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Vol. 16, No. 1, 2017
 
     
 
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  Editor
Robert J. Lewis
 
  Senior Editor
Bernard Dubé
 
  Contributing Editors
David Solway
Louis René Beres
Nancy Snipper
Nick Catalano
Lynda Renée
Andrew Hlavacek
Jordan Adler
Daniel Charchuk
Samuel Burd
Farzana Hassan
Betsy L. Chunko
Andrée Lafontaine
 
  Music Editors
Emanuel Pordes
Serge Gamache
 
  Arts Editor
Lydia Schrufer
 
  Graphics
Mady Bourdage
 
  Photographer
Marcel Dubois
 
  Webmaster
Emanuel Pordes
 
 
 
  Film Reviews
 
  Bowling for Columbine
Shanghai Ghetto
Talk to Her
City of God
Manic
Magdalene Sisters
Dirty Pretty Things
Barbarian Invasions
Fog of War
Blind Shaft
The Corporation
Station Agent
The Agronomist
Maria Full of Grace
Man Without a Past
In This World
Buffalo Boy
Shake Hands with the Devil
Born into Brothels
Head-On
The Edukators
Samsara
Big Sugar
Tsotsi
C.R.A.Z.Y.
A Long Walk
An Inconvenient Truth
Sisters In Law
Send a Bullet
Banking on Heaven
Chinese Botanist's Daugher
Ben X
La Zona
The Legacy
Irina Palm
4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days
XXY
Poor Boys Game
Finn's Girl
Leaving the Fold
The Mourning Forest
Zift
Beneath the Rooftops of Paris
Truffe
Assembly
Before Tomorrow
Paraiso Travel
Necessities of Life
For a Moment of Freedom
Cryptic
Blood River
Cole
By the Will of Genghis Kahn
The Concert
Farewell
Weaving Girl
Into Eternity
When We Leave
Le Havre
Presumed Guilty
A Separation
Take This Waltz
Beyond The Walls
The Place Beyond the Pines
Lemon
The Past
Omar
Da Sweet Blood of Jesus
Interstellar
Timbuktu
The Good Kill
 
     

2017

FILM RATINGS

2016 FILM RATINGS-REVIEWS = HERE
2015 FILM RATINGS-REVIEWS = HERE
2014 FILM RATINGS-REVIEWS = HERE
2013 FILM RATINGS-REVIEWS = HERE
2012 FILM RATINGS-REVIEWS = HERE
2011 FILM RATINGS-REVIEWS = HERE
2010 FILM RATINGS-REVIEWS = HERE
2009 FILM RATINGS-REVIEWS = HERE
RATING SCALE
2.5 or more for a noteworthy film
3.5 for an exceptional film
4 for a classic.

 

3.0 -- THE BEEKEEPER AND HIS SON, Diedie Weng
[reviewed by Oslavi Linares] It would be tempting to describe the The Beekeeper and His Son as an allegory of generational change in China. After all, Diedie Weng's documentary offers the expected contrasts: old versus young, countryside versus city, traditional versus modern life. However, the mostly observational documentary is also a fable on soul searching through filmmaking. Weng's feature debut captures the poetry of the seasons and the love for traditional labour, but her focus is in the tension between father, Lao Yu, and son, Mafou Yu (humorously commented by the farm's animals). While Lao expects his son to learn the trade, Mafou seeks to become a honey salesman, and from here Weng's chronicle unfolds. At times Weng is not only witness but confidant; in her director's statement, she describes how both men preferred to share their thoughts with her and her camera. Situations like this exemplify Errol Morris' praise for the camera's revelatory power and speak of the merits of the filmmaker's active, if limited, presence. Nevertheless, Weng's film not only portrays the family's conflict but also Weng's filming as an act of self-reflection. As part of a growing group of national and diasporic Chinese filmmakers, Weng's visit to the farm is part of a trend to elucidate through film the country of her parents. "This film has brought me closer to the perspectives of both generations and helped me better understand the dynamics of the relationships within my own family."

