Tag Archives: Movie Review

Review: ‘Manchester by the Sea’ is phenomenal


Occasionally it seems as if we’ve become disillusioned as a society, so bereft of self-esteem that to find heroes we need to turn to film adaptations of comic books. In the absence of authentic, real-life examples of moral integrity, we instead need to measure ourselves against characters who leap tall buildings at a single bound, harness genetic distinctions to vanquish otherworldly despots or sweep through outer space in futuristic fighter jets to liberate oppressed civilizations in galaxies far, far away.

We sometimes need to be reminded that those people who toil quietly day after day in lives of common decency — obeying society’s rules, working unspectacular professions, providing for their families, supporting their friends, envisioning modest dreams of a better life ahead — are the genuine Supermen and Wonder Women of our world.

One movie which recognizes that essential truth — and gets it right, and celebrates it — is the new release “Manchester by the Sea,” written and directed by playwright Kenneth Lonergan and distributed by Amazon Studios, a subsidiary of the popular online retailer of books, games and movies.

In “Manchester by the Sea,” a man on the worn edge of youth lives out a solitary and humorless existence as a custodian in a Boston apartment building. Played by actor Casey Affleck, Lee Chandler regards the world through wary, guarded eyes and keeps humanity at arm’s length, drawing no more or less satisfaction from a cold beer after work than from unclogging a tenant’s stopped toilet during his workday.

One afternoon while shoveling snow, Lee receives a telephone call: His brother has suffered a heart attack, and has been taken in critical condition to the hospital in the nearby town of Manchester by the Sea. Lee displays no outward emotion at the news — he quietly assures the caller he’ll leave for the hospital immediately. Manchester by the Sea is Lee’s hometown, we are told. He left there years earlier under unknown circumstances.

Arriving at the hospital, Lee learns his brother has died, and that he needs to assume a measure of family responsibility and attend to the brother’s unresolved business and final arrangements. In the process he’ll need to interact with friends and family members he hasn’t seen or spoken with in a number of years.

From that point forward, “Manchester by the Sea” departs from a traditional narrative structure. As the estranged Lee begins to somberly address his burdens, he draws upon memories of the past, presented to the viewer in the form of flashbacks.

Little by little, we learn about Lee’s family and his background. And as we eventually discover the unspeakable tragedy which devastated the laconic custodian’s life and drove him away, we realize what a selfless and heroic gesture he’s undertaken by returning home to assume his brother’s responsibilities.

Actor Casey Affleck has at times during his career seemed almost to court audience indifference. Often regarded as the less-flamboyant younger brother of Academy Award-winning superstar Ben Affleck — the older Affleck’s buddy and occasional collaborator Matt Damon is one of the producers of “Manchester by the Sea” — possibly Casey Affleck’s most memorable role prior to this picture was as Bob Ford in 2007’s “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” in which the actor inhabited the character of a man reviled by history and damned in folklore — not exactly superstar material. Casey Affleck is one actor who’s resisted donning the spandex uniform and cape of a comic book superhero.

The highest accolade for both “Manchester by the Sea,” and for Affleck’s performance in it, is that is seems as if writer/director Lonergan conspired with cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes to simply camouflage the camera and capture life itself, in all its emotional pageantry. Like film ancestors such as 1979’s “Kramer vs. Kramer” and 1980’s “Ordinary People,” this picture actually seem natural enough to enforce the notion that we’re eavesdropping on actual occurrences, or viewing another family’s home movies.

We learn that Lee’s brother Joe, a charter boat owner, has always guided him and tried to shield him from life’s unfairnesses. And that in either one final lesson in responsibility or a cardinal gesture of confidence — we’re not quite sure which — the now-deceased brother has entrusted Lee with the custody of his 16-year-old son.

Playing Joe in flashbacks is Kyle Chandler, an actor whose movie star good looks belie his range and effectiveness in the roles he plays. Late of television’s critically acclaimed “Friday Night Lights” — he played the coach — Chandler has also contributed quietly authoritative and eminently persuasive supporting performances in such pictures as Peter Jackson’s “King Kong” remake, Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty,” and the 2011 Steven Spielberg and J.J. Abrams collaboration “Super 8.”

In one telling flashback episode of “Manchester by the Sea,” Lee and Joe and Joe’s young son arrive home to discover Joe’s fragile and neurotic wife passed out on the couch, nude, in an alcoholic stupor. Wordlessly, automatically, the two brothers with practiced nonchalance move together to protect the young son from the sight of his mom’s shame — obviously this has happened before.

As Lee swiftly spirits the boy from the room, Joe lingers for a moment, considers, and then in an act of gentle decency covers his wife with a blanket. There’s no anger, contempt or bitterness in his eyes, only infinite disappointment and sadness. Not many actors could pull off that delicacy of emotion as effectively, especially without dialogue. Chandler does.

Also contributing a memorable characterization to the picture is the superb Michelle Williams, who enhances and enriches seemingly every film in which she chooses to appear, from the title role as Marilyn Monroe in the acclaimed “My Week with Marilyn,” to “Brokeback Mountain” and Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island.” As Lee’s former wife, Williams etches another memorable characterization in a resume as one of the finest performers in American film, although her role in this picture is not as large as her billing suggests.

But a real revelation in “Manchester by the Sea” is the performance of Lucas Hedges as Joe’s emotionally orphaned son, Patrick. Alternately outgoing and guarded, aggressive and vulnerable, manipulative and trusting, Hedges’ Patrick persuasively invests the character of the wounded teenager with all the qualities found in real life.

Like two virtuosos playing dueling solos, the scenes between the brash Hedges and the laconic Affleck are the highlight of the picture. Plainly Lucas Hedges is one young actor who’s going places.

