; naturally it is rated “R” for that reason as well as a substantial amount of profanity (though certainly justified under the circumstances). It’s long but well paced and never a dull moment. No well-known actors that I could single out, but all gave good performances. As depicted in “act one,” in the days and hours leading up to the attack, the sense of tension in the air was, as the expression goes, “so thick you could cut it with a knife.” If you like this type of movie, I think you will find that it is very well done. It makes no attempt to examine the political angles nor to analyze the reasons for the attack, it just jumps right into the thick of it and shows you what happened.
2015 Danny Boyle 122 R Steve Jobs There were two feature-length films about Steve Jobs in 2015, so just to be clear, this one is the biographical drama starring Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs, not the documentary, “Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine” directed by Alex Gibney (which I have also seen). It is also not to be confused with “Jobs” (2013), which starred Ashton Kutcher. This most recent film, while not being a documentary (and therefore only partially true), was constructed by the writer, Aaron Sorkin, from the biography by Walter Isaacson (2011), supplemented by additional interviews conducted by Sorkin. But the film does not try to give you the entire book (that would require a miniseries). Rather, Sorkin, has given us a three-act play, highlighting the lead-up to three of Jobs’ product launches: the Macintosh computer, 1984; the NeXT computer, 1988; and the iMac G3, 1998. And then running across all three acts, is a story about Job’s relationship with his daughter, Lisa (played at various ages by Makenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo & Perla Haney-Jardine). It’s a really well chosen cast, which includes Kate Winslet as Joanna Hoffman, a marketing executive who worked closely with Jobs (though perhaps more closely in the film than in real life); Seth Rogen as Steve Wozniak, Job’s friend and co-founder of Apple Inc.; and Jeff Daniels as John Sculley, Apple’s CEO, 1983-1993. Winslet was so well disguised as Hoffman that I didn’t realize who the actor was until I saw the credits (she won a Golden Globe for this role). I enjoyed this film, but it is heavily dialogue-driven, often involving very heated arguments (the Jobs character swears a lot, resulting in the “R” rating), so take that into consideration. Just remember this is fiction, and not the way things really happened. If you want to read a good “fact-checking” article, see www.historyvshollywood.com/reelfaces/steve-jobs/ . The film provides good entertainment, but bad history.
2016 Dan Trachtenberg 104 PG-13 10 Cloverfield Lane Although this film shares a producer (J.J. Abrams) with the 2008 film, “Cloverfield,” there really is nothing of any significance in common between the two films in terms of storyline or characters. They are both horror/Sci-Fi films. But even though this new one appears to have received slightly higher ratings, I thought the 2008 film was more entertaining, though you may not think so if you object to hand-held camera “found footage” films. This new film, on the other hand, uses traditional camera configurations. Briefly, it is about a young woman named Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who has a car accident and wakes up to find herself confined in what turns out to be a fallout shelter, built by Howard Stambler (John Goodman), with help from Emmett Dewitt (John Gallagher Jr.), who is also a resident of the shelter. Michelle is advised to not go outside because there has been some unspecified type of attack and only death awaits anyone who leaves the shelter. It really isn’t all that exciting until the last twenty minutes or so. One thing kept bugging me about this, which was that for all the ordeals that Michelle endured, she never had a scratch on her.
2015


Macbeth There have been many films based on Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” but it turns out this is the first English-language version I’ve seen (I’d previously seen the Japanese version, “Throne of Blood” (1957), which I consider to be quite good, though it is a very different interpretation, having been set in the context of the samurai). So for now, I am unable to compare this new film to other English-language versions. Shakespeare’s story about the ascendancy of Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) to the throne of Scotland, is a very violent story, and this film takes every opportunity to present that in a very graphic way, thus resulting in the “R” rating. It was filmed in scenic locations in Scotland, often with heavy fog and cloud cover. The first time the witches appear, they spoke their lines in a very bland way, and thus was the first sign that this was not such a great interpretation of the story. And they left out the most famous scene involving the witches, and other scenes as well, I’m sure. And just as they took away, they also added material that Shakespeare did not write. Trivia: If you know anything about “Macbeth” the play, you know there is a curse associated with saying the name of the play in a theater. They usually only say “The Scottish Play.” It turns out that during the filming, the title as it appeared on the clapboards was “The Scottish Film.”
