Critics Choice Awards nominations — the Oscar field is in this list, more or less

The Critics Choice Awards may not count for a lot in and of themselves. But the nation’s movie critics do a fair job of dilineating the Oscar field, a month before Oscar nominations come out.

So here they are. I don’t see “Hacksaw Ridge” as a contender, but the others seem pretty close to exactly the list we’ll see come Oscar nomination day. 

Lots of love for “Loving” and “Hell or High Water,” “Manchester by the Sea” and “La La Land” and “Sully,” the latter two I was a little less enthralled with.

Hailee Steinfeld “best young actress” for “Edge of Seventeen”? Annette Bening best actress for “20th Century Women”? Why not?

You add categories, you include EVERY possibility. That way, you get to say, “Hey, we influenced/predicted the Oscars.

 

BEST PICTURE
Arrival
Fences
Hacksaw Ridge
Hell or High Water
La La Land
Lion
Loving
Manchester by the Sea
Moonlight
Sully

BEST ACTOR
Casey Affleck – Manchester by the Sea
Joel Edgerton – Loving
Andrew Garfield – Hacksaw Ridge
Ryan Gosling – La La Land
Tom Hanks – Sully
Denzel Washington – Fences

BEST ACTRESS
Amy Adams – Arrival
Annette Bening – 20th Century Women
Isabelle Huppert – Elle
Ruth Negga – Loving
Natalie Portman – Jackie
Emma Stone – La La Land

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Mahershala Ali – Moonlight
Jeff Bridges – Hell or High Water
Ben Foster – Hell or High Water
Lucas Hedges – Manchester by the Sea
Dev Patel – Lion
Michael Shannon – Nocturnal Animals

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Viola Davis – Fences
Greta Gerwig – 20th Century Women
Naomie Harris – Moonlight
Nicole Kidman – Lion
Janelle Monáe – Hidden Figures
Michelle Williams – Manchester by the Sea

BEST YOUNG ACTOR/ACTRESS
Lucas Hedges – Manchester by the Sea
Alex R. Hibbert – Moonlight
Lewis MacDougall – A Monster Calls
Madina Nalwanga – Queen of Katwe
Sunny Pawar — Lion
Hailee Steinfeld – The Edge of Seventeen

BEST ACTING ENSEMBLE
20th Century Women
Fences
Hell or High Water
Hidden Figures
Manchester by the Sea
Moonlight

BEST DIRECTOR
Damien Chazelle – La La Land
Mel Gibson – Hacksaw Ridge
Barry Jenkins – Moonlight
Kenneth Lonergan – Manchester by the Sea
David Mackenzie – Hell or High Water
Denis Villeneuve – Arrival
Denzel Washington – Fences

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Damien Chazelle – La La Land
Barry Jenkins — Moonlight
Yorgos Lanthimos/Efthimis Filippou – The Lobster
Kenneth Lonergan – Manchester by the Sea
Jeff Nichols – Loving
Taylor Sheridan – Hell or High Water

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Luke Davies – Lion
Tom Ford – Nocturnal Animals
Eric Heisserer – Arrival
Todd Komarnicki – Sully
Allison Schroeder/Theodore Melfi – Hidden Figures
August Wilson – Fences

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
Stéphane Fontaine – Jackie
James Laxton – Moonlight
Seamus McGarvey – Nocturnal Animals
Linus Sandgren – La La Land
Bradford Young – Arrival

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
Arrival – Patrice Vermette, Paul Hotte/André Valade
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – Stuart Craig/James Hambridge, Anna Pinnock
Jackie – Jean Rabasse, Véronique Melery
La La Land – David Wasco, Sandy Reynolds-Wasco
Live by Night – Jess Gonchor, Nancy Haigh

BEST EDITING
Tom Cross – La La Land
John Gilbert – Hacksaw Ridge
Blu Murray – Sully
Nat Sanders/Joi McMillon — Moonlight
Joe Walker – Arrival

BEST COSTUME DESIGN
Colleen Atwood – Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Consolata Boyle – Florence Foster Jenkins
Madeline Fontaine – Jackie
Joanna Johnston – Allied
Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh – Love & Friendship
Mary Zophres – La La Land

BEST HAIR & MAKEUP
Doctor Strange
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Hacksaw Ridge
Jackie
Star Trek Beyond

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
A Monster Calls
Arrival
Doctor Strange
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
The Jungle Book

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
Finding Dory
Kubo and the Two Strings
Moana
The Red Turtle
Trolls
Zootopia

BEST ACTION MOVIE
Captain America: Civil War
Deadpool
Doctor Strange
Hacksaw Ridge
Jason Bourne

BEST ACTOR IN AN ACTION MOVIE
Benedict Cumberbatch – Doctor Strange
Matt Damon – Jason Bourne
Chris Evans – Captain America: Civil War
Andrew Garfield – Hacksaw Ridge
Ryan Reynolds – Deadpool

BEST ACTRESS IN AN ACTION MOVIE
Gal Gadot – Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Scarlett Johansson – Captain America: Civil War
Margot Robbie – Suicide Squad
Tilda Swinton – Doctor Strange

BEST COMEDY
Central Intelligence
Deadpool
Don’t Think Twice
The Edge of Seventeen
Hail, Caesar!
The Nice Guys

BEST ACTOR IN A COMEDY
Ryan Gosling – The Nice Guys
Hugh Grant – Florence Foster Jenkins
Dwayne Johnson – Central Intelligence
Viggo Mortensen – Captain Fantastic
Ryan Reynolds – Deadpool

BEST ACTRESS IN A COMEDY
Kate Beckinsale – Love & Friendship
Sally Field – Hello, My Name Is Doris
Kate McKinnon – Ghostbusters
Hailee Steinfeld – The Edge of Seventeen
Meryl Streep – Florence Foster Jenkins

BEST SCI-FI/HORROR MOVIE
10 Cloverfield Lane
Arrival
Doctor Strange
Don’t Breathe
Star Trek Beyond
The Witch

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
Elle
The Handmaiden
Julieta
Neruda
The Salesman
Toni Erdmann

BEST SONG
“Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” – La La Land
“Can’t Stop the Feeling” – Trolls
“City of Stars” – La La Land
“Drive It Like You Stole It” – Sing Street
“How Far I’ll Go” — Moana
“The Rules Don’t Apply” – Rules Don’t Apply

BEST SCORE
Nicholas Britell – Moonlight
Jóhann Jóhannsson – Arrival
Justin Hurwitz – La La Land
Micachu – Jackie
Dustin O’Halloran, Hauschka – Lion

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The Best Films of 2016

Perhaps we — ok I -= have been too hasty to write off 2016 at the movies.

