Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Friday, March 17, 2017

St. Patrick's Day 2017

Happy St. Patrick's Day! I've used these two before, but they wrok quite well as a pair.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

2016 Film Roundup, Part 1: The Oscars and the Year in Reviews

(The annual post-Oscar film roundup is a pre-blog tradition, but was greatly delayed this round. It comes in four parts. In addition to this section, there's The Top Four, Noteworthy Films and The Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful).)

2016 was a decent year for movies, with many of the best being fairly intimate, character-based dramas. If there were a unifying theme, it might have been the utter stupidity of bigotry and its pointless harm, whether based on race, sexuality or religion. Most of the films tackling this did so in an effectively understated way, by focusing on the humanity of their main characters (Loving, Moonlight, Silence). Hidden Figures opted for a more typical Hollywood approach with flashier scenes and crowd-pleasing moments, but succeeded nicely on its own terms.

The big news about the Oscars was of course the worst screw-up in the award show's history. Despite multiple safeguards, the wrong movie was announced for the winner of Best Picture (La La Land instead of Moonlight). The best account I've read to date comes from The Wrap; basically, accountant Brian Cullinan got distracted and star-struck taking photos backstage, flubbed the envelope handoff, and then panicked and cowered backstage rather than correcting the mistake as his job required (Martha Ruiz, his compatriot on the other wing, did the same). It's a shame, because both movies are good, but Moonlight's win was much more unexpected and a coup given its subject matter, cast and budget. The gaffe distracted from its moment. (Side note: I have a friend who often works the Oscars and has worked with the stage crew of this one, but did not work this particular show.)

As for the rest of the ceremony, it opened with an energetic musical opener. Host Jimmy Kimmel did a pretty good job overall. His edgiest material was probably his repeated jabs at Mel Gibson, supposedly rehabilitated after his misogynistic and anti-Semitic tirades back in 2006. The most original bit was surprising a Hollywood tour by bringing them through the Oscars, although the whole thing went on too long (the wildest subplot was about "Gary from Chicago").

On the speeches and awards, Best Supporting Actor winner Mahershala Ali gave a nice shout-out to his teachers. It was neat to see the real Katherine Johnson (who's 98!!!) come on stage with the lead actresses from Hidden Figures. I thought it was a bit unfair that the 467 minute documentary O.J.: Made in America was eligible for Best Documentary Feature – it played at a few festivals and had a brief theatrical run to secure eligibility, but it was made for to be seen on television in installments. On the other hand, I saw the first installment and it was excellent, and director Ezra Edelman (son of children's advocate Marian Wright Edelman) gave a nice speech recognizing the victims of domestic and police violence. Zootopia had a nice rehearsed speech split between the three winners. Honorary awards justifiably went to the irrepressible Jackie Chan and tireless documentarian Frederick Wiseman. Viola Davis finally won her well-deserved Oscar thanks to a searing performance in Fences. Although I like Kenneth Lonergan's script and film You Can Count on Me much more than Manchester by the Sea, I was happy to see him win for Best Original Screenplay. I was likewise happy to see Moonlight win for Best Adapted Screenplay. Best Cinematography is usually a stacked category, but I thought some of the nominees were underwhelming this time – winner La La Land has some great camerawork but some bad lighting in some scenes; Moonlight likewise has some strong camerawork and interesting use of color, but soft focus in several shots (not unusual for an indie). Although La La Land's songs weren't overwhelming, I was glad "City of Stars" won as a less typical pick over standard Disney ballad "How Far I'll Go" from Moana.

Kevin O'Connell finally won an Oscar after 21 nominations for Hacksaw Ridge and had a great speech highlighting the support of his mom. I didn't see (or hear) Hacksaw Ridge , but did hear a story about O'Connell's work on the film. I've written about this before, but the continuing problem is that Oscar voters tend not to understand sound and the differences between the categories. Even if worthy films win, it's often in the less deserving category. Even more than the other "technical" awards, the sound awards are subject to bandwagon voting, and great sound jobs on not-great movies tend not to win. If you look at O'Connell's credits, there's a dearth of prestige films. Anyway, at least some Academy voters voted for O'Connell because of all his previous snubs, and good for him.

Meanwhile, the Oscars put together a great montage of international film lovers, and several winners spoke about the importance of funding the arts, which is always welcome. I always appreciate the Montage of Death, and on a personal note was happy to see that a teacher of mine made the cut.

As for other films in 2016, although I didn't see God's Not Dead 2 (the first film is supposedly awful), I think the filmmakers missed an opportunity by not naming it God's Still Not Dead.

On to the reviews. I'm including spoiler coding as I have for a few years, but my usual rule also applies: if it appears in the trailer, it's not a spoiler.

2016 Film Roundup, Part 2: The Top Four

(The annual post-Oscar film roundup is a pre-blog tradition. It comes in four parts. In addition to this section, there's The Oscars and the Year in Review, Noteworthy Films and The Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful).)

Lion: Based on a true story, Lion has a fairly simple plot, but it tells it extremely well, with strong performances by all the leads, lovely cinematography and a overall lyricism and intimacy to the storytelling. Young Saroo (Sunny Pawar), growing up in extreme poverty in India, manages to get spectacularly lost and cannot find his way home to his mother, older brother and sister. He's street-smart enough to dodge some people who don't have his best wishes at heart, even if they pretend otherwise. Eventually he winds up in an orphanage, where he's adopted by a kind Tasmanian couple, Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John Breirly (David Wenham). As a young adult, Saroo (Dev Patel) has eagerly assimilated as a Tasmanian and largely abandoned his Indian heritage, perhaps sharpened by shame over his brother by adoption, Mantosh (played by Divian Ladwa), who has some behavioral and perhaps developmental issues. Saroo is outgoing and likable, and joins a hotel hospitality training program, where he meets and hits it off with an American, Lucy (Rooney Mara), who becomes his girlfriend. Saroo gradually reveals more about his life and the circumstances surrounding his adoption. Lucy urges him to search for his birth family, but this causes significant strife between them and within Saroo; he's buried some deep pain about his birth family; he's given up hope of finding them; he feels that searching for them would be a betrayal of his adoptive parents, whom he loves dearly.