Appropriately, the music soundtrack for the picture, composed by Lesley Barber, is strongly reminiscent of symphonic passages and tone poems, with a particular similarity to the intricate and exacting works of Antonio Vivaldi. As with the best of the romantic classics, not a note is wasted. And in this movie as with an orchestral performance, even the members of the ensemble with the smallest parts are essential to the overall quality of the piece.

Near the end of the picture is a brief episode which takes place on the deceased Joe Chandler’s charter boat. The scene is set in the present, after Joe’s burial, and onboard to test the craft’s seaworthiness are Lee, Patrick and Patrick’s girlfriend. The boy is piloting the boat around the harbor.

Impulsively, Patrick invites his girlfriend to take the wheel for a moment and steer the boat. Nervous, she simultaneously accelerates and turns the craft sharply — a deadly combination. But Lee, in the back of the boat, never flinches or reaches out to steady himself. Instead, he just flexes his hips and knees and rolls with the lurch of the boat — a balanced man, living with confidence for possibly the first time in his life.

But the real denouement of the scene is the expression we see in that moment on Affleck’s face: His brow, until now darkened and knotted with anxiety, is bright with confidence and optimism, and his guarded face is melted into a broad smile of ease and happiness. For the first time in the picture there’s love and affection in his eyes. It’s a family moment, and at long last Lee has assumed a place in his family dynamic, tasting responsibility and liking it, making decisions on behalf of others — good or bad, right or wrong — but prepared to live with the consequences.

It’s an important moment, not only in the picture but also likely among all the films of the year: It is in that moment that we behold a flawed and fallible character embrace maturity, and begin to grow and more forward.

“Manchester by the Sea” is the rare motion picture which invites us to invest in its characters, and walk along with them. Even at 137 minutes the film leaves us wanting more. It enlightens us as it entertains us, and leaves us with an impression of humanity we sense might remain with us long into the future.

Currently the picture is playing in the smaller auditoriums of local multiplexes. But when Academy Award nominations are revealed in a few weeks, “Manchester by the Sea” is one of the titles we’ll surely be hearing announced.

Review: ‘Fences’ remains relevant, powerful


Probably there’s not a man or woman on the face of the earth who doesn’t sometimes feel as if fate — or circumstances, or politics, or society — has cheated him out of a better life. Whether we dream of fame or riches, power or affluence, most of us entertain at least occasionally a notion that that life could’ve been vastly better, if only . . .

That feeling is one of the demons Troy Maxton is wrestling in “Fences,” Paramount Pictures’ most prestigious motion picture release of the Christmas season. “Fences” is the long-awaited film adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning drama by Pittsburgh-based playwright August Wilson.

In “Fences,” Troy Maxton is a middle-aged trash collector living in mid-1950s Pittsburgh with his wife, Rose, and their high school-aged son, Cory. Revealed through conversations between Troy and his best friend and co-worker Jim Bono is the knowledge that Maxton was once a baseball player of some promise in the pre-World War II Negro League.

Unfortunately, the color barrier was not broken in major league baseball until Maxton’s prime had already passed . . . although a 13-year stretch in prison for an accidental murder also undoubtedly contributed to Troy’s failure to reach the big leagues.

As the picture begins, Troy’s thoughts are occupied with a confrontation he recently initiated with his employer over an essential unfairness: The relatively-menial task of garbage collection is being performed by black employees, while the less-strenuous and higher-paying position of driving the garbage trucks is assigned to whites. On their walk home from work, Troy vows that he intends to pursue the resolution of the unfairness, even if it costs him his job.

Arriving home, however, Troy is also surprised by his wife with the information that their son Cory is being scouted by a major university, with the intention of recruiting him for a football scholarship —rewarding the son with a free education in exchange for his athletic abilities.

Troy’s reaction is surprising. The elder Maxton is mistrusting: Nothing, he claims, is ever given away for free, and the son is better off where he is — finishing school and keeping his job working weekends at the nearby A&P grocery market. It is suggested that Troy resists the son’s college scholarship because he fears the son exceeding his own modest accomplishments.

Also members of the Maxtons’ extended family are Troy’s younger brother, Gabriel, and Troy’s older son, Lyons. Gabriel is a World War II veteran who sustained a disabling combat wound, and is now mentally disabled and living on a veteran’s pension. Approximately $3,000 paid to Gabriel by the U.S. government for his wound was used by Troy to purchase the Maxtons’ home, with the understanding that Troy and his family would be Gabriel’s caregivers, although as the picture begins Gabriel has recently moved into the home of a woman in the neighborhood, to whom the Maxtons pay a monthly rent.

Troy’s adult son, Lyons, a musician in local bars and jazz clubs, is the result of a relationship in which Troy engaged previous to his meeting Rose. Lyons is resented by his father for his lack of responsibility — the elder son is perpetually short on cash and borrowing from Troy, either unable or unwilling to toil in a more responsible profession.

Troy’s primary pursuit during evenings and weekends is the construction of a wooden fence around the perimeter of the backyard of the Maxton home. The reason for the fence is variously suggested as a means of protecting the family from the outside world, isolating the family in a domain where Troy is their sole provider, or as a means of keeping death — the Grim Reaper — away from Troy.

In this manner, the angel of death becomes almost an unseen member of the picture’s cast. The fence also is symbolic of the barriers Troy has erected between himself and his sons.

Originally produced in 1983 at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut, “Fences” went on to a respectable run on Broadway in 1987 and 1988 at the 46th Street Theatre, with actor James Earl Jones performing the role of Troy Maxton. “Fences” won Tony Awards for Best Play, and an Outstanding Actor award for Jones.

A limited 13-week revival of Fences was staged in April of 2010 at Broadway’s Cort Theatre. That production starred Denzel Washington and Viola Davis as Troy and Rose, and won three Tony Awards — for Washington and Davis as Outstanding Actor and Outstanding Actress, and for Best Revival of a Play.

