Movie Reviews
Saturday , November 18 2017

2016 Films

(based on non-festival, theatrical U.S. release date)

10 Cloverfield Lane.  The less said about 10 Cloverfield Lane, the better; but I will say it’s been quite a while since I’ve sat in a multiplex and wondered (while still caring) exactly where a movie was going all the way through to the very end.  Sure, the execution of those last 10 minutes is a bit clunky, but even the credits were full of surprises (co-screenwriter: Damien Chazelle?!)  (Grade: B+)

20th Century Women.  20th Century Women turns out to be more of a hangout movie than the anti-Bildungsroman it was billed to be.  That said, ever since The Grifters (1990), Annette Bening manages to come along every 7-10 years and wow me.  (Grade: B)

The Accountant.  Put simply, director Gavin O’Connor’s post-financial crisis action thriller is overburdened by its plot and underdeveloped in its characterizations.  To the outsider, the script can be rather didactic when it comes to the Autism spectrum; and to the insider, Ben Affleck’s performance as an Asperger’s ass-kicker is bound to make some eyes roll.  That said, working with a relatively modest budget amidst all of the tired studio genre dreck, O’Connor and screenwriter Bill Dubuque deserve some props for devising this unlikely mashup of Jason Bourne and Rain Man.  (Grade: C)

Allied.  Allied is a competent genre exercise by Robert Zemeckis with a standout performance by Marion Cotilliard; but to be honest, I still can’t get over my personal desire to punch Brad Pitt in the face (12 Years a Slave).  (Grade: B-)

Amanda Knox.  This rather generalized, and somewhat abbreviated, documentary of the over-exposed Amanda Knox case would have benefited from committing to a more distinct trajectory (e.g., more material profiling Knox herself in the context of what can happen to a young woman whose behavior doesn’t conform to a particular institution’s narrow set of cultural norms).  (Grade: C+)

American Honey.  I’m kinda shocked that they couldn’t cast the actual Kristen Stewart in the role of mag madame.  Was the Confederate bikini a deal killer?  (Grade: B-)

American Pastoral.  Dramatically speaking, American Pastoral poses the following question: What if your child became “radicalized”? Politically and economically speaking, I would pose another question: In this age of Bechdel test, what is up with the recent cinematic trend in adapting these Phillip Roth narratives?  I suppose there is a certain irony to the fact that in all these films about nice Jewish boys from New Jersey who, notwithstanding varying degrees of neuroses, seem to be inundated by crazy bitches, it is the actresses (Jennifer Connelly and Dakota Fanning; see also Sarah Gadon in Indignation) who are tearing up the screen and generating the pre-award season buzz. (Sidenote: Personally, I am a supporter of any film that gives Aduba the opportunity to break out of her Crazy Eyes chains – here, the one sane and morally grounded female character.)  In his directorial debut, it seems that director Ewan McGregor may have neglected to direct himself – to breathe some life into Swede, a local WW2-era high school sports star who comes across as a bit of a blank slate – that is, a human being only in the most generic sense, and more of a generational pin-drop for the cultural trajectory of the film.  In all fairness, part of the problem with his character development may stem from the screenplay, which also tends to jump abruptly from period to period in attempting to adapt/serve the prize-winning source material.  All that said, as melancholy melodrama (without digging too much deeper), American Pastoral is just fine, I suppose.  (Grade: B-)

Arrival.  Denis Villeneuve has out Nolan’d Christopher and Jonathan Nolan (i.e., this is the sci-fi movie that would have been expected from the filmmakers of Memento (2001) and The Prestige (2006)).  (Grade: A-)

Aquarius.  “I’ve got a feeling you’re about to help me.”  (Grade: B-)

Bad Santa 2.  All the vulgarity, none of the charm … wait, is “charm” the word I’m thinking of?  (Grade: D+)

Barry.  I’m not sure if I know more about Barrack Obama, but I know a hell of a lot more about Barry.  And I strongly suspect that Roger Ebert would have loved this, because in building that empathy machine, imagination trumps reverence every time.  (Grade: B+)

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.  Contrary to the early reviews, the script of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is really no more daft, and its action is no more weightless, than either of the Avengers films. (Indeed, the plots and the themes are really starting to cross over, as the trailer for Captain America: Civil War reveals.)  The difference is that, personally, I am more familiar with – and thus, care more about – Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman than any MCU character.  All that said, Zack Snyder is no Christopher Nolan, Jesse Eisenberg is no Heath Ledger, and the final battle that plays out here is an abomination (see what I did there?)  Still, when it comes to genre films, I am a big believer in the power of stakes, and during the epilogue, I was ready to give this one another whole letter grade just for having the guts to do what the MCU movies invariably fail to do … that is, up until the last 10 seconds, as Snyder doubles down on the red state symbology of Man of Steel.  (Grade: C-)

A Bigger Splash.  On the one hand, there’s the inimitable Tilda Swinton as a rock star* who can’t speak and Ralph Fiennes as a producer who can’t shut up; on the other hand, there’s Dakota Johnson, whose take on an ingénue is seriously lacking a certain é, and Luca Guadagnino, who’s proving himself to be yet another Italian director with a fundamentally fetishistic eye just beneath all the flare.  (*For all of you who share my fantasy of seeing Swinton play David Bowie, this is probably, sadly, as close as we’re going to get.)  (Grade: C+)

The Birth of a Nation.  As an initial matter, I couldn’t really care less about whether a filmmaker has apologized to the presumptuous ideologues for an alleged crime of which he was acquitted long ago.  If I may be so bold as to honor the format and spirit of this venue, I will say that if one is going to appropriate the moniker of one of the most notorious masterpieces of silent cinema, then one needs to bring the goods.  That said, director Nate Parker’s feature debut is replete with abrupt and abbreviated editing that betrays a distinct lack of confidence in the writing and the performances – a choice that proves to be warranted, right out of the gate, with the (prophetically) bored looking Tony Espinosa as the young rebel Nat Turner.  Amid this surprisingly pedestrian exercise in historical melodrama, there are certainly moments of ambition; but for all of the controversy drummed up over the last nine months, Parker never really aspires to cast off the typical trappings of politi-topical Oscar bait  (e.g., earning a “provocative” badge by portraying plenty of bloody violence against black men, because, you know, Black Lives Matter, but hiding all of the violence against women off screen, because, you know, that kind of violence involves S-E-X and the mainstream U.S. market still skews puritanical; dropping the nose-pummeling “Strange Fruit” onto a soundtrack otherwise dominated by a very traditional score).  When all is said and done, The Birth of a Nation serves as Exhibit 178 for the proposition that one should always take Sundance buzz with a grain of salt* and a negative illustration of just how talented Steve McQueen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, and Lipito Nyong’o are in elevating the material on the page.  (Grade: C-)