Dev Patel gives a strong performance as a conflicted Saroo, and if you've last seen him as the gangly hero of Slumdog Millionaire, it's striking to see how he's physically filled out and his considerable charisma. Saroo is quite likable and sympathetic overall, but he also deals with his angst poorly on occasion, providing some welcome complexity to the character. It's not so much that he's denying his origins; it's that he fought that battle for a long time and failed, and was trying to move on… but discovers his yearning is undeniable. Lion is some of the best work of Kidman's career, and a long, quiet monologue late in the film explaining her decision to adopt is particularly impressive for its subtlety and intimacy. Mara and Wenham are solid in supporting roles. The film might drag a bit in the second half, but Lion deserves credit for making us care about the characters and delivering some moving moments. Director Garth Davis had directed some commercials and television before, but this was his first feature, and it's a promising one.

Loving: This real-life story about the couple at the center of a landmark Supreme Court case is grounded by natural performances by the whole cast, most of all Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton as Mildred and Richard Loving. They’re an interracial couple who marry in DC in 1958 but return to their home in Virginia where their marriage is illegal. They live in a rural, racially integrated area, and none of their neighbors seem to mind the marriage, but law enforcement feels otherwise, and the couple's home is raided, with them jailed and continually threatened. After a few encounters with the law for the couple, Mildred eventually writes to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who suggested they contact the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which agrees to take their case. The problem, though, is that although the ACLU lawyers think they can win, challenging the law could mean that Richard and possibly Mildred as well could wind up in jail in the meantime, and they have several young children. Likewise, they're a private couple, and even though it would help their cause, it takes some doing to get them to agree to open their house to a Life photographer (played well by the reliable Michael Shannon). They want to win the case, but they're not eager to be martyrs and not always convinced publicity will help – it might just cause further backlash from Virginia authorities.

The greatest strength of Loving is the quiet decency and dignity of Richard and Mildred; they just want to live their lives unbothered. Although the film has a political subject, it's not a polemic; it tries and succeeds in telling a human story. Arkansas-born director Jeff Nichols, who also directed Mud, once again shows he has a good feel for the rhythms of Southern rural life. The Lovings prefer country life to the city, and film scoring tends to be light in the rural scenes, with Nichols opting for nature sounds instead. Ruth Negga was born in Ethiopia and raised in Ireland; Joel Edgerton is an Aussie; nonetheless, they're convincing both as Americans and a couple. Edgerton's a good fit for the taciturn, reserved but devoted Richard; Negga brings a natural grace to Mildred, who's the more optimistic of the two. Their scenes alone feel authentic and intimate, and we feel the violation when the outside world comes crashing in. It's hard not to sympathize with the couple and wonder why people can't just leave them the hell alone. Loving might be a bit slow for some people, but it's well-acted and quietly moving. (I thought it should have garnered more Oscar nominations.)

Moonlight: It's hard not to feel for scrawny elementary school kid Chiron (pronounced SHY-rohn), known as "Little," as he tries to evade a gang of school bullies in the film's opening. By chance, he's rescued by Juan (Mahershala Ali), who along with his girlfriend Teresa (singer Janelle Monáe) show the reticent Little (Alex Hibbert) some kindness; he's not getting much at home from his often-abusive, addict mother, Paula (Naomie Harris). Although Moonlight chronicles growing up poor, black and gay in Miami, it never really feels like an "issue" film; it just concentrates on telling Chiron's story. (An early scene when Little asks Juan what "faggot" means is striking, all the more so for Juan's thoughtful response.) Director Barry Jenkins wrote the screenplay based on Tarell Alvin McCraney's unpublished play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue; the film has many autobiographical details from them both, and the storytelling feels personal and intimate. The film's broken into three parts – part I is "Little," part II is "Chiron," the teen years (with Chiron played by Ashton Sanders), and part III is "Black," the name Chiron (played by Trevante Rhodes) picks for himself as a young adult. Chiron's best friend Kevin is likewise played by three actors (Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome and André Holland).

This is very much an indie film, with only a few known actors, but many strong performances from an almost all-black cast. As Chiron, both Hibbert and Sanders have big, expressive eyes, which work well given how quiet and even mournful the character is. (Teen Chiron has to deal with more pointed bullying; he does not live in a gay-friendly world.) As Juan, Mahershala Ali makes a compelling, complex father figure – he's genuinely kind to Chiron, but he's also a drug dealer – and thus morally somewhat responsible for the condition of Paula, Chiron's mom, even if Juan and his crew don't deal directly to her. As Paula, the British Naomie Harris delivers some primal, desperate and memorable scenes; her dialect feels a bit forced at first but settles down (she shot her scenes in just a few days due to foreigner-work laws). Janelle Monáe isn't asked to do that much as Teresa, but she's got a nice, natural feel, especially in the scenes with young Chiron/Little. Finally, André Holland is a standout as adult Kevin, giving a nuanced, subtle performance, and part III simply would not work without him. Moonlight has its flaws (more below), but it’s nonetheless easily one of the best films of the year and well worth seeking out.

Like many an indie film, Moonlight suffers from soft focus in several shots, luckily, these are the exception and mostly occur early on. Some of camerawork is strong, as and is the use of color in certain scenes. Director Jenkins lets source sound drop away and music take over during a Paula screaming scene; it's a great choice, and several other scenes demonstrate similar poetry. The biggest problem with the film is the leap from part II to part III, because major, glaring questions are left unanswered and aspects of Chiron/Black's life seem implausible without explanation. Meanwhile, in contrast to the other two younger actors playing Chiron, Trevante Rhodes has narrow eyes and a relatively stony, unexpressive face; this seems like an intentional casting choice by Jenkins, but means that André Holland essentially has to carry part III despite not being the main character. In a few moments we can see Chiron/Black churn, though, and these are quite effective. The film's final scenes also pay off with understated power, and you will remember them. Give Moonlight credit for making you feel something genuine. More below in the…
(SPOILERS)

Fences: Denzel Washington directs and stars in this fine adaptation of one of the great 20th century plays, August Wilson's Fences. It's Pittsburgh in 1950s, and Troy Maxson (Washington) is a trash collector in his early 50s. He's a great raconteur who enjoys telling exaggerated tales with his coworker and good friend, Jim Bono (Stephen Henderson). He also loves to flirt with his long-time wife, Rose (Viola Davis), who can get slightly embarrassed but mostly appreciates it. Troy was a star in the Negro baseball leagues but major league integration came too late for him; consequently, he wants his son Cory (Jovan Adepo) to stick to his job after school and not football, thinking that pursuing a sports career will only lead to disappointment. Lyons (Russell Hornsby), Troy's adult son from a previous relationship, is a jazz musician who will stop by to borrow money. Troy's brother Gideon (Mykelti Williamson) recently moved out of the Maxson house; he has brain damage from a World War II injury, and is mostly gentle, but occasionally acts out and gets locked up. The play chronicles Troy's conflicts, some of his own making; Rose generally gives him sound counsel, but he doesn't always heed it.