The movie is directed by star Denzel Washington, who’s also guided the dramas “Antwone Fisher” in 2002 and “The Great Debaters” in 2007. And Washington the director serves the source material of Fences well . . . possibly a little too well. Although August Wilson died in October of 2005, prior even to the acclaimed Broadway revival of “Fences,” Wilson is credited appropriately as the author of the picture’s screenplay, “based upon his play.”

And with very few exceptions, a filmed version of the Broadway play is what we see with Washington’s motion picture version. The play itself serves as the movie’s screenplay — there’s virtually no attempt expand the drama into locations beyond the Maxton home. Most of the cast — Washington and Davis, Mykelti Williamson as Gabriel, Russell Hornsby as Lyons, Stephen McKinley Henderson as Bono — also reprise their roles from the 2010 Broadway revival. And after certain key scenes, Washington the director even allows the screen to fade to black — for the viewer, it’s impossible to not imagine the curtain descending in a stage production, to provide a break between scenes.

But staginess aside, “Fences” as a movie is an honor to watch, if not precisely a pleasure. This is not a happy picture, and family patriarch Troy Maxton is revealed throughout the drama as a deeply flawed individual. But the production is remarkably well-crafted, almost flawless, making superb use of its filming locations in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, although the exteriors are seen in only a few shots. Backgrounds are digitally modified showing 1950s-era steel mill smokestacks. And the production design is nearly perfect — even the garbage collected by Troy and Bono looks authentic, although the laundry Rose hangs on the clothesline in the backyards sometimes looks like it’s already been dried and pressed.

And the acting is uniformly superb by all cast members. At age 62, Denzel Washington has become something of our national actor, nearly a force of nature, and plainly in “Fences” he’s never been better or more effective. The sight of Washington opening a window during a rainstorm to bellow in rage at the angel of death reminds the viewer that film acting just doesn’t get any better than this.

Matching Washington eyeball-to-eyeball, if not scene-to-scene, is the excellence — almost saintliness — of Viola Davis as Rose. Davis’ performance is a revelation, nearly an epiphany, and makes the viewer wish her gift as a performer could be used in more motion picture productions beyond the supporting roles she’s played in other, more inferior films. This is not a supporting role — Rose could easily be promoted as the primary character in Fences.

The first productions of “Fences” during the 1980s took place nearly 30 years after the timeframe of the play. And the motion picture version of the play is being released now, some 30 years following the original Broadway production. Partly for this reason, audiences expecting, or fearing, a rumination on racial relations might be disappointed, although the picture plainly is based upon the African-American experience during a time of change, in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

But “Fences” the motion picture is also a work in which time has caught up with the artistic intentions and expressions of author August Wilson.

Is “Fences” still relevant, 30 years after its stage debut? Absolutely. More than age or affluence, inequality, generations, unfairness, politics, or even race, “Fences” is a movie about American life.

Review: ‘Passengers’ under-performs its sizable budget


Probably all of us have entertained at one time or another the mordant thought of what it would be like to be the only living person on Earth, or by association any large enclosed environment. 

How would we survive? Could we endure the loneliness? And if we could select one person to share the isolation, who would it be?
The producers of the new Sony and Columbia Pictures release “Passengers” are hoping a lot of us would select Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence to share the solitary experience. And the studios have such confidence in that hope that they’ve invested a considerable amount of money making a movie in which the two actors do precisely that.

Set in an undetermined future time, “Passengers” has some 5,000 space pioneers aboard a gigantic spacecraft en route from Earth to an undeveloped and unsettled planet called Homestead II. The travelers were eager enough for a new beginning that they abandoned all worldly friendships and associations, and submitted themselves to suspended animation, enforced hibernation, for the 120-year voyage to the distant Homestead II planet.

Unfortunately, some 30 years into the voyage the spaceship runs through an uncharted asteroid field, which causes a system failure. One of the passengers, a mechanical engineer named Jim Preston, is accidentally revived from his hibernation. And after a day or two of exploring the cavernous space vessel, he realizes he’s not only alone, but also likely to remain alone for the remainder of his life — his shipmates, including the flight crew, all will remain in suspended animation for 90 more years.

Preston is played by actor Chris Pratt. Late of television’s situation comedy “Parks and Recreation,” Pratt is a wonderfully engaging performer who’s been attracting a lot of notice recently, not only from his starring appearances in such Hollywood blockbusters as “Jurassic World” and “Guardians of the Galaxy,” but also in smaller supporting roles in pictures like Kathryn Bigelow’s 2012 film “Zero Dark Thirty” — he played a member of U.S. Navy Seal team on the mission to kill Osama bin Laden — and Antoine Fuqua’s remake of “The Magnificent Seven” earlier this year.

Pratt’s screen persona is similar to that of the late James Garner — a reluctant hero with a stubborn streak of integrity dire circumstances can’t quite overcome, often conscripted by circumstances to step up and make a stand against forces which threaten others. But unlike Garner, Pratt projects an aura of sweetly childlike naiveté which seems to make audiences want to reach out and protect him.

Partly as a result of his persona, Pratt carries with him a certain cache — viewers have come to expect from the actor a certain type of performance in a certain type of role. As a result, his performance in “Passengers” — and also in “The Magnificent Seven” remake, in which Pratt played more-or-less the old Steve McQueen role — marks a slight deviation, a departure from other recent performances. And in playing a somewhat atypical, less-sympathetic role in “Passengers,” Pratt is successful . . . mostly.