Blair Witch.  I got kinda excited at the beginning, wondering how the characters were going to use the new tech in this sequel to the classic that started the found footage subgenre, but … no.  This one is ultimately sunk by distracting plot holes (Wait, how does that character suddenly have the drone controller? And didn’t the webcam catch that? And how are we seeing that shot angle at this point?), horrible acting (particularly Wes Robinson as Lane), convenient but unwelcome additions to the mythology (if you just don’t look at the Blair Witch …), and the curious choice of actually showing the title character (spoiler: a vaguely defined, pale naked figure popping up in the background a la The Descent (2006)).  (Grade: C-)

Blue Jay.  Before Sunset (2004) – a script – color – Paris – chemistry between the leads – a modest, self-respecting ability on the part of the male character to hold back tears + 15 additional years between reuniting + a big burly beard longing to be touched (by its owner) + on-the-nose high school-retro role playing + an early 90s-era dance montage + a dramatic bomb drop that you can set your watch to = 85 minutes of meh.  (Grade: C+)

Born To Be Blue.  Set in a semi-biographical wasteland between Chet Baker’s prime and comeback, Born to Be Blue quietly eschews biopic conventions.  And although I could have done with a little more consistent commitment to the film’s meta aspects, the nature of the empathy ultimately asked of us as viewers is refreshing.  (Grade: B-)

Cameraperson.  The premise of cinematographer Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson, one of the most lauded docs of 2016 (earning instant Criterion treatment), was just too intriguing: a compilation disparate documentary outtakes serving as her own personal memoir.  I mean, for me, the irony alone sold it: a piece by a photographer that must, more than just about any other film I can imagine, be found in editing … Well, crap.  Given the subjectivity of the subject matter, I suppose the end result is critic-proof.  But I just wasn’t feelin’ those quantum entanglements.  (Grade: C+)

Captain America: Civil War.  Captain America: Civil War is one of the better MCU movies, if for no other reason than the very human, very earthly, source of drama.  (Once again, as with Iron Man 3 (2013), I stand in the clear minority with my appreciation for the choice of antagonist.) Yes, there are too many characters doing too many things, and as a consequence, too many beats that ring hollow.  But it looks like each successive phase of the MCU is yielding more and more ensemble pieces – Civil War isn’t so much a Captain America movie as The Avengers 2.5 (by the same logic, The Avengers (2012) should be retitled “Thor: Loki’s Revenge”); the only two Avengers missing here will be appearing together in Thor: Ragnarok next year.  It is what it is.  And besides, who doesn’t want to see Robert Downey Jr. mixing it up with Paul Rudd?  (Grade: B-)

Captain Fantastic.  The other day, I was speaking with a co-worker about movies and referring to the relatively elusive phenomenon of the “three-dimensional character.”  To this discussion, I would present as Exhibit A Viggo Mortensen’s Ben, who is supported by a fine ensemble of young actors in this 2016 Cannes winner for director Matt Ross (better known as Gavin Belson in HBO’s Silicon Valley).  Notably, this is yet another film that I almost skipped due to its trailer (advertising a sort of high concept indie comedy).  Captain Fantastic is essentially a dramatic exploration of human beings being human within the strictures of families being families, and all you really need to access it is an openness to empathy.  That said, I anticipate a certain degree of empathy impairment from viewers – particularly parents – whose morality and/or politics will get them hung up on the film’s central conceit (Ben’s choice to raise his children in the wilderness as a sort of approximation of Plato’s Republic).  And that would be a rather unfortunate overreaction to Ross and company’s provocations, such as they are.  (Grade: B)

Certain Women.  I can hang with what Kelly Reichhardt is going for – the truth (if not beauty) in the seemingly mundane lives of three women in the Northwest (a now signature milieu about as far as Reichardt can get from her native Florida – yet another proclivity I can sympathize with).  But even so, I feel a distinct lack of balance here – far too much down time is spent getting to know Lily Gladstone’s rancher and far too little with Michelle Williams’ whoever.  And truth be told, I’m a little surprised with the relative praise being heaped upon Gladstone, who with little more than a singular smiling gaze does the least heavy lifting here (only in the metaphorical sense).  C’mon folks, what about Laura Dern? (Grade: B-)

Christine.  As a curious conflation of feminism and journalism, righteous indignation and mental illness, Antonio Campos’ character study of Christine Chubbock (whose fate is rumored to have inspired the script for Network (1976)) tends to vacillate between the obvious and the opaque.  That said, I found myself captivated by Rebecca Hall’s take on this lonely soul doomed to a trajectory of one step forward and two steps back.  (Grade: B)

Closet Monster.  An auspicious debut (with one of my favorite opening sequences of the year) that almost feels like an antidote to the insufferable work of Xavier Dolan.  (Grade: B-)

Deadpool.  Well, hello again, Gina Carano!  So how do we get Sasha Grey cast in the next Marvel movie?  (Grade: C)

De Palma.  “De Palma” is essentially one long interview with director Brian De Palma, chronologically and broadly covering virtually his whole filmography, intercut with photos and scenes.  There’s nothing particularly revelatory here, in substance or in presentation.  But even to someone who is really not a fan, some of De Palma’s stories and observations are pretty entertaining.  (Grade: C+)

Demon.  My anticipation from the buzz going in (the pitch: wedding party comedy meets demonic possession horror, I was told) was diminished somewhat before the opening credits, as I don’t think I’ve ever seen that many production scrawls (at least a dozen) precede a feature film (read: a lot of cooks in the kitchen?).  Considering Demon (“dybbuk”) as a concept and a series of sequences, Polish writer/director Marcin Wrona clearly had some talent (to further add to the mystique, Wrona committed suicide in a hotel during the film’s second festival appearance); but as a whole, this had to be the longest 94 minutes I’ve spent in a cinema in quite a while.  (Grade: C+)

Doctor Strange.  Even if the character beats of this origin story are somewhat familiar (supergenius 1%-er humbled, a la Iron Man (2008)), Benedict Cumberbatch brings enough of his own brand of gravitas and humor to pull it off.  But somewhere in the second act, any measured sense of character building gives way to a slew of half-baked ideas in service of an inevitable and predictable MCU plot (you know, some invulnerable demigod in some other dimension, etc. … and wait through the credits to see how they’ll work it all into the Avengers and the Infinity Stones!)  (Grade: C)

Don’t Breathe.  The plot issues here strayed into the territory of obvious and unwanted distraction, and this otherwise well-executed twist on the home invasion flick could have been much more fun if the screenplay had been much tighter.  (Grade: C+)

Don’t Think Twice.  To be honest, I despised the improv portion of my college acting class, and to me, it has always seemed like a form that is more enjoyable to the performers than the audience (see, e.g., every over-extended scene in a Judd Apatow movie).  For writer/director/actor Mike Birbiglia, a NYC improv troupe is but a familiar setting for exploring the fleeting delicacy of a collaborative art that teases the narrowest of paths to stardom.  With some nice performances by Gillian Jacobs and Keegan-Michael Key as two of the troupe’s comrades of varying ambition and talent, Don’t Think Twice turns out to be kinda funny, kinda poignant … just, you know, kinda.  (Grade: B-)

