Tuesday, November 29, 2016


The Gist: Smarting from the recent direct attack on the MI6 headquarters, the British government has appointed C to oversee a globally unified field of intelligence gathering. C plans to dismiss the 00 program altogether and rein MI6 under his control. That's when Bond, following a lead from his beloved late M, decides to find out who is behind the highly secretive organization Spectre and what its ultimate objective is.

Spectre marks Daniel Craig's least successful stint yet in the famed secret agent's garb. As is often the case, a lot is going on in a 007 movie, and when the goings on stretch the fabric of belief too much, things start to turn sour.

The script is likely the main culprit. We all know Bond is super smart and resourceful, and in Craig's hands he's also athletic and tough as nails, but there are limits to what a person can achieve in the face of overwhelming odds.

Christoph Waltz, while quite delightful in the shoes of the bad guy, comes across as too much of a caricature to be memorable.

The Bottom Line: Overall, the main complaint I'd lobby at this chapter in the Bond franchise is that it's rather boring, in spite of all that's happening. Given how the movies' plots are rather intertwined, if you're a fan and likely to be back the next time around, then don't skip Spectre, but if you're just curious, then I'd suggest you go with either Casino Royale or Skyfall, both far superior and still featuring Craig, the best Bond ever in my book.

Grade: 6

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Take Me to the River

The Gist: After traveling to Nebraska for a family reunion with his mom and dad, a young teenager finds himself the unwitting suspect of abuse.

Take Me to the River is Matt Sobel's feature debut and what a promising director (and writer) he turns out to be!

The movie is quite slow building, and you're left wondering whether there is anything more to it, but then the tension starts building, grips you, and doesn't relent.

The best thing about it are certainly the different layers that keep being added on top of one another.

Fresh faced Logan Miller is a relative newcomer and firmly establishes himself as a very promising actor. He's joined by Robin WeigertRichard Schiff, and Josh Hamilton, all among my favorite actors and all doing an excellent job.

The Bottom LineTake Me to the River comes highly recommended. The grade isn't higher simply because the slow build does drag a bit at times, but just give it time and you'll be happy you did.

Grade: 7

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

American Horror Story: Roanoke

I'm happy to report a great return to form for American Horror Story in its sixth season after the big stumble I felt it took with season 5, primarily because of the poor choice of replacing a stellar lead actress like Jessica Lange with an unproven and average one like Lady Gaga.

Gaga does appear in American Horror Story: Roanoke but she was wisely given a smaller role that actually takes full advantage of her dramatic flare without placing the entire show on her shoulders.

Mind you that Roanoke might actually be the scariest installment yet. While the horror of the show's title features widely in every season, it can take on different flavors depending on the specific tale being told, going from gory (Murder House) to disgusting (Asylum), to unsettling (Freak Show), to disturbing (Coven), to occasionally risible (Hotel).

Roanoke's terrors are of the primal variety, the fear you have when it's dark and you're alone in a strange place and you hear an unsettling noise and your imagination starts going wild while dabbling in dark thoughts.

Kathy Bates finally gets her chance to chew the scenery like only she can. Sarah PaulsonAngela BassettLily RabeAdina PorterAndré Holland, and Cuba Gooding Jr. all do a very good job.

The way the show starts out can be a bit confusing, with some timeline shifting and some uncertainty about who is who, but stick with it and you'll be rewarded greatly.

Grade - Season 6: 9

Thursday, November 17, 2016

The Hateful Eight

The Gist: A severe snow storm in Wyoming's already harsh winter, forces a bounty hunter to seek refuge with his prized prisoner in a remote outpost. The place is teeming with several seemingly wicked individuals. Trust is a hard-to-find commodity.

Full disclosure, I'm not a Quentin Tarantino fan. His work is always original and rather unique, but it often feels pretentious and out of reach. I'm a movie lover but I clearly lack the breadth of knowledge necessary to paste together all the different homages and references he portends to imbed in his work.

As a result, some of his work I like (Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, Inglorious Basterds), and some I loathe (Kill Bill: Vol. 1 was atrocious; I found it so awful that I never even went to see Vol. 2, which for me is unusual).

Anyway, The Hateful Eight is one of his best as far as I'm concerned. It is well written, photographed beautifully, and expertly directed.

The eight from the title (Samuel L. JacksonKurt RussellJennifer Jason LeighWalton GogginsDemián BichirTim RothMichael Madsen, and Bruce Dern) are all perfectly cast. Jackson and Russell especially are great, and Leigh is so good she was rightfully nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

The movie, to Tarantino's delight, actually won Ennio Morricone his first Best Score Oscar outright (he has an Honorary one also) after 5 previous nominations!

