THE LAST WORD *Movie Review & Director Interview*

In THE LAST WORD, a retired businesswoman named Harriet (Academy Award winner Shirley MacLaine) confronts her mortality as she sculpts her own obituary.  Harriet targets Anne (Amanda Seyfried), a reporter, to distill her life into its final success story.  The pair take a metaphorical–and literal–journey with Brenda (newcomer Ann’Jewel Lee), a pre-teen who has as much to gain from the relationship as the other two.  The movie also stars Thomas Sadowski, Anne Heche, Philip Baker Hall and Tom Everett Scott.  Mark Pellington (ARLINGTON ROAD, THE MOTHMAN PROPHECIES, COLD CASE) directs.  

I spoke with director Mark Pellington about symbolism and themes in THE LAST WORD.  He sees the film as a study in mortality and what each of us leave behind at the end of our lives.  Pellington says:  “I want these characters to have suffered some degree of loss, yet I don’t want it to be through death.  I want them to be left alone in that they’re searching to become a little more whole, a little more complete.”

Harriet, Ann and Brenda come together as incomplete sides of the same coin.  Each is missing a specific person in their lives within the parent/child relationship, but lacks in other important ways, too.  For example, Harriet appreciates the qualities about Brenda with which she herself identifies.  However, these are the very characteristics she regrets in herself having let them rule her life.  Brenda’s ability to say anything and stick up for herself are laudable, though without a measure of regulation they will overtake her life the same way they have Harriet’s.

The women’s evolution is emphasized during a baptismal scene of cleansing as they go for a late-night swim.  Traditional film analysis looks at water from this perspective, and Pellington does as well.  “By the end, for her to take off her clothes, to let it go, to get messy is a change she was ready to go through because she had achieved these goals of seeing herself differently,” he explains.

The film shows that evolution is possible regardless of age or temperament and nothing is a replacement for personal connection.  Isolation comes in many forms.  The first shot of Harriet is standing in a dormer window looking out at the grounds of her home.  Ann sits in isolation, blaring loud music on her massive headphones, though she’s surrounded by coworkers.  Even Brenda’s first interaction sets her apart as she battles a recreation center supervisor.

The complicated relationship among the trio becomes an unexpected friendship in this coming-of-age story.  True to life, it is sometimes impossible to realize something is missing until you’re confronted by it.

For more about THE LAST WORD, including Shirley MacLaine’s thoughts on labeling women in Hollywood, take a look below:

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MOONLIGHT *Movie Review*

MOONLIGHT is a coming of age story that follows Chiron during three stages of life as he learns who about himself while he struggles with sexual identity.  During each stage, he is called by a different name, either Little, Chiron or Black.  MOONLIGHT was written and directed by Barry Jenkins.  It stars Mahershala Ali (HIDDEN FIGURES), Janelle Monae (HIDDEN FIGURES), Naomie Harris (SKYFALL), Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes.  Brad Pitt produced.

This is a really beautiful movie that’s more quiet and methodical than anything else.  Each scene feels unhurried, as though the audience is really experiencing a piece of life.  By leaping ahead and showing Chiron over three different stages of life, there’s a strong sense that life goes on and we as an audience are only privy to certain parts of it.  

While I was willing to accept the narrative gaps, at the same time I wanted more, particularly from Juan (Mahershala Ali) and Teresa (Janelle Monae).  Chiron’s story and life were interesting, but so were they. 

For more about MOONLIGHT, including how the color blue is used as a theme throughout, take a look below:

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FENCES *Movie Review*

FENCES is set in the 1950s and is about a family torn apart by its patriarch Troy (Denzel Washington).  Troy is so caught up in his own suffering at the hands of society and his life circumstance that he cannot allow himself any happiness.  Though trying to escape his father, Troy becomes him.  Viola Davis plays Troy’s wife, Rose.  Both Washington and Davis won Tonys for their work in the 2010 Broadway revival of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play upon which this is based.

For more about the themes in FENCES, including what fences mean to the movie and how food plays a role, take a look below:

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SPLIT *Movie Review*

SPLIT stars James McAvoy as Kevin who has dissociative identity disorder, better known as multiple personality syndrome.  One of his personalities kidnaps three young women, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula, and takes them to his home.  The three try to figure out where they are and make an escape.  Kevin’s therapist Dr Fletcher, played by Betty Buckley, can tell something is going on with him and tries to piece together the mystery as well.  SPLIT was written and directed by M Night Shyamalan who is known for his twist endings.  It was produced by Jason Blum who is behind the production company Blumhouse and movies such as WHIPLASH.

James McAvoy is fantastic creating what seem to be fully realized characters for each of the personalities.  It’s obvious he has shifted characters before he even opens his mouth.

Pay attention one of the early lines in the movie that’s said by Haley Lu Richardson, who plays Claire.  She declares “I’m not a monster” as a set up to everything that comes next.

For more details about themes in SPLIT, along with some product placement notes and eagle eye details to watch for with M Night Shyamalan’s style of filmmaking, take a look below:

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Take a look below for my Top 8 Movies of 2016 along with 4 Honorable Mentions.  When you’re through watching, let me know what your favorites were!

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JACKIE *Movie Review*

In JACKIE, Natalie Portman’s Jackie Kennedy consciously controls history’s memory of JFK’s assassination and presidency through her calculated interview with a reporter played by Billy Crudup.  The movie also stars Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig and John Hurt.

There’s a line in JACKIE that stuck with me.  It’s when Jackie says “for royalty you need tradition and for tradition you need time”.  It perfectly encapsulated the movie and Jackie Kennedy’s ultimate goals for her family.  In the midst of the horror of JFK’s assassination and Jackie Kennedy’s own combination of sadness and guilt, she wants her husband—and by extension herself—not to fade into oblivion.

The movie balances showing both sides of the formidable Jackie Kennedy, who is seemingly in control, with the inner turmoil she faces as she struggles to keep herself afloat.  The cinematography reflects that struggle through the use of a shaky, hand-held camera during specific scenes.  It also felt like Jackie was an outside observer of her own life; she was present physically but still apart.

The use of light also reflects Jackie’s inner turmoil.  When she greets the unnamed reporter at her home, she opens her door and sees bright light.  In fact, the light is so blown out that it offers a sense of heightened realism, as though Jackie’s looking into the light but cannot get there yet herself.  I also interpret it as an unforgiving light, representing how she feels about herself at the time.  These interpretations are reinforced during the movie multiple times.  For instance, during a flashback when someone tells Jackie that she has her whole life still ahead, she remarks that it’s a cruel comment.  As bright as her life might seem having been First Lady or looking back knowing about her subsequent marriage to Aristotle Onassis, at this point she is a young mother who has lost two children, she’s lost a husband, she has no home of her own and fears she will have to start selling off furniture just to feed her children.  Her desire to build a legacy for JFK is means for securing a future for herself as well, an inclination that is hard for her to even admit.