The Edge of Seventeen.  Don’t get too excited from the blow-the-load tailer. Marred by a few too many cliches (e.g., casting really attractive actors as the purportedly uncool kids whose zits disappear the second the shot in front of the mirror ends, a poorly executed parents-out-of-town-let’s-party-down montage, etc.), this debut by writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig just manages to rise above par as teen-angst comedy-dramas go.  (Grade: B-)

Equity.  Gender awareness is the obvious agenda of Equity, and Anna Gunn (Breaking Bad) is the star power; but an agenda and a casting choice is not enough to make a compelling film (for many of us, anyway).  As one might predict from the trailer, this low budget attempt at a high finance thriller is hampered by a script and a production that are undercooked to the point of distraction.  In the midst of a dinner conversation with someone who appears to be a professional acquaintance, Gunn’s character literally introduces herself with the line “I work for the largest investment bank in the world,” and it doesn’t get much subtler from there – with all of the shots of Gunn at the heavybag, the jenga on her boss’s desk, the green pens, etc., I swear I had to check my nose for bruising before leaving the cinema.  The sets appear to alternate between: (1) stock footage of NYC, San Francisco, and London; (2) some affordable offices and conference rooms in a Regus Business Center; (3) a couple of apartments and a sushi restaurant owned by the film’s financial backers; and (4) a bar in Newark where the gaffer’s uncle works. And the electronic genera-score merely adds to the sense of how little was spent, both financially and creatively, to make all of this happen.  Bottom line: there is an interesting genre film to be made with three-dimensional women jostling at the edges of the glass ceiling, but Equity is not it – I simply didn’t believe these characters saying and doing these things in these places.  (Grade: C)

Everybody Wants Some!!  Writer/director Richard Linklater referenced the hazy blues of Led Zeppelin in the title of his hit coming-of-age film set around a small town high school on graduation day 1976, Dazed and Confused (1993).  And appropriately enough, Linklater refers to the sonic excess of Van Halen in this “spiritual sequel” set in a frat-like house of a college baseball team days before classes commence – a hedonistic frontier into adulthood – on the eve of the Reagan era.  Both would be characterized by Quentin Tarantino as “hang-out films.”  That is, an affable male lead serves as the incoming Freshman (and stand-in for our writer/director), looking for acceptance and love (or some approximation thereof); but the effectiveness of these episodic proceedings ultimately rely upon the ensemble.  Linklater can pull this genre off as well as any director working today by tempering those familiar beats with that signature keeping-it-real dialogue (e.g., to capture the state of the male mind post-coitus).  But regardless of the degree to which Linklater is drawing from his own life experiences, the collection of jocks assembled here are just not that interesting, and one character in particular (“Raw Dog”) is ridiculously rendered to the point of unwanted distraction.  And when all is said and done, I’d much rather hang out with the Lee High stoners.  (Grade: B-)

The Eyes of My Mother.  A serial killer origin story that takes a stab at being an evocative meditation on loneliness, only to drown in a pool of its own inexplicability.  (Grade: C-)

Fences.  I suspect that I am not the only 2016 viewer who has significantly different expectations of theatre than of cinema. That is, there are certain things that you can get away with in one forum that you can’t in another. And I have no doubt that this play makes for a compelling theatrical experience and deserves all the reverence it has garnered since first premiering over three decades ago (e.g., 1987 Pulitzer Prize).  But beyond the cinematography, lead-stage-actor turned movie director Denzel Washington fails to adjust the most indulgent monologues and stilted dialogue in the manner and degree necessary to create the more organic cinematic world demanded of its subject matter.  The end result is a missed opportunity: while still capturing the essential characters, themes, place, and tone, this complex portrait of a legacy of anger could have benefited greatly with a little less Miller and a little more Cassavetes.  (Grade: B-)

Finding Dory.  How is young Dory NOT being voiced by Jenny Slate (a/k/a Marcel the Shell)? … And who allowed Andrew Stanton to return as Crush, the single most vapid Pixar character/plot device ever? … (Still, there’s Hank and Becky.)  (Grade: C+)

First Girl I Loved.While First Girl I Loved often feels like an afterschool special for the Sundance crowd, this underseen gem holds up quite well to the criticially lauded Edge of Seventeen thanks to some particularly convincing performances by Dylan Gelula and Brianna Hildebrand as said “I” and said “Girl.”  (Grade: B-)

The Fits.  With a positively unsettling Under the Skin-ish score and very little dialogue, The Fits starts out as a sort of cinematic tone poem/interpretive dance on the anxiety/listlessness of budding female adolescence, as the 11 year-old Toni (Royalty Hightower) witnesses more and more members of her after-school troupe succumb to various forms of … well, fits.  From here, a more disciplined writer/director could have guided us to any number of interesting places.  But instead, Anna Rose Holmer lazily superimposes a soon-to-be-dated Flint, Michigan allegory before wrapping it all up with a jarringly on-the-nose piece of magical realism set to Kiah Victoria singing “Must we all be a slave to gravity?”  (rolls eyes, shakes head)  (Grade: C+)

The Founder.  So is P. Terry’s the 21st Century McDonald’s?  (Grade: C)

Ghostbusters.  Wow.  It’s just amazing how many lines in this movie fall flat.  All the real effort seems to end with the pitch and the casting with these sorts of films, doesn’t it.  (Grade: D+)

The Girl on the Train.  This pseudo-Nolanized Lifetime Movie of the Week is not just an embarrassment for Emily Blunt and Justin Theroux (the executives at DreamWorks must know where their body is buried), it is representative of Hollywood’s answer to reductive feminists who demand that more films (1) be centered on female characters and/or (2) pass the Bechdel Test.  If that is what you ask for, this is what you’re going to get.  Budget: $45M. Box office: $173M. Mission accomplished!(  Grade: D-)

Green Room.  Green Room opens with an aerial shot of a van that has driven off the road into the padding of a cornfield with its engine run dry.  A count-in to a punk record cuts abruptly to the silent turntable stuck in an endless loop.  A true believer passes out with an anesthetizing needle still in arm.  And a generation drifts – off into a combustible milieu of angry music and angry politics, landing in the wrong place and the wrong time, behind enemy lines.  With this follow up to Blue Ruin (2014), writer/director Jeremy Saulnier may just be the best (anti-)genre filmmaker working today.   And although the genre may have shifted, his interests are the same.  At one point in the film as our un-intrepid band of characters sits trapped in a green room awaiting their fate, a rally speech about a paintball game is unceremoniously terminated – a thematic signpost, to be sure.  Once again, the familiar story seems almost incidental to Saulnier’s distinctly un-cinematic take on violence.  It’s abrupt.  It’s messy.  And it’s not Hardcore Henry (2016).  (Grade: B+)