Sure, the dead stretches have been corpse-strewn, but a year that started with “Deadpool” can’t be a total write-off, can it?

The exceptional films are as rare as they always are, but the great muddled middle brow/middle-ground fare seems to be of a somewhat higher caliber.

Mainstream thrillers like “The Accountant” and “Girl on the Train” were watchable, a true story action picture like “Deepwater Horizon” is almost enough to restore your faith in Mark Wahlberg. I can’t recall a movie whose dazzling visuals and sound made me duck at what I was sure was flying off the screen the way that one did.

Horror produces so much that’s forgettable, that remembering what’s good enough to attract a decent cast (“Ouija 2”) or new twists on basic fears (“Don’t Breathe”) is a worthwhile exercise.

The holiday/awards season fare is stacked with swings and misses — “Rules Don’t Apply,””Allied,” “Nocturnal Animals,” and the best of that lot, “La La Land.”Some are going to regard the sturdy “Sully” as exceptional. Nah. Good, not great.

But “Arrival” raised the bar on smart sci-fi, “Moonlight” is this year’s breakout indie Oscar contender and “American Honey” is good enough to make you reconsider Shia LaBeouf.

One hopes that awards buzz builds for guys like Michael Shannon (“Nocturnal Animals”) or Paul Dano (“Swiss Army Man”), or Sasha Lane (“American Honey”), even if their movies didn’t connect with a big audience.

The sinister Korean import “The Handmaiden” makes subtitles worth reading, “The Lobster” was at least worth a good argument, “Denial” addressed a Big Issue with smarts and heart and Disney found the best use-ever for digital animation in a live action film with “The Jungle Book.”

I’d include “In Order of Disappearance” in here, the coolest, bleakest vengeance thriller of the millennium, but Stellan Skarsgaard’s dazzling turn in this Norwegian film came back in 2014 and only opened in the U.S. this year.

I saw a lot of documentaries this year, but none really stuck with me as the very best ones always do. But “For the Love of Spock,” or Werner Herzog’s “Lo and Behold,” “Author: The J.T. LeRoy Story,” “The Lovers and the Despot,” “Zero Days,” “Gimme Danger,” the Netflix docs “The 13th” and “Amanda Knox” would make a best docs of the year list.

I may amend this list, as there are a couple of other “contenders” I will only get to see in another week or so — “Jackie,” for instance. And “Fences.”

But I’ve been back through the 500 or so titles I watched and reviewed this year, established my benchmarks and waited for fresh fare to come along and knock the best I’ve seen off their perches.

The ones still standing, the ones that had the staying power, are listed below — the Ten Best Films of 2016.

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“Loving” — I called this indie historical drama “the most important film” of the year when I saw it. And I’ve seen nothing since that either changed that, or moved and impressed me as much as this intimate epic about forbidden love in defiance of state Jim Crow law. Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga give performances that make this historical love affair feel lived-in and real, with Edgerton in particular capturing the quiet certitude of a simple man who knows what he wants out of life, and knows that can’t be wrong, even if it is illegal — for now. In the context of our toxic times, it is “important.” But beyond that, it is moving and smart, a biographical drama with a sense of the changing currents of history.

“Hell or High Water” — A great genre-picture, perfectly-executed, is a thing of beauty. And this exceptional heist movie makes you remember that Ben Foster is criminally under-employed, that Chris Pine is a lot more than Captain Kirk, and that Jeff Bridges didn’t let an Oscar ruin his gift for ornery, Texas toasted character acting. Droll writing, somber pacing and just enough sparks of wit mixed in with violence and the feeling of impending doom make this David Mackenzie thriller a winner.

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“Kubo and the Two Strings” — Don’t underestimate your audience, especially if they’re children, and even if you’re feeding them animation. This animated classic from Laika, the folks who made “Coraline” and “ParaNorman,” is a smart, beautiful Americanized take on an Asian folk tale. It didn’t do Pixar business. But nobody’s talking up Pixar’s chances for a Best Animated Feature Film Oscar this year. In  a just universe, that will come down to this underdog feature, the uproarious “adult” cartoon “Sausage Party,” and Disney’s “instant classic,” “Moana.”

“Manchester by the Sea” — An exquisite rendering of the way grief empties out the soul, this painful picture about tragedy, responsibility and wounds that will never heal, this has Oscar buzz for Casey Affleck. He plays a broken man trying to summon up the heart to “be there” for his nephew when the kid loses his father and faces a future as somebody’s ward. Lucas Hedges is winning as the teenager who, like his uncle, needs to figure out how to grieve. But Michelle Williams, in just a couple of poignant scenes, will tear your heart out.

arrival2“Arrival” — We may remember this as the film that finally earned Amy Adams an Oscar. But it’s so muted, so wistful and so very smart that it messes with your head long after you’ve left the theater, and that will stick with you, too. From the storytelling style (flash forwards) to the scientific concepts, unforgettably unusual and yet logically defensible aliens, to the subtexts this brilliant picture slips past us, about fearing the unknown and really fearing “the other,” it’s no wonder this wasn’t a blockbuster. This is science fiction that’s too smart for general audiences.