Fences shares a number of similarities with Death of a Salesman, and although it's not as tight a play as Arthur Miller's classic, that's a high bar to reach. The work of late playwright August Wilson (who also wrote the screenplay) tends to feature vivid characters who spout great, long monologues actors would kill for, fantastic individual scenes, and a sprawling structure and long run time. Fences is one of his best works, and Wilson's adaptation and Washington's direction trim down the play at bit while keeping its essence. Washington opens up the locale a bit to let things breathe – rather than action taking place entirely on the front stoop of the house, it happens all over the house and in the back yard, plus around a little bit of the neighborhood. Location-wise, it might still feel a bit stagey, but the performances are well worth checking out. Washington has played Troy on stage before, and he delivers a superb performance – charismatic, charming, but also stubborn, unyielding and self-pitying. Henderson is solid as Bono, good-natured but willing to challenge Troy's more foolish moves; Williamson captures Gabe's gentleness in what can be a tough part – Gabe believes he's a fallen angel and the horn he carries will open the gates to heaven. (The very end of Wilson's plays can be melodramatic or otherwise over-the-top and problematic; Wilson and Washington handle things pretty nicely here.) The most impressive performance, though, comes from Viola Davis as Rose. Troy does right by her and also does her wrong; as a black woman in the 50s, her options are limited, and her fortunes are married to those of her husband. Wilson provides a juicy part, and Davis takes full advantage of it, demonstrating humor and small kindnesses, but also delivering a searing performance as a middle-aged woman facing bitterness with practicality and resolve. (Davis is always good, but this is probably her best work to date.) The scenes between Washington and Davis are dynamite, from their most tender, playful moments to their most contentious. Fans of Wilson or great acting should seek this one out.

2016 Film Roundup, Part 3: Noteworthy Films

(The annual post-Oscar film roundup is a pre-blog tradition. It comes in four parts. In addition to this section, there's The Oscars and the Year in Review, The Top Four and The Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful).)

Arrival: Arrival is surprisingly good sci-fi, thanks to strong source material (the Nebula-winning novella "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang), a cool aesthetic for the aliens and their language, solid direction from Denis Villeneuve, and a superb, affecting performance by Amy Adams. Aliens have arrived in 12 monolith-like craft distributed around the Earth. Communication hasn't gone well, and successful waves of experts in a variety of fields have been recruited and later fired. Colonel G.T. Weber (Forest Whitaker), a distrustful man wary of sharing information with the other 11 sites (especially the Chinese one), nonetheless recruits linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Adams) and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). Before she heads off to meet the aliens, we see Banks living a life of joy but eventual heartbreak and isolation, spending time with a young daughter who succumbs to a rare and fatal disease. Banks and Donnelly are eventually allowed contact with the aliens in their ship; the aliens have seven limbs and thus are dubbed "heptapods"; Donnelly dubs the two they interact with Abbott and Costello. Banks, who is razor-sharp, eventually determines that the aliens do not perceive existence (especially time) as humans do, and slowly starts to develop a method of communication. As she starts to understand the heptapods more and more, Banks' own sense of time and reality becomes less fixed and more fluid. But the U.S. and Chinese militaries are treating the research more as an arms race than a cultural opportunity, and interpret an ambiguous message as a threat.

The heptapods look like giant squid, but the sparse, black stone spaceship with illuminated mist makes for an interesting aesthetic. The alien's ink writings are most reminiscent visually of Zen circles drawn with a brush in ink or paint; given the heptapods approach to existence, it's an inspired choice thematically as well as aesthetically. The script is often sharp – not only will Banks tell an old story about the origin of the word "kangaroo" to make a point, she'll also comment later (correctly) that it isn't true. Renner's quite good as Donnelly – he seems to enjoy playing a non-action role for a change – and has nice chemistry with Adams as Banks, which proves crucial. The military folks seem overly belligerent and stupid, which is disappointing if plausible in the current day. The film hinges on Adams and her performance, though. She's convincing in her dedication, courage and sense of wonder as Dr. Banks, but also in her joy and devastation as a human being; she grounds the entire film emotionally. Much of the best sci-fi uses some unusual situation to explore an aspect of the human condition; Arrival does that powerfully and somewhat unexpectedly in a way that respects its audience. (I'd say it achieves what Interstellar tried and failed to do.)
(SPOILERS)

Manchester by the Sea: This is a well-crafted film with great performances, and it has its moments of humor, but be warned it's a grim one – it's a story about coping with extreme tragedy. Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), who works as a handyman in the greater Boston area, is shocked to learn that his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), has died relatively young in Manchester by the Sea, where he ran a fishing boat. Lee is furthermore stunned that Joe has named Lee the guardian of Joe's teenaged son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Lee is taciturn at best, but often surly and withdrawn; he tries to live his life with some kind of honor, but is impatient and blunt when dealing with tenants and has a habit of picking fights in bars. Patrick can't understand why Lee is so averse to spending time in Manchester by the Sea, where Lee used to live. Patrick's also not keen on moving to Boston as Lee wishes, because Patrick has strong ties in Manchester. For a while, it looks like Patrick living with his mom, Elise (Gretchen Mol), who’s getting remarried to the straight-laced Jeffrey (Matthew Broderick) might be an option, but nothing goes easily for Patrick nor Lee. Gradually, we learn more about Lee's past life in flashbacks and through interactions in the present day, mostly focusing on his ex-wife, Randi (Michelle Williams). One of the film's most potent scenes stems from a chance encounter they have (that unfortunately was revealed too much in late ads for the film).