As Vincent Price, Charlton Heston and Will Smith learned in the various screen versions of Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend,” it’s difficult for an actor to appear alone onscreen for an extended period and still maintain the interest and emotional investment of the audience. And despite some support from the versatile Michael Sheen as an amiable android bartender who serves as a sort of Greek chorus, a solo performance is what Pratt needs to deliver for the first quarter of the movie’s 116-minute running time. 
Then his character makes a choice which risks losing the audience’s goodwill entirely.

After a year of isolation and despite the entertainment amenities and activities of the spacecraft — lounges, gymnasiums, nightclubs, movies, space walking and the most awesome Wii system you’ve ever seen — Pratt’s Jim Preston is literally dying of loneliness. He’s actually considering ending it all when he becomes emotionally obsessed with one of the 4,999 fellow travelers still in artificial hibernation, a journalist played by the wonderfully charismatic Jennifer Lawrence.

And the moment Jennifer Lawrence’s feet hit the deck, the movie starts to zing. On full display in “Passengers” is Lawrence’s plain-spoken, self-deprecating let’s-get-this-party-rolling persona, which has endeared the actress to movie and television talk show audiences over the past handful of years.

Lawrence’s performance seems also to ignite something in Pratt — their scenes together are as charming as those between the title characters in Disney’s “Lady and the Tramp,” and for much the same reason. As a means of making sure we’re paying attention, the filmmakers have named Lawrence’s character Aurora, an obvious nod to Princess Aurora of Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty.”

But also accompanying Lawrence’s arrival onscreen is the central onscreen conflict: In waking Aurora prematurely from suspended animation, Jim has selfishly robbed her of her plans and ambitions for a life on Homestead II and beyond, for no better reason than to provide company for the lonely mechanic. What’s going to happen when she finds out?

And despite the warmth and humanity generated between the two actors, the movie begins to fall apart at that point, almost literally. Problems develop simultaneously with both the spaceship and the screenplay. The formidable Laurence Fishburne pops in long enough to explain in an authoritative voice that the asteroids which woke up Pratt’s character also damaged the ship sufficiently to end the journey. Turning back is not an option. And unless the mechanical engineer and the journalist can figure out in a big fat hurry how to fix the spaceship, everybody on board is a goner.

The filmmakers are not too adept at explaining the science behind the fiction, but are fairly good at covering their tracks: Every time the audience thinks they’ve spotted an anomaly in the plot, a new wrinkle is introduced that might or might not smooth it over. That’s almost excusable in “Passengers” because it keeps us on our toes enough to allow other nagging distractions to slip by, such as why Pratt’s character left the signature scruff on his face after he shaved off the rest of the fake-looking movie beard he grew during his year of isolation.

The one distraction too large to ignore is that Jon Spaihts’ script can’t decide whether “Passengers” is a romance, a character study or a science fiction thriller: It’s too much of each, and not enough of any. And despite some eye-popping special effects — there’s a honey of a scene in which the ship’s artificial gravity fails while Lawrence is taking a dip in the swimming pool —there’s too much plot going on to pause and savor them.

Norwegian director Morten Tyldum, who also guided 2014’s “The Imitation Game,” keeps “Passengers” plodding forward evenly enough to resolve the various plots, although at times the movie seems as tedious as the 120 years required to travel from Earth to Homestead II.  

And Thomas Newman’s techno-pop music score is pleasant enough, with a few old standards thrown in to augment certain scenes, but seems to have been composed for a more light-hearted picture. Whatever it is, “Passengers” is not a comedy.

In the end, it’s Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt who carry “Passengers” and sell it to the audience. The undiluted rapport they generate with the audience inspires us to forgive most of the picture’s problems and deficiencies.
 It’s an agreeable-enough expenditure of holiday time. Unfortunately, instead of a love story, a persuasive science fiction saga or a rumination on the effects of isolation, “Passengers” instead becomes an explanation of why movie stars are paid such enormous salaries.

Review: ‘Office Christmas Party’ is no fun


For years, I thought that Jason Bateman, Jennifer Aniston and Courtney B. Vance all seemed like nice people. I know nobody’s perfect, but I didn’t have any problems with them. 

Now, having seen them in “Office Christmas Party,” I have to assume that they are in fact horrible people. They’re not necessarily horrible because they did this movie, but they’re horrible because of something they did before this movie. They did something horrible and now have to do this movie as part of a blackmail.

The setup is that computer company CEO Carol (Aniston) is ready to shut down the branch run by her empty-headed brother, Clay (T.J. Miller), unless he can land major client Walter Davis (Vance). Davis is reluctant to do business with the company because he correctly senses that they have a morale problem. 

Clay decides to impress Davis by inviting him to a huge Christmas party so he can see that everyone is happy. He enlists CTO Josh (Bateman, giving a particularly disinterested performance) and tech head Tracey (Olivia Munn) to help him. 

Tracey is game, but Josh would rather just wallow in self-pity over his recent divorce and pine after Tracey. Josh isn’t exactly sold on the idea, and frankly I didn’t get the impression that Clay really thinks it’s going to work. It’s just an excuse for him (and the movie) to throw a wild party and maybe write it off as a business expense.

The party scenes are exactly what you would expect from an R-rated comedy about office workers cutting loose. There’s drinking and drugs and hookups and people going to the bathroom in inappropriate places. This is the kind of movie that banks really hard on you laughing at awkward dancing, lewd misuse of office copiers and people using loads of profanity when they’re people who shouldn’t be using profanity.
And yes, we get the obvious gag where an illegal substance is treated like snow. Such is the kind of cheap joke this movie relies on.

More than being unfunny, this movie is just lazy. Most of the antics and dialogue look like they were invented on the day of filming. There are funny people in this movie, not just the ones I already mentioned, but also Kate McKinnon, Vanessa Bayer, Rob Corddry, Randall Park, Karan Soni, Jillian Bell, Fortune Feimster and others. 