Jackie’s internal struggles are also literally reflected back to her during specific scenes with mirrors, which represent multiple facets of a person and personality in traditional film analysis. For more about these scenes and other themes in JACKIE, take a look below:

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This week I review HIDDEN FIGURES.  HIDDEN FIGURES is the true story of three African-American women in the 60s who work at NASA and their successful, historic rise through the ranks as they break barriers of race and gender.  Taraji P. Henson (EMPIRE, HUSTLE AND FLOW) plays Katherine Johnson, Octavia Spencer (THE HELP) plays Dorothy Voughn and Janelle Monae plays Mary Jackson.  Kevin Costner, Jim Parsons (THE BIG BANG THEORY), Kirsten Dunst and Mahershala Ali (MOONLIGHT) also star.

One of the difficulties inherent in making a true-story period piece that focuses on a hard time in history is showing the hurdles the real-life counterparts went through without balancing it with the good in life, too. Or, on the flip side, glossing over the difficulties so much that what the women had to overcome starts to seem easy. HIDDEN FIGURES manages to strike the perfect balance.

There are two particular lines in HIDDEN FIGURES that reference space as an analogy rather than a location. At the beginning of the movie in present day 1962, Katherine, Dorothy and Mary are stranded by the side of the road with car trouble on their way to work. There’s a great line “don’t stare into space” which serves a dual purpose of saying to pay attention, but also as a deeper analogy of not aspiring to do or be more than the 60s typically allowed of African-American women. The second line about space comes when Katherine’s three daughters fight over which of them will sleep alone as there are only two beds.

There were also two scenes with people looking up into space. One is at the beginning when the women look up with the police officer who stops to help them. The officer talks about being watched by Russia and they all stare upwards in a moment of contemplation. It not only reflects how space travel will affect them, but how limitless—or limited—they may all feel. Later, Dorothy sees a series of people standing by cars looking into space as they watch for John Glenn. It recalls that earlier scene and how things have changed.

Another direct reference to an earlier scene is when Katherine’s school teacher hands her a piece of chalk to work a mathematical equation on the board. In that shot, the teacher’s hand seems almost larger than life and Katherine’s small size is emphasized. Later, Katherine’s handed another piece of chalk and her hand is equal in size. So, another direct reference to her growth and evolution. HIDDEN FIGURES uses the repetition of these scenes to recall earlier moments and the changes that have taken place over time.

Costume designer Renee Ehrlich Kalfus says Katherine’s costumes mirrored her journey from timid to confident mathematician and if you watch her clothing evolve you’ll see how it allows her to stand out more among the uniformly-attired men.

For more about themes in HIDDEN FIGURES as well as behind-the-scenes info about the design of one of the NASA office buildings, take a look below…

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LIVE BY NIGHT *Movie Review*

LIVE BY NIGHT is Ben Affleck’s latest “all in” as writer, director, producer and star.  It’s the story of Ben Affleck’s Joe, a war veteran, who returns home to Boston where he then switches sides of the law and becomes a criminal.  A series of events lead him to Ybor city in Florida where a partnership with Cuban rum runners help cement his presence as the unofficial mayor of the area until things take a turn for the worse.  The movie also stars Zoe Saldana, Sienna Miller, Elle Fanning, Chris Messina, Chris Sullivan, Chris Cooper, Brenden Gleeson and Anthony Michael Hall.

While this is a little bit GODFATHER and mafia, it’s actually more current political commentary than expected, an unintentional dimension since it was written and shot a year ago.  Racism, interracial romance, the KKK all feature prominently.

One of the big themes in LIVE BY NIGHT is parent/child relationships.  Joe’s relationship with his dad, played by Brendan Gleeson, as well as the father/daughter relationship between Chris Cooper’s Chief and his daughter Loretta, played by Elle Fanning who, for the record, delivered the most stand-out performance of the movie.  She was absolutely fantastic.  These familial relationships are important because they address the question of unconditional love, how you show love, tough love and who deserves love.  I don’t think the parallels between these two relationships are unintentional as evidenced by the fact that it’s Loretta’s words that close the movie.

I saw this at a special screening that included Ben Affleck and key department heads including the production designer, editor and cinematographer.  So, I have some special insight into the movie straight from the people who made it.  For more about what Ben Affleck and his Oscar-winning crew had to say, take a look below:

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LA LA LAND *Movie Review*

LA LA LAND is the story, in musical form, of Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) who wants to own a jazz club.  While there’s a romance between the two, it’s a deeper story about how goals and ambitions change over time and how certain decisions can alter the course of your life.

What’s key in this movie is that while you may have multiple paths in life and the course of things may change, it doesn’t mean the outcome is worse—it’s just different.  There’s a tendency for movies that show two different paths to make one the ideal but LA LA LAND doesn’t make that mistake.  It shows that happiness doesn’t mean forgetting all that has come before and that our history is what makes us who we are today.

LA LA LAND contrasts a vibrant, technicolor color palette with a more muted one to show the evolution of the characters and their story.  At the beginning, the characters all wear bright colors which seem to jump off the screen.  It feels very larger-than-life and passionate, since passion is at the beginning of any relationship.  As Mia and Sebastian’s relationship and lives evolve, the colors shift into browns and more muted tones.  A great example of the shift that you can watch for is the color of Mia’s bag.  At the beginning notice how she carries a bright, reddish-orange bag and then watch for when the color changes into a dark one.  It doesn’t mean the feelings or story is dark, but represents the maturity that comes with life.

Mia herself is the epitome of life, energy and growth.  In her first real interaction with Sebastian she wears a bright yellow dress with flowers on it. Later, after she moves in with Sebastian, there’s a scene with no fewer than four potted flowering plants in his previously empty apartment—and all appear in the same shot with Mia.  If you compare their apartments you see her vibrancy as well.  Her apartment is packed with people, color and things.  His is stark until she moves in and then slowly things start to change.

Damien Chazelle, whose 2014 film WHIPLASH won three Oscars, wrote and directed LA LA LAND.  He says he wanted to do a traditional musical in a contemporary way.  It does feel completely timeless and I found myself wondering about the time period before reminding myself that it was present day.

LA LA LAND pays tribute to an older style of filmmaking in three distinct ways through the cinematography.  First, there are a lot of camera push-ins during which the camera moves closer to the subject, more than we normally see in modern filmmaking.

Second, there are a lot of long shots without camera cuts.  It puts more pressure on the actors because good takes cannot be pieced together.

Finally, the third element of stylized cinematography is the use of frequent Swish pans, which is when the camera movement is so fast that everything becomes a blur.   These aren’t styles that are used a lot today and create a distinctive period feel.

Interested in more analysis about LA LA LAND?  Wondering about the Fellini-esque elements and some of the more obscure locations used in the Los Angeles area?  For more about LA LA LAND, take a look below:

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SOLACE *Movie Review*

SOLACE is the story of FBI Agent Joe Merriwether (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) who asks his friend and former colleague John (Anthony Hopkins) for help in solving a series of bizarre murders with the use of his psychic abilities.  They soon realize they’re on the hunt for Charles (Colin Farrell), another psychic, who may have abilities more powerful than John’s own.  The movie also stars Abbie Cornish.