This is fine work by writer-director Kenneth Lonergan (who has a cameo as usual), but I much prefer his earlier film, the superb You Can Count on Me. He definitely captures the whole repressed, New England, Irish Catholic milieu, but that doesn’t always make for pleasant company. Manchester by the Sea is essentially a character study of a man forced to deal with tragedy far beyond his capacity to handle. He picks fights to bury his grief and rejects intimacy because it'll only bring pain. What makes Lee somewhat admirable is his growing realization of his own inadequacies or wounds and his desire to do what's best for his nephew, Patrick. Manchester by the Sea is one of the best films of the year, at times moving and memorable, but not easy viewing.

La La Land: This is a fun movie that became overhyped and then received undue backlash. (It's an unfortunate pattern that recurs during awards season.) La La Landis a musical set in Los Angeles centered on a young couple struggling to make it – Mia Dolan (Emma Stone) as an actress, and Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling) as a jazz pianist. Stone and Gosling showed they had great chemistry in 2011's Crazy Stupid Love (it's the sixth film reviewed here), and they're entertaining again in this outing. As "Seb," Gosling gets some funny lines, which he delivers well: "I'm letting life hit me until it gets tired. Then I'll hit back. It's a classic rope-a-dope." Stone is always a charming firecracker – most of all in the early courtship stages when the two supposedly hate each other and she's taunting Seb. Neither Stone or Gosling is great at singing nor dancing (although they trained intensively), which is meant to be part of the film's charm. I found La La Land most interesting as a relationship film – Mia and Seb are good for each other in many ways, but making it in show biz is hard, and they don't always navigate the rough spots as a couple well. Writer-director Damien Chazelle offers some memorable scenes and makes good use of L.A. locales, including a flying, fantasy dance at Griffith Observatory and an extended musical fantasy sequence reminiscent of Singin' in the Rain or An American in Paris. The music doesn't stack up to the best musicals, but the featured songs fit the characters well ("City of Stars" and "The Fools Who Dream"). La La Land has its problems, though. The opening scene is a song and dance number set during a traffic jam (and filmed mostly with a single long take), which is a great and funny concept, but the opening actress' lip-synching to playback is off and other performers are likewise shaky. I found it quite off-putting and a bad sign, and it took me a while to warm to the film (your mileage may vary). La La Land won an Oscar for cinematography, and some of the camerawork is great, but the lighting is noticeably subpar in several scenes (Mia's apartment with other young women, for example). La La Land is quite enjoyable taken for what it is – a off-beat musical about a young, struggling, show biz couple – and less compelling if taken for something more – a definitive portrait of Los Angeles or show business.

Silence: Martin Scorsese's films are always worth a look, and this adaptation of Shūsaku Endō's 1966 novel had been a long-time passion project for him. It's the 17th century, and Jesuit priests have entered Japan, making converts but also receiving harsh treatment including torture and death from the Japanese authorities. Word has arrived in the West that Portuguese missionary Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has renounced his faith under torture. Two of his pupils, Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver), refuse to believe it, and volunteer to look for him, despite the considerable risks. Their guide is a drunken exile they meet in China, Kichijiro (Yōsuke Kubozuka), who winds up being a complex character, full of contradictions. The priests are sheltered by a village of convert Christians, where they lead religious services and hear confessions, but they must stay hidden. The occasional inspections and trials by Japanese authorities searching for secret Christians are harsh and sometimes fatal. The faith of the Japanese Christians – and certainly Rodrigues and Garupe – is severely tested, physically and mentally.

Silence probably holds added resonance for the religiously devout, especially Catholics, but it works for all viewers as a depiction of faith and intolerance. This isn't easy viewing, though; the story involves significant cruelty. Rodrigues, our main character, is kind and sincere; he's the type of priest who preaches salvation, not damnation, and truly believes he can convince someone else given time, even his most hostile questioners. He's definitely somewhat naïve, but his resolve and generosity are admirable. It's a difficult role, especially given the torture scenes, and Andrew Garfield gives an excellent performance. It's hard not to think that the suffering imposed on him is unnecessary; some of the Japanese authorities don't just want obedience, they want utter and absolute mental submission. Scorsese largely avoids flashy filmmaking in Silence, only really using a single bravura camera move; he opts for a restrained, dignified approach, which seems to work well. This is Scorsese's third explicitly spiritual film – I would rate The Last Temptation of Christ his best, but I've only seen Kundun once, and Silence is a solid entry. (Side note: It took me a few minutes to place Yoshi Oida, who does a fine job playing Ichizo – he's also a stage actor, and I've seen perform Beckett.)

The Salesman: Writer-director Asgar Farhadi's latest film centers on a young Iranian couple, Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), starring in a production of Arthur Miller's play, Death of Salesman. When their apartment building starts to crumble, they're forced to find other lodgings, and their friend and fellow actor Babak (Babak Karimi) tells them about a good apartment available relatively cheap. The catch is that the last tenant, a woman, was a bit wild and has left a locked closet of her stuff behind. One night, Emad returns home late and discovers blood; he finds Rana at the hospital; she's been assaulted. Rana's understandably traumatized and Emad tries to help, to little avail. He seeks revenge, but he's stymied trying to find information. Although a popular teacher at school, Emad's work and his performance in the play both begin to suffer, as does his relationship with Rana. Emad eventually starts to make some progress tracking down Rana's assailant, but the film offers a number of surprising developments. Rana initially supports justice, but increasingly has reservations about what revenge is doing to Emad and their relationship.

Farhadi previously made the excellent, Oscar-winning film, A Separation (2011; the second film reviewed here), as well as The Past (2013; reviewed here). In all his films, he has a knack for plunging his characters into morally complex situations and slowly revealing new information that makes us reassess what we think we know. Of those three films, I'd still rate A Separation as the best and The Salesman last. I also didn't think including Death of a Salesman added that much to the film, although scenes dealing with the state censors are culturally interesting and Farhadi points to shared themes of humiliation and crumbing relationships. Nonetheless, The Salesman offers good performances, complexity and some surprising – and genuinely interesting – plot developments (whereas lesser writers offer mere gimmicks).