But no matter how funny these people are with decent material, they can’t save the lame situations they’ve been given. And that’s when they’ve even been told what to do and not just told that they’re so funny that whatever pops into their head on the first take will be fine. It’s no surprise that there is a reel of outtakes over the credits of this movie. The cast was clearly filmed going through hundreds of poorly considered jokes and then the editors chose the “best” ones without concerning themselves with getting the “right” ones.

The good news about “Office Christmas Party” is that it goes for such a high quantity of jokes that a few of them have to work. The big names, especially Bateman, know they’re above this material, but many of the lower-tier players are hungry enough that they give energetic performances and compete with each other over who gets to “steal” the movie (my pick is Bell as a pimp who’s out to prove that she’s capable of both kindness and cruelty). 

But this movie brings nothing new to the “party spirals out of control” genre, and it certainly isn’t going to fill you with holiday cheer. Give yourself an early Christmas present and go see something else.

(“Office Christmas Party” is rated R for crude sexual content and language throughout, drug use and graphic nudity. Its running time is 105 minutes. Contact Bob Garver at rrg251@nyu.edu.)


17 minutes, 39 seconds
Puddinhead Bros. (2016)

Ever wonder what “It’s a Wonderful Life” would have been like if set in present-day Johnstown?

Well, Matt Yeager and Jeff Skowron have brought that vision to life with Greg & Donny’s new “This Life Ain’t So Bad, Jagoff” Christmas special. And that ain’t so bad, either.

True to form, our local protagonist isn’t lassoing the moon — he’s shooting it with a shotgun, drying it out and making moon jerkey of it. The storefront cameos include some iconic area restaurants: Santo’s Gourmet Pizza, The Haven, The Boulevard Grill and, of course, Coney Island. And there’s even a WJAC-TV reference tossed in.

“It ended up being our most ambitious undertaking,” Skowron told AMPED. To see it for yourselves, yinz can find it on the Greg & Donny Facebook page.


Review: ‘Fantastic Beasts’ is no ‘Harry Potter’


“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” should have been a book first. 

Yes, I know it was, sort of. A fake “Harry Potter”-themed textbook about magical creatures came out in 2001, written by “Newt Scamander” (actually J.K. Rowling). Now we’re getting a five-part movie series about Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) and how he came to write the book, and all five movies are to be written by Rowling. 

Of course, the “Harry Potter” series found worldwide success as books turned into movies. With “Fantastic Beasts,” she’s skipping right to the movie stage, and the franchise is worse for it.

The film takes place in the 1920s when British wizard Scamander visits New York City. The brilliant-but-clumsy researcher lugs around a broken suitcase that is clearly filled with animals. A few creatures escape, and he has to adventure through the city to get them back. 

Goofy misunderstandings force him to partner up with local non-wizard, or “Nomaj,” Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) and disgraced former magical police officer, or “Auror,” Tina (Katherine Waterston) who simultaneously wants to help Scamander and arrest him to restore her credibility with the Magical Congress of the United States. Scamander is going to be in hot water when high-ranking Auror Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) finds out that he’s been so negligent. 

Then again, the Congress doesn’t seem to have time to deal with Scamander. They have to deal with a series of attacks from a destructive black cloud called an Obscurus, an anti-magic movement led by Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) and the possibility that the dark wizard Grindelwald is somewhere in the United States.

We are, mostly through Kowalski’s perspective, introduced to the wizarding world of this place and time. We also get to meet some exciting new magical creatures, some able to walk around in everyday society, but most contained in Scamander’s magical suitcase, which it turns out is spacious enough to house an entire ecosystem. 

It’s enough to make you wonder why Scamander doesn’t secure the latches better. It’s definitely enough to make me wonder why I’m supposed to be rooting for someone who’s so careless with well-meaning-but-dangerous animals. I am not won over by Scamander’s “charming bumbler” act. He needs to get a hold on his “fantastic beasts” and then find them a place where they can’t bother Nomajes or Muggles or whatever you call the rest of us.

What makes me say that this movie should have been a book first? In a word, detail. 

The “Harry Potter” world was so successful because there was a new detail around every corner, from characters to settings all manner of magical objects. But Rowling had more than 3,000 pages in which to explain and develop these details. Here, too, the world is filled with details, but it’s all limited to 133 minutes. 

Don’t get me wrong, a lot is covered in those 133 minutes, but it still feels rushed and underdone. Perhaps releasing a book first would mean that we could watch this movie and instinctively think “oh, that’s such and such, I know how it fits into this world, so I’m not going to ask too many questions” instead of wanting to know the backstory of a new detail every 30 seconds.

I have to be honest: I don’t see “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” earning the same following as “Harry Potter.” Granted, that’s a tall if not impossible order, and a lukewarm performance might be tolerable were we not locked in for four more movies. But as it is I don’t like Newt Scamander, the special effects aren’t where they need to be (the beasts are creatively designed and decently animated, but at no point do they look like they’re sharing the same space as the live-action actors) and the world falls short of being immersive. 

I’m not exactly dreading the next four movies, but I’m hoping that this is the only disappointing one out of the five.

(“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is rated PG-13 for some fantasy action violence. Its running time is 133 minutes. Contact Bob Garver at rrg251@nyu.edu.)

Movie Review: ‘Arrival’ works on deep levels


Science fiction often works best when used as an allegory or a metaphor, compelling the viewer to become a participant in the story, and to examine his or her own feelings or reactions to the drama onscreen or a similar situation which might be occurring in society.

In Paramount Pictures’ “Arrival,” released Friday, a linguist and a theoretical physicist are recruited by U.S. military intelligence when 12 interplanetary vehicles appear simultaneously around the world. The objective of the two civilians is to discern the intentions of the alien visitors, in order that the country is able to respond appropriately. The mission becomes even more critical when the other countries hosting the unexpected visitors begin to react to them with hostility.