Hail, Caesar!  Is there anything going on in Hail, Caesar! that you wouldn’t expect from the trailer?  Not so much.  Does the satirical take on the clash between the entertainment industry, religion, and politics cut deep?  Not really.  Is this a top-tier Coen bros. film?  Nah … Does the craft on display here convey a genuinely ecstatic respect for Old Hollywood?  For sure.  Is the ensemble cast one of the best in recent memory?  Yep.  Did I have a good time?  Oh yeah, a rollicking good time.  (Grade: B)

Hello, My Name is Doris.  I enjoyed this ’90s indie-ish thingy for Baby Boomers a lot more than I expected (or perhaps should).  The salvos in the comedy v. drama are all too familiar, but Sally Field adds some nice textures to a character who in lesser hands might otherwise be defined by mere age and eccentricity.  (Grade: B-)

Hell or High Water.  Let me take this opportunity to say that I hardly ever drink beer, but when I do, it’s got to be Shiner Bock, a lightly-hopped American-style dark lager brewed right down here in Shiner, Texas, since 1973, and now served at select Regal cinemas.  (Grade: B-)

Holy Hell.  With a uniquely internal and prolonged perspective on the Buddhafield cult, Holy Hell tells us more about its followers than its manipulative ex-ballet dancer/porn star leader.  And what it tells us probably goes beyond what documentarian/ex-member Will Allen intended. (Grade: C+)

How to Be Single.  Finally, a movie that makes me question my crush on Alison Brie.  Yay.  (Grade: C-)

Hunt for the Wilderpeople.  A bit less Andersonian quirk, and a bit more genuine charm, than the trailer suggests.  Just a bit.  (Grade: B-)

I Am Not Your Negro.  Writer James Baldwin, the subject matter of I Am Not Your Negro, is certainly worthy of his own documentary – especially one textually populated entirely by his own words.  That said, the pitch for director Raoul Peck’s film (Baldwin’s reflections upon the deaths of Medgar Evers, Malcom X, and Martin Luther King, Jr.) proves to be overstated: we learn very little about Baldwin’s relationships with them, and their deaths seem to serve as mere punctuation marks in Baldwin’s own stream of observations on the civil rights movement.  Even so, what makes Baldwin’s articulations so potent was his ability to conflate the personal and the intellectual in capturing the complexities of race relations in America through the 1960s – the reactions and the counter-reactions.  What I least appreciated about this documentary is Peck’s own cursory conflation of Baldwin’s words, spoken during a specific time in history, with the situation in contemporary America.  Baldwin’s unique point of view – not just on race, as Peck prefers, but on sexuality, religion, etc. – certainly has continued relevance; but rather than leaving it up to the viewer to extract the wisdom from the context, Peck chooses to intermittently superimpose images of Black Lives Matter protests, etc., suggesting that if the eloquent Baldwin were here today (having lived another 29 years), all he’d have to offer us is the pithy aphorism “the more things change, the more things stay the same.”  The result is reductive, at best, and to my mind, not a fitting tribute to a man who – to his credit – didn’t express his experience of the world in such one-dimensional terms.  (With that in mind, as much as I loathe deferring to a film’s “importance” in assessing its merit, I wonder if I have underrated Ava DuVernay’s Oscar-competing 13th, which does such an admirably workwoman-like job at connecting the past with the present.)  (Grade: C+)

If There’s a Hell Below.  This smoldering, low-gear thriller is one of those you need to watch with a film friend, followed by an exchange of WTFs and a discussion over coffee about what things you each saw or didn’t see.  To someone who finds that too many contemporary genre entries blow it in the third act, this particular film begs the question: Can a writer/director place too much faith in his audience?  (Grade: B)

Indignation.  Sarah Gadon really should be a movie star.  How do we make this happen?  (Grade: B-)

The Invitation.  A well done genre piece by Karyn Kusama accentuating the role of religion – or “spirituality” – in a pain-intolerant, death-obsessed culture.  (Grade: B)

Keanu.  Guilty pleasure of the year.  (Grade: B-)

Knight of Cups.  With due consideration of the exceptions that prove the rule, I join in the opinion that there are two types of people in the world, which one might do well to keep in mind when reading reviews of Knight of Cups.  There are the Terrence Malick fans who will never tire of the distinct voice/shtick – that series of cryptic enigmatic voice overs set to a giant 3-to-10-second-shot collage using the same lens sets, the same movements, and in many cases, the same images (oh hey there, parched desert landscape, my old friend!)  And then there are the rest of us – many of whom wish they could be in that group, but in this instance, will nonetheless feel like they’ve been dropped into a two-hour ad for Obsession by Calvin Klein.  For us Philistines, the cine-fragments of Knight of Cups add up to little more than a good film to fall asleep to, notwithstanding Malick’s attempts to jar us with boobies and cameos (oh hey there, Dan Harmon!)  Subjective dispositions aside, from what is actually there in the text and on the screen, the character at the center of Knight of Cups (Christian Bale) is painted with no more breadth or depth than the character at the center of Birdman (2014) – you know, that Oscar-winning film by the director whose blasphemous name shall not be uttered in the Church of Malick, but who actually uses the same paintbrush (Emmanuel Lubezki) to (do your best to contain the horror) make films that appeal to broad audiences.  Malick can double down on his voice/shtick (sorry, “rejection of traditional cinematic narrative”) all he wants to minimize the accessibility of his film (sorry, to “appeal to a more refined sense of aesthetic”), but the truth (with a small “t”) is that we’ve seen all this before: the Hollywood navel gazing as love letter to L.A., the existential angst of those poor souls burdened with too much time/money/game on their hands (e.g., Somewhere (2010)). And here, the poetic contemplations of these tired creatures are painfully repetitive (oh hey there, umpteenth hottie to bed!)  Suffice it to say, this viewer – who has been known to be occasionally seduced into said Church (e.g., rating To the Wonder his #10 film of 2013) – was extremely disappointed.  (Grade: C-)

La La Land.  It’s 2016.  Among our prime A-listers, we don’t have a Ginger Rogers or Gene Kelly or a Catherine Deneuve or Nino Castelnuovo; hell, we don’t even have an Olivia Newton-John or John Travolta.  What we do have is Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling (Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011), Gangster Squad (2013)) and a learned and talented director (Damien Chazelle) who has the audacity to create (as opposed to adapting/stewarding Broadway franchises). With Chazelle’s invocation of nostalgia for a once dominant cinematic form and generous helpings of Hollywood navel-gazing, La La Land is bound to pile on the nominations this award season; but it is not The Artist (2011), and although the contrast is meant to be a complement, I suspect that many Oscar spotters will be disappointed by their Christmas screenings.  As David Ehrlich put it best, La La Land starts off as a romance about movies that becomes a movie about romance, and it is in that transition – and the accompanying shift in tone (and arguably, even genre) – where Chazelle takes a real risk before bringing it all home.  For me, that risk paid off.  (Grade: A)