HiddenFigures: Hollywood tells a great untold story, that of the black female mathematicians, "computers," who were crucial to NASA's efforts during the early years of the space program in the 50s and 60s. We focus on a trio: Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe). Johnson is the main character, but all of them get good scenes, and the three support each other and are often inseparable as they battle both sexism and racism. Although they face deliberate prejudice, especially Johnson, one of the film's strengths is how it depicts unconscious, reflexive discrimination (embodied by characters played by Jim Parsons and Kirsten Dunst). This is dramatized by poor Johnson running (in heels) back and forth to the only "colored" women's bathroom in a building a good ten minutes from her work office, until her boss, Al Harris (a composite character player Kevin Costner) finally asks why she's missing for long stretches of time. Hidden Figures takes some liberties with accuracy to deliver some crowd-pleasing moments, and some scenes are hokey, predictable or unlikely (one public outburst in particular). Nevertheless, the core story is true and fascinating, Taraji P. Henson is always good, and she and the filmmakers make the many scenes with her doing complicated math on the fly captivating cinema. Mahershala Ali has a small role (he and Janelle Monáe were also in Moonlight), and Glenn Powell is memorable as astronaut John Glenn. Smithsonian, History vs. Hollywood and Wikipedia have more on the accuracy of the film (including the truth of those bathroom scenes and John Glenn's words), but you'll want to catch this movie.

Captain America: Civil War: The previous Captain America film, The Winter Soldier (reviewed here), is one of the best superhero films ever made. Civil War understandably falls short of that high mark, but not by much; it was easily the best serious superhero movie of the year. The Avengers do-gooding inadvertently leads to disaster, leading the United Nations to debate putting a council in charge of the superhero team. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) supports the move, remembering his role in creating supervillain Ultron; Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) is not keen on the idea. The other Avengers are split. Meanwhile, Bucky Barnes/The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) has resurfaced, and there's evidence implicating him in the assassination of King T'Chaka of Wakanda. The king's son, T'Challa/the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), seeks justice. Rogers isn't buying that Bucky is still evil, though, and digs further, uncovering more about a mysterious figure who turns out to be Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl). The main selling point of the movie is seeing two teams of superheroes fight, and those scenes are well-staged, with plenty of inventive tactics from the characters and good character moments created by the filmmakers. Adding Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) to all the Avengers heroes (I won't name them all) feels a bit forced, but the actors do a nice job. Introducing T'Challa/the Black Panther begins by feeling similarly contrived (he has a solo movie coming out later), but the script allows T'Challa much more complexity than a standard revenge plot, and the versatile Boseman is impressive as usual. The key relationship is between Captain America and Iron Man, though, and Evans and Downey deliver, selling us on both their friendship and its strain, and all the shifts between. This is a superhero flick with good action but also more depth and complexity than usual; we're reminded multiple times of how violence has consequences, even when wielded by supposed good guys for supposedly good causes.

Rogue One: The first Star Wars movie not to be a numbered episode winds up being pretty good, as it tells the tale of how the plans for the Death Star were obtained and why the fully operational battle station had a fatal, exploitable flaw. Anchoring a strong cast is the dependable Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso. She's the daughter of Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), a brilliant scientist forced to work on the Death Star by high-ranking science officer, Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), who seems to care somewhat for his former colleague Galen but much more for the Empire and his own ambitions. Galen's built in a vulnerability, however, and arranges to smuggle out the news to the Rebels via an Empire pilot, Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed). The problem is, Bodhi's being held by Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), a veteran fighter for the Rebels, but also an extremist who's at the very least paranoid and possibly completely crazy. Saw Gerrera raised Jyn after Galen was essentially kidnapped by the Empire, though, so the Rebel Alliance thinks she can get through to him. Jyn is reluctant, but the Rebels sprung her from jail and can offer her freedom, so she sets out with morally dubious Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and reprogrammed imperial droid K-2SO, who's a master of unintentional dark comedy by being blunt (he's wonderfully voiced by Alan Tudyk). The trio travel to Gerrara's hideout near Jedha, a holy city that houses the kyber crystals used in lightsabers and that the Empire needs for the Death Star. Along the way they pick up Force-sensitive blind martial artist monk Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and his heavily armed partner, Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen). Grand Moff Tarkin is played by Guy Henry, with visual effects making him look like the late Peter Cushing, who played the character in Stars Wars: A New Hope. (It was done with the blessing of Cushing's family, and it works pretty well, fooling some audience members, although the filmmakers were wise to keep Tarkin in darkly lit scenes).

Rogue One is a much darker story overall than the most recent episode, VII, The Force Awakens (although that features a notable death; it's reviewed here). I liked that many of the Rogue One characters were weary, desperate and more morally grey than many other supposed good guys in the franchise. They undertake a tough, important mission and know they may not succeed and may not all survive – if any of them do. The film has its flaws, though. Some lines sound hokey, given the grimness otherwise ("Rebellions are built on hope" in particular). Character names aren't well-established – blink and you can miss Chirrut and Baze's names. The Empire apparently has never considered that a droid could be reprogrammed and has very lax computer security. Darth Vader gets a bravura scene near the end, but strangely, even though he's still voiced by James Earl Jones, he doesn't carry as much screen presence as in the earlier films when played by David Prowse and others. (Some of this is due to camera angles, but not all.) Overall, Rogue One is one of the most successful retcons in memory, although not flawless – the very end makes Leia's interactions with Vader at the start of A New Hope ludicrous. Still, I enjoyed this more than The Force Awakens. (Personal note: I saw the film the day after Carrie Fisher died. Her simulated appearance had an extra punch.)

Deadpool: The conceit for comic book character Deadpool is that, like DC's Ambush Bug, he's aware he's in a comic book and can break the fourth wall and talk directly to the audience (or the comic book/movie creators). The same holds true for the movie version of Deadpool, which is a tremendous lot of fun, especially the hilarious opening credit sequence, which is both self-referential and brutally self-skewering. Accomplished smartass Ryan Reynolds is perfectly cast as Wade Wilson/Deadpool, a mercenary who falls for an unusually understanding woman, Vaneesa (Morena Baccarin). Unfortunately, he's struck down with a rare and fatal disease, and seeks out an experimental and dangerous treatment from a mysterious recruiter and his tough guy colleague, Ajax (Ed Skrein). The treatment succeeds after a fashion – Wilson heals and even regenerates from almost any injury – but delivers some nasty side effects, including disfigurement. Deadpool sets out to find a cure and reconnect with Vanessa, who believes him dead. This is definitely an "R" film and not for kids. It's quite entertaining, but the violence tends to be intentionally over-the-top and the film's sense of humor is often raunchy and boundary-pushing. What makes the movie have some more depth, though, is that for all his wisecracks, the disfigured Wade/Deadpool genuinely loves Vanessa and longs to reunite, but fears her reaction. The supporting cast is fun, most of all Leslie Uggams as Deadpool's blind, semi-recovering junkie roommate. (Reynolds was cast as Deadpool before in a pretty bad film, Wolverine: Origins, the 13th film reviewed here. Reynolds hasn't been shy about knocking it, and this outing provides significant redemption.)