The overarching theme in SOLACE, as evidenced by the title itself, is comfort: who needs it, who gets it and who gives it.  Also, what does it mean to provide comfort to someone and how can that action mean different things?  The point of the movie, though, is for a bit of self reflection since sometimes it’s possible to gain more from the act of comforting than the recipient does.

The cinematography is really interesting in SOLACE as well. Not only are there a lot of unusual shots, but mirrored reflections are frequently used.  In traditional film analysis, when you see a character’s reflection in something it’s supposed to symbolize another side, either a piece of themselves that they might be hiding from the other characters or even from themselves.  Pay attention to the characters who wind up in mirrors or on reflected surfaces the most.

This idea of reflection and having another side is further emphasized in two other ways.  First, watch when Joe wears glasses and when he doesn’t.  Glasses, similar to a reflection, generally show that a character either has something to hide so they are like a disguise—think of Clark Kent and Superman.

For more about glasses and how religion is employed in SOLACE, take a look below:

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LOVING *Movie Review*

LOVING is based on the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving, played here by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, whose interracial marriage was illegal in Virginia in 1958 even with a valid marriage license from Washington DC.  Their arrest and subsequent banishment from the state led to the American Civil Liberties Union, or the ACLU, taking their case all the way to the Supreme Court where a unanimous ruling declared Virginia’s law unconstitutional, along with similar ones in 23 other states.  The movie was written and directed by Jeff Nichols and also stars Michael Shannon and Nick Kroll.

I was looking forward to LOVING pretty much because I enjoy love stories and that’s what this boils down to in the end.  In the movie as well as in the true life story of Mildred Loving she said that although the ACLU took on the case, it wasn’t about civil rights as much as being able to return home and love who she wanted to without restriction.

Another true-to-life line is that Mildred says living in DC is like living in a cage.  Perhaps without even meaning to, Mildred realizes that living is DC is no different from being trapped in a jail cell–a cage–because neither one allowed her to make decision for herself.  The movie emphasizes the differences between Virginia and DC through the use of nature.  When the Lovings are in Virginia there are lots of quiet shots of fields, mountains and greenery as compared to DC where, when they arrive, there’s only a small plot of overgrown grass in front of their new home.

The other thing the natural elements in LOVING served to do was show how Mildred and Richard’s life was full and vibrant.  One of the early scenes with the couple is when Richard shows Mildred an acre of land he has purchased where he wants to build a home for them.  Right behind him is a large field with crops, evidence of growth, life and vitality.  The movie even opens with Mildred telling Richard about her pregnancy, in and of itself a statement of life.

There’s a balance between sensationalizing a time period and simply depicting it and LOVING felt like it didn’t do either one accurately, much to its detriment.  Presumably, life wasn’t easy for Richard and Mildred as an interracial couple in a state where their relationship was against the law, yet no one other than the judge who sentences them really seems to care.  I think it’s entirely possible that Jeff Nichols, who wrote and directed the movie, was trying to strike a balance of tension without turning the movie into a sensationalistic experience.  By not showing any sexual scenes of Richard and Mildred’s relationship and no dramatic run-ins the movie became sterile and lacked the dramatic tension that must have been so much a part of the Lovings’ lives.

For more about LOVING, including how the drag racing scenes parallel the action of the story, take a look below:

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MOANA *Movie Review*

In the latest Disney animated film MOANA, the title character voiced by Auli’i Cravalho, is features a young woman who goes on a quest to save her village and finds herself in the process.  In her journey she must seek out the demigod Maui, voiced by Dwayne Johnson, and return the stolen heart of Te Fiti, a mother earth goddess who created all of the islands from her heart.

This is the time of year to start handing out awards and I am ready to give MOANA the best animated feature Oscar.  Disney managed to recapture their magic to create a beautiful story with fantastic characters and gorgeous music.  Of course, the fact that MOANA is a fabulous female role model doesn’t hurt, either.

This is a girl who is strong, brave and smart.  She follows her heart and stands up to her father and everyone else who tells her that the greater world beyond the shoreline is dangerous.  Moana trusts that the ocean has chosen her to save her people and readily takes up the quest.  Pay attention to just how often Moana’s discouraged in her journey.  Her father and Maui in particular, both in song and speech, tell her that the world is scary, that she is only a young girl, and that she needs to stop dreaming.

Pay attention, too, to all of the conch shell symbolism throughout the film.

For more about conch shells and what they mean and other MOANA information, take a look below:

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FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM, written by JK Rowling, takes place within the Harry Potter universe, but 70 years earlier than Harry, Hermione and Ron attend Hogwarts.  It follows Newt Scamander, author of a book within the Harry Potter world by the same name as the movie, as he travels to America.  Ostensibly, his trip is to track down a particular magical creature, but in reality that’s not what happens as his own creatures get loose and he’s pulled into a multi-faceted plot that involves tracking them down, intrigue and double crossing at the Magical Congress of the United States of America, an illegal romance with a nonmagical person and a movement to bring back the Salem Witch Trials.

The themes in the film are as surprisingly relevant in today’s world as they would have been in the 1920s when it takes place and include interracial marriage, a female president, and mass extermination.

The film is the first of a planned five-part franchise that serves as a prequel to the HARRY POTTER series.  It stars Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Colin Farrell,  Samantha Morton, Jon Voight, Ron Perlman, Dan Fogler and Alison Sudol.  It’s directed by David Yates.

For more about the movie’s themes and other plot details, take a look below:

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ARRIVAL *Movie Review*

This week I review ARRIVAL.  The movie stars Amy Adams as Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist who is recruited to help communicate with aliens who arrive in 12 cities around the world.  She’s joined by scientist Ian Donnelly, played by Jeremy Renner.  Forest Whitaker also stars.  Denis Villeneuve directs this Oscar-contender.

ARRIVAL is a fairly quiet film without a lot of fanfare that’s more reflective than action-packed.  The screenplay was written by Eric Heisserer who is known for movies such as FINAL DESTINATION 5 and NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. ARRIVAL is a different type of movie entirely, though.  It’s mind-bending and self-reflective and contemplative in its themes and storyline.  The screenplay is well-written in that it doesn’t get in its own way with too much unnecessary dialogue.

The big theme here is time and the motif to represent it is the circle.  If you look at traditional interpretations of them, they represent wholeness, eternity and timelessness.  Louise tells us herself that the movie is about time and that these circles are no coincidence.  In the opening lines of the movie she says “I’m not so sure I believe in beginnings and endings”.  Circles are everywhere in this movie.  One of the first shots in the movie is of Louise’s hand with her gold wedding ring on it.  It’s a simple, unbroken band of continuity and time.  Circles are everywhere—the hallway in the hospital is curved like the side of a circle, the student tables in the hall where Louise lectures are curved facing her like a circle, the quilting on her jacket later in the movie looks like waves up close but from further away looks like giant embroidered circles.  Ian, the scientist Louise works with at the alien site in Montana, wears a watch with a large circular face.  The circular face stands out in particular during a scene when he looks at the alien transport vehicle with binoculars, themselves a set of circles.  The door to the alien ship opens every 18 hours—even the choice of 18 involves two stacked circles.

