384 posts categorized "Drama"

October 23, 2017


WonderstruckAs I watched Todd Haynes’s latest film I kept asking myself, who is this movie for? It is not a children’s movie even though the story is split between the journeys of two preteens 50 years apart. The nostalgic tale doesn’t seem to tilted toward adult audiences unlikely to recognized themselves in the bi-polar storyline. Everything about this film is a disappointment. It is, by far, Todd Haynes’s weakest effort to date.

The movie is based on the 2011 novel of the same name by author and illustrator Brian Selznick, who also authored the film’s screenplay.

Rose (Millicent Simmonds) is a 12-year-old deaf runaway on the mean streets of New York City circa 1927. Still Rose’s expression never wavers from that of a satisfied Cheshire cat. She seems emotionally and intellectually vapid. Rose wants to meet her silver screen idol Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore), who she watches in a silent film entitled “Daughter of the Storm.” Haynes sets Rose’s half of the film as a black-and-white silent movie in contrast to that of Ben (Oakes Fegley), a boy in search of his missing father. As it turns out, even Ben’s mother Elaine (Michelle Williams) is gone from his life. All Ben has to show for his familial history is a bookmark from “Kincaid Books,” a New York City bookstore. On the back of the bookmark is written, “Elaine, I’ll wait for you. Love, Danny.”


So, what seems to be a not-so romantic mystery dissolves into a puddle of unearned sentimentality. The film’s overwrought production design is fussy to distraction. There isn’t enough narrative substance to withstand the overwrought time periods on display. It’s easy to blame the bland source material for this film’s complete and utter failure, but a burning question remains about why the filmmaker behind such instant classic works as “Far From Heaven” and “I’m Not There” would go down such an obvious rabbit hole.


Rated PG. 117 mins. (C-) (One star — out of five / no halves)     

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February 12, 2017


Lion_ver9“Lion” is a one-note movie that works in spite of its simplistic treatment of a story that sounds better on paper that in it does in the hands of newbie feature director Garth Davis.

Dev Patel carries the picture once his character arrives in a lightweight film that nonetheless hits every tear-jerking mark of Saroo Brierley’s journey to find his home. If nothing else, the picture should help propel Patel’s career.

Based on Saroo Brierley’s book “A Long Way Home,” Patel plays Saroo, the young adult version of a five-year-old Indian boy lost in the mean streets of Calcutta while walking near railway tracks at night.

The concept of home, as a place of nurturing importance, resonates across the film even if the narrative leans toward shaky melodrama regarding subplots about Saroo and his girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara), and Saroo’s problematic home life with his adoptive parents and his mentally disturbed (also adopted) brother.


Alexandre de Franceschi’s editing shares blame in creating a film that suffers from clunky construction. The flow of the story keeps skipping gears. “Lion” is a mediocre movie that should have been a good one. That still doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see it, especially if you need a good cry. Get out your handkerchiefs; you’ll need them.

Rated PG-13. 118 mins. (C+) (Three stars — out of five / no halves)

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October 29, 2016


Manchester by the Sea posterOver the course of the past 20 years since Casey Affleck made his feature film debut in Gus Van Sant’s “To Die For,” this disarmingly original actor has quietly put together a body of work worthy to represent the finest film actor of his generation, if not America’s most gifted actor. He’s in a class with Leonardo DiCaprio and Daniel Day Lewis. Ben may be the big earner, but Casey Affleck runs circles around his brother when it comes to creating character. Stanislavski would be impressed.

Casey Affleck came into his own with his outstanding performance as Robert Ford in Andrew Dominik’s underrated masterpiece “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” in 2007. Since then, his estimable work in “Gone Baby Gone,” “The Killer Inside Me,” and “Out of the Furnace,” bares out Affleck’s ingenious ability to inhabit a range of characters with an unassailable attention to his craft. Where most film actors go from [dramatic] beat to beat, Casey harmonizes complex emotional overtones that create an otherworldly influence on the characters he interacts with, and also the larger social context of the material. This is as good as it gets. Don't bother looking for more, you'll find all dramatic truths at play in this incredible torch song of a film.  