Hail, Caesar!:
"Squint! Squint at the grandeur! It's blinding!"

This isn't the best Coen brothers movie by a long shot, but it's an awful lot of fun, especially for film buffs. Studio executive and fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is confronted by a crazy host of problems and wades in with a consummate mix of diplomacy, practicality and bravado. The biggest headache is a missing leading man, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), star of a Jesus-and-the-Romans epic. But Mannix must also contend with DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), an Ester-Williams-type star with a squeaky-clean image who's anything but in real life. Prestige director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) isn't happy that singing cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) has been horribly miscast in his high society film. The screenwriters are trouble as usual. And competitive Hedda-Hopper-like gossip columnists Thora Thacker and Thessaly Thacker (identical twins both played by Tilda Swinton) are pressuring Mannix for scoops and threatening to print an old scandal.

The actors are obviously having a blast, and several scenes are gems on their own. A scene with an increasingly pained Laurentz trying to get the earnest-but-hopeless Hobie Doyle to deliver a line correctly is hilarious and was used as a standalone trailer. Ehrenreich is charismatic and extremely likable, because as Hobie Doyle, he's in way over his head but humble, kind and sincere. (He'll probably do well cast as Han Solo.) Frances McDormand, Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum also have memorable roles, and Michael Gambon provides some narration. For added fun, costume designer Mary Zophres tracked down the exact shade of orangish-red from Spartacus for the Roman soldier costumes and also used Ben Hur as inspiration. Some of the visual effects intentionally mimic those of the depicted era, including rear-screen projection. Hail, Caesar! may ultimately be a trifle, but it's an entertaining one.

2016 Film Roundup, Part 4: The Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful)

(The annual post-Oscar film roundup is a pre-blog tradition. It comes in four parts. In addition to this section, there's The Oscars and the Year in Review, The Top Four and Noteworthy Films.)

Zootopia: Although I thought Zootopia was significantly overhyped, it's still a very good animated feature. Judy Hops (Ginnifer Goodwin) grows up on her family carrot farm, but she's bright, plucky and full of derring-do, so despite her small size, she seeks to become the first rabbit cop in the big city of Zootopia, where herbivores and predators live together peacefully. She's treated as a PR gimmick by her fellow officers, but naïve and eager, she makes the best of lousy assignments like… parking duty/meter maid. Her trusting nature is tested after encountering a worldly, cynical fox named Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman); it doesn't help that Judy had a traumatic encounter with a fox as a kid. Judy makes a big collar, though, and the mayor's office likes her, so soon she's reassigned to help track down a rash of missing citizens… some of whom reappear, but savagely violent. (She blackmails Nick Wilde to help her, and they make a pretty effective team, both as detectives and a comedic pair.)

I found the world and characters quite interesting, but the main plot much less so. The Shakira-fueled sequence when an enthralled Judy Hops enters Zootopia via train and takes in all the different environments is one of the strongest in the movie. Likewise, the many scenes showing how different animals live and in some cases share spaces (and public transportation) are funny and fascinating. A trip to the Department of Motor Vehicles staffed entirely by slow-moving sloths is hilarious and was used as a standalone trailer. A chase through "Little Rodentia" plays like a comical monster movie. Zootopia manages to create a world that inherently celebrates diversity and disability and promotes tolerance without ever being too preachy or on-the-nose about it. There's plenty to like, and this is a solid addition to any kid-friendly movie collection, but I'd rate other animated features higher. (The plot of Zootopia massively changed in development, when Nick Wilde was the main character and the story was much darker. I think the filmmakers made the right decisions, but it's interesting to go through the disc extras for the storyboards and descriptions of the earlier ideas. Side note: on a visit to my local DMV, one of the workers had a stuffed animal sloth from the movie.)

TheNiceGuys: Writer-director Shane Black is known for writing buddy action flicks, and his second outing as a director is a fun tale of two dueling and later partnered detectives working in 1970s Los Angeles. Both Russell Crowe (as Jackson Healy) and Ryan Gosling (as Holland March) are primarily known as serious actors, but they're both legitimately funny here, with Crowe more of the straight man/tough guy and Gosling as the buffoon. Black throws in a precocious, wisecracking kid as usual (Angourie Rice as Holly March, Holland's daughter), but in a welcome change from some other Hollywood outings, she gets in way over her head and reacts more like a kid than a studio construct. The ostensible plot is finding a missing young woman, Amelia Kutner (Margaret Qualley), who's gotten involved with a porn film company (among other things), and is the daughter of a Justice Department official (Kim Basinger). But mostly, the plot is an excuse to have Crowe and Gosling play off each other, mostly for laughs, but with a fair amount of action and also some serious dramatic moments. Basinger's disappointingly weak – her character needs to be far steelier in at least one scene – but the rest of the cast is solid and the leads are great.

Anthropoid: This film chronicles the real-life WWII mission (code name: Anthropoid) of Czechs in the resistance to assassinate SS head Reinhard Heydrich, who may be temporarily vulnerable while stationed in Prague. The key personnel, Jozef Gabčík (Cillian Murphy) and Jan Kubiš (Jamie Dornan) have snuck back into their home country with orders from resistance headquarters. They know the mission is dangerous, that they might not survive and that retaliation by the Nazis against the Czech population is likely to be brutal. Nonetheless, they try to proceed, but the local Czech resistance is less enthused, and it takes some doing to convince Dr. Eduard (Sean Mahon) and Jan Zelenka-Hajský (Toby Jones) to help them. More cooperative are two young women, Marie Kovárníková (Charlotte Le Bon) and Lenka Fafková (Anna Geislerová), who bravely take risks for the cause and perhaps also because they take a fancy to the young men. The most compelling aspect of Anthropoid is its unforgiving accuracy and lack of sentimentality; this is not a world where the virtuous necessarily prosper or even survive. Our main characters desperately want to live, and fight to do so, but they know the odds are against them. Director Sean Ellis shows a nice feel for when to let real sound drop out and does a good job of focusing the story on the hopes and panic of the characters. (Apparently, Anthropoid was a British-German production, and director Ellis and many of the actors are Brits, but the two leads are both Irish, and the cast does include some Czechs, Germans and other nationalities.)