“Moana” — The few songs are pretty forgettable, but the Polynesian folk story, the jokes, the animation, the great voice-casting (Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Jemaine Clement) make this an unforgettable experience at the movies. Disney totally outclasses the last few Pixar pictures with this in-house production. The gap has been closed, the torch has been passed, The Mouse is making great animated movies again.

“Moonlight”  Patience in a screen storyteller is a rare thing, but Barry Jenkins brings that to this story of bullying, coming-of-age and avoiding coming out on the mean streets of Miami. Jenkins keeps us guessing about motives, wrong-foots us with every pre-judgment and makes an anti-heroic star out of a  Mahershala Ali, playing a sympathetic role-model drug dealer. Yeah. 

“Lion”This inspiring true story merits inclusion here for its unflinching, unsentimental depiction of Indian poverty, and sentimental embrace of the child it follows experiencing it. Sunny Pawaer is a very small boy, an adorable moppet and a natural on camera. His character Saroo’s odyssey through the populous, sometimes callous Third World State on the rise is tense and intensely moving. Director Garth Davis captures the dusty western side of the country and the tough people who cling to life there, and screenwriter Luke Davies and the actors — Nicole Kidman, David Wenham and Dev Patel as  the adult Saroo — pull at the heartstrings as they show us the emotional cost of a traumatic childhood, and the Proustian memories that flood back just from the smell of that favorite food of childhood — a madeleine for Proust, a jalebi for Saroo. Lovely.

“Doctor Strange”  There were two out-of-body experience, joked-up and dazzling comic book adaptations that came out this year. The hilarious “Deadpool” hangs on its wit and a star turn by Ryan Reynolds, and seeing it again recently I was struck by how thin much of what goes on around him and his one-liners is. Weak villain, for starters, malnourished supporting cast. “Doctor Strange” may not have the self-aware winking of that February blockbuster, but it is eye-candy of the highest order, built around a seriously cool and totally credible turn by Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role. Getting Mads Mikkelsen reminds us of that old Hitchcock rule, don’t scrimp on your villain. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, a dazzling star turn by Tilda Swinton, Benedict Wong? They’re the reason this one will hold up as one of the classics of the genre.

“Anthropoid” — Here’s a World War II thriller that is everything that the dismal and glib “Allied” is not. Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan star as young Czechs dropped back into their homeland for a suicide mission — assassinating the Nazi overlord of their occupied country. It’s a film that concentrates on logistics, planning and “the human factor,” all considered, discussed and grimly accepted by men who see nothing but the necessity of their mission and its awful consequences. Riveting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Movie Review: “Lion” turns a Google Earth ad into an inspiring epic

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“Lion” is a survival epic, a poor child’s odyssey through the impersonal poverty and perils of modern India. But thanks to the miracle of modern technology and the magic of movie memory, it’s the feel-good movie of the holidays.

It’s about a little boy from Western India, a vital part of his single-mother’s family support system. Just five years old, Saroo joins his doting older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) in jumping trains so that they can steal coal to sell in the local street market.

If they’re lucky, and nobody catches them and neither breaks his neck leaping on or off the freight cars, they’ll earn enough for the milk that keeps them, their little sister and mother (Priyanka Bose) going for another day.

Saroo, played without a hint of acting affectation by wide-eyed moppet Sunny Pawaer, idolizes Guddu and wants to do everything big brother does. So when there’s the chance for a little field labor (Picking cotton, perhaps? “Bales” are mentioned.), Saroo insists on joining him. They take another train, get separated and the kid dozes off on an empty “de-commissioned” passenger coach that’s locked up and towed cross country.

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We experience a child’s terror at waking up to a nightmare of abandonment, with no one on board to help him. And we he arrives in Calcutta, the nightmare widens, as he’s now homeless, an urchin who doesn’t speak Bengali, doesn’t know his surname, doesn’t know the name of the town where he’s from. Every adult he encounters roughly handles him, ignores him or tries to kidnap him for some nefarious purpose.

Going to the callous authorities isn’t much help. That’s how he ends up in the orphanage.

“This is a VERY bad place,” a fellow inmate warns him. And so it is. Until he’s adopted out, packed off to Hobart, Tasmania, where he grows up in easy affluence in the care of an adoring mom (Nicole Kidman) and dad (David Wenham).

But as Saroo (Dev Patel of “Slumdog Millionaire”) grows up into a surfer with hotel management dreams, he’s haunted by the trauma of his past. He’s “Oz” to the core. But a chance dinner party where they serve Indian food gives him his Marcel Proust-“Remembrance of Things Past” “madeleine” moment.

And so his attempt to piece together his “Roots” begins.

First-time feature director Garth Davis wisely puts the first half of this tale in the capable hands of an absolutely magnetic child. You want to pull a Wet Wipe out and clean his face, pinch his cheeks.

Young Pawaer makes us fear for his safety at every turn, empathize with his plight with every peril. Think of the hysteria a parent or child plunges into merely separated in the supermarket at that age. Now imagine the terrors of being plunged into a waking nightmare of abandonment, alienation and despair.Yeah, it could scar you for life.

Pawear, through good directing and careful cutting, seems shocked, even as he’s showing the street-smarts that keep him alive for “one more day,” as the starving “Les Miserables” sing.

Davis serves up those perils in picture postcards of poverty, the dusty India of field labor, hovels and grinding generational poverty. The menaces of being a pretty child alone on the streets are alarming, the “system” that imprisons and then exports street children dismaying.

Kidman is wonderfully cast as the Mother Rescuer, understanding of her new little boy the moment he arrives. He has endured much, and even if he doesn’t speak much English (the first half of the movie is in Hindi and Bengali with English subtitles), she is all re-assurance.

“One day, you’ll tell me all about it.”