For more about the themes and symbolism in ARRIVAL, take a look below:

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This week I review DOCTOR STRANGE.  The latest Marvel superhero movie is about the mystical rather than the physical.  When Dr. Steven Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a neurosurgeon, loses use of his hands following a car accident, he travels to Nepal to see The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) as he learns that she may be able to help him.  The movie also stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mads Mikkelsen, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong and Benjamin Bratt with the requisite cameo by Marvel creator Stan Lee.

Time plays an interesting role because usually when time is used as a major theme it has to do with not having enough of it.  I think the bigger theme here had to do with how time can be a blessing and, perhaps even more so, a curse.  The differentiation is important because lack of time is a common concept; there isn’t enough time to do work or to relax or to spend with loved ones.  We don’t tend to consider that more time isn’t necessarily better.  For instance, if you live forever then you’ll have the heartache of watching everyone you love die since the whole world cannot live forever. Immortality and limitless time and life continue to be things we long for as a whole, but sometimes without acknowledging the consequences.  It’s interesting, too, how DOCTOR STRANGE uses time as a punishment, so pay attention for that element as well.

Water and how it cleanses and represents rebirth is another theme in DOCTOR STRANGE.

For more about water, religious symbolism in DOCTOR STRANGE and product placement deals, take a look below:

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This week I review JACK REACHER: NEVER GO BACK.  It’s the sequel to the 2012 movie JACK REACHER also starring Tom Cruise in the title role.  This time around he teams up with Major Susan Turner, played by Cobie Smulders (“Agents of SHIELD”, “Avengers”) as they both try to clear their names after they’re wrongfully accused of crimes they didn’t commit.  It’s directed by Edward Zwick and also stars Danika Yarosh and Aldis Hodge.  The franchise is based on a book series of the same name written by Lee Childs.

JACK REACHER: NEVER GO BACK is a bit like the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE franchise only more violent. It has a grittier feel to it, but otherwise it’s Tom Cruise doing what he does best. There’s a plot that’s vaguely understandable, but it’s almost beside the point. This is action and adventure. This is not suspense; I never once worried that Jack Reacher would get hurt, and I don’t think anyone in the movie did, either.

There are definitely some laughable plot points and things that don’t add up quite right, but it’s a go-along-for-the-thrill type of movie and they don’t have to. In fact, they probably even make slightly more sense than other movies in this genre.

There was an interesting theme of family in the movie that I hadn’t quite expected. There’s a subplot with Samantha, who may be Jack’s daughter, and she runs around with him and Susan during their adventures. The threesome make a ragtag family; it’s the quintessential allure of turning the loner into a family man.

Speaking of family man, there was something else that stood out to me as well and it may sound surprising but it was that this movie was very much a feminist piece. There were three main characters who were all women who played key roles. They didn’t use sex appeal to get them anywhere even though there was a scene with both Jack and Susan walking around shirtless for no particular reason. There was even a scene in which Samantha, the teenager, asks Susan if she’s a lesbian because she thinks all women in the military must be. Susan’s response that it’s just like real life where some are and some aren’t is pitch perfect. Susan and Samantha aren’t wallflowers who wait to be rescued by Jack and they’re not there simply to cater to his every whim. They’re smart, they fight, and they talk back to him. Out of all the movies that try to be feminist or try to make a point, here comes JACK REACHER: NEVER GO BACK quietly leveling the playing field.

This is also the perfect jumping off spot for a product placement discussion once again. If you’ve followed my reviews , you know that I used to work in the field and so let me share something about Tom Cruise. He knows what brand endorsements are worth and how much his face is worth connected to them, so he is one of the few actors who is powerful enough to make sure that he’s absolutely not connected to any brand he doesn’t want to be seen with. Pay attention in the movie to how hard the prop master and set decorators have to work in order to keep brands out of his hands and out of the shot with him. Just as brands never appear by accident, they also don’t disappear by accident. In this movie, you can watch for a couple scenes in particular that emphasize just how far Tom will go to make sure he’s not indirectly endorsing any brands.

For more about JACK REACHER: NEVER GO BACK, take a look below:


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This week I review THE ACCOUNTANT. THE ACCOUNTANT is about an accountant who is as brilliant with numbers as he is with discretion. Christian Wolff, played by Ben Affleck, has made most of his money as the trusted accountant to cartel leaders and other criminals. In the midst of working a legitimate job he finds a discrepancy that endangers multiple lives. The movie also stars Anna Kendrick (“Pitch Perfect”), Jeffrey Tambor (“Transparent”), John Lithgow, JK Simmons, Jon Bernthal, Jean Smart and Cynthia Addai-Robinson.

The character of Christian is supposed to have Aspergers, which is a high functioning form of Autism. He and the other characters who have this diagnosis alternately made me think their acting was uncomfortably fantastic and wondering if they were going too far. I noticed in the credits that five different people were listed as ‘Autism Consultants’ so I do believe that they worked hard not to make the portrayals caricatures. Overall, I think the acting was really good and that Ben Affleck managed to convey a lot of emotion through very little dialogue. Anna Kendrick shone, though her storyline didn’t do her any favors. Family is a huge theme in the movie and it’s emphasized repeatedly: how important family loyalty is as well as the question of what makes a good parent. There are several parent/child roles in this movie that you can watch for, not just the biological ones, but the ones that can occur in even a boss/employee relationship.

Despite the big theme of family, you can also track the theme of compartmentalization, or more specifically shutting yourself off from things. Instead of cells in jail, there are dividers; there’s a train you can spot going around the Christmas tree during a flashback to Christian’s childhood, Christian keeps an airstream trailer in a storage unit—so a container within a container.

The music was also fantastic. It stood out to me from the very beginning, particularly when it managed to balance the feeling of eeriness without going overboard into cheesy or predictable.

I am really good at suspending my disbelief. I’m very willing to go along with the premise that’s set up, I wouldn’t be in a movie otherwise. But, I was pulled out so many times with regard to how certain characters were treated and even during the big final climax that I had to wonder how someone could have put together a movie that was Oscar-worthy and laughable without noticing the discrepancies. Since I don’t want to give away any spoilers, I won’t say more than that, though as always I’m happy to continue the discussion in the comments!

I’ve talked before about movies that don’t seem to know what they want to be and while I think THE ACCOUNTANT was well enough directed and acted to make up for any shortcomings, I think the movie would have done a bit better to decide if it was more suspense or more action. The action was heavier than I’d expected from the previews and I admit that I covered my eyes at two different times. I’m not sure all of it was necessary. That said, the movie is just over two hours long and goes by in a flash.

For more about THE ACCOUNTANT, take a look below:

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THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN is based on best-selling novel of the same name by Paula Hawkins. It’s about a divorced woman who likes watching the homes in her old neighborhood as she rides the daily train. When one of the women she watches disappears, she gets involved on a personal level.