“Arrival” was adapted by screenwriter Eric Heisserer from author Ted Chiang’s award-winning novella “Story of Your Life,” which successfully interwove sentiment and science fiction with the notion that the course of one’s life is pre-determined prior to birth. That Heisserer’s previous screenwriting credits are mostly in peripheral horror pictures such as “Lights Out” and entries in the “Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Final Destination” canons does not necessarily give the viewer an accurate idea of what to expect from “Arrival.”

Which is to say, the picture works beautifully on all levels. Denis Villeneuve, the director of last year’s superb international crime drama “Sicario,” works with Heisserer to lead the picture with humanity, allowing the science fiction elements to follow in a more effective fashion.  

“Arrival,” with its complex structure, lends credibility to a story which in more sensational hands might’ve become just another lurid interplanetary shoot-’em-up. As in Chiang’s novella, two stories are told simultaneously, but flow together easily and effortlessly to create one large picture.
And the picture’s casts works with intelligence and a quiet forcefulness to deliver the message. Amy Adams is a remarkably talented actress who always seems to be standing just short of major international stardom. Usually found delivering credible performances in movies as diverse as “American Hustle” and “Man of Steel,” “The Muppets” and Disney’s “Enchanted,” Adams as the linguist in “Arrival” delivers an eminently believable performance in a difficult role which might well be her most multi-dimensional and emotionally invested characterization to date.

At the time she’s persuaded by the government to help determine the intentions of the visitors, Adams’ Dr. Louise Banks is recovering from an acutely vulnerable point in her life, unknowing that the very sensitivity caused by a recent devastating experience will provide the key to her ability to communicate with the visitors.

Adams gives persuasive voice to the languages and technical jargon required of the role, but allows her eyes to wordlessly convey a sense of wounded humanity. The viewer feels her emotional pain, and as a result not only wants to see her succeed in her mission, but also is willing to work along with her in order to do so. Intense concentration is required from both the actress and the viewer to realize the picture’s considerable impact.

Jeremy Renner, an underrated actor usually found performing in action adventures and comic book adaptations, contributes a previously untapped dimension of bemused authority to his role. 

As the theoretical physicist working alongside Adams’ linguist to interpret the intentions of the alien visitors, Renner does not simply don a pair of glasses to suggest intelligence. Instead, in a role which might’ve become cartoonish or showy in less-capable hands, Renner works with quiet determination and sly humor to fashion from his role a characterization as vivid as Heisserer’s screenplay allows.

Equally persuasive is the always-reliable Forest Whitaker as the U.S. military intelligence colonel who recruits both Adams and Renner to communicate with the otherworldly guests. Whitaker with his sleepy-eyed, good-natured countenance has often during his long career worked successfully as men of conscience struggling to comprehend a difficult situation before erupting into impulsive action.

In “Arrival,” Whitaker delivers another such characterization, and more. I found myself wishing Whitaker had more screen time, but such a wish seems to occur every time he appears in a picture. It’s difficult to believe Forest Whitaker’s been in films long enough to have delivered finely crafted performances in such motion picture classics as “Platoon” and “The Color of Money,” as well as the title roles of Lee Daniels’ “The Butler,” “The Last King of Scotland” and Clint Eastwood’s “Bird,” the latter two of which earned him Academy Award recognition.

“Arrival” represents the entire array of contributing artists working at peak performance, on all levels. The ultimate messages of the picture — that we’re all here to help each other, every experience is a good one and time is all we have — are a hopeful antidote to the pessimism if our times.

Science fiction, when it works well, adapts itself to the age and allows the viewer to interpret the message in his or her own way. “The Thing from Another World,” “It Came from Outer Space” and several other alien invasion pictures of the 1950s mirrored the us-versus-them hostility of the post-World War II era.  “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” in 1956 showed us the futility of McCarthyism and the communist witch hunt. And television’s beloved “Star Trek” and “The Twilight Zone” during the 1960s mirrored in any number of episodes the dichotomy of advanced civilization juxtaposed with the intolerance and hostility of the times.

It’ll be interesting to learn the reaction to “Arrival,” with its message of cooperation, during a period in time when much of our world seems to be building walls of hostility rather than bridges of communication.

Review: ‘Trolls’ tosses a few crumbs to parents


Of all the surefire blockbusters of 2016, “Trolls” was probably the one I was dreading the most. 

If you’re a parent whose kids are this film’s target audience, you’ve probably been dreading it, too. This is a film designed to revive an annoyingly cute toy line that we all thought we had left in the past. And the early trailers didn’t help: nauseatingly colorful little goofs with their trademark wispy hair dancing up a storm. 

Every adult knows that the most sickening part of animated kids’ movies, even the good ones, is the inevitable dance party at the end. The bad news is that “Trolls” is every bit the buffet of cinematic junk food you think it is. The good news is that you go numb to it pretty quickly, and then you can appreciate the things the movie does right.

Princess Poppy (Anna Kendrick) throws a big obnoxious party to celebrate the 20th anniversary of her father (Jeffrey Tambor) saving the entire troll race from being eaten by their mortal enemy, the hideous Bergens. An unhappy troll named Branch (Justin Timberlake) warns her that if the party is too bright and loud, it will lead the remaining Bergens right to them. Poppy brushes him off, throws the party, and watches as her friends are carried off by the Bergens’ royal chef (Christine Baranski), who was banished for letting the trolls escape 20 years ago and is now bent on redemption and revenge.
The airheaded Poppy has at least inherited her father’s determination to never leave a troll behind, so she sets out on a mission to save her friends. But she can’t do it alone, so she drags survivalist Branch along to help her. 

The two don’t get along at first, because she’s an optimist and he’s a pessimist. Also, she loves to sing and he hates it. Everybody who actually thinks that the character voiced by Justin Timberlake won’t love singing by the movie’s end, please do a backflip now.