Nocturnal Animals: I thought fashion designer Tom Ford's first outing as director, 2009's A Single Man (the second film reviewed here) was a bit self-indulgent, with many overdrawn moments, but still quite good overall, with a strong performance by lead actor Colin Firth. Nocturnal Animals also features some good performances – most of all from Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon and Aaron Taylor-Johnson – but is an overhyped disappointment overall. Based on the novel Tony and Susan by Austin Wright, it tells two stories. In real life, Susan Morrow (Adams) runs a trendy art gallery and is married to Hutton Morrow (Armie Hammer), who is outwardly successful and handsome, but also emotionally distant (and possibly unfaithful). Susan used to be married to Edward Sheffield (Gyllenhaal), who was a struggling novelist at the time and has recently sent her his soon-to-be-published manuscript. (We see glimpse of their relationship in flashbacks.) The novel is the second story – the male lead, Tony Hastings, is also played by Gyllenhaal, while his wife, Laura, is played by another redheaded actress, Isla Fisher. The novel involves harassment and kidnapping of Tony, his wife and teenaged daughter by a gang of Texas rednecks lead by the Ray (Taylor-Johnson, who's pretty chilling). Tony seeks justice with the help of quirky and intense police detective Bobby Andes (Shannon, who's superb as usual).

The novel has a fairly predictable plot – although it's not always easy viewing – but the key element is that it's a tale of anguish and loss. As we discover more about Susan and Tony's past relationship, and why they broke up, it becomes more apparent how the novel emotionally but not factually recaps parts of their own story. Susan is disturbed and moved by the novel; many of Amy Adams' scenes involve her reading intently. The thing is, Adams isn't given that much to do in the film, and although her character does have an arc of sorts, there's not much there. The opening sequence involves obese, mostly naked women dancing in slo-mo, some joyful, some steely eyed, and sporting accessories such as sparklers and drum majorette hats. We next move to Susan's gallery, where the dancing videos play on the walls and some of the dancers are splayed out unmoving on benches while patrons mill about with their wine and hors d'oeuvres. Is Ford mocking the obese women? Our obsession with appearance? Or making fun of the patrons who treat this as high art? (I'm guessing the latter two.) Susan is an attractive woman but heavily made up and with a very prepared, artificial look; it's nice to see Adams' extremely expressive face without all the gallery-battle-armor makeup when she's alone reading in bed or the bath (and the contrast is surely intentional). Adams and Gyllenhaal play pretty well off each other as a couple in the flashback scenes. Laura Linney, as Susan's disapproving mother, though, plays the part grandly to the point of camp and is thanklessly given dialogue that's far too on-the-nose. Gyllenhaal and Shannon have good chemistry, and this is some of the best work Gyllenhaal's done (but check out Nightcrawler if you haven't). In theory, this is a story about people focused on appearances and the ugly, raw emotions underneath, but it's not just the characters who feel somewhat hollow – it's the film itself. The finale makes some sense intellectually but is not satisfying, even in an intentionally unsatisfying, open-ending kind of way. Give Nocturnal Animals credit for some memorable images and scenes, but especially given this cast, I wanted to like it and was disappointed overall. Amy Adams was given a far meatier role and delivered a far more substantial performance in Arrival, but genre films don't always get the respect they deserve.

Doctor Strange: Marvel chose to wait for Benedict Cumberbatch to become available to play Doctor Strange, and it was a wise choice. Stephen Strange is a brilliant and arrogant surgeon whose hands are badly injured in an accident; when conventional medicine fails him, he seeks increasingly unorthodox cures, eventually pursuing a mystical one in Nepal and coming in contact with the Ancient One, played by the odd and ethereal Tilda Swinton. She explains that her order of mystics protects the Earth (and universe) from foes from other dimensions, including the dread demon or powerful extradimensional entity, Dormammu. Strange has to let go of many of his previous conceptions of reality, but proves to be a quick study, and has to be, because one of the Ancient One's best former pupils, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen, who makes a good villain) is attacking all the mystic sanctums of the order and acquiring magical items, all with the aim of summoning Dormammu to this dimension, which would mean an eternity of servitude and torment for everyone on Earth. (Now those are some stakes!) The filmmakers do a nice job of capturing some of the trippy visual style of the old comic books; you'll probably be most reminded of Inception, The Matrix, and M.C. Escher. (I was glad this film won the Oscar for visual effects, because the shifting-landscapes-with-uncertain-gravity battle scenes were much more innovative and striking than the effects in most films.) Marvel got some flack for casting a white person versus an Asian as the Ancient One, and that's somewhat deserved, but the film also establishes this is but the Ancient One's latest body, it's hard to outweird Swinton, and on her own terms she's excellent. Rachel McAdams is quite good as Christine Palmer, Strange's colleague and former lover; I was pleasantly surprised that the film gave her some good lines and scenes. Chiwetel Ejiofor is memorable as Karl Mordo, a mystical warrior ostensibly allied with Strange but conflicted over what he sees as corruption within the order to which he's devoted his life. The one major problem with the film is requiring Strange to evolve from novice to absolute master in the course of the roughly two-hour running time, and to some degree in the course of just a few montages and scenes; I felt it was too much and artificially accelerated the character's development and power because of the impending Infinity Gauntlet films. That said, the filmmakers do throw in several scenes where Strange is not fully in control and winging it as he goes, which help considerably (and are played well by Cumberbatch). Meanwhile, the final showdown with Dormammu presents some clever ideas but also really good character writing; there are several reasons why Stephen Strange becomes the perfect choice of flawed but legitimate hero to confront this particular, intimidating, cruel and much more powerful foe. Doctor Strange has been a relatively minor character in the Marvel pantheon, but I've always had a soft spot for him, and I enjoyed this movie.