The movie stars Emily Blunt, Justin Theroux, Rebecca Ferguson, Haley Bennett, Luke Evans, Edgar Ramirez, Laura Prepon, Allison Janney and Lisa Kudrow. It’s directed by Tate Taylor (THE HELP).

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN does everything right from a technical standpoint. Everyone’s acting is fantastic and the cinematography is particularly wonderful with some beautiful and unique shots. So, by most accounts that should make it a good movie. It really depends on your definition of good movie, though, because what stood out as much as the great technical details was just how unpleasant every single person was in the film. There was not one sympathetic character and I felt an equal amount of distaste for everyone.

I couldn’t help but think, too, that Emily Blunt is starting to develop a career out of characters who may be intriguing but who aren’t pleasant to be around, all the way back to her star-making role in DEVIL WEARS PRADA and including her role in SUNSHINE CLEANING as well.

There were lots of interesting parallels between and connecting the main characters in the movie. It reminded me a lot of Alfred Hitchcock’s STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, which I actually wrote a paper on in college talking about how the two strangers were connected in an X-shape, with each character “reaching out” to the other side. That’s how THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN is also structured and I don’t think it’s any coincidence that one of the first things on screen is an X drawn in the condensation on the window of a train that we then see Emily Blunt’s eye through. The theme of X is continued with an email written by Tom and played across the screen as Rachel walks through a train station. I don’t want to give away too many details for anyone who hasn’t read the book yet, but definitely suggest paying attention to them.

For more about THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, take a look below:

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MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN is based on a trilogy of the same name written by Ransom Riggs. It’s about a boy named Jake (Asa Butterfield) who discovers his late-grandfather’s tales of children with unusual talents and stories about a woman who can turn into a bird are all true. The children are hunted for their p

owers and Jake steps in to help. Tim Burton (PEE WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE, BIG EYES, BIG FISH, EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, ALICE IN WONDERLAND) directs this adaptation.

However, this is less ‘adaptation’ than it is ‘very loosely inspired by’ as the entire second half of the movie is different from the books.  The pacing of the movie is actually remarkably similar to the books: slow.  The action sequences feel muted and the expected build in intensity never happens. Most of the movie is shot with a blue filter, so everything feels very cold and stark, though the filter also gives things an almost heightened sense of reality, which also work to slow the passage of time.

For more about MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN, including notable performances of cast and crew, take a look below:

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QUEEN OF KATWE *Movie Review*

QUEEN OF KATWE is based on the true story of a girl named Phiona from the slums of Uganda.  She learns to play chess and uses it as a means out of poverty. It stars Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o as her mother, David Oyelowo as her coach and introduces Madina Nalwanga as Phiona. It’s directed by Mira Nair.

The theme of this hero’s journey is one that spans cultures. While it’s an inspiring and interesting story about Phiona herself, the message translates to anyone. You don’t have to be a certain color or gender to connect with this story and the deeper messages that even the small can become big. Many of the words of wisdom come from Phiona’s chess coach who says things like: if you use your mind and follow your plans then you can find safe squares; losing does not mean you’re a failure it takes time and stamina is the key; and sometimes the place you are used to is not the place you belong, which is one of director Mira Nair’s recurring themes.

Mira Nair is a fantastic director and a lot of her work is about feeling out of place, which is the situation each of the three main characters are in. There’s Phiona, a young girl who learns about a life that she never ever knew existed. She struggles as she’s torn between world that she wants to be part of with the one that exists. Like the real Phiona, the film version’s Madina  Nalwanga also grew up in the slums of Uganda. This is her first film and she conveys such a subtle depth of emotion with her eyes that I was ready to hand her an Oscar. Her performance was utterly moving.

Lupita Nyong’o, plays her mother, and David Oyelowo, as her chess coach, were also amazing. One of the things I loved was that while this is the story of Phiona at first glance, the characters of her mother and Robert were treated equally. They each went through their own evolution and weren’t strictly relegated to cardboard supports. Too often there are supporting stories that can compliment the main one but which are never fully realized and these were. Having these three circle the same theme of self discovery made the film that much more successful.

The style, the locations and the saturation of color and sound make it feel like you can walk directly through the screen and into this world!

For more about QUEEN OF KATWE, take a look below:

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SULLY *Movie Review*

SULLY is based on the true story of a US Airways flight that did a controlled water landing in the Hudson River on January 15, 2009.  The flight was piloted by Captain Sullenberger, affectionately known as Sully, played here by Everyman Tom Hanks.  It’s directed by Clint Eastwood and co-stars Aaron Eckhart.

A movie like this could have gone in two directions.  It easily could have become a bit of a sensationalistic disaster movie causing the audience to rethink ever boarding a plane without Sully at the helm.  Instead, it was handled more deftly and uniquely as the story of a man who was thrust into the spotlight for a single decision at the end of 42 years of flight experience.  The choice to follow the storyline in this way elevated the movie and turned it into nuanced filmmaking.  That said, there’s no doubt that this movie is solely and completely about Sully and his actions.  The bits of humanity that are injected into the passengers are the weakest point in the story.  They’re expected, right down to the mother with the baby on her lap.

The only spot that it disappointed me was Aaron Eckhart’s character, Sully’s co-pilot.  He doesn’t have a lot to say in the movie and while his acting is good, he’s more a living prop than anything else.

Casting Tom Hanks was as expected as it was imperative.  There’s no other actor who plays Everyman as well as he does, almost to his detriment.  I believed every second of his performance, every grimace, every questioning look and every ounce of relief at hearing everyone survived.  But, it becomes difficult in separating the good acting from the actor himself.  Tom Hanks is so tied to his image and indeed his reputation of the kind Everyman that I didn’t quite known if I was watching Tom Hanks or if I was watching the most amazing performance ever.

There’s a great scene of Tom Hanks’ Sully talking to his wife on the phone and questioning if he did the right thing in landing on the Hudson.  It’s shot with half of his face in shadow, a great bit of cinematography and direction showing exactly what he’s going through at that moment.  In fact, the entire movie is well done.

For more about SULLY including eagle-eye details to watch for, take a look below:

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MAX ROSE *Movie Review*

MAX ROSE is the story of a man (Jerry Lewis) who loses his wife of more than 60 years and then questions if she had been having an affair.  He learns to navigate his relationships with his adult son (Kevin Pollak) and granddaughter (Kerry Bishe) while searching for answers.

I’m going to start with the good: the music, acting, and technical aspects of the movie are well done.  There is no doubt that MAX ROSE was well conceived and put together.  There were a couple of moments that were so beautifully done that they particularly stood out.  The first was during a flashback when Max and his wife, Eva (Claire Bloom) are in bed together talking about their combined ages.  They feel very real together and it’s a relationship that I wanted to learn more about, aside from the flashbacks that were included.  The second time is at an assisted living facility where one of the men talks about how his wife has been gone for more than 20 years and yet he still misses her.