Poppy and Branch hatch a plan to save the captured trolls by helping a lowly Bergen kitchen maid named Bridget (Zooey Deschanel) woo her crush, the miserable King Gristle (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who is perpetually unhappy because he’s never gotten to eat a troll. Maybe if Poppy and Branch can help Bridget and Gristle fall in love, they won’t need to eat trolls to be happy and then everybody can be happy without anybody getting eaten. Everybody, that is, except the poor chef who was just as troll-hungry as everyone else in the kingdom and had to be homeless for 20 years. The movie can’t think of an outcome where she can be happy, so it just treats her as a villain unworthy of happiness.

The story is entirely predictable, from the celebrations to the hardships to the supposed twists to the gradual relationship between Poppy and Branch. Along the way there are musical numbers and hair gags aplenty. 

Some of the songs are fun (I laughed heartily when Poppy took a request literally), but this movie can’t come up with nearly as many interesting things to do with hair as say, “Tangled.” Much more imaginative is the danger that Poppy and Branch face on their way to the Bergen kingdom. A wide variety of creatures want to eat the trolls, but they’re so greedy that they end up eating each other. This leads to some delightfully dark humor, as the filmmakers probably wanted to reward themselves for putting up with so much cutesiness in other scenes.

“Trolls” is mostly kiddie stuff, though adults will be able to appreciate a handful of scenes. I’m not saying it ever gets to that next level where adults can watch it by themselves and find value in it, but it shows occasional flashes of brilliance. And I’m not above saying that a tiny bit of the constant happiness is infectious.

(“Trolls” is rated PG for some mild rude humor. Its running time is 92 minutes. Contact Bob Garver at rrg251@nyu.edu. And check out more reviews at the newly updated www.bobatthemovies.com.)

Review: ‘Doctor Strange’ a wild, wonderful film

Movie Review stars


Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is the latest superhero to be added to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. 

Prior to becoming a superhero, he’s a lot like Tony Stark: an arrogant genius who coasts through life on incredible talent without really pushing himself beyond his comfort zone. Strange is a surgeon who gets in a car accident and loses use of his hands. 

He’s lucky that’s all he loses after his car went over a steep cliff, but as a surgeon, he’s still devastated. He plunges into a downward spiral where he goes broke and turns away his caring girlfriend (Rachel McAdams).

No doctors in the Western Hemisphere will help Strange, so he travels to Nepal to be treated by a mysterious “ancient one” (Tilda Swinton). She introduces him to a form of magic and subjects him to things he never thought possible, like separating his spirit from his body and sending him hurling through the multiverse. He becomes her student, with her training him for what he thinks is his own benefit, but is actually to make him a defender of the planet. A dangerous former student (Mads Mikkelsen) is trying to steal all of the Earth’s time and is planning to turn it over to an evil outer space cloud monster who will use it to achieve world domination.

I might not have gotten that last part quite right, but that part of the movie doesn’t make a lot of sense. Actually, a great deal about this movie doesn’t make a lot of sense. This movie can’t turn around without introducing us to something incredible. 

In a very short span of time, Strange learns about out-of-body experiences, the outer reaches of the universe, the creation of matter with his mind, the culling of resources from parallel dimensions, a protective cloak with a mind of its own, a portable prison of sorts, all manner of manipulating time and space and a librarian who has apparently never heard of Beyonce. Maybe a wunderkind like Strange can keep track of it all, but I couldn’t. 

And, frankly, the movie can’t either. These concepts are thrown around haphazardly so we can get about five minutes of cool visuals, but they don’t seem to have any long-term effects on our world.

That’s not to say that there’s not a lot about to like about this movie. Cumberbatch has finally found a blockbuster leading role that suits him, and he has excellent chemistry with everybody. The humor mostly hits, outside of tired mister/doctor confusion. And the aforementioned cool visuals are extraordinarily cool. The movie has a somewhat dull color palate until that multiverse sequence and then wham! — you’re hit with the full spectrum. 

One of these parallel universes sees Strange’s hand grow new hands out of his fingers, and then those hands grow hands, and those hands grow hands. You might not think you’re freaked out by fingers, but trust me, you are. Then there’s a chase/fight scene where the gravity is altered, so the characters run and fight up, down, all around, side to side and many other directions. I got nauseated by this disorienting sequence, but I appreciate the effort.

With pun absolutely intended, “Doctor Strange” is one of Marvel’s stranger movies. The film’s ambition knows no bounds.

Unfortunately, the film’s running time should have been a bound(ary). The film comes up with amazing ideas faster than it can handle them — maybe a few should have been cut. I hate to ask a film to ease up on the creativity, but taking more time to develop some of its higher concepts would have given this film some much-needed coherence. 

Still, when this movie works, it works beautifully. I loved this movie when I could wrap my head around it. Dr. Strange could probably use some kind of magic to literally wrap his head around it.

(“Doctor Strange” is rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action throughout, and an intense crash sequence. Its running time is 115 minutes. Contact Bob Garver at rrg251@nyu.edu.)

Review: ‘The Girl on the Train’ is simply average


“The Girl on the Train” is a mystery about a missing woman, based on a novel by Paula Hawkins. 

It was destined to be compared to similar adaptations such as “Gone Girl” and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” Those films were supposed to be in for a big awards push, but failed to secure Oscar nominations in any major category except Best Actress. 

Here, too, is a film where I could see the lead actress claiming the sole Oscar nomination — though the film around her is perhaps too weak to make her a true contender.

