Category: Reviews in Short

Spielberg

 

This retrospective about the famed filmmaker often resembles DVD commentary tracks in which everyone involved with a movie kisses the director’s ass. Of course, in this case the director is worthy of much praise, but still … it gets old.

Speaking of old, maybe it’s my age and nostalgia for my misspent youth, but I’ve always preferred early, “immature” Spielberg to later, “mature” Spielberg. Yes, his more-adult dramas are well done, but other directors can do that. Conversely, no one’s been able to match the excitement of Spielberg’s early roller-coaster rides. Release: 2017  Grade: B

 

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The Survivalist

 

Like the similar-themed apocalyptic thriller The Road, The Survivalist is relentlessly grim. A bearded hermit lives in the woods, planting seeds and arranging tin cans as a primitive alarm system to warn him of potential marauders. Nothing much happens in his Robinson Crusoe existence until one fateful day when two women appear at his cabin. This is a well-made film, well-directed and well-acted, and despite an unhurried pace it’s generally absorbing. But that sluggish pace and the pervasive gloom of the story, while realistic, also produce a movie that at times feels like an endurance test. Release: 2016 Grade: B

 

**

 

El Bar

 

Unlike The Survivalist, The Bar is fast-paced, infused with humor, and over the top. After two men are inexplicably mowed down outside the door of a humble Madrid café, a small group of customers find themselves trapped inside. Is there a sniper in a nearby building? Are there more targets in their midst? And why have the two corpses been dragged away? It’s a fun premise, and Alex de la Iglesia directs the action with gusto. But by the time star Blanca Suarez gets stuck in a drainage hole because her boobs are too big to slide through the opening (below), The Bar becomes downright silly. Release: 2017 Grade: B-

 

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                                                          How not to slip through a drainage hole

 

**

 

Life

grouchyeditor.com Life

 

Life won’t win any awards for originality, but hey, if you’re going to copy, at least this movie copies from the best. We get bits of Gravity, bits of Predator, and a whole lot of Alien. If you like those science-fiction/horror classics, you will likely enjoy Life, which borrows and expands on several of its predecessors’ best ideas. The plot: Jake Gyllenhaal and a small group of fellow astronauts must destroy a hostile alien organism before it makes its way to Earth – with or without the astronauts. Sound familiar? I will say this: For a movie that steals so blatantly from the classics, Life’s twist ending is both original and clever. Release: 2017 Grade: B

 

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Split

grouchyeditor.com Split

 

Yes, James McAvoy is impressive playing a psycho with multiple personalities in M. Night Shyamalan’s latest “comeback” picture, the thriller Split. Problem is, McAvoy’s disturbing characters often seem like the only reason to keep watching the movie. The plot, in which McAvoy’s crazy man abducts three teenage girls and confines them in a basement, takes a decent premise and goes from clichéd to ridiculous to boring. Sorry, but this is hardly a return to form for Shyamalan.  Release: 2017 Grade: C

 

**

 

The Edge of Seventeen

grouchyeditor.com Edge

 

After enduring the first 20 minutes of this coming-of-age comedy-drama, I wasn’t sure if I could continue watching. Writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig’s script employed done-to-death voiceover narration, a la The Wonder Years, and worse, the protagonist was an incredibly bratty and vulgar teen. Eww. But then a funny thing happened on the way to study hall: The more our heroine was assailed by life’s slings and arrows, the more I grew to like her. By the end, I was cheering for her. Unlike so many teen-oriented movies, this one is smart, poignant, and boasts a winning performance from star Hailee Steinfeld. Release: 2016 Grade: B+

 

**

 

The Big Sick

 

The Big Sick has a lot going for it: It has heart, and it has endearing performances from writer-star Kumail Nanjiani and the supporting cast. Nanjiani plays a stand-up comedian of Pakistani descent who has to deal with his Muslim-traditional family and, after his WASP girlfriend lapses into a coma, her bickering parents.