That said, there were some gaps in the story that went unanswered.  This came across as more of an extended character study than anything else.  There is a difference between a movie that leaves ou with questions because of gaps in the story versus contemplation about the themes.

What I didn’t love about MAX ROSE has to do more with preference than anything else.  Ironically, it’s exactly what I discussed last week in SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU, an indie that didn’t fit the traditional “indie vibe” because it was so upbeat.  MAX ROSE fits that exact “indie” category where it may be a realistic look at life, but it’s not a pleasant one.

For more about MAX ROSE, take a look below:

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A romance is a romance and that’s the ultimate take-away from writer/director Richard Tanne‘s SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU.  The movie depicts President Barak Obama’s first date with his now-wife, Michelle.  Regardless of your political affiliation, this is a romance that won’t disappoint.  It’s well made and well acted.

One of the qualities I appreciated the most about SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU is that there weren’t big moments added for dramatic tension.  A lot of times indie movies with real stories translate ‘real’ to ‘misery’.  Rather than going that route, SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU provides an escapism movie threaded with meaning, themes of forgiveness, learning what you want from life, not judging, and striving for more even if you don’t know what that ‘more’ is at the moment.

Tika Sumpter stars as Michelle Robinson and Parker Sawyers as Barak Obama and it’s their chemistry that carries a film which is otherwise walking and talking.  As the movie unfolds, viewers get to enjoy how the pair get to know each other, prickle at each other and see the best in each other.  It’s truly like going along on a good first date.

For more about the film’s themes and eagle eye details to watch for, take a look below:

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KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS succeeds in creating a story that feels Japanese while being written and helmed by Americans.  It’s mystical in a way that feels both possible and magical at the same time.  The choice to do this as a combination of claymation and digital animation fit the style and worked well.

This is a story of a boy who goes on a quest to find three pieces of samurai armor his father owned which will help him defeat the Moon King.  He’s accompanied by Monkey and Beetle.  Kubo himself possesses magic of his own when he plays his enchanted shamisen.  It stars the voice talents of Matthew McConaughey, Charlize Theron, Ralph Fiennes, George Takei and Art Parkinson as Kubo.

While it was definitely very good, it was missing that final element to make it magical.

As someone who lived in Japan, I am always curious to see how the culture is addressed by American filmmakers.  For more about KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS and the Japanese culture reflected in particular, take a look below:

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What’s a nice Jewish boy like Daniel Radcliffe doing playing a neo-Nazi?

In his new film, “Imperium,” Daniel Radcliffe plays FBI agent Nate Foster, who goes undercover to take down skinheads planning to set off a dirty bomb.

The film, which opens Friday, is taut and exciting. It is also a movie the former “Harry Potter” star doesn’t want his 93-year-old Jewish grandmother to see. (More on that later.)

“Imperium” is loosely based on the experiences of FBI agent Mike German, who spent 16 years with the bureau, a dozen undercover. German co-wrote the screenplay with director Daniel Ragussis.

Both Daniels are on the phone to promote the enterprise, one definitely more tired than the other.

Radcliffe’s critically acclaimed, sold out off-Broadway play “Privacy” had closed the night before, followed by an apparently lengthy closing night party. But despite the joking promise that his exhaustion might lead him to reveal something juicy — “You never know what I might say” — Radcliffe stays on message, painting a self-portrait of an intelligent young actor who has survived fame without a semblance of pretense or affectation.

On the face of it, Radcliffe does not seem the obvious choice for the role. For one thing he’s a Brit, though you couldn’t tell by the mid-American accent he adopts for the film. And for another, he doesn’t fit the burly Jason Bourne tough guy image we’ve come to expect from our movie heroes. But that’s exactly what led Ragussis to cast Radcliffe.

“When I first met Michael German, he was so different from the prototype FBI agents,” Ragussis said. “He was very intelligent, a soft-spoken guy who studied philosophy in college. I spoke to him and said you’re not what I expected.

“He told me being an FBI undercover agent isn’t about physical powers but social skills, dealing with people, and once I realized that it enabled me to conceptualize the story and turned me on to an actor like Daniel.”

In fact, Radcliffe’s relatively small stature — he is listed as being 5-foot-5 — only ratchets up the tension as Nate Foster is forced to use intelligence to ingratiate himself within various extremist groups and maintain his cover.

Radcliffe’s nuanced performance as an agent with no field experience who has jumped into potentially volatile waters without a life vest almost certainly will win critical raves. His character must do battle not only with the Nazis and Klansmen, but his own superiors, who at a critical juncture want to pull him out, believing he is on the wrong track.

Radcliffe said he “was lucky to have Dan here with me.”

“He did an unbelievable amount of research, so I had him to go to as a source,” said the actor, who added that he prepared for the film “like any other role.” Radcliffe also consulted German, read books and went “online to look at terrifying message boards.

He also shaved his head on screen, wore Nazi regalia and of course offered the Nazi salute. That brings us back to grandma.

Radcliffe said his maternal grandmother — he never knew his granddad — “was an evacuee during the war,” taken to the country to stay with people away from Nazi bombers. He recalls her telling him stories “about how our family came to the UK and where we came from.”

“We originated in Russia and left because of the pogroms. I don’t know if the story is true, but supposedly my great-great-grandfather was on a ship from Russia bound for America. It stopped off in London, and he thought, ‘oh, that was quick’ and got off. He went to work in a textile factory and married the owner’s daughter.”

Radcliffe was raised in a very secular environment — “I’m going to be a real disappointment to you,” he told a reporter for a Jewish news service — but with a keen awareness of his Jewish background and “what it means to my mom and her mom.”

It is the reason he believes “Imperium” will not be appropriate for grandma.

“It may be a little too close to the bone,” Radcliffe said. In fact, he thought about her during the filming, “about how odd it is. The strangeness of it struck me a few times.”

Radcliffe finds it impossible to define how his Jewish heritage impacts his work.

“I don’t think I can separate the various parts of my life,” he said. “But the view that was always imparted to me by my mom and [Irish] dad is that the Jewish people and the Irish people were hard workers, that the Jews always punched above their weight class intellectually in terms of their numbers of people. I know that influenced me I suppose on some level, gave me a sense of responsibility to continue that. It’s something I thought about. I wouldn’t say it’s a driving force, but it is an influence.”

Considering the film’s topic, our conversation inevitably turned to America’s gun culture.

“The gun thing is alien to me,” Radcliffe said. “But I don’t think I was in Virginia” — the film was shot in Hopewell, a small city south of Richmond — “for more than a day before three separate people said, ‘hey, you’ve got to come shoot with us.’ I’m up for anything and I had a lovely day, but that’s never something I’m going to get used to.

“But the thing that most surprised me is that there is a huge wave of people who are not the slightest bit racist, who are highly intelligent and who love guns. The image that is sometimes portrayed the world over is that the Second Amendment people are sort of crazy, and I haven’t found that to be the case.”