The story often switches narrators, but it mainly follows Rachel (Emily Blunt). She’s a trainwreck of a person, a chaotic alcoholic who spends her days drinking and riding trains to a job she doesn’t have. She pauses only to obsess over two couples.
The first is somewhat understandable: her ex-husband, Tom (Justin Theroux), and his former mistress and now-wife, Anna (Rebecca Ferguson). They live in wedded bliss with the daughter Rachel always wanted. 

The other couple is more inexplicable: Megan (Haley Bennett) and Scott (Luke Evans) are neighbors of Tom and Anna who seem to have life all figured out. Although Rachel only ever sees them through a train window, to her they represent stability and perfection.

Then one day Rachel sees Megan in the arms of another man: her psychiatrist (Edgar Ramirez). Rachel is so infuriated by this betrayal that she sets out to confront Anna over Tom’s betrayal. She follows “Anna” into a tunnel, but it turns out she’s actually meeting Megan for the first time. Then she blacks out for several hours. Then she wakes up covered in blood. Then she finds out that Megan, who it turns out was a nanny for Tom and Anna, is missing. 

Who is responsible for Megan’s disappearance? Could it really have been Rachel, who is prone to erratic behavior and alcohol-induced blackouts and who can’t remember what happened in that tunnel?

From there, the film goes through all the paces that disappearance-based mysteries go through. Everybody has secrets, and everybody takes a turn being the most likely suspect. There’s a handful of twists, and then weirdly no twist when you’d think there’s one. 

I’m okay with the “perfect” characters turning out to be not so perfect — it comes with the territory. But I was disappointed that the “interesting” characters weren’t so interesting. The men are all drooling oafs in one form or another, The women are all annoyingly self-absorbed, but they fare a little better. 

Anna tries to maintain a relationship with a man she knows she can’t trust because it started with him lying to his wife. Megan is trying to make sense of the many mistakes she’s made in her life, including the worst mistake a mother can make. And Rachel is just trying to make it through her pathetic life. Her semblance of sanity depends on the happiness of others, and even that is quickly falling apart.

All of the performances are good in “The Girl on the Train” — better than the material deserves. The men manage to breathe life into thankless roles and the women all garner sympathy for inconsiderate characters who seem to like to fall back on the catchall justification of being “flawed.” 

Blunt in particular is compelling in every tearful moment with a character who is unable to survive in polite society. It’s a shame that the mystery aspect of this movie is so poorly done. I formed a theory about a third of the way through that turned out to be the solution; a twist that predictable should have another layer or two on top of it. 

This movie is a step down from, say, “Gone Girl,” but I wouldn’t label it an entirely useless knockoff.

(“The Girl on the Train” is rated R for violence, sexual content, language and nudity. Its running time is 122 minutes. Contact Bob Garver at rrg251@nyu.edu.)

Review: “Pete’s Dragon” inferior to “Kubo and the Two Strings”


Nothing new was able to crack the top five at the weekend box office, and I’ve already reviewed first-place finisher “Don’t Breathe” and second-place “Suicide Squad.” So I’m going to take a look at the holdovers that came in third and fourth, respectively.

“Pete’s Dragon”

Disney has had a lot of success lately with live-action versions of animated classics such as “Cinderella” and “The Jungle Book.” Now they’re trying to have success with a live-action version of a 1977 film that was half animated and half live action. 

Actually, the dragon this time is computer generated, so it’s still a mix of live action and animation.

The good news is that they get Elliot the dragon right. He’s flawlessly rendered, super funny and adorable, and capable of a wide variety of emotions. How I wish the movie was complex enough to justify more of these emotions.

Instead, it’s a standard tale of Pete (Oakes Fegley), a boy who has grown up with Elliot, meeting other humans for the first time in years and having to prove the dragon is real. Then, of course, there’s the matter of what people will do with Elliot once they find out he’s real. There’s also an expected subplot about Pete maybe having to leave the life he knows with Elliot to live with a human family.

“Pete’s Dragon” feels incomplete; like Elliot has at least one more adventure in him than what we get. What we do get isn’t “bad” exactly, apart from a villain (Karl Urban) who makes a bunch of stupid decisions just because he’s the villain. I just wish this movie had more ambition befitting its awesome dragon.

(“Pete’s Dragon” is rated PG for action, peril and brief language. Its running time is 103 minutes.)

“Kubo and the Two Strings”

For “Kubo and the Two Strings,” the opening line is: “If you must blink, do it now.” That’s quite a claim that the forthcoming movie will have a hard time backing up. 

But yeah, that statement describes this movie pretty well, for better or worse.

Kubo (Art Parkinson) lives in a small Japanese village where he makes a living telling elaborate stories with even more elaborate origami puppets.
He’s attacked by his evil aunts (both Rooney Mara), and his magical mother (Charlize Theron) uses her last bit of strength to send him on a quest to find his late father’s missing armor, which will help protect him from his evil grandfather (Ralph Fiennes). Kubo is aided by a dour monkey (Theron) and a meat-headed beetle (Matthew McConaughey) who seem to have the hots for each other. 

This movie is so crazy that a monkey falling in love with a beetle falls perfectly in line with everything else.

When this movie works, it really works. The animation is beautiful, with the painstaking stop-motion work by plucky studio Laika (“ParaNorman”) paying off yet again. It ratchets up the intensity and darkness to a level not usually seen in a kids’ film, but is certainly welcome. But that’s not to say it doesn’t also have its lighter, fun moments, and those work pretty well, too.

The problem I have with “Kubo and the Two Strings” is the same problem I had with “Inside Out” in that sometimes it’s so ambitious that it can’t seem to keep up with the skewed rules of its own distorted world. Or maybe it does and I just blinked and missed something. 
At any rate, this is still one of the most exciting and delightful films of the year.

(“Kubo and the Two Strings” is rated PG for thematic elements, scary images, action and peril. Its running time is 101 minutes. Contact Bob Garver at rrg251@nyu.edu.)