3.0 -- THE WALL, Doug Liman
[reviewed by Oslavi Linares] Perhaps not the best name for anything US-related right now. What appears to be another glorification of the US military is in fact a revisionist thriller with a minimalist narrative. Set in a patch of Iraqi wasteland, two American soldiers, Isaac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Mathews (John Cena) are ambushed by an unseen sniper, Juba (played by Laith Nakli, who is not credited in the trailer or promotional material). While Juba injures both men, Isaac manages to hide behind a crumbling wall. From here the plot zig-zags but avoids clichés, providing a refreshing perspective on war, survival films as well as the US occupation of Iraq. Among the script's highlights are Isaac's attempts to turn the situation in his favour as he engages with the enemy in a dialogue that more than meets the eye. Through his conversations with Isaac, Juba is given more depth of character than usually allotted to Iraqi insurgents. In some respects, The Wall is an antidote to films like American Sniper (2014) or Zero Dark Thirty (2013); instead of feats of skill or decisive victories, the story plays out like yet another 'casualty of war.' The accumulative effect of ground level shots, close ups and alternating sniper viewpoints lend a certain everydayness to the war. Despite the savagery and pyrotechnics, the film's drama unfolds through the symbolism of the wall. As a whole, The Wall will disappoint those expecting a war epic, but may recruit skeptics of war films and the US intervention in Iraq.

2.4 -- THE CIRCLE, James Ponsoldt
[reviewed by Oslavi Linares] A modern day fable on the perils of software giants, social media and online privacy. Based on the Dave Eggers novel by the same title, the story follows Mae Holland (Emma Watson), a customer service employee, as she lands her dream job at The Circle, a Google alter-ego company headed by Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks). As Mae goes from fascinated novice to the Circle's poster child, the audience visits an exaggerated version of the present or a dystopia of the near future, or utopia: it, depends who one asks. Privacy invasion, mandatory social media, omnipresent cameras, constant video streaming all play as elements of a cautionary tale that nevertheless, like Mae's character, is morally ambiguous about data collection. While the plot is driven by the hazards of information technology, Mae and The Circle present them as their own solution, casting doubt even on the status of the would-be villains. Yet, the way the film tells this is more straightforward. Crisp editing moves quickly through the story's events accompanied by dynamic camera shots circling Mae and her world; this is slightly hampered by the motion graphics representing online interactivity but which frequently clutter the screen with trivialities. The acting is not always convincing, in part because the characters are asked to sacrifice depth for message. Watson's character presents a balanced view of the different issues (currently) at stake, even though the film ultimately takes the position that social media is more emancipatory than oppressive.

2.4 -- COLOSSAL, Nacho Vigalondo
[reviewed by Jordan Adler] Colossal, a new science fiction-comedy, is an elaborate metaphor in search of more multifaceted characters. Anne Hathaway plays Gloria, a less prickly variation of her best performance to date, in Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married. Gloria is an unemployed journalist whose troubles with alcohol and money send her boyfriend (Dan Stevens) fleeing. She then leaves New York for her childhood home in a nondescript American town and bumps into an old school friend, Oscar (Jason Sudeikis, using smarm to his advantage). What begins as a low-key romantic comedy quickly turns into an absurd monster movie, when a kaiju-like creature begins attacking Seoul. How does this unexpected phenomenon play into the story? Well, for some unexplained reason, the monster is a manifested extension of Gloria, mimicking her behaviour and nervous tics every time the protagonist enters a playground space. Colossal is a movie that requires its audience to suspend its disbelief for an extensive period. For a while, the balance of grounded characters and wacky scenarios offers some delights. The transference of a self-destructive thirty-something into a monster has a metaphorical appeal, but only until a point. With thinly conceived characters, it is too easy to see how the dynamics will play out – especially when the spark of romance between Oscar and Gloria disappears and becomes something darker. The brief references to Gloria’s past as a freelance writer gives one room to imagine that the film’s central metaphor is related to Internet misogyny – especially when one considers the monster-like term designated for belligerent people online. Interpret the madness as you will, but one wishes there was more to the dim and directionless characters, often reduced to about as much complexity as an online avatar thumbprint.