X-Men: Apocalypse: Apocalypse isn't horrible, but after two excellent entries with First Class (the 15th film reviewed here) and Days of Future Past, (reviewed here), it feels like a letdown. Apocalypse simply isn't as tight a film. It features some entertaining sequences and good character moments, but the biggest problem is its villain, the ancient mutant (perhaps the first), Apocalypse, whose powers are huge but ill-defined and seemingly inconsistent. (To be fair, this is true of the original comic book character, too.) Because of this, when Apocalypse embarks on his quest for world domination (what else?), the terms of battle are unclear and it's harder to get invested. Even when the heroes seemingly have a brief advantage or promising lead – forcing Apocalypse to fight in highly unfamiliar territory, for example – he tends to casually and quickly assert dominance. It makes the fights rather one-sided and less interesting. That said, James McAvoy as Charles Xavier and Michael Fassbender as Magneto continue to be standouts. Evan Peters returns as Quicksilver with some new fun scenes. Jennifer Lawrence and Nicholas Hoult are good as Mystique and Hank McCoy/the Beast, respectively. Oscar Isaac is unrecognizable but suitably glowering as Apocalypse. As Moira McTaggert, Rose Byrne is a welcome return and provides some of the film's better scenes. The newcomers, Sophie Tucker as Jean Grey and Tye Sheridan as Cyclops, are pretty good, all the more so because despite their feuding they're attracted to each other, but are far from smooth about it. Some notable cameos also spice up the proceedings. If you're a fan of the X-Men, you'll probably want to see this one, but I hope the next film is stronger.
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Star Trek Beyond: Beyond isn't as good as the first rebooted Star Trek (the 11th film reviewed here) but is markedly better than the second installment, Into Darkness (reviewed here). The biggest improvement is the number and quality of the Spock-McCoy interactions, which capture the bickering competition and camaraderie of the two characters. (Credit Simon Pegg, who was one of the screenwriters and also plays Scotty, of course.) The best newcomer is Sofia Boutella as alien Jaylah (although Idris Elba always improves a movie). Chris Pine gets some good moments ask Kirk. Uhura (Zoe Saldana) gets to use her elite linguistic skills, but does wind up cowering for a fair amount. I was disappointed by much of the cinematography and visual approach to the story, though. Many of the action scenes are dimly lit and without any backlight, so we wind up seeing, for example, dark, indistinct figures tumbling over a dark background. Even what should be featured fights with featured characters are unnecessarily visually muddy. (Yeah, it's a style choice by director Justin Lin, but it's a bad one.) Positive exceptions include a great roundhouse shot involved Jaylah fighting, and Kirk's motorcycle teleporting. (You'll see.) If you're a Trek fan, you'll want to see this one, but I thought it got overly hyped due to lowered expectations from Into Darkness.

The Siege of Jadotville: This historical war film was picked up by Netflix for distribution and makes a good sleeper pick for viewers who want a little action and drama. A very green, inexperienced Irish army unit is assigned a United Nations peacekeeping mission in the Congo in 1961, which is experiencing a civil war. They wind up assigned near the town of Jadotville at small compound that's not easily defensible. That's a problem, because mercenaries working for one of the warring factions wants control of the area and are moving in with both superior firepower and numbers. The Irish have mostly light weaponry and don't have much ammunition… plus the United Nations is either not sending help or can't get through. Trapped and facing steep odds makes for good drama, and it plays out well here, anchored by a good lead performance by Jamie Dornan as Commandant Pat Quinlan, who lacks combat experience but is smart, practical, resourceful and dogged. Viewers might recognize Jason O'Mara as one of the other soldiers ( Sergeant Jack Prendergast). Mark Strong plays UN official Conor Cruise O'Brien (who later became a politician in Ireland) as a cold intellectual whose focus on the 'big picture' makes him see human lives as expendable pawns in a chess game. I can’t speak definitely to the accuracy of all this; from what I've read, O'Brien's role and other details of the depicted events remain contentious, including the truth behind the plane crash that killed United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold. Taken on its own terms, though, The Siege of Jadotville is a decent film.

Bad Moms: This is a fun summer comedy with a fairly simple premise and good casting. Amy Mitchell (Mila Kunus) is a struggling supermom, shuttling her two kids to school, rehearsals and practices (and doing their homework, although parents really shouldn't do that) while also working full-time at what's supposed to be a part-time job. Her husband, Mike (David Walton), is lazy and of little help, and then Amy catches him having an online affair with a video chat sex worker. She kicks him out and everything snowballs from there. Exhausted, Amy publicly refuses an order from PTA head and suburban bully extraordinaire, Gwendolyn (Christina Applegate). Amy winds up inadvertently creating a kind of "bad moms" club, including a genuinely bad mom (by most people's standards) in Carla (Kathryn Hahn) and goody two-shoes, overtaxed, wannabe rebel mother-of-four, Kiki (Kristen Bell). They start breaking the rules and having a blast, which works for a while, but when Gwendolyn decides to punish Amy's daughter in retaliation, the stakes increase and Amy plots dethroning Gwendolyn as PTA head. Bad Moms is pretty predictable and doesn't break any new ground, but it still makes for enjoyable light viewing. Mila Kunis comes off naturally on screen and has a good comic feel (perhaps most of all in a montage where she keeps slipping into mom mode when trying to pick up men in a bar). Kristen Bell gets to show off her physical comedy chops but also has some hilarious lines, most of all when she's describing sex with her husband. The rest of the cast is solid and clearly having fun, as is Martha Stewart in a cameo. The ending credits feature clips of the actresses chatting with their real-life moms (several of whom are dead ringers), adding to the feel-good vibe.

Warcraft: There hasn't been a good film based on a video game to date, and Warcraft fails spectacularly to break that trend. The popular video game franchise, which began as a campaign and battle game and then later became a MMORPG, started as a conflict between human and orc armies. You'd think that would lend itself to some good fights and battles, but apart from a pretty good climatic duel, the fights just aren't well-staged or that interesting, despite a reported $160 million budget. Director Duncan Jones has delivered some fine films before (2009's Moon, the eight film reviewed here and 2011's Source Code, the ninth film reviewed here), but perhaps big action scenes just aren't his thing or the project got away from him. Meanwhile, Warcraft's lore doesn't give him that much to work with, because it tends to be rather childish and repetitive; almost every story involves a good guy seeking power for noble reasons and then becoming corrupted and/or insane. It's hard to feel much for the orcs because they look cartoonish and comically disproportioned, with the exception of half-orc Garona Halforcen, played by Paula Patton, who has recognizable facial expressions and can play actual scenes with Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel). I didn't expect this to be great, but it was still a disappointment; it's just not a good film. Hardcore fans of the game might rate it higher.