2016 David Yates 110 PG-13 The Legend of Tarzan A well done action-adventure based on the characters invented by writer Edgar Rice Burroughs. In this story, John Clayton, aka “Lord Greystoke” (Alexander Skarsgård), popularly known as “Tarzan,” reluctantly returns to Africa at the invitation of the king of Belgium. He is accompanied by his wife, Jane (Margot Robbie), and an American, George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), who wants to investigate charges of slavery against the king. However, unbeknownst to Clayton, an envoy of the king, Léon Rom (Christoph Waltz), has a different itinerary in mind. In addition to the main story, the film inserts flashbacks to show Tarzan’s life as a child and when he first met Jane. Perhaps the most impressive element of this film is the computer-generated jungle animals, especially the large apes. One not-so-great element was the casting of Samuel L. Jackson, who seemed very out-of-place here. The writing may not be the best but this film is about the action and that much should hold your attention.
2015 Michael Showalter 90 R Hello, My Name Is Doris This is a light comedy, starring Sally Field as “Doris.” Doris is “a woman of a certain age” and single, and her mother has just passed away. But she is soon distracted from her grief when a new employee starts working at her office, who happens to be a much younger man, John (Max Greenfield). Now, if we are to take the ages of these actors at face value, this means that John is 34 years younger than Doris. But Doris starts flirting with him anyway. So you have the absurdity of that; then there were the rather lame attempts at double entendre humor. Although I like Sally Field and there were a few good moments, it just wasn’t that great overall. As for the “R” rating, that is just because they threw a bunch of F-words into the dialogue.
2014 Ramin Bahrani 112 R 99 Homes A very good drama about the ugly business of home evictions. Rick Carver (Michael Shannon) used to be a regular realtor but now is in the business of doing the dirty work of evicting people after their homes have been defaulted back to the bank (technically it’s the sheriff’s department that does the evictions, but Carver has a financial interest in being there when it happens). But after he evicts Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), an ironic turn of events takes place, as Dennis finds the only work he can get now is working for Rick Carver. Being forced to live in a motel room with his mother (Laura Dern) and his son (Noah Lomax), has motivated him to do anything to get his home back. Michael Shannon is perfect as Carver; a really good actor. Lots of high tension in the eviction scenes. It is “R” rated, primarily for profanity and because the opening scene starts out a bit graphic. It’s one of the best serious dramas I’ve seen in a while.
2016 Andrew Stanton + Angus MacLane 97 PG Finding Dory If you liked the animated feature, “Finding Nemo” (2003), you may like this sequel, but be prepared to find it less entertaining (though the last act is pretty exciting). “Finding Nemo” was about a little clownfish who gets lost and his father goes out into the open ocean to find him, with the help of Dory, a regal tang fish with a poor memory. The tables are turned in “Finding Dory” where we discover that Dory (again voiced by Ellen DeGeneres) is herself a lost fish, having been separated from her parents when she was very young (shown in flashback). Now, Nemo (Hayden Rolence) and his father, Marlin (Albert Brooks), join Dory in a search for her parents. Again the search involves an ocean crossing, but that part is much abbreviated compared to “Finding Nemo.” By some miracle, Dory remembers that her family originally lived at Morro Bay, California, so that is where most of the story takes place. Sadly, “Bruce” the shark, is not in this sequel. Be sure to sit through the end credits for an extra scene at the very end.
2012 Pablo Larraín 118 R No Spanish language film from Chile. I’m not sure what made me think this was going to be a good movie, but I ended up finding it rather boring. It’s a pretty straightforward story based on a political event in Chile in 1988. A referendum was scheduled in which voters could say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ with regard to keeping their dictator, General Augusto Pinochet, in office. The campaigns for each side were authorized to produce a 15-minute television film supporting their respective views. This movie looks at it primarily from the point of view of the man in charge of producing the “No” film, René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal). So there are endless discussions about how they want to present their case for the ‘No’ vote. The only reason for the “R” rating is some occasional profanity.