2.3 -- THE LOST CITY OF Z, James Gray
[reviewed by Jordan Adler] A common critical refrain around The Lost City of Z, a new adventure based off a David Grann book inspired by true events, is that it’s a kind of film we rarely see any more. Some commentators are referring to epics shot in the jungle with big casts on 35mm film. But the drama also harkens back to a time when stories about white explorers conquering a land of 'primitives,' as several characters put it, were more common. Considering that the hero, Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), makes an effort to alter his opinions of the Other – in this case, indigenous Bolivian tribes along the Amazon river – it is a shame that director James Gray abandons progressive politics and adheres strictly to the perspective of the white hero. Fawcett’s expeditions to the Amazon in the early 20th century with Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) show how the men often risked their lives, dodging spears and starvation, to find the source of the river and the coveted city alluded in the title. Meanwhile, wife Nina (Sienna Miller, a standout as usual) gets little to do but raise Percy’s children back in Britain, even as she expresses her own urge to work in the same field. A tense scene between Nina and Percy, where she outlines her case, is the drama’s most impactful moment. Hunnam is commanding as the cocksure protagonist, but Gray’s screenplay allows little room for psychological depth, even when Fawcett encounters treachery, bigotry, and his own pride in the jungle. However, the humanity of the character, to help bring awareness of the sustainable indigenous societies to the public, matters less than his obsession to return to the river. Still, even when the story sags, Darius Khondji’s gorgeous cinematography of the sweaty Amazon flora is something to behold.

2.2-- SONG TO SONG, Terrence Malick
[reviewed by Jordan Adler] One shouldn’t buy a ticket to a Terrence Malick film unless he or she is willing to submit to his unorthodox style. Collections of evocative, non sequitur images and hushed voice-over narration often coalesce for those willing to give his fragmented journeys a try. However, unlike the more thematically and structurally coherent (by Malick’s standards) Knight of Cups from 2016, Song to Song is a disjointed and derivative slog, rescued intermittently by the efforts of a strong ensemble. Set in and around Austin’s music scene, the film follows freelance guitarist Faye (Rooney Mara), charming country crooner BV (Ryan Gosling), and the rich, flirtatious producer (Michael Fassbender) who falls for Faye and then a teacher played by Natalie Portman. Other notable actors, including Cate Blanchett and Holly Hunter, float in and out of the story when needed, as do musicians like Iggy Pop and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The drama hardly focuses on Faye and BV’s artistic struggles; instead, it follows their fluctuating but hardly interesting love story. The patterns of lust and romance were captured with more intimacy and insight in Malick’s other films. Meanwhile, unlike the dreamy, colourful views of Los Angeles from Knight of Cups, Austin and its sticky music festivals (shot again by Emmanuel Lubezki) are not as visually arresting. Regardless, even without a firm structure to work with, the actors are a joy to watch. The plain-faced Mara, who can drift between a pained grimace and an uninhibited free-style dance with ease, mines a wide range of emotions. She gets the most mileage from Malick’s improvisational methods. Otherwise, Song to Song feels like an overlong and undercooked concept album, reiterating its maker’s usual themes although lacking any notable bursts of romantic or spiritual grandeur.

3.0 -- WINDOW HORSES, Ann Marie Fleming
[reviewed by Jordan Adler] Rosie Ming (voiced by Sandra Oh) is a B.C. fast-food clerk with a secret passion of writing poetry. She has even self-published a small collection of works, having penned them while strumming a guitar, alone, in her bedroom. When Rosie is invited to a poetry festival in Iran, the young adult dons a black chador and jets off to a country she barely understands. An innocent arrival in a foreign land has much to learn about cultural differences and the soulfulness that goes into making art in Ann Marie Fleming’s whimsical and often dazzling animated feature. Fleming and her team of animators have imaginatively rendered the homes, museums and clubs of Iran. (When Rosie hears a voice chanting through the city speakers, streamers of many colours fly through the town, as if carrying those vibrations). Sandra Oh, meanwhile, brings an intelligence and innocence to the curious Rosie, and grounds the story during animated interpretations of the poetry recitations. The middle hour of the film, where we meet the other poets and realize the inspirations for their work through back-story, contains a rich tapestry of viewpoints for the spirited protagonist to absorb. However, in the final third, a subplot about finding the father Rosie hardly knew – a man that once lived in Iran before emigrating to Canada – becomes the story’s driving force. Here, Window Horses regresses into plot-heavy exposition, at odds with the rest of the film’s dreamy imagery and contemplative themes. Rosie’s creative epiphany, toward which Fleming’s screenplay had been building, feels too rushed. Regardless of these flaws, Window Horses is still a vivid, colourful adventure, accompanied by Taymaz Saba’s stirring music and a fine voice cast, including Ellen Page, Shohreh Aghdashloo and Payman Maadi.