Last Days in the Desert.  Oh boy, it’s Him again.  No, not Jesus Christ.  Emmanuel Lubezski.  But this time around, the cinematographer extraordinaire (Gravity (2013), Birdman (2014), The Revenant (2015)) is working with a narrower palette and a lighter touch.  And although I was not that impressed with writer/director Rodrigo Garcia’s Nine Lives (2005) – which seemed bound up by a certain literary conceit (predictably, as Garcia is the son of Gabriel Garcia Marquez) – Last Days in the Desert has made me a believer.  That is, with this kind of indie film, there can be a fine line between the provocative and the equivocal, but I believe this one falls on the right side of that line … Christian origin stories are particularly tricky terrain to traverse.  For the filmmaker whose imagination is inspired by that faith, such dramatic exercises can produce mixed results among different audiences – from blasphemous to the congregation (The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)) to pornographic to the rest (The Passion of the Christ (2004)). That said, while Garcia’s imagining of the tail end of Jesus’ 40 days in the desert is too low-key to generate much controversy, it is no less inspired than those that have come before … Reflecting an emphasis on self-identification and ego, Ewan McGregor plays both Jesus, who’s fasting in isolated contemplation of his impending ministry/fate, and the Devil, who’s testing Jesus’ faith and resolve.  In Matthew 4:1-11, we are simply told that Jesus is prodded to invoke his own power, God’s power, and finally, the Devil’s power. In Garcia’s less pointed re-telling, Jesus comes across a family outside the edge of civilization: a father who wishes to build a house away from the worldly (Ciaran Hinds), a son who longs to break free from his father (Tye Sheridan), and a mother dying with a malignant secret (Ayelet Zurer).  And the Devil – here, equal parts mischievous, cynical, and lonely – offers the most interesting guy on a rather boring world a simple wager: find a solution to bring contentment to all of the members of this family and I will leave you alone for the duration of your stay … *SPOILER ALERT* As it turns out, Jesus isn’t really a gambler, but he is wrestling with his own father-son issues.  And as he must discover for himself, his purpose is not to heal mankind of its woes (as tempting as that would be), but to simply offer a path to salvation– a point beautifully punctuated by his final interaction with the mother, who, in declining the former, opts for the latter … And as it turns out, this viewer isn’t really a Christian.  But perhaps I could offer my own take on Last Days in the Desert as not just a film about the nature of Jesus Christ, but a film about our own search for that elusive, and yet purest, form of compassion – divorced from the ego.  (Grade: B+)

The Light Between Oceans.  In the spirit of Atonement (2007), The Light Between Oceans is pure, high-end melodrama – love and hate, guilt and duty, morality and legalities, all waging apocalyptic war for the human heart.  The cinematography, awash in light and lens flare, deliberately alternates between the close and the far.  The performances are nothing short of admirable.  (Michael Fassbender and Rachel Weisz can be taken for granted, as always; but from viewer to viewer, I suspect that Alicia Vikander’s performance will ultimately make or break this film.)  Overall, The Light Between Oceans is a cut above the average Oscar bait.  That said, I couldn’t help but perceive writer/director Derek Cianfrance’s process of adaptation.  Even at 132 minutes, in covering 32 years (1918-1950), the character building (particularly, in the first act) just feels too abbreviated.  And although I haven’t read the 345-page source novel by M.L. Stedman, in the cinema, the epilogue comes across as pandering to a mainstream Baby Boomer audience.  (Grade: B)

Little Men.  Writing that imbues its child characters with some soul, a few really nice scenes, and some uneven performances … (Grade: C+)

Little Sister.  Addison Timlin.  Gotta remember that name.  (Grade: C+)

The Lobster.  Don’t believe the hype.  “Absurdist social satire” simply doesn’t do this film justice.  (Grade: A)

Love & Friendship.  Within an elliptical narrative relying so heavily upon the chasms between class, intelligence, and moral will, I would submit that the real star of Love & Friendship is not the effortlessly smug Kate Beckinsale, but the utterly un-self-conscious Tom Bennett.  (Grade: B)

The Love Witch.  “If I could have one wish, it would be for people to stop talking about it as a pastiche, parody, homage, or simulacrum of ’60s movie and start talking about it as just a movie.” … Good luck with that, Anna.  (Grade: C+)

Maggie’s Plan.  Do I really like Maggie’s Plan or do I really like the idea of Maggie’s Plan? … Last thing’s first, I really appreciate writer/director Rebecca Miller’s ambitions – or from the decidedly lukewarm reviews that I’ve read, some might say non-ambitions – in this deconstruction of the love triangle comedy/drama.  Right out of the gate, it is clear that Woody Allen is an influence; but it is equally clear that beneath the surface, Miller has her own distinct voice, and she isn’t that concerned with dropping timely one-liners or hitting consistent (read: expected) dramatic/thematic beats. The confidently abbreviated plotting and the unmistakable willingness to muddy the pool of consequences reveal a filmmaker who cares too much about her characters to really hang any of them out to dry.  And while all of that really seems refreshing as I sit here and think about it, I am still on the fence as to whether it all adds up to a truly satisfying narrative film.  That said, I did enjoy spending time in Miller’s world, although a good deal of credit should be attributed to the performances. For once, Greta Gerwig carries a movie with an uncharacteristically “capable” character (read: NOT defined almost entirely by post-Girls naivete and quirk). Once again, Julianne Moore earns her status as A-list treasure in a role that is not nearly as cartoonish as the unfortunate trailer suggests. And Ethan Hawke is – well, let’s just say he’s cast well enough to type (read: douchebag who means well).  (Grade: B)

The Magnificent Seven.  Is there a more unnecessary cinematic exercise than this remake of a remake? … So now that I’ve got that obvious criticism out of the way, this is the part of the review where, had you not noticed my rating, you might expect me to say “BUT” followed by observations about harmless “fun.”  But no, I honestly cannot recommend that anyone spend two hours and twelve minutes with this.  On the other hand, I’m also not going to go off on some diatribe lamenting Hollywood’s growing penchant for these big-budget known quantities – the remakes, sequels, prequels, and franchises – because the reality is that most of the people who ultimately invest in a movie like this would probably never invest in the three or more original films that theoretically could have been made with the same financial resources.  Instead, I will simply recommend Seven Samurai (1954) (the original narrative) and High Plains Drifter (1973) (the same kind of narrative, inverted and subverted) – for “fun” or otherwise.  (Grade: D+)

Manchester by the Sea.  Notwithstanding the sparseness of Kenneth Lonergan’s output, Manchester by the Sea – which is much closer to You Can Count on Me (2000) than Margaret (2011) – solidifies his position as writer/director-in-chief of the contemporary American family drama.  Within this subgenre, Lonergan concocts a particularly potent blend of pathos, humor, and elliptical storytelling, the combination of which tends to: (1) make lines like “there’s nothing there” and “I can’t beat it” stick like a punch in the gut; and (2) attract talented ensembles to deliver those lines (here, led by Casey Affleck, channeling a young Mark Ruffalo, and Lucas Hedges, channeling a young Matt Damon).  (Grade: B+)