2016 Steven Spielberg 117 PG The BFG A fantasy adventure based on the Roald Dahl novel (1982). This is the first live-action film of this story, but there was an animated version on television in 1989. “BFG” stands for “Big Friendly Giant” and is the nickname given to the giant (Mark Rylance) by Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), the little girl who is at the center of this story. Sophie is an orphan who is kidnapped by BFG because she saw him and couldn’t be trusted to not expose his existance. As a giant, BFG is about 25-30 feet tall, but it turns out he is a “runt” amongst giants who are at least twice his size and not so friendly. The visual effects that make the giants possible are quite good, but I wasn’t particularly moved by the story. And I can’t quite put my finger on it, but the young actress did not impress me much either. I’m not sure if it was her delivery or the writing that disappointed me; possibly both. Children old enough for a “PG” movie may like it, but it did not engage me very much. I had hoped for better from Steven Spielberg.
2016 Justin Lin 122 PG-13 Star Trek Beyond A very good Star Trek adventure featuring the “new” Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) and crew who were first introduced in 2009. This is the 3rd Star Trek film set in the so-called “alternate reality” (or “rebooted”) version of the Star Trek universe. While the Enterprise crew are taking shore leave at the very impressive-looking Starbase Yorktown, it becomes necessary for them to depart the starbase on a rescue mission. But when they arrive at the location where help is needed, they encounter a very hostile enemy. Lots of exciting action and some interesting new alien species are encountered. The special visual effects are excellent. Seeing the fly-over tour of Starbase Yorktown was particularly impressive on the large theater screen, almost making one dizzy. If you were as disappointed as I was with the previous film, “Star Trek Into Darkness” (2013), you will be happy to learn that this one is much better.
2015 Peter Landesman 123 PG-13 Concussion A good biographical drama about the Nigerian-born forensic pathologist who made a scientific breakthrough while working for the Coroner's Office in Pittsburgh. He discovered that a condition known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), was the explanation for why some former professional football players were dying prematurely (though the CTE itself isn’t what was fatal). In simple terms, CTE was pointed to as being the result of the repeated head trauma that is a part of the game. The doctor’s name was Bennet Omalu (Will Smith), and his boss in the coroner’s office was Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks). And the first death he investigated on his path to discovery, was that of a former football player named Mike Webster (David Morse). The cast also includes Alec Baldwin as Dr. Julian Bailes. The film explores Dr. Omalu’s discovery and his uphill battle against the NFL, who didn’t want anyone to know about this problem. It is probably one of Will Smith’s most serious roles to date, and I think he did a pretty good job of it. He had to do an accent for this role, and while I can’t speak to its accuracy, it was fairly consistent. Most of the main characters are real people, though some parts of the story stray a bit from the truth. For example, you may get the impression that Dr. Omalu discovered CTE, but what he discovered was its link to those deaths of football players. One other area where I find fault in this film is with the makeup department - they didn’t do a very good job. The film does include autopsy scenes, but they are not too graphic; compared to the ones you may have seen on TV shows like NCIS, these scenes are pretty tame. But nevertheless it did qualify for PG-13.
2014 Tate Taylor 139 PG-13 Get On Up The rise to stardom of James Brown (Chadwick Boseman), the “Godfather of Soul.” This biographical drama alternates the story of his musical career with flashbacks to his troubled childhood. I was never really a fan of his music, but it’s hard to watch one of his stage performances and not be dazzled. Boseman does a very good job of recreating those performances, especially the tricky dance moves, though the singing is actually lip-synched with recordings of the real James Brown (but it is very good lip-synching). Dan Aykroyd was given a role as James Brown’s manager, Ben Bart, but I’m not so sure he was the right actor for the role. Maybe it’s because it’s hard to see Dan as anything but “Elwood Blues.” Another thing that seemed wrong to me was when the director has the James Brown character speak directly to the camera, “breaking the 4th wall” as the technique is known. It feels like an interruption to the movie. On rare occasions it can be used sparingly to good effect, but generally I don’t like it. The film is supposedly fairly accurate about the events that it covers, so in that regard it is informative about the singer’s life, though it certainly doesn’t cover everything (it doesn’t mention all of his wives, for example). There are many James Brown musical numbers in the film, so fans will probably enjoy it for that, in spite of the flaws I’ve mentioned.