Unfortunately, The Big Sick also has a Big Flaw. As the ailing girlfriend, Zoe Kazan is clearly intended to be spunky and lovable. But whenever her entitled, annoying character appeared on screen, I began to feel ill. Release: 2017 Grade: B-

 

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Toni Erdmann

grouchyeditor.com Erdmann

 

A bohemian music teacher attempts to reconnect with his uptight, unhappy, businesswoman daughter in Bucharest, and havoc ensues. The two leads (Sandra Huller and Peter Simonischek) have great chemistry, and there are some truly memorable scenes — including a (nude) birthday party to end all birthday parties. But writer-director Maren Ade’s otherwise impressive film has a near-fatal flaw: At 162 minutes, it’s much, much too long. Release: 2016 Grade: B

 

**

 

Hell or High Water

grouchyeditor.com Hell High Water

 

Part Bonnie and Clyde, part old-time Western, Hell or High Water aims for realism, but in its quest to be taken seriously and hammer home some social commentary, it’s not as much fun as it could have been. That is, with the notable exception of crusty (of course) Jeff Bridges, who as a retiring lawman on the hunt for two bank robbers provides the movie’s only source of levity and wit. Release: 2016 Grade: B

 

**

 

Get Out

grouchyeditor.com Get Out

 

A black photographer (Daniel Kaluuya) goes home with his white girlfriend (Allison Williams) to meet her parents, and he’s in for quite a weekend. For an hour or so, Get Out cleverly skewers upper-class white folk who feign empathy and understanding of race relations, but then writer-director Jordan Peele’s story sinks into horror-movie clichés. It’s a sharp and suspenseful ride – until that last act. Release: 2017 Grade: B

 

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Elle

grouchyeditor.com Elle

 

Elle begins with a brutal rape, but in its aftermath the victim does not go to the police, nor does she inform close friends. In fact, middle-aged Michele appears to be borderline blasé about the attack. When her rapist continues to stalk her, she almost seems to welcome it. But why? The answer unfolds gradually, and while it does Elle is a tantalizing mystery with a commanding performance by Isabelle Huppert. But once we learn the reason for her strange behavior – not to mention the identity of the rapist – the suspense of the film begins to lose its power. Release: 2016 Grade: B

 

**

 

Passengers

grouchyeditor.com Passengers

 

Considered a critical and box-office failure, it’s true that Passengers is no science-fiction classic, but if you enjoy big-budget spaceship movies that look cool and keep the plot simple, as I do, you could do a lot worse. Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt play space tourists who get a much longer trip than they bargained for in this essentially simple, old-fashioned romance. Release: 2016 Grade: B

 

**

 

Her

grouchyeditor.com Her

 

At first, I was disinclined to like this drama about technology and our evolving connection to it. Protagonist Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) and his privileged pals seemed to embody every negative stereotype about West Coast liberals: living lives of economic ease, self-absorbed, and endlessly seeking emotional safe spaces. But Theodore’s growing relationship with his computer operating system, a husky-voiced charmer dubbed “Samantha,” tapped into some disturbing truths about the modern world. The result is a film that achieves something rare. It makes you think and it makes you feel. Release: 2013 Grade: A-

 

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Becoming Cary Grant

grouchyeditor.com Grant

 

“Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant.” – Cary Grant

 

Well, maybe not everyone. Possibly not viewers of Becoming Cary Grant, a mostly cheerless yet spellbinding documentary about the demons haunting Hollywood’s most famous leading man.

The filmmakers use Grant’s own home movies, a melancholy musical score, and excerpts from the actor’s unpublished autobiography to tell the story of a 9-year-old Bristol boy who lost his mother (she was committed to an asylum), then as an adult went through a series of failed marriages, and who gradually invented the persona of “Cary Grant,” the enigmatic, charismatic star we all know from the movies.

It’s a sad — if incomplete — portrait of the man everyone wanted to be. Release: 2017  Grade: B+

 

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Manchester by the Sea

grouchyeditor.com Manchester

 

Hollywood bad boy Casey Affleck won a well-deserved Oscar for his performance as a traumatized janitor in this drama about tragedy overwhelming a working-class family in Massachusetts, but man … if there’s a better actress working in film today than Michelle Williams, who in one five-minute scene delivers an emotional knockout punch, I’m not sure who it might be. Release: 2016 Grade: A-

 

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Arrival

 

If Arrival is supposed to be the 2001: A Space Odyssey for today’s generation, I feel sorry for today’s generation. The film plays mind games with us and yearns to be profound, but I found it pretentious and nonsensical. It’s like those time-travel movies that expect to be taken seriously, even though time travel is considered impossible – at least by today’s science.

When aliens land on Earth, star Amy Adams’s linguist is recruited to decipher their message. The “universal truths” she decodes are meant to be hopeful, but I’m thinking most of us would go mad at worst, or be psychologically paralyzed at best, were they our actual reality.

And dare I point out that Arrival’s clichéd plot is sexist? Once again we have a situation in which all the boys want to do is make war, and only a female is intuitive enough to break through to the aliens.  Release: 2016  Grade: C+

 

**

 

Room

grouchyeditor.com Room

 

Room is structured as two movies in one, and both halves are superb. The first half is a harrowing thriller, apparently inspired by the Ariel Castro kidnappings in Cleveland, in which a young woman and her son are imprisoned for years in a small shed. The second half is a gut-wrenching drama about the fallout when the victims (Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay) finally escape and must reintegrate into the real world. Release: 2015  Grade: A

 

**

 

The Love Witch

grouchyeditor.com Samantha Robinson

 

I’m not sure if this colorful but clunky film is intended as parody or homage to 1960s supernatural thrillers (think Hammer Films), but either way it feels forced and flat. Comely Samantha Robinson (above) plays a modern-day witch who uses potions and sex appeal to seduce one hapless male after another, but alas, none of them are up to her retro-feminist standards. If you want to chuckle at genre fare like this, I suggest you check out the real deal. Say, The Brides of Dracula? Release: 2016  Grade: C

 

**

 

The Witch

grouchyeditor.com Witch

 

A Puritan family in 1600s New England, banished to the wilderness for transgressing against village mores, finds life in the wild an unholy nightmare when someone – or something – begins to bedevil them. Mostly, this is an ultra-realistic, atmospheric study of the struggle to survive at that time and place, with religion serving as both a source of comfort and terror to the family as it confronts something wicked in the woods. Release: 2015  Grade:  B+

 

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Shadow of Truth

grouchyeditor.com Shadow

 

Shadow of Truth is a crime documentary in the mode of Making a Murderer, but I thought it was even more disturbing than Netflix’s 2015 miniseries. Both series suggest that an innocent man is incarcerated for a murder he didn’t commit. But in Murderer the mystery revolves around an apparently commonplace sex-crime, whereas in this Israeli series, the killer of a high school girl was, possibly, motivated by a bizarre, gruesome compulsion. One complaint:  Four episodes are not enough to do justice to such a convoluted case. Release: 2016  Grade: B+

 

**

 

Lights Out

grouchyeditor.com Lights Out

 

A Malevolent Something named “Diana” terrorizes a single mother and her two kids in this James Wan-related horror flick (he produced). Diana only appears to her victims when the lights are off, and director David Sandberg makes good use of our primal fear of the dark and the fact that what we don’t see is often scarier than what we do. Too bad Sandberg’s treatment of our other sense, hearing, is much less sensitive. To me, it’s cheating when every scare-shot is accompanied by a DEAFENING SOUNDTRACKRelease: 2016  Grade: C+

 

**

 

Train to Busan

grouchyeditor.com Train to Busan

 

I guess it’s a cultural thing, but Korean movies are often unintentionally humorous to my American eyes. The South Korean actors don’t just cry; they wail hysterically. They don’t just shout; they scream at the top of their lungs. It comes off like a clinic on how to overact.

On the other hand, it’s refreshing to find a snark-free, sarcasm-free story — like time traveling back to 1950s Hollywood for wholesome, goofy fun but with modern special effects. Busan is non-stop entertaining, with heroes who are clearly good and villains who do all but wear black hats when passengers on a high-speed train do battle with zombies. It’s a lot of fun. Just try not to chuckle too much at the acting.  Release: 2016  Grade: B+

 

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Antibirth

grouchyeditor.com Birth

 

Antibirth reminds me of those 1980s late-show curiosities in which the characters are frequently stoned and, evidently, the films’ directors had also been smoking something. Think Re-Animator and B-movies of that ilk. Danny Perez’s sloppy, gory, hodgepodge of horror has a campy plot – something is growing in the heroine’s womb, and it doesn’t seem to be human – but it’s often a hoot, thanks to an anything-goes performance from Natasha Lyonne as the pregnant stoner and a tone that evokes the best (or worst) of those wacky late-show relics. Release: 2016  Grade: B

 

*****

 

The Shallows

 

If you’re in the mood for some mindless summer fun – and who isn’t in the dead of winter? – you could do a lot worse than The Shallows, in which poor Blake Lively gets stranded on a rapidly submerging rock while a circling shark eyes her for dinner. After a dubious first act, in which the director seems more interested in filming Lively’s bikini-clad, muscular buttocks than in creating suspense, the movie delivers some solid, if also ridiculous, thrills. But hey, “jump scares” are allowed when it’s a shark movie you’re watching.  Release: 2016 Grade: B

 

 

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