The proof of Affleck’s mastery arrives bare and exposed in writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s momentous drama about Lee Chandler (Affleck), a man whose emotional scars will never fully heal because he won’t allow himself the luxury of recovery. Told using precise time-flipping sequences, the film allows the audience to digest the human drama on display with a building sense of the last shred of integrity that Lee Chandler hangs on to.

Michelle Williams

Michelle Williams compliments the depth of Casey Affleck’s full embodiment of his role with her equally committed performance as Chandler’s wife Randi. There is a scene between Williams and Affleck that arrives late in the film that is as magnificently heartbreaking as any other in the history of Cinema. This is the model that Hollywood should be seeking and developing, rather than the endless stream of lowbrow pap the industry reflexively cranks out.  

Notable too is relative newcomer Lucas Hedges’s inspired portrayal of teenaged Lee Chandler’s nephew Patrick. Here is an actor with a promising future ahead of him. Patrick is the narrative's solid symbol for a better future, and Hedges nails his determined character with a contrasting sense of goofy humor and steely irony. 


This is a movie you need to discover with as little information as possible. It’s enough to know that Kenneth Lonergan’s poetically told tale of tragedy and emotional endurance is set in the New England town of Manchester-by-the-Sea, beautifully photographed by ace cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes. This is a movie to see as soon as it comes out, before you’ve heard anything about the story.

As is appropriate for a picture of such powerful emotional and gutsy substance, you might want a stiff belt after seeing it. One thing’s for certain; “Manchester by the Sea” is a film that makes you feel things deep to your singular human core. This is one of the top five films of 2016 alongside Ken Loach's I, DANIEL BLAKE, Paul Verhoeven's ELLE, and Barry Jenkins's MOONLIGHT.

Rated R. 135 mins. (A+) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)

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October 08, 2016


Girl-on-the-train-posterThis exposition-laden suspense thriller is so poorly adapted from its novel source material (by Paula Hawkins) that you can’t follow it. Screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson (“Secretary”) doesn’t begin to edit out subplots and secondary characters that cloud the story. Characters have far too little interaction over the course of a flashback-heavy drama that leaves you cold to their suburban issues adultery, alcoholism, and neglect.

Emily Blunt is the only thing this movie has going for it. It’s a sad state of affairs when the always-fascinating Blunt is relegated to making movies as weakly constructed as this one. Her persuasive performance as our unreliable narrator at least makes “Girl on a Train” watchable.

Voice-over narration weighs down the sluggishly paced action as we’re introduced to Rachel Watson (Blunt), an unemployed alcoholic who rides the train into Manhattan everyday to cover up her pointless existence to her female roommate. Rachel lost her perfect husband Tom (Justin Theroux) to a home-wrecker named Anna (Rebecca Ferguson). Tom has also been busy schtupping his wife’s nanny Megan (Haley Bennett), the neighborhood nymphomaniac, and any other woman he can get his hands on. Work life be damned. 


To say that the storytelling at work is convoluted, is a gross understatement. Time unfolds in chronological order from six months ago. Regular text announcements cue the audience as to which period the movie has finally advanced to. Rachel would love to extricate Anna from the home that she [Rachel] furnished. Still, Rachel is content to imagine what it would be like to live as her former neighbor Megan and her boyfriend do, in their house just two doors down from Rachel's old place where Tom and Anna are raising their newborn baby.

At 112 arduous minutes, this movie needed some more editorial time under the knife. Any comparisons to Hitchcock are purely coincidental in a movie that will have you scratching your head about which blonde woman is which (there are three, and they look alike).

Director Tate Taylor (“The Help”) fails to sustain dramatic tension. The whole movie is at one dirge-like tempo, with even less visual interest put on the screen. “The Girl on the Train” is a disappointing movie.


Rated R. 112 mins. (C-) (One Star — out of five / no halves)

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August 14, 2016



No one owns the outlier archetype like Ellen Page. Writer/director Sian Heder (“Orange is the New Black”) may have written the meaty part for this film’s renegade title character with Page in mind. Hint: she wasn’t named after Tallulah Bankhead. Comedy and tragedy wear the same mask in Ellen Page’s deft ability to draw laughs from Heder’s spiky dialogue in this masterfully developed narrative. Apart from a few editing missteps, “Talluah” is a fine piece of authentic social realism set mainly in Manhattan’s West Village. Sian Heder regulates a wonderfully patient tempo and naturalistic tone that invites the audience to live inside the story. A touch of magic realism adds stylistic flourish to the drama.