2016 Jon Favreau 106 PG Jungle Book Excellent adventure film suitable for anyone old enough to not be frightened by images of wild animals fighting each other and other “scary action” (it’s rated ‘PG’ because of such scenes). This story, based on the writings of Rudyard Kipling, has been filmed numerous times before, including Disney’s fully-animated version in 1967. It’s a fine line these days between what is animated and what is live action. The hero of this film, “Mowgli” (Neel Sethi), appears as a live action boy who lives in the Indian jungle, surrounded by wild animals which appear courtesy of computer animation. Disney has gotten very good at creating life-like animated animals; it’s very impressive visually. Nearly everything in the film except Mowgli is a visual effect (the list of names in the credits for “Visual Effects” is huge). This is the first version of this story I’ve ever seen (I’ve never read Kipling either), so I cannot compare it to previous efforts, but I find it hard to imagine a better version; though I note that the 1967 version is highly rated and more suitable for younger children (that one’s rated ‘G’). In this story, Mowgli is a “man-cub” who was raised by wolves in the jungle and has many animal friends, including Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley), a black panther. But when Shere Khan (Idris Elba), the tiger, becomes too much of a threat, Mowgli goes off in search of humans for safety. Other celebrity voices you may recognize in the animal characters include Bill Murray, Scarlett Johnansson, Christopher Walken and the late Garry Shandling. Be sure to watch at least the first half of the end-credits because there is a fun animated sequence to see that you will enjoy.
2015 Matt Brown 108 PG-13 The Man Who Knew Infinity An engaging biographical drama based on the life of mathematical genius, Srinivasa Ramanujan (Dev Patel), who lived in southern India, in Madras (now Chennai). In 1913, he attempted to gain the attention of several respected mathematicians at Cambridge University in England. Eventually G. H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons), invited him to England, to help Ramanujan develop his discoveries into publishable proofs. Having now read a little bit about Ramanujan, I would say that the film is somewhat deficient in its portrayal of his mathematical accomplishments prior to 1913. But as far as what the film does give us about his life from that point on, it is fairly truthful. By the way, don’t let the mathematics scare you; you’re not expected to understand it, nor do you need to, to enjoy the story.
2015 Nancy Meyers 121 PG-13 The Intern Robert De Niro is perfect in this light comedy about a 70-year-old man who is looking for a change of pace in his retirement. He finds it in an intern program specifically for seniors, at a small but growing Internet company that sells clothing. He is assigned to work with the company’s president and founder, Jules (Anne Hathaway). There’s no complicated plot, just the day-to-day developments as “Ben” adjusts to the demands of his new job and gains new friends along the way. If you are a senior, you will probably relate to some of his experiences. Not a blockbuster but a nice humorous story. If you like De Niro’s funny side, you will definitely enjoy this.
2016 Paul Greengrass 123 PG-13 Jason Bourne A very fast paced action thriller that picks up where “The Bourne Ultimatum” (2007) left off (“The Bourne Legacy” (2012) wasn’t actually about Jason Bourne, so that episode has no bearing on this new film). The CIA is still trying to capture or kill Jason, so there isn’t anything new there, but the intense action sequences (mostly chase scenes) will certainly hold your attention, though they may dull your senses. And because of the emphasis on action, you will find that Matt Damon has very little to say in this screenplay. One interesting thing about this story is that it gives you more inside information about Jason Bourne’s past and the origins of the “Treadstone” program that got him into this mess in the first place. In addition to Matt Damon starring as the title character, this film also brings back the character of Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), and introduces many new characters, including Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) and CIA director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones). If you are a fan of the original trilogy, you will probably want to see this new episode, even though it may not be quite as well crafted as the originals.