Mascots.  For this fan of the mockumentary classics Best in Show (2000) and Waiting for Guffman (1996), the much-anticipated Mascots turns out to be quite a disappointment.  This time around, director Christopher Guest doesn’t even bother to stick to the documentary perspective.  And although the competitive performance segments showed potential, Guest’s characters are uncharacteristically undercooked – exhibiting all the weirdness we expect, but little of the humanity.  The end result feels inorganic and phoned in.  (Grade: C)

The Meddler.  Over the last decade or two, we’ve seen contemporary entertainment phenomenon like “food porn” move from reality TV to film, including the “arthouse,” and the results have been predictably vapid (e.g., Chef (2014)).  It appears that a new flavor of cinematic porn is emerging for a very particular audience … And that brings me to the pitch for The Meddler: you’re a recent widow from N.J. who finds herself alone in L.A. and who is told she doesn’t respect “boundaries”; but don’t worry, your husband set you up so you that you now have all the time in the world to inspire/assist the underprivileged black boy who works at the Apple store to attend night school and plenty of cash to buy the love of a surrogate daughter who always wanted to have her real gay wedding.  Meanwhile, you’ve got a retired police officer (that distinguished gentleman who just won an Oscar!) pining for you as you pontificate about Beyoncé songs (hip with the kids!)  But hold on though, because the big payoff will come when the tables turn and your own mess of a daughter starts leaving you multiple voicemail messages per day. Boom! … Suffice it to say, if you see only one American “indie” centered on an aging female Baby Boomer in 2016, then make it Hello, My Name Is Doris.  (Grade: C-)

Midnight Special.  Cryptic characterizations and abbreviated plotting make for an inert, wonder-less riff on Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) . I’ve been eagerly waiting for something really great from writer/director Jeff Nichols since Take Shelter (2011), but Mud (2013) was not it and neither is this.  (Grade: C+)

Mike & Dave Need Wedding Dates.  I will probably see anything pairing up Anna Kendrick and Aubrey Plaza. And that’s exactly what the producers were counting on.  That said, for the love of all that’s holy, someone please stop casting Adam Devine, who just keeps doubling down on the Jack Black shtick.  (Grade: C-)

Miss Sloane“’Cynical’ is a word used by Pollyannas to denote an absence of the naiveté they so keenly exhibit.” (… records frantically in film journal) … Look, I enjoy watching the talented and compelling Jessica Chastain as much as the next [heterosexual male] cinephile, but I stopped buying this when Miss Sloane turned into Miss Sloane Goes to Washington.  And it seems to me that the mainstream filmmakers still have a problem reflecting complexity in a female character without going to extremes – i.e., is a whip-smart, hyper-ambitious lobbyist also required to exhibit almost no emotional intelligence (until, rather suddenly and inexplicably, she doesn’t)?  Or are we all supposed to give Hollywood credit for its baby steps?  (Grade: C+)

Moonlight.  Front-runner for the 2016 Roger Ebert Empathy Machine Award.  (Grade: B+)

The Neon Demon.  L.A. decadence is kind of a thing now for the modern auteurs, isn’t it?  To my sensibilities, the results have been mixed: on the positive end of my spectrum is David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars (low-hanging satire rendered as noirish melodrama); and on the other is Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups (tedious navel-gazing through the lens of pop spirituality).  And yet, at least for me, that spectrum isn’t very wide (indeed, both of those films hold a lukewarm 3.2 average among letterboxd viewers).  Now Nicolas Windig Refn throws his hat into the ring with The Neon Demon, buoyed by a fine lead performance by Elle Fanning.  Although a re-watch is warranted before I can say much more, I would place this Lynchian horror fantasy on the upper end of that spectrum.  In the meantime, here’s some fun for those about to dive in for a first watch – see if you can match the name of the actor to his/her corresponding character description: (1) Keanu Reeves and (2) Jena Malone – (a) Rapist murderer or (b) Necrophiliac cannibal rapist murderer.  (Grade: B+)

The Nice Guys.  Well, I’ve said it now, nothing’s changed / People are burnin’ for pocket change / And creative minds are lazy / And the Big Three killed my baby … (Grade: B-)

Nocturnal Animals.  Initially, I am going to reserve comment on this film except to note that when it comes to west Texas lawmen circa 2016, Michael Shannon > Jeff Bridges … Yep, I said it.  Whatcha gonna do about it?  (Grade: B)

Office Christmas Party.  A lot of reviewers are heaping it on this one, but it’s got more laughs – and a more satisfying comedic performance from Kate McKinnon – than the bomb-filled Ghostbusters reboot (easily the most overhyped film of 2016).  (Oh hey, Abbey Lee … fancy meeting you here.)  (Grade: C-)

O.J.: Made in America.  (Apparently, this had a “theatrical release” so …)  Believe it or not, one can get enough of the O.J. Simpson phenomenon. As misfortune would have it, my first semester of law school coincided with the murder trial. It was on all of the TV sets all the time. It seemed to pop up in every conversation. I could not get away from it. I found myself quickly tiring of the circus, eventually reverting to the following rote question whenever confronted with the daily minutia of the trial: “In the grand scheme of things, do you have any reasonable doubt that Simpson murdered Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman?” And the answer among my colleagues, all of whom were caught in the throes of being forced to fine-tune their bullshit detectors, was invariably the same regardless of their race: ”No”. (Interestingly enough, director Ezra Edelman leaves it to a filmmaker to point out one of the gaping holes in the Mark Furhman-as-conspirator plot line being spun at the time.)  Suffice it to say, two decades on, I still find myself weary of that portion of the O.J. Simpson narrative, which makes up almost two-thirds of the critically-acclaimed ESPN doc, O.J.: Made In America. To be sure, Edelman does an admirably thorough job in laying out the salient facts and the socio-political context in a manner that highlights the swings of a pendulum through the darkest recesses of the American psyche, a justice system adulterated by tribalism (white versus black, the privileged elite versus everybody else, downtown L.A. versus Santa Monica, cops versus civilians, etc.). At one end of the spectrum, there is the irrefutably inexcusable beating of Rodney King by almost a dozen members of the LAPD that results in an acquittal and a city on fire; and then that pendulum swings to the other end of the spectrum, as the Simpson “Dream Team” successfully deals the race card from the bottom of the deck to secure another inexplicable acquittal; and then 13 years later (to the day), the pendulum swings back, as Simpson receives a shocking 33-year sentence for his participation in a botched robbery.  There is a prevailing sense of “it is what it is,” as Edelman pulls no punches in compiling the interviews (e.g., certain jury members bury themselves on camera as surely as certain cops). That said, the documentary feels like a bit too much and a bit too little. Seven-and-a-half hours could have been closer to five without losing any of the essential breadth or depth. And even so, there are a number of conspicuous absentees from this proceeding – namely, Simpson’s four children, Marguerite Whitley (Simpson’s first wife of 12 years with whom he had three children), and prosecutor Christopher Darden (one of the lightning rods of the criminal trial).  (Grade: B+)

Old Stone.  The setup suggests that Old Stone is yet another entry in what seems to be a contemporary subgenre dealing with China’s painful and partial transition from Communism to Capitalism; but at the Q&A following the film’s North American premiere, Chinese-Canadian writer/director Johnny Ma revealed that the screenplay to this Chinese production was originally set in Detroit with the hope that Michael Shannon would star. And although the images of the same forest where Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2001) was shot marks the beginning of each chapter, I was left with the feeling that this taut drama could be set in just about any city in the world. We all sell out to the pragmatics of modern life, bit by bit, and it is in this death of the soul, by a thousand cuts, where the stylistically confident Ma finds fertile ground for this dirty, brutal, and perhaps, even nihilistic, indictment of humanity.  (Grade: B)

Patterson.

One man, poetry
As if the rest of a film
Didn’t have to be there

(Grade: B-)

Pee-wee’s Big Holiday.  I like you, Pee-wee. Like! I like you.  (Grade: C)

Pop Star: Never Stop Stopping.  Why isn’t 💩 a rating option on letterboxd?  (Grade: B-)

The Red Turtle.  As a simple wordless parable on domesticity, The Red Turtle fills out its 80-minute runtime fine.  Just fine.  (Grade: B-)

Richard Linklater: Dream Is Destiny.To an Austinite, the feature-length Dream Is Destiny may come across a bit like yet another familiar piece of local hagiography (oh, hey there, Louis Black); for everyone else, I suppose this tasty bonus on the Criterion Before trilogy is a competent enough biography of Richard Linklater.  (Grade: B-)

Right Now, Wrong Then.  Two parallel Before Sunrise (1995) narratives, separated primarily by two (only somewhat) different expressions of the same male ego … Lingering question: What is Hong Sang-soo saying about his female character?  (Grade: B)

The Salesman.  Although Asghar Farhadi (A Separation (2011)) won the screenplay award at Cannes, the third act seems to be reverse engineered to the point of inexplicability (as in, that character did that?)  (Grade: C+)

Sausage Party.  Alt-Pixar for the atheist who appreciates the fine art of vulgarity.  (Grade: B+)

Silence.  While the title refers to God’s (non-)response to the struggles and strife of his devoted flock, this chronicle of two Jesuits’ failed missions to 17th century Japan is more of a rumination on the very human conflict between faith and compassion.  I’ve only read a few reviews at this point, but my guess is that most of director Martin Scorsese’s contemporary fans will find less to lap up in this relatively modest 161-minute film – and thus, feel less inclined to defend the filmmaker’s indulgences – than with his last epic (The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)); and in sharp contrast to Scorses’s last explicit foray into Christian philosophy (The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)), there’s nothing fundamentally offensive to the average Oscar-watchers here.  That said, Silence seems destined for the middle of Scorsese’s oeuvre.  Subjectively speaking, the casting didn’t quite work for me: Andrew Garfield and his hair never quite manage to convey the requisite level of suffering; and Adam Driver, whose ambitions have now outpaced his range as an actor, brings a bit too much baggage to this particular role.  That said, Scorsese has an undeniably infectious love for cinema, and accordingly, I loved the feeling of being dropped into a foggy Kurosawa film in the first shot.  But I also loved the thematically effective use of a minor character like Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka), the kind who is more likely to appear on the pages of a novel than on the big screen.  (Grade: B)

Sing Street.  “So, like happy/sad?”  Yeah … but mostly happy.  (Grade: B)

Star Trek Beyond.  About 2/3rds of the way in (around the big reveal about the “artifact”), I actually abandoned ship (out of boredom, being close to the exit, and remembering I kinda needed to send a work email), which I can’t remember the last time I’ve done.  So I have to ask those who have seen it: Does anything interesting really happen?  Specifically, would I eventually come to care about the Clan of the Cave Bear alien or the personal space-invading genera-villain?  Because I really wasn’t feeling this one.  For all the hype about director Justin Lin taking the helm (to my sensibilities, I’ve never been able to tolerate a whole FF movie either), I found many of the set pieces here to be murky, with the fragmented action often obscured by darkness – quite a cheat I would say for the $185M budget.  And relative to the first two entries in the reboot, the performances (particularly, Chris Pine) seemed phoned in.  (Grade: N/A)

Suicide Squad.  In this movie named after an ensemble of villains, there is one – and only one – villain really worth watching: Viola Davis.  (Grade: D)

Sully.  Simply put, Sully is the next installment in Clint Eastwood’s post-9/11 hagiography.  (As with American Sniper (2014), Eastwood makes his ultimate intentions for the movie rather clear with the conclusion.)  Mind you, from the tremendous amount of media coverage provided in 2009, I have a great deal of respect for Chelsey Sullenberger – the cool and collected pilot who elevated professional commitment and competence to heroic proportions.  But from all that news of the Miracle on the Hudson, I also know that Sully never faced any real threat from the external strawman at play in this biopic (the NTSB), and when it comes to the internal life of the character himself, Eastwood never delves deeper than predictable manifestations of PTSD and workaday self-doubt.  So setting aside the sequences involving the “water landing” itself, the movie we are left with is cool, collected, competent, and dramatically inert.  (Grade: C)

Swiss Army Man.  So Swiss Army Man was the winner of the directing award at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.  Yeah, I can see that.  Like many cinephiles, I’ve come to distrust such praise – to varying degrees – primarily because a certain class of Sundance-select films tend to be characterized less by a truly unique and compelling artistic vision and more by:  (1) a distinctly Western brand of indie-quirk (the pitch: “Let’s start with an unlikely mashup of Castaway and Weekend at Bernie’s, with lots of flatulence and erections …”); and (2) an equally distinctive brand of politically correct button-pushing (“… and for good measure, we’ll have two ostensibly hetero bros kissing passionately underwater!”).  And ironically enough, the end products often feel as contrived as the typical summer blockbuster … So as one could expect from both the trailer and the success at Sundance, Swiss Army Man is brimming with absurdity, which comes across as painfully forced (in both concept and execution), resulting in a piece that is not nearly as funny or poignant as it thinks it is or needs to be. (I’m really rather shocked at the ratings on letterboxd: of the 21 viewers at my afternoon arthouse screening, I heard laughs from maybe 3 tops.) … On a parting note, at this point, I’m just about as done with the bromances as I am with the vampire flicks.  (Grade: C-)

Tallulah.  As great as it is to see Allison Janney in a starring role and Uzo Aduba (“Crazy Eyes”) as a CPS officer, the title character makes a choice at the end of the first act that just … Not that character. Not that actress playing that character (Ellen Page).  Just no … The film just lost me and never got me back (not that it was really trying).  (Grade: C+)

Toni Erdmann.  Intellectually speaking, I admire what writer/director Maren Ade is doing here – how she approaches the father/daughter relationship, the socio-political disconnection between generations, and the 30-ish professional woman feeling around for cracks in the glass ceiling.  And there are a couple of wonderfully absurdist moments.  But as for emotional resonance, there was a certain dilutive effect to the level of Ade’s indulgence in her two characters – that is, for the kind of film that Toni Erdmann is, I really felt the 163-minute length – probably more so than any other film this year.  (Grade: B-)

Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru.  As at least one other reviewer has accurately put it, I Am Not Your Guru is essentially a concert film featuring Tony Robbins as rock star, performer. While it might seem surprising to see such a film coming from Joe Berlinger, who brought us the legendary Paradise Lost (1994), I suppose it bears reminding that we all have to pay the bills.  And to Berlinger’s credit, even within the editorial constraints of this format, I personally find Robbins to be far more interesting than the Bonos and the Beyonces of the world.  I read Robbins’ Awaken the Giant Within as a sophomore in college in 1989-1990.  It was Robbins’ second book, if I recall correctly, and a huge bestseller. Times have changed and so has Robbins.  His clothes have become power casual. He drops more (1) f-bombs and (2) references to God. To put it simply, Robbins has refined his craft and his persona for a 21st century audience. And for a culture increasingly bereft of a tangible sense of community, Robbins knows exactly what to offer his fans at the $4,995, 6-day Date with Destiny, which serves as both the focus and the structure of this film.  During the course of his performance, Robbins will pick out individuals for “interventions” – from a pretty and privileged teen girl, whose dieting goals Robbins deftly bypasses to reveal predictable daddy issues, to a woman from Brazil, whose experience growing up in a Christian sex cult leaves Robbins speechless.  In evangelical terms, the crowd is there to bear witness, to support you, for example, while you call that boyfriend you’re going nowhere with to break up, right then, right there.  To Robbins’ credit, he seems to genuinely want to help people, and I can think of a lot worse ways for those people to spend their money.  And there lies the limited purpose – and the limited success – of this documentary.  Sure, we don’t get to know Robbins any more than he wants us to, and we don’t see any direct challenges to the efficacy of his product.  All that said, Berlinger does manage to slip in some moments that should make us uncomfortable – moments where Robbins’ good intentions and pragmatic psychology may be crossing the line into enabling emotional masturbation (“our entire life changes in a moment”).  So as concert films go … (Grade: B-)

Tower.  When I arrived as a freshman at the University of Texas in the late ’80s, I had two weeks to kill before classes started. Truth be told, I hadn’t even visited before making the last-minute decision to attend (thanks to a particularly generous package of scholarships and a timely article in Rolling Stone about one of the coolest college towns in the country). So as part of the orientation, I took part in a student-led tour of the sprawling campus. To a small town transplant who had never even been close to a century-old university, each building around the “40 Acres” seemed to be imbued with its own idiosyncratic history. But at the most surreal point in the tour, as we approached the infamous statute of Jefferson Davis (which was removed only a year ago), the guide called special attention to pockmarks in the concrete near the base – the scars of Austin’s 9/11 and the incident that legendarily spurned police departments across the U.S. to adopt paramilitary S.W.A.T. teams. On August 1, 1966, a Marine-trained sniper, who was perched on the 28th floor observation deck of the Main Building (the signature feature the U.T. skyline), killed 14 and injured 32 others before finally being overcome by three police officers and a deputized civilian.  Although the 96-minute ordeal had been memorialized with a 1975 TV movie and references in other films (e.g., Full Metal Jacket (1987)), it took 50 years for a proper documentary to emerge.  In his second feature, director Keith Maitland uses rotoscoping animation (along the lines of Richard Linklater’s Waking Life (2001) and A Scanner Darkly (2006)), accompanied by a subtly menacing sound design, to breathe a ghostly sense of life into the various narratives of the witnesses. Notably, Maitland takes 74 minutes to even mention the name Charles Whitman, and by largely eschewing a futile search for answers to the inexplicable, Maitland’s choice ultimately serves this dreamy and devastating ode to the very humanity of tragedy exploring the nuances of shock and fear, heroism and cowardice, guilt and regret. Ironically enough, however, the film’s emotionally potent path is diverted late in the third act in service of a rather obvious political cause du jure: without providing any other background on Whitman, and in the thinly-veiled guise of highlighting the compassion of one of the victims, Maitland shows us a single image of a 3 year-old toddler – propping himself up between two rifles – along with a voiceover editorial by Walter Cronkite decrying the “might makes right” mentality.  (Beyond the national debate on gun control, U.T. currently finds itself in the difficult process of implementing a controversial “campus carry” policy thrust upon it by the Texas legislature.)  Knee-jerk detours aside, as a piece, Tower nonetheless manages to transcend mere commemoration of yet another moment of lost innocence in post-JFK America.  (Grade: B+)

The Wailing.  The love for this one baffles me more than I can say with respect to any film released in the last two years that I’ve seen.  I love horror films that unsettle with ambiguity and mystery; but by the time I reached the end of this laboriously convoluted mashup of The Exorcist, police procedural, religious mythology, and social commentary, I really couldn’t care less.  And most significantly: Never once was I creeped out.  (Grade: C-)

The Witch.  Look, if you’re going to name your goat “Black Phillip,” you’re just asking for it.  (Grade: A-)

Wiener-Dog.  One dachshund and four humans (Keaton Nigel Cooke, Greta Gerwig, Danny DeVito, Ellen Burstyn) make for Todd Solondz’s best film since Happiness (1998), although admittedly, that’s not saying much.  (Grade: B-)

The Witness.  Throughout popular culture of the last 50 years, the generally-accepted story of the Kitty Genovese case became the emblem for urban apathy: 38 of Genovese’s fellow neighbors/witnesses refused to “get involved” (e.g., by calling the police), ignoring her screams as she was assaulted and murdered outside her apartment in two separate intervals (20-35 minutes apart).  The Witness documents the efforts of one survivor (her favorite kid brother ) to uncover the facts and get to the truth, as distinguished from the Truth that the media spun to foment advocacy.  (Reportedly, the case led to the creation of 911, the Guardian Angels, etc.)  On one predictable level, The Witness deals with the malleability of journalistic narrative; but in this sense, the events of The Witness are set in a world where reporting by the New York Times was considered sacrosanct – a notion that seems rather archaic in 2016 and really undermines the film’s potency as a critique.  For me, the strengths of The Witness lie within its personal story, as the search for that elusive truth must, by necessity, morph into a more modest reach for catharsis; and in this sense, our searcher’s journey is discernibly sober (at least by current true crime documentary standards) – that is, until it’s not, until that striving becomes truly heart-wrenching in the penultimate sequence.  (Grade: B)

X-Men: Apocalypse.  Well, when all is said and done, this is a Marvel product.  After two relatively decent installments in the X-Men reboot, I suppose it was all inevitable: one too many revisits to the human-extinction-by-the-superior-race storyline; one too many character arcs/re-arcs for the anti-heroes (Raven/Mystique and Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto); and one too many vaguely ominous/omnipotent antagonists to rain down mediocrity on a comic book franchise.  (Grade: C-)

Zoolander 2.  All these years after the original, I just have to ask why?
Seriously.  (Grade: D-)

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