Page’s Tallulah wishes wolves had raised her because that would have been a vast improvement over the dubious rearing she received from a mother who abandoned her at age six. Tallulah is the empowered DIY opposite of the Mumblecore generation espoused by Lena Dunham in such disposable films as “Tiny Furniture.”

Tallulah (or Lu, as she prefers) lives on her wits, traveling around the country in an ancient van with her boyfriend Nico (Evan Jonigkeit). Stealing credit cards, eating leftovers from food trays left outside hotel room doors, or hawking lemonade all fit into Lu’s existential existence. Lu dreams more of living in poverty in India than she does of settling down and building a family with Nico. She calls the shots. Nico opts out.


A chance babysitting opportunity puts Lu in charge of the one-year-old daughter of Carolyn (fearlessly played by Tammy Blanchard), an alcoholic narcissist who doesn’t want her baby. Yes, there is such a thing as irresponsible rich white moms who never should have reproduced. Lu’s impulsive decision to take Carolyn's baby to sleep with her in her van overnight, rather than next to her passed-out mom, translates as kidnapping. A team of investigators is on the case.

Lu is smart enough to seek out the assistance of Nico’s wealthy mother Margo (wonderfully played by the consistently-amazing Allison Janney). Uptight Margo is facing a divorce that threatens to upend her life. Janey and Page worked famously well together on “Juno” (2007), and their scenes together in this film are every bit as transfixing. Here are two actresses from different generations who share a dynamic onscreen chemistry that is undeniable.


There’s no joy purer than laughing at Lu’s dry postmodern sense of humor as expressed by Ellen Page. “Tallulah” is a great example of a women-led movie with plenty of social substance and earthy grit. Ellen Page’s credit as the film’s Executive Producer goes hand-in-glove with such assistance as a delightful supporting cameo from “Star Trek’s” Zachary Quinto. Everything about this film says labor-of-love. I love this movie, and I hope you do too.

Lu & Margo

Not Rated. 111 mins. (A-) (Four stars — out of five / no halves)

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July 20, 2016


CaptainfantasticFresh with buzz from Sundance, writer/director Matt Ross’s “Captain Fantastic” didn’t officially deserve a spot in Cannes’s Un Certain Regard section simply because it was shown in Park City. Sloppy seconds. We demand freshies in Cannes. Still, this film’s sardonic critique of American capitalism, throws thematic darts that stick.

Viggo Mortensen’s nuanced incarnation of Ben Cash, a leftist dad homeschooling his brood of children while living off the grid in the Pacific Northwest wilderness, is a refreshing character unlike anything in the annals of American cinema. Ben’s success with a communal (familial) lifestyle means that clothing is optional except at mealtime. A clear view of Mortensen’s junk elevates the movie to instant cult-status.

Sure, Ben is a survivalist. He keeps his kids on a disciplined regime of rigorous physical, mental, and intellectual training. Self-defense and rock climbing are on the menu. “No cavalry will save you,” he says when his son Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton) takes a spill that injures his hand. All food must be hunted or grown. All of his kids are bequeathed with invented names to ensure that their individuality is secure. Most American audiences could never otherwise fathom such a Noam Chomsky-adoring father figure taking center stage on the big screen. Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein supporters; this movie is for you.

Captain Fantastic2

Casting is everything, as Mortensen proves in creating a man whose dedication to leftist (read humanist) ideologies and practices means that his six children know better than to call something like Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita” “interesting.” That vague word is off limits. Using it draws rightful ridicule. Even Ben’s youngest daughter can, not only recite the Bill of Rights, but she can contextualize its importance in the face of the America’s ruthless corporatocracy.

Ben’s oldest son Bo (exceptionally played by George MacKay) is keen to self-identity as a Maoist rather than as the Trotskyite he used to be. Never before in American cinema have hardcore leftist ideals been presented so matter-of-factly, and with such humility. Without giving away the plot, Ben and his kids set off on a mission to civilization that challenges their hard-won motto of “Power to the people; stick it to the man.”

Captain Fantastic

“Captain Fantastic” is just thought provoking and entertaining enough to make up for its narrative missteps that hamper its third act. Its description as the best film at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival speaks as much to that festival’s ever-diminishing status as it does to a critical inclination toward overpraising movies that don’t stand up to such high expectations.

Rated R. 118 mins. (B-) (Three Stars — out of five / no halves)

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May 28, 2016


Cannes, France —Jim Jarmusch has grown as a filmmaker over the course of his rich and studied career. “Paterson” is his finest film to date. Everything about it resonates with a distinctly human scale. Every emotional expression carries the weight of patience. If there’s one thing Jim Jarmusch understands, it is poetry. Visual poetry. Filmic poetry. Poetry of thought. Poetry of intention. The list of ways that the auteur explores his subject’s sublime mundane reality, expands.

Adam Driver plays Paterson, a city bus driver from (where else?) Paterson, N.J. Paterson lives with his ingenious pixie of a wife Laura (Golashifteh Farahani). A Luddite sensibility provides the audience with a welcome escape from technology overload. Paterson doesn't even own a cellphone. Laura works solely in black and white, painting on textiles to create curtains, dresses, hats, and whatever strikes her fancy. She dreams of becoming a country singer. Perhaps a "harlequin" guitar by "Estoban" can help her dream come true. 

The compatible couple live in a just-so single lot cottage-style house with her dog Marvin. We know it’s Laura’s dog because Paterson never talks to Marvin; Laura does all of the people/animal communication. Still, Paterson takes Marvin for his nightly walk to a neighborhood bar populated by mostly black patrons. Paterson brings in a newspaper clipping about Iggy Pop being voted sexiest man alive after a gig in Patterson back in the late ‘60s.


The joint’s kindly owner/bartender Doc (Barry Shabaka Henley) adds the document to the Paterson Wall of Fame, which he keeps as a shrine over the cash register. It’s a poetic moment in a film gushing with emotional resonance. The ever-evolving filmmaker uses onscreen handwriting graphics to show Paterson’s beautiful poems flow from his hand.

“Paterson” is the kind of movie that you walk out of the cinema a changed person as a result of having seen it. The movie purifies the viewer in a gentle and loving way. It reminds us that we are all poets if we invest a little of our experiences into words. Welcome to Paterson.

Not Rated. 113 mins. (A) (Five Stars — out of five / no halves)


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July 01, 2015


A-place-in-the-sunAdapted from Theodore Dreiser’s 1925 classic novel and stage play (“An American Tragedy”), which was based on true events from 1906, “A Place in the Sun” is an indigenous American drama. Screenwriters Michael Wilson and Harry Brown transpose the raw narrative ingredients, about Chester Gillette (the poor relative of a wealthy family who was indicted for murdering his fiancée), to a post-World War II allegory about class warfare and misplaced affections on the brink of the American Dream.

Slouch-shouldered Montgomery Clift plays George Eastman, a returning corpsman of unknown stripe who makes his way to his affluent uncle’s swimsuit factory in search of a job after unexpectedly meeting his older kin while working in a Chicago hotel. Between wardrobe changes from military leather to urbane wool, Clift acts against his undeniable handsome charisma with a churning inner emotional motor that sputters, spits, and knots up. James Dean took notes. Audiences swooned.

Elizabeth-taylor-montgomery-cliftGeorge takes the low-level factory job his uncle gives him seriously, but can’t adhere to strict company rules against “mixing socially” with co-workers. Homely Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters) sneaks glances at George as she boxes swimsuits day after day on the production line. For a few months George and Alice work side-by-side like fellow working-class soldiers before an opportune night at the movies secretly brings them together. As happens, lust gets the better of George. Domestic dangers prove just as tangible as those on foreign frontlines. In one night of passion George steps into a trap that threatens to relegate him to a life of poverty rather than to the industrial success he hungers for. The subtext is clear: in order to enter the world of the American elite, all associations with lower classes must be severed, including familial ties. As a war veteran, murder is something George keeps close to his chest as a get-out-of-jail card option.