2016 Travis Knight 101 PG Kubo and the Two Strings A very imaginative and beautiful-looking animated fantasy adventure, which looks like it came from Japan, but is in fact an American production. So no need for subtitles here. It was created using the stop-motion method of animation, so it has a very different look from your typical Disney and Pixar animations that you may have seen. It is also a very different look from most actual Japanese animation. Supposedly this is the longest stop-motion feature ever made (though amongst films in general, it is a pretty normal length). Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) is a young boy in ancient Japan, seeking to learn more about his deceased father, about whom his mother (Charlize Theron) has told stories. Kubo is also a story-teller with a magical ability to animate origami paper figures. Complicating Kubo’s quest to learn about his father, are his two aunts, known as “The Sisters” (Rooney Mara), his maternal grandfather (Ralph Fiennes), a monkey, and a samurai beetle (Matthew McConaughey). Actor George Takei is also featured as the voice of “Hosato,” a man in the village. You’ll have to watch the movie to find the meaning of “the two strings” but it should be pretty clear by the end of the story. If you appreciate imaginative artists and good story tellers, you will definitely enjoy this film. Be sure to watch the end credits because part-way through you will get a brief behind-the-scenes look at the film’s production. And the choice of the song sung over the end credits will probably be a pleasant surprise for many adult viewers.
2016 Liza Johnson 86 R Elvis & Nixon A somewhat absurd comedy, though based on a true event. In 1970, Elvis Presley (Michael Shannon) requested and obtained a meeting with President Richard Nixon (Kevin Spacey) at the White House. The official photograph of that meeting is very famous and always in demand, but there is no record of what was actually discussed in that meeting. So that much of it is very speculative. At first I thought it was going to be very dull, because the way the actor portrays Elvis is very unlike the public persona that comes to mind when most people think about him. This film attempts to give you the private Elvis rather than the public Elvis. And because of that unfamiliarity, I cannot say if the portrayal is accurate. However, the commentary audio track on the DVD includes the voice of Jerry Schilling, who was a close friend of Elvis (and is portrayed in the film by Alex Pettyfer). And from his discussion of the film, I gather that he felt that Shannon’s version of Elvis was very good. Spacey’s Nixon was quite good, at least as a comedic interpretation of him. But in terms of makeup, I thought Spacey looked more like Nixon, than Shannon looked like Elvis. It’s not a complete success as a comedy but if you can adjust to this “alternate” Elvis, you’ll find a good number of amusing moments, especially when they finally get to the scene in the Oval Office. The “R” rating is for profanity but there really isn’t that much of it.
2015 Lee Toland Krieger 112 PG-13 The Age of Adaline A romantic fantasy that took too long to get interesting. Adaline Bowman (Blake Lively) was born in 1908, but in 1937, a unique combination of accidents alters her DNA in a way that stops the aging process. She is forced to change her identity every ten years to preserve her secret. But now in 2015, using the name “Jennifer Larson,” she meets Ellis Jones (Michiel Huisman) and finds it difficult to break off the relationship in order to move on. Eventually, over an hour into the film, something does happen that makes her predicament more interesting, but for me that didn’t entirely make up for the prologue. There is also a lot of voice-over narration that seemed excessive. The cast also includes Harrison Ford, Ellen Burstyn and Kathy Baker.
2016 Woody Allen 96 PG-13 Café Society A romantic comedy from Woody Allen that is occasionally funny and occasionally very romantic, but ultimately it goes nowhere. The story is set in the 1930s, where Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) is a young man who decides to move from New York to Hollywood, hoping his uncle, Phil Stern (Steve Carell), a Hollywood talent agent, might be able to find work for him (though not as an actor). He falls in love with Phil’s secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), but that is where things get complicated. There really isn’t much of a plot, and way too much voice-over narration by Woody Allen (though, strangely, it often didn’t sound much like Woody). I guess it also didn’t help that I’m not much of a fan of Jesse Eisenberg.
1968 Brian De Palma 80 NR Murder à la Mod This is the very first feature-length film by Brian De Palma, made when he was only 26 or 27. It is a black & white film and tells a very odd story. It’s not a film I went looking for, but rather discovered it as a supplementary film included on the Blu-ray disc of his 1981 film, “Blow Out.” It tells the story of Karen (Margo Norton - apparently in the only movie she ever made) and her film director boyfriend Christopher (Jared Martin). Chris is under a lot of pressure to complete his new film and this is causing trouble for the relationship. At one point in the film, De Palma repeats the same sequence of events four times, but each time from the perspective of a different character, thus revealing details known only to that character. Definitely an interesting way to tell the story, though it doesn’t make it any less weird. If you’ve seen some of De Palma’s later films, you may find this interesting for a glimpse at his early techniques and story ideas, as they relate to his later work. The film is not rated, but does include some violence and nudity.