The Bottom LineThe Hateful Eight is not for the squeamish because of the high level of violence and gore, but that's to be expected in a Tarantino film. If those don't concern you, you'll find humor, drama, wit, and suspense galore, enough that you won't even mind the long runtime (167 minutes!).

Grade: 8

Monday, November 14, 2016

Ex Machina

The Gist: A young programmer wins a contest to spend a week at his programmer-genius boss' remote estate. The real reason behind the invitation is for the boss to have the employee test whether his new, secret, and groundbreaking humanoid AI could pass for a human being.

Prepare to have your mind blown. Ex Machina is a really well put together thriller that asks some serious questions about what our future as a species might look like if when AI becomes a reality.

Domhnall Gleeson and (the ever present is seems) Oscar Isaac do an excellent job in two roles they seem perfectly suited to inhabit. Alicia Vikander, Oscar winner this same calendar year for The Danish Girl, turns in another memorable performance, overlooked only because of the sci-fi undertones.

Ex Machina won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects and was nominated for Best Screenplay as well.

The Bottom Line: This is a very well written thriller, expertly edited and directed to maximize suspense, all leading up to a scary good ending. Definitely recommended.

Grade: 8

Friday, November 11, 2016


The Gist: A very independent and commitment-phobic woman has to face her own fears head on when she unexpectedly meets a man she might actually want to have a long-term, monogamous relationship with.

I love Amy Schumer. I think she's incredibly funny and self-deprecating, and she doesn't seem to mind getting down in the gutter if the joke requires it.

Bill Hader joins her here as her love interest, and they seem perfectly suited to play off one another. Brie Larson, Jon Glaser, and Colin Quinn all do a good job, but the one who steals the show is the always excellent Tilda Swinton, here playing a magazine editor so morally corrupt she is outrageously and funnily good.

The Bottom LineTrainwreck is not a great comedy in the classical sense, but if you're just looking for a couple hours of mindless laughs, then look no further.

Grade: 6

Green Room

The Gist: A band of young musicians, on the road in search of paying gigs, ends up at a neo-Nazi bar. When it's time to leave, one sees something he wasn't meant to see, and things take a very dark turn for all of them.

Patrick Stewart is one of my all-time favorite actors and here he plays the bad guy with incredible gusto. The other lead is the recently, prematurely lost Anton Yelchin, who was such a promising young actor.

Green Room tells a very simple story, but the tone is as dark as it gets and the pace is quite taut. You'll definitely feel tension, fear, and anxiety as the events progress, but it's more than worth it.

The Bottom Line: The movie might not be for the squeamish or frightful out there, but if you think you can stand the tension, the payback is well worth the ride down this particular hell.

Grade: 8

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Inside Out

The Gist: When Riley's family moves to San Francisco, the young girl's emotions, used to the tranquil life of the Midwest, are thrown for a loop and have to figure out how to adapt to this much wilder and unpredictable environment.

Inside Out, winner of a Best Animated Feature Oscar, is one of the best movies I've ever watched. No question.

The animation is superb and the voice actors do an incredible job, but it's really the story itself and the wonderfully written script (nominated for a Best Screenplay Oscar) that make this a memorable film.

It's really an instant classic that belongs in the highest echelon of Pixar's wonderful oeuvre.

The Bottom LineInside Out will make you laugh and cry and smile and hope, and a lot more. It's a completely original movie that you never want to end. A must see for the whole family for generations to come.

Grade: 10

Tuesday, November 08, 2016


The Gist: Accidentally ensnared by an international drug trafficker to be a mule, Lucy ends up overdosing on a new and very powerful drug that results in her gaining superhuman abilities.

I was looking forward to watching Lucy because I generally like Luc Besson's work and the idea of a strong female lead in a field generally dominated by males sounded like progress. I also really like Scarlett Johansson.

Unfortunately, the end result is largely underwhelming and even disappointing. The storytelling pace is too fast and the runtime too short to effectively establish 3D characters, so what you get are really just placards.

Furthermore, the very premise that she would survive such an overdose and that it would then do to her what it does is a stretch. And the breakneck pace at which she becomes a near-godlike entity is just too artificial.

The Bottom Line: A good performance, a lot of cool action, and pretty nifty visual effects don't save Lucy from being a botched cinematic dud.

Grade: 4

Monday, November 07, 2016

Straight Outta Compton

The Gist: The birth and rise of NWA, the first superstar hip-hop group, amid the simmering racial tensions of Los Angeles, California, in the 80s.