Rooney Mara is the classmate the adult Saroo falls in love with who must deal with the trauma and overwhelming guilt he feels about his past, or would if he’d let her.

“I’m not from Calcutta,” he confesses to her. “I’m lost.”

Patel escapes his cinematic “Exotic Marigold Hotel” with a performance that’s subtle and largely non-verbal.

The intrusion of modern technology — the film began life as a “true story” Google Earth commercial — jams us into Saroo’s plight, second-guessing his Google Search decisions.

The script relies on “movie memory,” the total recall the cinema invents for such scenarios, not the way real memory works. But Davis transports us, through flashbacks, to Saroo’s pre-orphan childhood, piecing together details with the adult Saroo as he tries to find his home and his family is the vastness of the subcontinent.

“Lion” is moving and inspiring, a story of cruel fate, cruel people, the kindness of strangers and childhood traumas that we never forget, even as adults. We can only try to understand and find our peace with them.

3half-star

 

MPAA Rating:PG-13 for thematic material and some sensuality.

Cast: Sunny Pawaer, Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara, David Wenham

Credits:Directed by Garth Davis, script by Luke Davies, based on the book by Saroo Brierly . A Weinstein Co. release.

Running time: 2:00

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Movie Review: Horror crosses cultures in “The Eyes of My Mother”

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Whatever the artistic pretense, some horror movies leave you grateful that the filmmaker mercifully chose to shoot it in black and white.

With “The Eyes of My Mother,” that means we’re left with the hope that whatever’s in that glass, we want to believe it’s just tomato juice.

Nicolas Pecse’s debut feature as writer-director is a patient, pitiless thriller, a macabre tale set in the rural South where random violence is the stuff of folk legend, and morbid bluegrass ballads.

Those are the first sounds we hear in “Mother,” a plaintive bluegrass murder ballad about a killer in “North Caroliner” named Charlie Lawson playing over a trucker’s radio in the mountains of Appalachia.

The trucker sees a woman collapse in the road in front of him, and our story begins.

A farm woman (Diana Agonisti) purrs in English and Portuguese to her little girl, teaching her child about the livestock and how cows are like people “in the construction of their eyes.” Before we can say, “That’s interesting,” she’s remembering medical school in Portugal, and showing little Francisca (Olivia Bond) how to dissect bovine eyeballs.

eyes2Then the crazy-eyed stranger strolls up. He calls himself “Charlie,” he’s full of questions — grinning all the while. And he wants to use their restroom. He’s nervously rebuffed with “My husband will be back any second,” but to no avail.

“I’m TRYIN’ to be polite,” he lies.

“I don’t quite know what you’re planning” the mother replies.

It’s obvious, even before he pulls the pistol. But Mother wasn’t lying. She’s dead in the tub, with poor Francisca shocked and immobile, when her husband comes home. He dispatches the killer, and he and his little girl deal with her mother’s body.

And it’s back to “Bonanza.” No law, no cops, and it turns out, no eye-for-an-eye. Because Charlie is kept alive, blinded and totally in the power of little Francisca, who has lots of questions for him at her nightly feedings of the nearly-naked, chained monster.

“Why us?”

“You let me in.”

“Why do you do it?”

“It feels AMAZING!”

As the years pass, the impact of this tragedy ripples through generations and things turn even more surprising and more gruesome.

It’s a 76 minute film in which nothing happens quickly, even the opening highway encounter and the murder that precipitates Pesce’s story. The exotic Kika Magalhaes is the adult Francisca, who speaks to her long-dead mother and sometimes hears her voice.

She listens to mom’s old fado records — Portuguese laments, tortured torch songs. And she deals with a now-catatonic father and the simpering, aged murderer locked up in the barn.

Pesce went for tone here, the kind of horror that comes from a slow death we see coming a long way off. Every encounter leads to tragedy, or would if this was the sort of movie that empathized with its victims.

But “Eyes of My Mother” is closer to torture porn than tragedy, with nudity, grisly deaths and random undeserving suffering inflicted on one and all.

I like its sense of mystery and the efforts to complicate a simple, grim story that might be told at leisure — it’s awfully slow — over a campfire or in a scratchy bluegrass song.  The movie’s unsolved mysteries — how a Portuguese surgeon ended up on a farm in 1950s Appalachia or how this Charlie creep got his start murdering strangers — are intriguing.

Still, there’s no sense being fooled by the arty monochromatic cinematography. Let’s just say that was tomato juice and everybody knows how hard it is to clean up once you’ve spilled it, from a cup or a gallon-sized bottle.

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MPAA Rating:R for disturbing violent content and behavior, and brief nudity

Cast: Kika MagalhaesWill Brill, Diana Agostini, Olivia Bond

Credits:Written and directed by Nicolas Pesce. A Magnet release.

Running time: 1:16

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Movie Review: “Manchester by the Sea”

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Lee Chandler isn’t crazy about eye contact. The Quincy, Massachusetts janitor carries himself like a person who’s taken one too many blows, a dead man walking, working, drinking and going through the motions.

Every interpersonal interaction is awkward, drawn out. He seems unfriendly simply due to reticence. But test him and an at-his-wits-end temper shows up.

It takes only the briefest of flashbacks to show how this wasn’t always so. Once upon a time, he was “cool” Uncle Lee, joshing around and mercilessly teasing his ten year-old nephew on his brother’s lobster boat, a man full of life and fun until something took it all away from him.

That was years ago, in “Manchester by the Sea.” The film that takes its title from that quaint coastal town is about Lee’s not-by-choice return to a place that haunts him and hates him.

Casey Affleck plays Lee as a man drained of all but the last hints of life, and in the opening scenes, we see him going through the motions with apartment dwellers he serves, the friendly and the unfriendly. The ones who are nice to him get nothing in return, the testy ones get told off.

His sole relief, the endless succession of beers he consumes after work.