2016 Fisher Stevens 95 PG Before the Flood In this documentary, first shown on the National Geographic Channel, Leonardo DiCaprio, as himself, explores the immediate and future effects of climate change / global warming. He meets with people such as Elon Musk, Ban Ki-Moon (Secretary-General of the United Nations), John Kerry, Barack Obama, and even the Pope. He visits areas of the world where human activity is contributing to global warming and where its effects are being played out. It’s a good review of the subject as of present day (2016), though if you follow this topic, you probably already know about all the issues he explores here. But if you don’t know much about it, this is a good start.
2002 Godfrey Reggio 90 PG Naqoyqatsi It took me a long time to get around to seeing this, the third and final installment of the “Qatsi” trilogy by director Godfrey Reggio. And it turned out to be the least entertaining. He set such a high bar with the first film, “Koyaanisqatsi” (1982), a visual and musical wordless extravaganza, that the subsequent two films just didn’t have the same level of impact. Like the first two films, this is a wordless, actor-less series of filmed and still images. They depict a wide variety of subjects, some enhanced with effects like slow-motion, time-lapse, thermal imaging and other “unreal” variations on otherwise normal film images. And I believe this is the first of the three films to use computer generated imagery, and in fact, quite a lot of it. The director has stated that the word Naqoyqatsi means something along the lines of “war as a way of life.” But there are a lot of sequences in the film that seem to have very little to do with that theme. But about an hour into the film you start to get many more war and violence related sequences. This film in the trilogy may also contain the least amount of original footage, as “stock footage” seems to dominate here, whereas “Koyaanisqatsi” was mostly original footage.
2016 Bryan Singer 144 PG-13 X-Men: Apolalypse A very exciting sci-fi action adventure in the “X-Men” universe. This is the 9th film in the series based on this particular set of Marvel Comics characters (though only the 7th with “X-Men” as part of the title). The opening action sequence is a spectacular special effects extravaganza; it is set in 3600 BC, where we are introduced to the character, “Apocalypse” (Oscar Isaac), who apparently is the very first “mutant” of the X-Men variety. Then it is fast-forward to 1983 where the rest of the story takes place with many of the characters from the previous films: Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), Magneto (Michael Fassbender), Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) and Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). Keep your eyes open for the usual cameo by Stan Lee. And of course, watch it to the end of the credits to see an extra scene which supposedly is a hint of a future film. The previous film, “X-Men: Days of Future Past” (2014), still appears to have the advantage in the ratings game, but I did like both of them.
2016 Anthony Russo + Joe Russo 148 PG-13 Captain America: Civil War Exciting action ensues when the superheroes known as “The Avengers” are divided on an issue important to their future as a team. And thus the “Civil War” aspect of the story as members take sides and begin to battle each other. There are so many superhero characters in this movie it makes you wonder why the title focuses on Captain America (Chris Evans), but apparently this film is considered part-3 of the Captain America trilogy. And there are at least two superheroes invited to the party whom I did not realize were affiliated with the Avengers, mainly because they usually appear in movies of their own, but I’ll leave it to you to find out who I’m talking about. I am not as well versed on these superhero characters as many Marvel Comics fans are, so I had difficulty keeping track of who they were when they were not in costume, plus many I had never heard of before. It’s a long, involved story, so it does help if you know the backstories on these characters and in particular it seems you would be better informed if you have good recall of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (2014). Also appearing in this film are: Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, William Hurt, Martin Freeman, Marisa Tomei and of course, Stan Lee. There are two extra scenes you will want to wait for at the end; the first interrupts the end-credits and the second scene is after the end-credits. Both are directly connected to the main story, so they should not be missed. My only real complaint is the length of the film, and the more you already know about these characters, the better you’ll be able to understand everything that is going on.
2016 Clint Eastwook 96 PG-13 Sully Very good dramatization of the famous “miracle on the Hudson” accident, when a passenger plane made an emergency landing in the middle of the Hudson River shortly after take-off from from LaGuardia Airport (January 15, 2009). Tom Hanks stars as Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger and Aaron Eckhart plays the copilot, Jeffrey Skiles. The screenplay is based on their co-written book about the incident. The film shows us both the accident and the official investigation, with the two parts of the story interleaved, not entirely in chronological order. I thought it was a very strong and moving presentation, though of course if you don’t like movies that depict bad things happening on an airplane, you probably won’t be seeing this. But apart from that, I recommend it; and of course it’s Tom Hanks (I also like Laura Linney, who plays his wife). Stay for the end-credits to see short film clips featuring the real people involved.