I'm not a rap or hip-hop fan, and I didn't even know what NWA was (I still lived in Italy back then, and they never made it big there). I was curious because of the rave reviews Straight Outta Compton got and I often enjoy watching dramatized versions of some historical event in order to advance my own knowledge (like when I decided to watch American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson to find out more about the O.J. Simpson debacle).

Very well deservedly nominated for a Best Screenplay Oscar, the movie is well written, well acted, and well directed.

The Bottom Line: If you like the genre of music, I would say you can't go wrong. And if you were a fan, you should be satisfied. All in all, a pretty solid product that shines a light on the issue of racism and the standoffish nature of the relationship between African Americans and the police force in the U.S. that still persists today.

Grade: 8

Sunday, November 06, 2016


The Gist: In post-war America, Dalton Trumbo, one of Hollywood's top screenwriters, is accused of being a communist sympathizer and subsequently blacklisted by powerful anti-communist interests in the industry and Congress. Unwilling to cave to political pressures encroaching on his constitutional rights, he'll be jailed, his career all but over. He will have to find clever workarounds to keep earning a living and weather the storm.

Nominated for a Best Lead Actor Oscar for his portrayal, Bryan Cranston perfectly inhabits the character of a man whose life is ruined by corrupt political agendas, a topic all too current in our current political environment.

He is surrounded by an excellent cast that includes Diane Lane, Michael Stuhlbarg, Louis C.K., and John Goodman. Above all, however, towers Helen Mirren, here playing the villain with such gusto she is utterly despicable.

The Bottom Line: Given the charged political times we live in, Trumbo is a great cautionary tale of what can happen when unscrupulous politicians decide what's best for you and what you should think. The excellent acting and great period reconstruction make it a must watch.

Grade: 8

The Danish Girl

The Gist: Einar Wegener is a famous painter. His wife Gerda also paints, but her work doesn't seem to break through, until she finds an unlikely and unusual muse when her husband transitions to Lili.

Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne earned his second consecutive nomination for playing this pioneer transgender woman. Alicia Vikander won the Oscar on her first nomination for playing the hurt but caring wife of a man who suddenly isn't who she thought he was anymore.

The movie also showcases excellent production design, costumes, cinematography, and soundtrack.

The Bottom LineThe Danish Girl is a wonderfully acted film that is a real pleasure to watch, from beginning to end. A must see.

Grade: 8

Steve Jobs

The Gist: Always concerned with maintaining the strictest control over his creative vision, no matter the costs, financial or otherwise, Steve Jobs never seemed to mind putting his creations over his personal relationships or the company's interests.

Steve Jobs, written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Danny Boyle, is quite fast paced, as one would expect given the two names just mentioned, but that actually helps understand the breakneck pace at which Jobs' mind likely ran.

Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet both earned Oscar nominations for their portrayal of the big man and his trusted assistant.

Seth Rogen as the scorned business partner, Jeff Daniels as the scorned mentor, Michael Stuhlbarg as the scorned top developer, and Katherine Waterston as the scorned former lover all do a great job.

The Bottom LineSteve Jobs is a really well put together film that opens a window on the personality, vision, and life (warts and all) of one of the most iconic figures of the last few decades.

Grade: 8

Thursday, November 03, 2016

Son of Saul

The Gist: In a Nazi concentration camp, selected prisoners are forced to dispose of the bodies of the murdered Jews that keep streaming into the camp. One of them, one day, sees a young boy's cadaver and, saying he's his son, decides to secretly have a Rabbi give him a proper Jewish burial.

Given the topic, I thought I would have really, really liked this movie. And I wanted to. I really did. The problem is that the story is just not believable.

We all know what was going on in those concentration camps, and Son of Saul, winner of a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, starts out very strong, dropping us into the action and keeping us locked into a sense of dread about what will happen next. Needless to say, what we do get to see is very disturbing, but so is what is left to one's imagination.

But when the protagonist suddenly decides to go to literally any lengths to ensure that the body of this young Jew is properly buried, in spite of the dangers and horrors those still living are constantly subjected to, is just too unbelievable. It might be morally uplifting for him to want to do that for the little kid, but not if he jeopardizes the always-hanging-by-a-thread lives of those around him.

The Bottom Line: I don't want to give away too much of the plot, but halfway through I had pretty much already checked out, so-to-speak, and was just waiting for a merciful end. The final grade is still pretty high because Son of Saul is a solid directorial debut for László Nemes, and Géza Röhrig turns in a fantastic performance. I just wish the script didn't veer so suddenly and deeply into unacceptable territory.

Grade: 7