Another American subject — how we seem to allow young actors a moment of fame and then chew them up — also brought out Radcliffe’s positive side. He said he had people around him “who were never going to allow me to become arrogant or obnoxious. But I have to say it’s very human to focus on the negative.”

Radcliffe then mentions Jodie Foster, Elijah Wood and Toby Maguire as positive role models for American actors.

Like them, Radcliffe has literally grown up in front of us, although to a degree none of them could match: He starred in eight “Harry Potter” films in 11 years, starting at age 11 and finishing at 21. While one of the rules for this interview was no questions about the new “Harry Potter” play and book — Radcliffe had nothing to do with either — the old films were not out of bounds, And, no, there are no regrets.

“There has never been a moment where I wish it hadn’t happened, any mistakes I’ve learned from,” he said. “Nobody’s life is all rainbows and sunshine. There were moments, but mostly related to being a teenager.”

Still, Harry Potter will always be with him. Even today, five years after the last film was released, a writer who shall remain nameless will talk about his granddaughter Samantha, who is a big fan and celebrating a birthday and can Daniel send a photo? Of course, he can — a promise stars make all the time but seldom deliver.

Unless they’re Daniel Radcliffe.


Meryl Streep stars as Florence Foster Jenkins in a movie of the same name.  She’s a wealthy woman who wants to be a singer, despite her terrible voice.  Meryl Streep is always good, but this movie really belongs to Hugh Grant.  The love his character, St Clair Bayfield, felt for Florence was apparent in every scene.  This is perhaps the most real that Hugh Grant has ever been on screen.

The set decoration and costume departments also stood out with their use of rich textiles such as raw silk and chenille.  The movie was lush with textures.

The movie poses itself as a lesson in adversity, Florence against the world in her quest to perform despite her vocal shortcomings.  However, she has been completely insulated from the truth of her singing voice by her husband, friends and teachers.  Can she really be considered brave when she doesn’t know what’s a bad singer?

For more details about themes, symbolism and eagle eye details to watch for in FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS, take a look below…

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Czech patriots slay Nazi ‘hangman’ in ‘Anthropoid’

Before the tide of World War II turned at Stalingrad and El Alamein, on the Russian and North African fronts, the year 1942 started as a dark one for Allied forces battling the seemingly unstoppable Nazi war machine.

A brief flash of light brightened the gloom on May 27, however, when two Czechoslovakian commandos assassinated Reinhard Heydrich in broad daylight on a busy Prague street.

SS Gen. Heydrich was the official Nazi Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, which consisted of the German-occupied western part of Czechoslovakia, and he quickly earned the sobriquets of “The Hangman” and “The Butcher of Prague” for ruthlessness that impressed even the top echelons of the Nazi regime. Adolf Hitler dubbed Heydrich “the man with the iron heart,” after the general proved his mettle first as one of the chief organizers of Kristallnacht and then of the “Final solution of the Jewish problem.” (Ironically, Heydrich had been bullied as a schoolboy on the suspicion that he had one or more Jewish ancestors in his family tree.)

The assassination of Heydrich and the subsequent revenge execution of 340 men, women and children in the village of Lidice was a major news story at the time, but it was overshadowed by Allied battles and victories in Europe and the Pacific in the subsequent three years of the war.

British filmmaker Sean Ellis had never heard of the Heydrich assassination but became fascinated when he saw a short documentary on the case.

In broad strokes, the plot began in late 1941, when the Czechoslovak government and army in exile, headquartered in London, decided it had to take some action against the German occupiers of their country.

After intensive training, two men were selected for Operation Anthropoid. Josef Gabcik is portrayed by Cillian Murphy and Jan Kubis by Jamie Dornan (“Fifty Shades of Grey”) in the new film “Anthropoid.”

Jamie Dornan is Jan Kubis, Charlotte LeBon is a resistance fighter in the film. Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street Media

In December 1941 (also the month of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor), the two commandos parachuted back into their native country and spent five months hiding out with a family in Prague, scouting the terrain and refining their plans.

Heydrich, secure in his sense of power and contempt for the hitherto docile population, rode around Prague in an open car, accompanied only by his driver.

On May 27, 1942, Kubis and Gabcik struck, opening fire as the Protector’s Mercedes negotiated a hairpin curve. Heydrich fired back with his pistol but was severely wounded and died a few days later, followed by an impressive Nazi state funeral.

History — and the movie — might better have ended on this note of triumph.

Fleeing the scene of the shooting, the two commandos at first hid in the nearby Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius Cathedral, finally retreating under German fire to the church’s crypt. Their last stand takes up most of the second half of the film and compensates
in action for the slower first half, which also includes romances between the two heroes and a pair of attractive female freedom

Ellis, 45, a native of Brighton, England, did quadruple duty on “Anthropoid” as producer, director, co-writer and cinematographer. The latter skill, honed as a commercial and fashion photographer, Ellis attributes mainly to his childhood dyslexia, for which he compensated through highly developed visual skills. He said his film’s budget came to about $20 million, including creating replicas of the cathedral and of the 1930s Mercedes that carried Heydrich to his doom.

The movie has been well received in Europe, Ellis said, and when he talked at a Czech school about his work, he realized that the wartime occupation of their country remains a passionate subject of debate for students.

In the story of the Heydrich assassination and razing of Lidice in 1942, more than one filmmaker soon realized the possibilities for an irresistible action movie, pitting patriots against the most evil of Nazis. As early as 1943, three movies — “Hangmen Also Die,” “The Silent Village” and “Hitler’s Madman” — were shown in theaters, followed after the war by “Operation Daybreak,” “Lidice,” “Conspiracy” and now “Anthropoid.”

Coming next is the French movie “HHhH.” The mysterious title is an acronym referring to Heydrich’s hold on SS leader Heinrich Himmler and the source of much of “The Hangman’s” influence. In German, the acronym stands for “Himmler’s Hirn heisst Heydrich,” which translates to “Himmler’s Brain is named Heydrich.”

Studio publicity for ”Anthropoid” claims that the assassination of Heydrich “changed the course of the war and the fate of Europe forever.” That is, of course, massive hyperbole, but Operation Anthropoid did hearten the forces battling Hitler and, through its example, spur resistance to the Nazi conquest of Europe.

“Anthropoid” opens Aug. 12 at the Landmark Theatre in West Los Angeles, as well as in Anaheim, Irvine and Laguna Niguel in Orange County.

SUICIDE SQUAD *Movie Review*

SUICIDE SQUAD is the latest offering from the DC Extended Universe as a group of anti-heroes become exactly what they hate: the heroes.  David Ayer directs an all-star cast of Will Smith as Deadshot, Jared Leto as The Joker, Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, Viola Davis as Amanda Walker, Jai Courtney as Boomerang, Jay Hernandez as Diablo and Cara Delevigne as June Moon/The Enchantress.

Looking at the film from a purely cinematic standpoint, it’s extremely well done.  Jared Leto and Margot Robbie as the Joker and Harley Quinn respectively stole the show, not only with their acting which was fantastic, but in terms of the scenes they were written–these were among the most disturbing in the movie.