2016 Bruce Beresford 105 PG-13 Mr. Church We rarely get to see Eddie Murphy in a serious dramatic role, so if you’d like to experience that side of his talents, this is the film for you. It’s also for people looking for a quiet, non-violent drama about family and relationships, if you don’t mind a bit of sentimentality. In the title role of Henry Church, he gives us a wonderful character, as the cook in the family of a girl named Charlotte “Charlie” Brooks (Natalie Coughlin as a little girl, Britt Robertson as the adult). And in fact, the original title of the screenplay by Susan McMartin, was “Cook,” and was inspired by her life experiences. In the film, the story, which spans about 15 years, is actually told from the point of view of Charlotte and frequently involves voice-over narration to give you background information not covered by the active dialogue. For example, this is how you will learn why Henry is the family cook in the first place. You will see little Charlie grow up, go off to college and become a young woman, with a continuing theme of her relationship to Henry and the mystery of his life outside the Brooks household. I’ll admit this film did not impress the critics much and is unlikely to win any awards, but I did enjoy Eddie Murphy’s performance.
2016 Gavin O'Connor 128 R The Accountant Exciting crime thriller starring Ben Affleck as a genius accountant named Christian Wolff. But his genius is only part of what makes him unique, as he suffers from High-Functioning Autism. His life is a bit of a mystery, but we get flashbacks to his childhood so we see how his father (Robert C. Treveiler) helped him gain control over his autism. In a parallel story, Ray King (J.K. Simmons) at the Treasury Department assigns analyst Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) to investigate an unidentified criminal whom he is obsessed with tracking down. At one point, Christian is hired by Lamar Black (John Lithgow) to investigate possible accounting fraud at his company. A young woman, Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick), who works for Mr. Black, is assigned to assist Christian with the investigation. There is a lot going on here as multiple threads converge. The supporting cast also includes Jeffrey Tambor, though it’s best I don’t describe his character. It’s a very good story, though rather violent at times (R-rated, mostly gun violence).
2016 Scott Derrickson 115 PG-13 Doctor Strange A very unusual fantasy action adventure. It tells the story of a brilliant surgeon, Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) who travels to Nepal in search of a cure for his own injuries. But what he finds there goes way beyond medicine, as his teachers, Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and “The Ancient One” (Tilda Swinton), instruct him in mystical powers that transcend space and time and spirit. He is exposed to other dimensions in the multiverse, and must fight an enemy who poses a threat to the entire Earth. Extensive use of special effects, including some reminiscent of “Inception” (2010), and sometimes almost dizzying. Also stars Rachel McAdams as Dr. Christine Palmer, a friend and coworker of Dr. Strange. Never a dull moment. Much of the action is very intense, what they call “sci-fi violence” but still qualified for PG-13. And note that this is from Marvel Studios, so Stan Lee has his traditional cameo, and there are two brief extra scenes during and following the end-credits. A bizarre but very entertaining story.
2016 Denis Villeneuve 116 PG-13 Arrival An unusual alien-encounter sci-fi thriller that unfortunately left me very confused. There were some very fascinating ideas explored, but if the things that puzzled me were explained, the director failed to reach me. It is however getting very high praise from the critics and the acting was good and there were some entertaining special effects. So obviously I must have missed some subtle clues. But what I can tell you about the story is that, as the title suggests, space aliens arrive on Earth suddenly, without warning, at 12 locations around the world simultaneously, in mysteriously shaped vehicles that hover rather than actually land on the surface. The main character is Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a professor of linguistics, who is offered the opportunity to help establish communications with the aliens. Also recruited to work with Louise is a scientist named Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). And since this is a military operation, their liaison is Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker). I won’t tell you any more about what happens, but if you like this film genre, you should check it out. OK, that’s my first impression. Now I have read some discussions about the film and if they’re correct, there were definitely things going on in the film that escaped my notice or were misinterpreted. But I won’t say what, so you can see if you’re any better at getting it on the first viewing.