1.6 -- GOON: LAST OF THE ENFORCERS, Jay Baruchel
[reviewed by Jordan Adler] Jay Baruchel steps into the director’s chair for the sequel to the 2012 Canadian hockey hit Goon, but his juvenile, virtually laugh-free screenplay (co-written with Jesse Chabot) completely misses. Meanwhile, with its lax stance on concussion prevention -- a large step back from its predecessor, which rarely glorified the on-ice violence -- the comedy isn’t just cheap and full of stereotypes, but irresponsible. The film begins with big-hearted if dim enforcer Doug Glatt (Sean William Scott) getting a brutal beat-down from rival Anders Cain (Wyatt Russell). Doug is told he can never play again, a significant plot point the film will later ignore to unite the hero with his Halifax Highlander team-mates as they try to conquer a post-season berth. Elsewhere, the storytelling is even less inspired. Allison Pill, who brought brio and passion to the 2012 film as Doug’s girlfriend Eva, is left on the bench for a tired subplot involving her pregnancy, wasting the actor’s charm. One also wishes that Liev Schreiber, delightfully intense as Ross Rhea in the previous film, hadn’t receded into playing a mentor type for the beleaguered Doug. Baruchel shows signs of being a competent filmmaker: the hockey sequences benefit from swift camerawork and a disarming amount of fake blood. (An early tussle on the ice, with its character positioning and excess of gore, recalls a pivotal scene from Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull.) But the jokes are embarrassingly limp and too often rely on a word that rhymes with 'puck.' A committed ensemble, including Callum Keith Rennie as the stubborn team owner, can only carry the material so far.

2.9 -- BEFORE I FALL, Ry Russo-Young
[reviewed by Jordan Adler] The simple way to explain the premise for Ry Russo-Young’s new film is “Groundhog Day for high-schoolers.” However, that synopsis undercuts some of the sharper insights of the drama, based on Lauren Oliver’s young adult best-seller. Before I Fall follows Samantha (Zoey Deutch, from Everybody Wants Some!!), a privileged and popular senior who, through an unexplained time loop, experiences the same Friday over and over again. On the initial version of this day, Samantha gossips with her pack of mean girls (led by Halston Sage’s Lindsay), heads to a party hosted by a childhood friend with a crush (Logan Miller), and plans to lose her virginity to doltish boyfriend Rob (Kian Lawley). Oh, and she also humiliates social outcast Juliet (Elena Kampouris, a standout) mere minutes before a sudden car crash. While the eventfulness of Samantha’s day is too much to accept, Deutch capably anchors some of the more unwieldy material, expressing an innocence and empathy that hints at the character’s discomfort with popularity. The more Samantha observes the moods and anxieties of teenage life from a distance, the more adequately Before I Fall seems to understand that, for too many youths, high-school is just living the same day over and over. Russo-Young makes a couple of fine directorial choices, letting airy pop music make way for a pounding, horror-centric soundtrack as the trapped protagonist comes to terms with the wreckage she has helped spring on her peers. The director also makes good use of an inordinately talented young cast and lets several scenes unfold in long takes. If anything, Before I Fall needed more time: supporting characters like Samantha’s mom (Jennifer Beals) and queer student Anna (Liv Hewson) barely find room to co-exist with the rest of the subplots.

3.8 -- PATERSON, Jim Jarmusch
[reviewed by Jordan Adler] Jim Jarmusch’s new drama centers on two different Patersons. The first is the protagonist, played by Adam Driver. The second is the tranquil New Jersey town where the character resides, working as a bus driver and jotting down poems in a secret notebook as a hobby. Paterson’s wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) wants him to publish these thoughts for a wider audience, but the introvert isn’t sure that’s a good idea. The small conflicts between the two rarely come to a boil, keeping with the film’s leisurely pace and gentle rhythms. Told over an ordinary week in Paterson’s life, we observe his daily routines, which always contain some pre-work quiet to gather his thoughts into words and a post-dinner stroll to the neighbourhood bar (with cranky English bulldog Martin) to indulge in small talk with others between frothy sips. The drama is hardly there, but that is part of the film’s lovely appeal. Its humanism and genial beauty is progressively foreign to the divisiveness of contemporary America. Driver, with his angular, shaggy-dog face and curled smile, is superb in the title role, encompassing a man of curiosity and immense quiet. He is mostly a blank slate, whose personality fills out the more he scribes on empty pages. The spurts of backstory we get of Paterson’s time as a Marine emerges organically. With an assured sense of character, place and tone, Jarmusch’s latest is as good as anything he has made in a decade or two. Paterson is an accomplished slice of life, wrapping its audience in its comforts like the binding of a small notebook of poetry.

3.3 -- I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO, Raoul Peck
[reviewed by Jordan Adler] “The story of the Negro in America is the story of America.” These are the words of black author and intellectual James Baldwin, the prophetic 20th century voice whose luminous thoughts on race, culture, and the collisions between the two remain essential in the 21st century. A month into the Trump regime, Raoul Peck’s Oscar-nominated tribute to Baldwin feels palpably urgent, if also a bit unfocused. The documentary excavates part of the manuscript from Baldwin’s unpublished novel Remember This House, which would have examined the author’s relationships with three civil rights activists: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. From there, Peck’s film conquers a lot of time and space; the former, in the way Baldwin’s comments echo across footage from Ferguson riots, while the latter in how Peck juggles many of Baldwin’s blistering essays and equally thought-provoking public speeches and interviews. The filmmaker also moves between capturing the intellectual’s gentle voice as he articulates tough ideas in simple prose with the equally silky tones of Samuel L. Jackson (who narrates much of the film). Baldwin’s interests and insights were boundless, such as takedowns of religion in America and Hollywood caricaturing of black men and women onscreen. His searing takes on Sidney Poitier’s controlled studio characters still remain useful as cultural criticisms today, as does, sadly, much of what Baldwin says emphatically about race relations in the United States. With such a wealth of material to attach to a singular voice, I Am Not Your Negro sometimes moves haphazardly between subjects. Peck tries to fit too much into a brief 94 minutes. This doc could have been an hour or two longer, and lost none of its stark, stunning power.

2.4 -- A CURE FOR WELLNESS, Gore Verbinski
[reviewed by Jordan Adler] It is a rarity to see a major studio, especially in today’s risk-averse cinematic landscape, release an R-rated thriller clocking in at 146 minutes that has no prior source material. The sometimes-unnerving new film from Gore Verbinski looks and feels unlike any recent title that has entered the marketplace (aside from Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Shutter Island, which also takes place at a psychiatric facility). A Cure for Wellness follows Lockhart (Dane DeHaan), a young executive at a vague New York firm who travels to the Swiss Alps to retrieve his CEO, Pembroke (Harry Groener), from a wellness centre. The task seems simple, until Pembroke refuses to leave the sanitarium, run by Dr. Volmer (a slick Jason Isaacs), and Lockhart has to prolong his stay after suffering an injury. Then, odd things begin happening. Lockhart, and the film’s audience, will spend much of the first hour gaping at the estate’s gothic oddities, such as the hydrotherapeutic events and the seemingly endless number of secret doorways and corridors. (An early hallucinatory sequence inside a steam room is a highlight). Without a constrained running time, screenwriter Justin Haythe (who co-scribed Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger) can bask in macabre visions, slowly creeping suspense and even some character development, such as Mia Goth’s innocent yet cryptic patient Hannah. She is a standout, and DeHaan gives a capably horrified performance. However, by the time the first hour has gone by, many filmgoers will have pieced together many of the second-half surprises. There is only so much arresting imagery one can take – from dreamy mountain views to icky pools full of eels – before the creaks in the narrative make one restless. One wishes A Cure for Wellness had sustained its madness beyond the 90-minute mark, when it becomes an increasingly rote psycho-thriller.

3.0 -- JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2, Chad Stahelski
[reviewed by Jordan Adler] The lean and nasty (if repetitive) action hit John Wick gets a sequel that improves on its predecessor. Keanu Reeves has made the most of a role that uses his steely blankness to its advantage. Wick has a reputation among crime syndicates but is also an enigma, a silent and deadly contract killer who first appears in shadow and shot from low angles. Trying to settle into retirement, the well-tailored shooter gets one last gig from Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio). Wick must murder D’Antonio’s sister, so that the crime lord can take her chair at some hazy organization. The details of the vast, interconnected criminal underworld that populates the film – one that Wick wants to evade and live in peace – is somewhat scattered. (Despite his shadowy persona, people in all corners of Rome and New York seem to know his name and grant him security). But even though Chapter 2 is more plot-heavy than the linear 2014 film, the thrills are grander and the challenges more compelling. (The original has some inventive action sequences, but almost all of Wick’s kills there are brusque headshots). Stahelski, a former stunt double of Reeves, is the rare action filmmaker who shoots much of the mayhem in long shots, giving the audience a chance to observe the rhythms of the combat and orient us with spaces such as Roman catacombs and an American chop shop. The clarity of robust action and the cutlery of weapons that Wick uses on various baddies will more than suffice for action movie fans that have been panting for a sequel. Meanwhile, Montreal moviegoers will not have to look too hard to notice how frequently the city doubles as New York. Co-starring Laurence Fishburne, Peter Stormare and Ian McShane in grand, scenery-chewing supporting roles.

3.1 -- GULISTAN, LAND OF ROSES, Zayne Akyol
[reviewed by Jordan Adler] As ISIS militants approach the mountains of Kurdistan, the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) guerilla fighters keep a close watch on the nearby warring factions. This new documentary, from Zayne Akyol and co-produced by the National Film Board of Canada, gives intimate access to a small but tough brigade of female fighters in the PKK. Akyol follows these soldiers through rigorous training sessions, as they prepare for the possibility of a sudden incursion near their communities. The fighters are risking much, as women and girls are considered the spoils of war for ISIS. But, there is a greater danger if Kurdish land is not protected. As one of the women interviewed, Rojen, tells the filmmaker, “I take up this struggle not just for my mother, but for all mothers.” This empowering glimpse of women prepping for combat reveals their camaraderie and quiet courage. Akyol keeps her camera trained on a number of soldiers, but mostly comes back to Sozdar, a woman of deep calm and tactical brilliance. Near the start of the film, Sozdar shows off the bumps and bruises that have come from training, before exclaiming how a scar on her face during battle would “make me more beautiful.” Gulistan, Land of Roses may have benefitted from a post-text, as the film cuts away before the PKK head out to fight. But there is value in spending time with these fighters during the wandering and waiting period, as they accumulate intelligence, bond with comrades and boast of their weapons’ might. Their defiance and dignity is a gift Akyol is more than willing to share.

2.4 - THE FOUNDER, John Lee Hancock
[reviewed by Jordan Adler] The story of an American charlatan grifting small business owners is coming out in theatres on the same day as Donald Trump’s inauguration. Mere coincidence? The Founder could be, thanks to distribution choices, the appropriate first film of this presidential era, although one would wish for more daring or incisive commentary. John Lee Hancock’s film focuses on the true story of Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton), a travelling salesman circa 1954 who quickly sees dollar signs when he visits a restaurant called McDonald’s. Brothers Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch), who own the thriving, original San Bernardino location, have an efficient system to get burgers and soda to customers 30 seconds after they order. Scribe Robert D. Siegel lets the brothers recount their early history and approach to food service with the same speediness and thrall of that busy kitchen. Ray eats up this slice of business acumen, and proposes to franchise the restaurant (and its golden arches) across the Midwest. Hulky character actor Lynch, given a role of gentle gravitas, is the beating heart of The Founder. However, Kroc’s journey from an idealistic businessman who listens to inspirational mantras on his record player to a shortsighted schemer needed more nuance. Keaton, alongside Siegel’s script, piles on Kroc’s sleazy charm from the first scene – a sales pitch directly to the camera – and too rarely finds notes of grace, conflict or vulnerability to create a more dimensional anti-hero. We’re rarely rooting for Kroc to succeed, ensuring the drama wilts when the McDonald brothers are offscreen. As product placement goes, the calorie-high options look savoury, to the point that audiences could leave both angry (about sponsoring the fast food empire) and hungry for a Big Mac. Co-starring Laura Dern in a neglected role as Kroc’s neglected wife.

3.2 -- LA LA LAND, Damien Chazelle
[reviewed by Jordan Adler] Damien Chazelle’s new musical honours the Technicolor song-and-dance classics of yesterday, although it ends up working better as a pastiche than a narrative. La La Land focuses on two striving artists, first shown stuck in traffic, who later bond over their love for show business. Mia (Emma Stone, perfectly cast) works as a barista on the Warner Bros. studio lot and occasionally shuffles off to movie auditions, with little success. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling, too seasoned for the role) dreams of opening a jazz club, but has to settle for lame side-jobs to pay the rent. When the two find a kindred passion for the arts, each tries to help boost the other’s languishing career. While Chazelle’s previous film, Whiplash, made music out of chaos, La La Land is a bit too seamless. The director films many of the musical numbers with single takes that, while technically impressive, feel controlled to a fault. The sequences don’t pop with the explosive energy as Whiplash star J.K. Simmons, who has an extended cameo here. Still, Stone and Gosling, in their third film together, have a finely tuned chemistry worth swooning over. This is perhaps the reason why the film’s most dazzling show-stoppers are the ones where both stars play naturally off the other. Meanwhile, the musical has some finer points to make about the paradoxes of Hollywood, a place that worships everything and values nothing, as one character espouses. Chazelle understands how much of Los Angeles consists of shiny neon trying to sparkle up the facades of ragged, century-old buildings, to the point that he’s made a film that works as its own extended metaphor. Expect Academy voters, who have indulged in other postmodern tributes to the power of entertainment (Birdman, The Artist), to eat it up.

2.7 -- LION, Garth Davis
[reviewed by Jordan Adler] Eight years after an 18-year-old Dev Patel captured our attention in Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle’s intoxicating and fantastical lensing of India told through flashbacks of Patel’s winsome protagonist as a boy, the British actor stars in a film that could have worked better with that film’s jumpy temporal structure. Instead, director Garth Davis, making his narrative feature debut, and scribe Luke Davies tell the true story of Saroo Brierley chronologically. In Lion’s superior first half, we meet young Saroo (Sunny Pawar, who ably carries the drama on his petit shoulders). One morning, the boy awakens on a train travelling hundreds of miles away from his mother and older brother in rural India, and ends up stranded in Calcutta. Unable to speak the regional Bengali, Saroo scavenges by the river and lands up in an orphanage. Soon, an Australian couple, Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John (David Wenham), adopt the beaming Indian boy. The drama’s second half, with Patel as university-age Saroo, lacks the energy and vivid specificity of the first. Here, Saroo, haunted by feelings of abandonment toward the Indian family he hasn’t seen in years, tries to track them down. Google Earth becomes his tool of choice, although the filmmakers don’t quite know how to dramatize Saroo’s scrolling and searching. Patel’s deeply expressive face is left to do much of the heavy lifting. After chronicling the boy’s riveting adventures of adversity, Davis and Davies try too hard to fit in subplots belonging to the film’s supporting characters, and thus rely on telling more than showing. Kidman’s monologues as the protective adoptive mom do little except acknowledge her role as Saroo’s white savior. Co-starring Rooney Mara in a thankless supporting role as Lucy, the protagonist’s girlfriend.

3.6 -- MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, Kenneth Lonergan
[reviewed by Jordan Adler] The third feature from playwright Kenneth Lonergan is a drama about grief and family dysfunction that manages to find enough stirring notes of levity and grace to become a staggeringly rich experience. Casey Affleck is squirrelly and often shattering as Lee Chandler, a Boston handyman making a humble wage who returns to the titular town after his older brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), dies from a degenerative heart condition. There, Lee is oddly reticent with his mourning – one that we later learn stems from a numbing tragedy years earlier. Lee also wants to help Joe’s son, 16-year-old Patrick (Lucas Hedges), adjust to life without a father. Yet, the boy seems more occupied with getting laid and replacing the motor on the family boat than dealing with loss. The repairman’s biggest challenge is figuring out a plan of action, after he finds out that Joe left Patrick to his custody. Lonergan’s screenplay shifts between delicate emotions and tough language. The profane bickering between Lee and Patrick, sometimes unspooling over one or two medium-long shots, has a rhythm and cadence one finds more often on the stage. The film dips into flashback naturally, giving the audience just enough information to inform the intensity of later scenes without interrupting the present-day story. Affleck, with sunken eyes and a rascally voice, is arresting as a man trying (and often failing) to be a vessel of compassion for those in his life, while Hedges is a talent worth watching. Manchester By the Sea rarely sentimentalizes; however, an overbearing score from composer Lesley Barber strains against the naturalism of the performances, ruining some of the film’s more potent scenes by drowning out the dialogue and melting the icy mood. Co-starring Michelle Williams as Lee’s estranged ex-wife and Gretchen Mol as Patrick’s mom, another estranged soul.

 

 

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