Then he gets the phone call. His brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) is about to die. Somebody’s got to come see him, deal with a funeral. Somebody’s got to pick up Joe’s teenage son (Lucas Hedges) from hockey practice and break the news.

Lee is the last “somebody” anybody should trust with that. He is too drained of emotion, too broken to show empathy. But as Joe’s plans are laid out to him, Lee is forced to deal with his past, Joe’s death and Joe’s popular, sexually-active smart-mouthed/foul-mouthed kid, Patrick.

Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan is years and years removed from his debut success and signature film, the equally brittle and heartbroken “You Can Count on Me.” But he reminds us of his unflinching way of approaching pain and neediness with “Manchester.”

Lee and  Patrick are both closed-off, both seemingly-braced for that next awful body blow — Lee, thanks to his past, Patrick thanks to his lobsterman-dad’s long-diagnosed congenital heart disease. They need each other, and they need to be needed.

And they’re each reluctant to be the first to reach out. This is obvious from the moment Lee gives Patrick the news. Does the son want to see his father’s body?

“”Why? What’s he look like?”

“Like he’s dead. He don’t look like he’s sleeping.”

Patrick is quick to summon friends, just as quick to let the subject among them change to silly “Star Trek” debates — in “Saturday Night Light” thick Massachusetts working-class accents. Is he capable of mourning?

And he wants his girlfriend to spend the night. Is it OK?

“Is that what Joe would say?”

Every encounter, from nurses and doctors to funeral directors, family friends and Patrick, drags on into the discomfort zone. Lee can’t help it.

Lee deals, incredulously, with the family lawyer, unable to grasp why Joe would insist that he be the kid’s guardian. He tries to do his brother’s bidding, even though Joe’s demands include that he move back to this town Lee associates with pain and tragedy.

And as the flashbacks, carefully doled out, reveal, there’s an ex-wife (Michelle Williams) and an ex-life that Lee knows he’d be better off not remembering, but which he cannot forget.

Lonergan has the patience to try our patience and make us squirm at Lee’s discomfort. And Affleck so underplays Lee that he draws us in, forces us into Lee’s shoes. It’s not a fresh direction for Ben’s younger brother. He’s always given us variations of the small, still, pained man capable of disproportionate blasts of temper. But he invites pity, here, misplaced or not. And he nails the draining emptiness of grief and of a depression that will never lift.

Oscar winner Michelle Williams will tear your heart out if she lets you. And you will and she will here.

man2And young Hedges, best-known for TV’s “The Slap,” as well as “The Zero Theorem” and “Kill the Messenger,” brings a mercurial blend of callous sensitivity to Patrick. He’s the son of writer-director Peter Hedges, no stranger to sensitively told tales of life among the emotionally crippled (“Pieces of April,” “Dan in Real Life”). It shows.

Patrick is 16, not fully formed and needs adult guidance to show him how to react. And all the kid can bring himself to demand of his uncle is that he give up his life in Quincy, move here, give him money when he needs it, ferry him from place to place and do all that he can to facilitate Patrick’s various sexual encounters with different girls. It’s a selfish, callous veneer he wears instead of tears.

The kid needs a grownup to keep him from maturing into a jerk. Hedges walks that tightrope with skill.

Lonergan gives the film a lovely sense of place, even if he’s a bit over-fond of establishing shots reminding us that it’s winter, that this is what the river looks like frozen-over. Working class adults and children are loud, rambunctious, profane and permissive. Sex between teens is treated with little more than an adult wink.

And for such a somber and serious film, “Manchester by the Sea” can be quite playful — the comical profanity, the duologues (two people yammering away at once), the way Joe’s lobsterman friend George (C.J. Wilson) reacts when Lee abruptly asks is HE wants to be the boy’s guardian.

“I’m uh, tryin’ to LOSE some kids at this point,” George blurts out in the middle of Lee’s unfiltered plea.

What Lonergan has created here is one of the cinema’s defining statements on the kind of grief that leaves you empty, of wounds that will never heal. He’s got the guts to make us uncomfortable in scene after scene, and the courage to deny us “The Hollywood Ending.”

And Affleck, Hedges and Williams so immerse themselves in this world he’s conjured up that it is impossible to imagine it without them in it. Their scripted actions and acting reactions make “Manchester by the Sea” an exquisite cry, one of the most honest, rewarding and well-acted films of the year.

3half-star

MPAA Rating:R for language throughout and some sexual content

Cast: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Lucas Hedges, Kyle Chandler

Credits:Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan. A Roadside Attractions release.

Running time: 2:17

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Documentary Review — “Harry Benson: Shoot First”

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Harry Benson captured The Beatles, giddy on their first-ever arrival in the U.S., pillow-fighting in their hotel.

He was with them in Miami when he thought it would be cool and funny to drag them down the street to meet Muhammad Ali, training in a gym.

He caught Liz Taylor at her most glamorous, and was invited into her hospital room to photograph her at her worst — after brain surgery. “How do I look?” she asked him. “Be honest, Harry.”

“Like Sinead O’Connor.”

Harry was also there with Robert Kennedy’s family on their annual rafting trip down the Colorado River, and he was in LA’s Ambassador Hotel that night in 1968 when RFK was murdered,  still shooting as Kennedy lay dying, his wife raging at him to stop. Others questioned his ethics and heart over that one.

“They just didn’t have the guts to keep shooting,” he says.

A lot of people in the playful documentary “Harry Benson: Shoot First,” try to define what an “iconic image” is — celebrities he’s photographed, from Sharon Stone and Alec Baldwin to Donald Trump, and journalists from Dan Rather to Deborah Norville and Bryant Gumbel. 

The short answer is, “You’ll know it when you see it.” The shorter one is “Harry Benson took it.”

Benson, who turns 87 on Dec. 2, comes off as an adorable Scots curmudgeon in Justin Bare and Matthew Miele’s film. He colorfully curses and quotes celebrities who cursed him — because not every image he takes comes from a pre-arranged photo shoot, joking about the dirty tricks he and other photographers have played on each other to ensure that they alone have access to the famous personage or the one perfect angle from which to shoot.

He’s been a paparazzo — stalking and photographing those who don’t want their picture taken — rarely. But he’s the guy who caught the reclusive Greta Garbo, late in life, swimming in a lake — trapped, unable to escape his lens.

The famous and the beautiful get something out of the transaction, Harry growls in his Glasgow burr. “The photographer’s image keeps them alive” forever.

But he’s also been to Mogadishu, documenting the tragedy there. He photographed Klan rallies, toted cameras on civil rights marches with Martin Luther King, Jr., and captured Mississippi police storming into the marchers. That Civil Rights era shot of the German shepherd police dog with blood on his teeth? Harry Benson.

The filmmakers chat openly with Harry for the film, take him back to Glasgow, where he got his start, talking with Brits who knew him when he was making unforgettable, artistic news images for The Daily Express. They take him back to the hotel where The Beatles loved the pillows.

It’s never pointed out, but every few minutes we’re reminded that he did all this work with bulky film cameras, long before the age of auto-focus or iPhones.

He did a photo essay in Grey Gardens long before the documentary film about the two eccentric sisters came to life. He befriended the “incredibly difficult” Johnny Carson, and got inside Joe Namath’s infamous NYC bachelor pad when Joe Willy was the most famous quarterback in the land.

All along the way, he used his “Scottish charm” to get where other photographers couldn’t,  chumming around with the Reagans, photographing Truman Capote’s famous “Black and White Ball,” rubbing elbows with the beautiful people on assignment for Life Magazine and others.

“A great photograph can never happen again,” Benson explains. Most of his life, in a job where “work always came first” (his wife and children testify to this), Harry Benson made sure to put himself in a position to get that great, iconic image.

And when opportunity arose, he always shot first.

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MPAA Rating:unrated, with images of violence and nudity, profanity

Cast: Harry Benson, Sharon Stone, Kerry Kennedy, Dan Rather, Bryant Gumbel, Henry Kissinger, Deborah Norville

Credits:Written and directed by Justin Bare and Matthew Miele. A Magnolia release.

Running time: 1:33

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Movie Review: “SiREN” is “Eyes Wide Shut” as directed by, oh, Rob Zombie

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Mr. Nyx is the guy you call when you’re a cop somewhere in the South and you stumble across a de-consecrated church filled with blood, candles, pentangles, goats kept in cages and corpses.

He surveys the scene from behind his round sunglasses and trim goatee.

“Cultists?” the cops want to know. “Satanists?”

“Amateurs,” Nyx, played by horror film vet Justin Welborn, drawls. He was in “Beyond the Gates” and “The Crazies” And “v/h/s Viral” and “Halloween II.” He knows the drill. He’s the guy who knows what happened here. And hell, he’s just the sort of goatee’d demon to take advantage of what he’s found — a creature unleashed by those “amateurs,” one whose song is as alluring as her arrival is deadly.

“SiREN” is another bachelor party gone wrong film, another quartet of guys following a fellow they meet at a strip joint off into the woods for some REAL stag party “experiences.”

“Only good things happen in the woods, right?”

But this spin-off from “Amateur Nightt,” a short from one of the “v/h/s” horror anthologies, has some jaw-dropping twists tossed into its cut-and-paste script, and a droll villainous turn by Welborn.

Because when bad things are going down, murderous masked thugs, a moveable sex club straight out of “Eyes Wide Shut” and the demon unleashed within it, you need a bad guy who will rub his goatee and thoughtfully answer your every question.

“What are you gonna DO?”

“Well, he’s going to HURT you a while, and I’m gonna WATCH.”

Chase Williamson is Jonah, the lad about to marry Eva (Lindsey Garrett), a fellow who’s too nice and too square to get into the role playing sex games she invents to spice up their love life.

But brother Mac (Michael Aaron Milligan) has a gonzo weekend planned for Jonah and two of their friends. When the rural strip club’s a bust, he busts out the mushrooms.

And he drags them all into the woods, following a tip from a barfly, that this is where the REAL “last hurrah” experience lies.

They’re just getting into the kinky, abusive stage show and their mixed drinks — “Murder” features leeches dunked into the alcohol — when Jonah has a back room peep show epiphany. There’s a naked singer there, held against her will. He’ll bust “Lily” (Hannah Fierman, sexy/creepy) out and save her, take that Satanic shackle off her ankle and see what transpires.

“She’s not a girl, man! She’s something else!”

“A transsexual? That could be cool!”

Things were going downhill for the quartet before that. Plainly this club’s real entertainment is what happens to “first-timers” at the hands of the masked patrons and bouncers there. But when Lily shows her teeth, and her tail, well…

If you know your mythology, you know the siren’s call is irresistible. But Odysseus, the Greek adventurer, didn’t have access to earbuds. Director Gregg Bishop makes great use of muffled sound to get across Jonah’s efforts to avoid the slaughter Lily unleashes.

It’s rarely scary. But the effects suggest a bigger budget than “SiRENS” might have warranted. And a couple of those are downright impressive and add to the feeling that this indie Satanic slasher pic is punching above its weight class.

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MPAA Rating: unrated, with gruesome, graphic violence, substance abuse, explicit sex

Cast: Justin Welborn, Hannah Fierman, Chase Williamson, Michael Aaron Milligan, Lindsey Garrett

Credits:Directed by Gregg Bishop, script by David Bruckner. A Chiller release.

Running time: 1:22

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Movie Review: “La La Land” triumphs over bland — eventually

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The epic opening scene of “La La Land” is a long-take roaming camera song and dance number set amid a sea of drivers stranded on a Los Angeles freeway overpass.

A song burbles up on a radio, the driver sings along, leaves her car, is joined by legions of others. As they promenade through a Cinemascope fantasy of one of the inconveniences of life in America’s Dream Factory, we meet our leads — aspiring actress Mia, aspiring jazz club owner Sebastian.

And they meet “cute.” Fingers are exchanged in traffic. It’s the sort of sequence that marks itself as “impressive” even if we don’t know that it took three weeks to shoot, days and days of rehearsing and re-takes in LA’s familiar early morning (so they can block the streets) light.

But there’s an emotional distance, a chill, that hangs over the film from the old school opening titles through this bit of non-digital movie magic. It takes almost half an hour to dissipate as we settle in on the leading lady (Emma Stone) and leading man (Ryan Gosling), discover each can sing and dance enough to get by. And that sets the  tone for the whole movie, an old-fashioned showbiz musical that lumbers when it’s supposed to fly, and groans a bit under the weight of its own ambition.

Writer-director Damien Chazelle (“Whiplash”) reaches for the stars, and cast the picture beautifully. But this throwback musical (songs by Justin Hurwitz) lurches along on show business cliches in between dreamy flights of filmed fancy.

There’s magic here, and wistful whimsy and melancholy, enough to warrant seeing it. Does it reinvent or improve upon “Singin’ in the Rain”, “A Star is Born”, “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” and the legions of classic films and musicals it references, borrows from? No.

The overarching theme here is nostalgia — for movie musicals, LA as “Dreamland,” the siren call of showbiz fame, and perhaps that’ll be enough for some.

Mia makes her living as a backlot barrista, serving coffee and snacks to studio folk just across the street from part of the “Casablanca” set. Sebastian, “Seb,” gets by with gigs playing Christmas piano at a bar run by J.K. Simmons, who fires him for his wild improvisations when all the owner wants is “Deck the Halls.”

Mia witnesses the firing and experiences the jazz purist’s brusqueness first hand. But she has her revenge at an ’80s themed pool party where sunglasses cannot hide the humiliated keyboard player’s true identity.

She can afford a Prius on her paltry salary. He’s rocking a vintage Yank Tank Cadillac convertible. It’ll never work out.

“You’re a real, what’s the word?”
“Knight in shining armor?”

“WEIRD-o.”

We’ve seen a century of degrading audition sequences, but Stone makes us feel Mia’s humiliation at the callous, distracted and rude dismissal of casting directors. Hers is a dream deferred.

Seb would love to rescue a legendary jazz club from its current state of tapas bar/samba room. What do they have in common? A love of history, and an appreciation for LA’s attitude towards it.

“That’s LA– they worship everything and value nothing.”

Chazelle takes his star-crossed lovers to stereotypical showbiz parties and past the city’s famous neon-bedecked clubs — Formosa, Knickerbocker — and into some of its most famous locations, including the Rialto Theatre and Griffith Park Observatory. They go to classic films and no-longer-smoky jazz rooms, dance in the streets and serenade each other in bittersweet song. Mia and Seb experience the city as a fantasia on their fantasies of what it should be.

And as they strive for their dreams and fall in love, compromises (he plays with a jazz sellout, played by John Legend) and big breaks get in the way of true love.

Stone and Gosling, teamed up for the third time, make a lovely believable couple. There’s not a lot of heat, but they generate a warmth and sweetness that makes the relationship worth rooting for. Stone is all wide-eyed optimism, Gosling a smirking cynic in two-tone shoes

But as he croons the film’s one memorable ballad — “City of Stars”– you can see what she’d fall for, aside from his natural handsome dash. And that makes “La La Land” work.

It’s slow to start and patience-testing in stretches, quite uneven and something of an over-reach. But “La La Land”  still manages to conjure up an aspirational city of dreams that to outsiders, really does look like a “City of Stars.” And Stone and Gosling make wonderful singing and dancing tour guides, reminding us of the days when we and Hollywood respected the label “triple threat” (a good actor who can sing and dance) a lot more than we do now.

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MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some language

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, J.K. Simmons

Credits:Written and directed by Damien Chazelle. A Summit release.

Running time: 2:08

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Movie Review: “The Eagle Huntress” gives girl power talons

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A Mongolian teen breaks the gender barrier in her native land’s sport of eagle hunting in “The Eagle Huntress,” a striking if predictable and plainly-staged docudrama set in one of the world’s most forbidding landscapes.

In Mongolia, the steppes tribesman who once plundered their way across Asia to the edge of Europe still ride their sturdy, furry ponies. And they still hunt with golden eagles, which they kidnap from the nest and train, like falcons, for sport and competition.

Aisholpan Nurgaiv is 13, and as she comes from a long-line of eagle hunters, she’s hunted with her father for years. She’d like to try her hand at becoming the first female to hunt and compete with an eagle in this patriarchal culture. She isn’t prevented from doing this, but filmmaker Otto Bell found plenty of elders to recite gender roles, Mongolian variations of “This just isn’t done.”

Her father is understanding, and supportive.

“It is not a choice. It is a calling you have in your blood. Maybe it is in her blood as well.”

So he sends up down a cliff face to nab an eaglet, and they commence to training it.

Their attitude towards the birds is not Westernized. She doesn’t name her enormous, dangerous “pet,” and we’re spared the cruelly dull downtime the eagle endures, hooded mostly, in between feedings and sessions. They only keep the eagles for seven years before turning them back into the wild, which is about as humane as this practice gets.

Father and daughter then head off to “train” by siccing the bird on the local foxes, a process that is bloody and brutal — nature at its most natural. Yeah, it’s “for a movie,” but still.

And then there’s the big festival where the girl and her eagle must show their stuff among the menfolk judge trainers by timed chases of prey and command of the bird when it returns to their arm. And they’re judged by their fashion statement.

Sure, the poor and probably sexist patriarchy is a bit cowed by the film crew she has with her, and the international media covering this “event.” One suspects that the whole affair is about as “real” as “Duck Dynasty.” Daisy Ridley, of the recent “Force Awakens” “Star Wars” movie, narrates the story (conversations are subtitled) and took a producing credit on the film.

The capture sequences are fraught and edited for maximum suspense, and Bell has a gift for capturing the home life — Aisholpan goes to a boarding school, with her siblings, during the week, and trains and feeds her bird (gristly goat leg bones, from the looks of it) on weekends. The canvas covered yurts and simple, somewhat primitive lifestyle of her family are compellingly depicted.

But some Western viewers may wince at the whole undertaking, and not just its contrived feeling. Like me, their sympathy’s for the poor fox.

 

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MPAA Rating: unrated, with animal violence

Cast: Aisholpan Nurgaiv, narrated by Daisy Ridley

 

 

Credits:Directed by Otto Bell. A Sony Pictures Classics release.

Running time:1:27

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Movie Review: “Mifune” celebrates the icon, the only Toshiro who matters

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A glaring injustice of the Internet pops up when you Google Image  search”Toshiro.” Your screen fills with a sea of shots of a bleached-blond anime character.

Film fans know there is but one Toshiro, the legendary Japanese film star Toshiro Mifune who “reinvented the modern movie hero” with his strong, silent man of violence in films such as “Yojimbo,” “Sanjuro,” “The Hidden Fortress” and “Seven Samurai.”

The world is ready to be reminded that there’d be no Clint, no Costner, no Denzel or “Star Wars,” not in an iconic sense, without Mifune. Steven Okazaki‘s film “Mifune: The Last Samurai,” rounds up people who worked with him and filmmakers inspired by him for interviews. And even if it is too brief and leaves too much out to be “definitive,” it serves up heaping helpings of Mifune’s film work and bits of home movies and the like to create a fascinating man-behind the stoic face/samurai icon below-the-topknot portrait of Mifune, Japan’s biggest movie star from the 1950s to the 80s, Japan’s first international film star thanks to 1950’s “Rashomon.”

That 1950 Akira Kurosawa classic, one of the greatest film ever made, tells the story of a rape and murder in feudal Japan from three points of view. Mifune, as the bandit accused of the crimes, studied caged lions to figure out how to play Tajomaru, a stalking, manic opportunist who animates the screen like few characters in movie history.

Co-stars such as frequent collaborators Kyoko Kagawa and Takeshi Kato may not add much to our understanding of the man or his methods. There’s a circumspect discretion to Japanese culture that makes such interviews stop short of “tell-all” or confessional. That partly explains Okazaki’s failure to include any of the rare Mifune interviews extant (you can find them on Youtube).

He acted almost constantly during his peak years, scores of films back-to-back-to-back. He drank. A lot. He loved sports cars. He cheated on his wife and was scandalized.

But there’s no revelation of why he and the director who made him famous, Kurasawa (“Throne of Blood,” “Seven Samurai,” sixteen collaborations in all) fell out. If Mifune was loyal enough to stand on set without insurance as under-trained college archers fired real arrows at him for the legendary death scene in Kurosawa’s “Throne of Blood,” why weren’t they there for each other when the hard times hit in the 1970s?

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Details of Mifune’s early life are filled in mostly by his son Shiro Mifune. Born in China to Japanese parents, he never set foot in Japan until he was drafted in World War II. The son is disingenuous about his father’s service — he was a reconnaissance pilot from 1941 to the end of the war, when he trained green young flyers to be kamikaze pilots.

Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese profess admiration for the stillness that Mifune discovered was his great gift to the screen, the “steadfastness, integrity and…samurai spirit” that Mifune came to embody. The sunniest anecdotes in the movie are Spielberg’s memories of working with Mifune and the great British character actor Christopher Lee in the WWII comedy “1941.” Mifune, hilariously earnest and deadpan in samurai comedies like “Yojimbu,” would only break up after Spielberg yelled “Cut!” He got the joke. He was in on it.

But “Mifune” does miss those semi-candid TV interviews that might have revealed more of the man, off camera. “Hidden Fortress” inspired George Lucas to make “Star Wars,” and Lucas offered Mifune the role of Obi Wan Kenobi, and, Mifune’s daughter adds, Darth Vader in that film. A Lucas interview is conspicuous in its absence.

Okazaki gives us a fascinating 20 minute history of Japanese cinema and the samurai swordfighting (“chanbara”) genre to open “Mifune,” some welcome context. You may not know that the U.S. occupation forces in Japan banned samurai pictures for seven years after the war, and that “Seven Samurai” was the doozy Kurosawa dreamed up and clung to until he and Mifune could make it in 1954, after the ban was lifted.

Still, in an 80 minute film, we need more of the man it’s about. And as appropriate as Keanu Reeves is as the narrator, with his martial arts movie fixation and Mifune-inspired turn in “The Matrix” movies and others, academics and critics were needed to do a better job in summing up the actor’s place in Japan and cinema iconography.

He was John Wayne, Jackie Chan, Clint Eastwood, Burt Lancaster and Bruce Willis, all rolled into one, starring in 182 films and TV shows of many genres, classing up American miniseries like “Shogun” and making even the his lesser ronin/samurai pictures worth watching.

And even though he’s been dead 20 years, he’s certainly more important to world culture than some svelt big-eyed anime character with ’80s pop star hair. If nothing else, “Mifune” is to be celebrated for remedying that.

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MPAA Rating: Unrated, with samurai swordplay, alcohol consumption

Cast:  Kyoko Kagawa, Takeshi Kato, Haruo Nakajima, Shiro Mifune, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, narrated by Keanu Reeves

Credits:Directed by Steven Okazaki, script by Stuart Galbraith IV, Steven Okazaki. A Strand release.

Running time: 1:20

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