Small-minded Alice entertains dreams of a married life together just as George accepts a promotion that brings him within an arm’s length of Elizabeth Taylor’s spoiled-but-smitten “society girl” Angela Vickers. Taylor was just 17 when the picture began filming, but her confident composure and mastery of her craft belie her age. Elizabeth Taylor became a star with this film’s release.   

Director George Stevens takes full advantage of the romantic fireworks that ignite whenever Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor appear onscreen together. Their connection is so strong that it outshines weaker narrative elements. Though the film’s predictable final act plays to Hays code tropes of the era, “A Place in the Sun” is a suspenseful drama sprinkled with equal parts social study, romantic melodrama, and a surreal pairing of Hollywood beauties. 


Not Rated. 122 mins. (A-) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)


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June 30, 2014


Atlantic City“Atlantic City” is a poignant drama situated neatly between French director Louis Malle’s racy American debut “Pretty Baby” (1978) and his groundbreaking talk-fest “My Dinner With Andre” (1981). An illustrious career in France working on a wide range of films — from the Cannes and Oscar-winning Jacques Cousteau documentary “Le Monde Du Silence” (1956) and his daring Miles Davis-scored crime thriller “Elevator to the Gallows” to his obscenity-law-baiting romantic drama “The Lovers” (1958), Malle won over devotees of the French New Wave even if he was not considered a direct contributor to the movement.

Under pressure from financiers to complete a film by the end of 1979, Malle took a suggestion from his girlfriend at the time (Susan Sarandon) to partner with playwright John Guare (“The House of Blue Leaves”) to adapt Guare’s story about societal dislocation, for which Guare would write the screenplay.

Crafted around the crumbling Atlantic City of the late 70’s, the film opens on the controlled demolition of a faded hotel that takes up an entire city block. A generation of economic prosperity and well-established social mores is disintegrating, or being systematically destroyed by corporate interests. Elderly locals eke out a living on bleak streets that have detoriated from affluence to squalor.


Burt Lancaster plays Lou, an aging relic of a fading era. His dignified persona follows the template of the patriarchal characters that Lancaster played in Luchino Visconti’s “The Leopard” and in Bernardo Bertolucci’s “1900.” Lou is a smalltime bookmaker and caretaker of his elderly downstairs neighbor Grace (Kate Reid). Nonetheless, Lou carries himself with an air of distinction. Lou fancies himself as a retired gigolo gangster who once rubbed shoulders with the likes of Myer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel.

With his well-groomed gray hair and mustache, Lou lives in a once opulent apartment building that soon too will be demolished. He peeks through the window on his next-door neighbor Sally (Sarandon), a Canadian transplant, to observe her nightly cleansing ritual over the kitchen sink. When she isn’t attending classes in blackjack dealing under the personalized tutelage of Michel Piccoli’s worldly character Joseph, Sally works at a casino oyster bar. Upon returning to her barely furnished apartment, she cuts lemons that she then squeezes over her arms and bare breasts in order to get rid of the fish smell that hangs on her like a curse. The lemons come to represent an unforgettable thematic metaphor of cleansing reversal for both Lou and Sally.

Atlantic_citySally’s ex-husband Dave has impregnated Chrissie, the hippie chic he left Sally to be with. Having hitchhiked with Chrissie from Canada, Dave takes advantage of a situation to intercept a cocaine deal in Philadelphia. Chrissie and Dave show up at Sally’s doorstep looking for a place to stay while he surreptitiously tries to locate a buyer for the stolen coke. A chance meeting puts Lou in Dave’s trust, and the cocaine in Lou’s possession before the drug’s proper owners do away with Dave.

Enabled by his ability to prepare and unload the coke for wads of cash, Lou reinvents himself as the snappily dressed gangster he always wanted to be. He takes Sally under his wing with an offer to protect her. She sees through his disguise but takes the bait because, at heart, she appreciates the gesture. Sally also recognizes an opportunity when she sees one.

“Atlantic City” is full of compact social editorializing that elevates its seemingly run-of-the-mill trappings into something sublime by way of its emotionally dependent characters. The depth of this drama lies in how genuinely you feel for these individuals.

Rated R. 104 mins. (A+) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)

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