As with any ensemble movie, characters tend to get lost in the shuffle.  In this case, Killer Croc and Boomerang were more filler than anything else.

The music, cinematograph and special effects were well done.  The songs used are all familiar ones that work to lighten the otherwise heavy and dark subject matter.

As well done as SUICIDE SQUAD was, some parts were so disturbing that I can only call this a good movie if I separate the aspect of feminism from it.  The way Harley Quinn’s character was treated was downright upsetting, at one point mining a laugh from her being punched in the face.  It began to raise questions such as: Is it okay to like a movie that portrays terrible things against only one gender?  What about one race?

For more insight into the movies strengths and weaknesses as well as eagle eye details to watch for, take a look below:

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Liked this video?  Interested in some special Harley Quinn trivia?  Click here.

DON’T THINK TWICE *Movie Review*

At its outset, DON’T THINK TWICE looks like a movie about the history of improvisation and an improv comedy.  Saying that, however, almost does it a disservice because it’s so much deeper than that.  DON’T THINK TWICE is about not just following your dreams, but what to do when your goals don’t quite materialize as hoped.  When one of a six-member improv group is cast on a SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE-esque show, the other members of the group struggle with what it means for them.

Mike Birbiglia (SLEEPWALK WITH ME) writes, directs and stars alongside Keegan-Michael Key (KEY AND PEELE), Gillian Jacobs (COMMUNITY), Kate Micucci, Chris Gethard and Tami Sagher (MADtv) in this fantastic film about life.

This week’s review also includes a special interview with Keegan-Michael Key about the movie, as well as some “insider” stories from Mike Birbiglia and Kate Micucci.  Take a look below:

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Writer-director talks about adapting Roth’s ‘Indignation’

“Indignation,” the new movie based on a novel by the immortal Philip Roth, opens with a skirmish in Korea in 1951 and ends with a scene so shocking that I cannot reveal it here, although readers of the book will know what’s coming. In between, however, the movie focuses on the sexual and emotional coming-of-age of a troubled Jewish adolescent from Newark, N.J., whose childhood home is a battleground, and a college deferment means the difference between life and death. He is a highly indignant young man, as the title suggests, and his indignation plays out in both comic and tragic ways.

“Indignation” is one of Roth’s “late” novels, but it is a gem. As re-imagined by James Schamus, who wrote, directed and produced the movie, life in America in the early 1950s comes fully alive, as does the experience of a generation of Jewish Americans for whom the second world war was a fresh wound and the prospect of making a life among the goyim is burdened with anxiety and gloom. When it is announced that young Marcus Messner will leave Newark upon graduation from high school to attend a small, private college in the town of Winesburg, a friend of the family frets out loud: “How will he keep kosher in Ohio?”

Although “Indignation” is Schamus’ directorial debut, he is a formidable figure in the entertainment industry. He worked closely with director Ang Lee over many years, serving as a writer and producer on films ranging from “Eat Drink Man Woman” to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” and producing “Brokeback Mountain.” He also oversaw production of many other movies of distinction as the founder and head of Focus Features. With “Indignation,” Schamus reveals himself to be a gifted director whose work is elegant and yet poignant, superbly well observed and even painterly, informed by Schamus’ own Jewish upbringing and identity, driven by powerful performances, and capable of moving us and surprising us.

Working from New York afforded Schamus resources that would not have been available on the West Coast for a movie with a modest budget. While the star of the show is Logan Lerman, a winning young actor who already enjoys a fan following among the 20-somethings, the cast also features several Broadway veterans and luminaries, including Danny Burstein (who re-created the role of Tevye in the recent Broadway revival of “Fiddler on the Roof”) and Linda Emond (who was nominated for a Tony for her recent role on Broadway in “Cabaret”) as the afflicted parents of the story’s young hero.

An outstanding performance is delivered by Tracy Letts, a playwright and stage actor who won a Pulitzer Prize for his Broadway hit “August: Osage County.” Most filmgoers, however, will recognize him as the CIA director in “Homeland,” and his role as the dean of the Midwestern college Marcus attends is unforgettable. Indeed, the on-screen encounters between Marcus and his college dean are the dramatic center of gravity in a movie that offers one intense scene after another, many of them explicitly erotic.

I had the opportunity to talk to James Schamus on two occasions, first in his production office in a gentrified building in the old Garment District in Manhattan and again at a sold-out preview screening of “Indignation” presented by the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival.  

Jonathan Kirsch: Has Philip Roth seen the movie yet, and if so, how did he respond?

James Schamus: Yes, he has, and, thank the Lord, he responded very well!

JK: What was the career path that led you from your work with Ang Lee to writing, directing and producing “Indignation”?

JS: Your question assumes that there is a path, when it was more like stumbling through the brush. We tend to think opportunistically in terms of what’s stirring the imagination. I was at an airport a number of years ago, and I picked up a copy of “Indignation,” which had just been published in a mass-market paperback edition. This was a time when Wi-Fi was not available, and a long flight was one of the few places left on the Earth where I could really unplug. I just fell in love with the characters, and I acquired the rights to the book.

JK: Roth discloses a shocking fact about Marcus Messner early in the novel. Based on my first viewing of the movie, it is not revealed until the end. Am I right? And, if so, what was your reason for delaying the disclosure?

JS: It is disclosed, but in a way that is not necessary for you to register it consciously. I played around a lot with when to disclose. And I am playing with the audience a little bit in one scene, where it is suggested in the lighting and the set. Roth novels are notoriously difficult to adapt, and I was trying to figure out a way to reproduce the sense of what’s left at the end of the book, when you know you have a consciousness who’s reaching out from young adulthood. That’s where I created the framing devices for the film, which are not in the book. 

JK: Your cast is deeply rooted in theater, and especially the Broadway theater. Was that a principle of selection in casting the film?

JS: It wasn’t a principle of selection. It was a requirement of budget. But I knew I could get actors who would precision-target that world and just live it. Danny Burstein and Linda Emond are theater royalty, and I think of Tracy Letts as the king of American theater.

JK: One of the glories of your movie is the way in which it conjures Jewish life in midcentury America in such authentic detail. But the counterintuitive moment for me, both in the book and the movie, is the scene in which Esther Messner objects to her son’s romance with the Gentile character called Olivia Hutton, a beautiful young blonde played by the stunning Sarah Gadon. Esther notices the scars on Olivia’s wrist and tells her son that he can date or marry anyone he wants, even a non-Jew, as long as it isn’t one who has tried to commit suicide. 

JS: Clearly, Roth gave me the gift of this character, and it would have been a mistake to depict her as a caricature of the Jewish mother. This is a mother who knows what she’s doing. Esther Messner is probably the first person in Olivia’s entire life who gets her the minute she sees her. Esther knows who Olivia is and what she’s gone through. Nobody else gets it. But maybe Esther is just thinking: Let’s solve the problem of Olivia and move on. If there’s another battle to fight later on, I’ll figure out the next move in my campaign.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal