Jessica Chastain powers her way through “Miss Sloan,” a driven lobbyist speechifying as she bustles in an industry that allows her to take on issues not out of belief but rather as part of a winning is everything game. Her vision: win by anticipating your opponent’s next move and slamming a surprise in response. Working at one of D.C.’s most powerful firms, she laughs in the face of a gun lobbyist hoping to hire the firm to win women against gun background checks. She loses the business and enrages senior partner Sam Waterston, the former “Law and Order” good guy now content to take hack roles like this. Chastain jumps to a firm managed by Mark Strong. She plans to flip sides and work on behalf of a bill requiring background checks for gun sales. The chess match begins, one move resulting in a counter move and confirmation of Chastain’s philosophy to stay a step ahead. “Miss Sloan’s” first-rate cast includes John Lithgow as a sniveling congressman, Michael Stuhlbarg as a sputtering opponent, and Alison Pill and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as colleagues. The great acting can’t save “Miss Sloan” from a bad case of overkill. The script loads on the clichés and more than a few too many counter-move surprises, most of them feeling contrived. Jessica Chastain rarely drops the shouting intensity. After a while, all of this cynicism wears you out. For corporate greed and pay back “Michael Clayton” did this a lot better. 2 Stars “R” rated for intensity, language, and situations. Does it deliver what it promises? D.C. insider lobbying drama. Is it entertaining? Never feels real. Is it worth the price of admission? Not unless you need a warm place on a cold day.
“Manchester by the Sea” opens in the past as Casey Affleck playfully kids his young nephew on board a fishing boat with his brother. The scene moves to current time. Now Affleck works as janitor/handyman in a set of blue-collar Boston buildings. The man on the boat possessed joy, the man working as a janitor has closed his emotions. A telephone call changes everything. He learns his brother, played by Kyle Chandler, has died suddenly. He must return to his home town of Manchester by the Sea to arrange the funeral and take over care of his now teenage nephew, played by Lucas Hedges. The set up makes you expect a coming of age tale or an emotional break through accomplished by the reunion of older man and teen. Instead, “Manchester by the Sea” reveals the source of Affleck’s pain and in doing so hits a profound nerve of loss and longing. Film scholars and movie lovers won’t soon forget a scene of a chance encounter between Affleck and his ex-wife played by Michelle Williams. The slow sure build up to this scene qualifies “Manchester by the Sea” as an Oscar contender and for a place among the year’s best and most powerful films. Kenneth Lonergan wrote and directed this story. “Manchester by the Sea” demonstrates just the power of film in uncovering truth. It captures the feel of the small town. It showcases a wonderful cast producing some performances of a lifetime. The combination is extraordinary. Does it deliver what it promises? Profound drama that sneaks up on you Is it entertaining? Important and powerful. Is it worth the price of admission? A must see.
“Allied” recalls the great romantic thrillers of the 1940’s, up to and including “Casablanca.” Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard glide through this story with the same ease and style as Bogart and Bergman. Pitt–now a little older and even more handsome–begins the story parachuting into the desert outside Casablanca in 1942. A car picks him up, gives him a clue to find the woman who will play his wife, and together the two spy on the Nazis operating in the city, gathering intelligence and planning a mass execution. When they meet in a bar, you expect it to be named “Rick’s” and when Pitt murders a high German officer, you expect someone to shout “Round up the usual suspects.” After an exhilarating first act, the spies fall in love, marry, have a child, and move to London during the blitz. The scenes of wartime London and the nightly German bombing raids are both thrilling and terrifying. But then comes the twist. Army intelligence suspects Cotillard of being a counter spy. Is it love, or is Pitt sleeping with the enemy? “Allied” looks great. The chemistry between Cotillard and Pitt crackles. The story holds our attention even as it winds down to is she guilty or not? “Allied” has the fun and style of a classic. Does it deliver what it promises? Romantic wartime spy story. Is it entertaining? Satisfying even as it winds down. Is it worth the price of admission? Easy to love.
The legendary Warren Beatty appears on-screen for the first time in fifteen years in a project said to be close to his heart, a story about the reclusive billionaire genius Howard Hughes. Beatty frames his portrait of Hughes inside a light Woody Allen style romance between Alden Ehrenreich and Lily Collins. Ehrenreich plays one of Hughes’ drivers while Collins portrays one of the starlets Hughes signs for his film company. Set in the late 1950’s Collins arrives with her mother (played by Beatty’s wife Annette Benning) in tow, the better to keep watch over her virginal religious daughter. Ehrenreich falls hard, even harder as Hughes employees are expressly forbidden from dating the boss’ stable of actresses. As this story unfolds, Beatty as Hughes gradually appears, first in shadow, then partial darkness, and then full on. I suspect part of the shadow/darkness hides Beatty’s 80 plus years, although the guy still looks great. As Hughes, Beatty goes over the top, reflecting the man’s quicksilver personality in the days before dementia sets in. In one scene Beatty as Hughes flies a plane in hyperactive glee. Some might find this charming but I found it a little too showy, as if Beatty wants us to know he can still act. The best Howard Hughes films have already been made, including “The Aviator” and “Howard and Me.” Warren Beatty deserves his reputation as one of film’s most creative actor/directors. But “Rules Don’t Apply” feels like an old guy’s vanity project. Does it deliver what it promises? A chance to see Warren Beatty. Is it entertaining? Mildly. Is it worth the price of admission? Watch Beatty’s classics instead “Reds” or “Bugsy” or “Splendor in the Grass.”
“Elle” has received a lot of attention, particularly as a starring vehicle for the revered French actress Isabelle Huppert. Paul Verhoeven, creator of “Basic Instinct” and “Showgirls” directs which gives you a hint of what to expect. The film opens with the violent rape of Huppert by a man in a ski mask who bursts into her apartment. In a manner I can only describe as “French” Huppert shrugs off the assault and goes about her business not bothering to report the assault to authorities. She resumes her work heading a video game company specializing in violence and sexual fantasy. Over the course of the story we learn her equally creepy back story, and watch her affair with her best friend’s husband also explained with a shrug. Part of the tension comes from identifying the rapist, who either returns several times or returns to Huppert’s memory. “Elle” has the ability to unnerve and possibly hopes to open a conversation on violence, sex, adultery and repression. I won’t deny this film has power but I think I’ll take a pass. Does it deliver what it promises? Disturbing French thriller. Is it entertaining? Unnerving. Is it worth the price of admission? Sort yourselves out on this one.
“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” answers the question: what happened before we met Harry Potter and learned about his magical world. J.K.Rowling gives fans the run up to Harry’s story. The result is great fun and very satisfying. We go to New York City the decade before the depression, as Newt Scamander – played by Eddie Redmayne – lands on Ellis Island. Harry Potter fans know this character as author of the Hogwarts textbook that gives the movie its title. Redmayne, a bumbling professor, plans to travel to the great American west to release a magical Thunderbird. But first, he starts his visit to big Apple. This visit runs longer than expected when a few of Newt’s creatures escape and create more than a little havoc among the humans not clued in on the world of magic known as No-Majs or later Muggles. Katherine Waterston arrives on the scene as a magical police patrolwoman ready to punish Newt for the crime of letting his critters escape. Dan Fogler adds to the fun as an average Joe trying to get a bank loan who just happens to have the same kind of suitcase as Redmayne resulting in appropriate confusion. But a darker plot weaves through the fun, involving Colin Farrell and an intense youth played by Ezra Miller. The final third turns into another good versus evil showdown with plenty of special effects and destruction. Fun and humor and an overall lightness save “Fantastic Beasts” from turning into just another super hero story. “Fantastic Beasts” has actual laughs and smiles and, by the way, four more sequels in its future. I liked Redmayne in this role and I liked Waterston as well. Dan Fogler adds a comic touch and as a non magical character stands in for us civilians in the Potter/Hogwarts/Fantastic Beasts universe. Hey, you could do worse. Does it deliver what it promises? Harry Potter prequel. Is it entertaining? Captures the magic. Is it worth the price of admission? For the fun of it.
Director Tom Ford has style and melds his years in fashion design with his eye for the screen. Ford’s new film “Nocturnal Animals” certainly has style, and more than a bit of shock. Amy Adams plays an LA contemporary art dealer dealing with the problems of her elite world, including a marriage on the way to dissolving. The film begins in one of Amy’s gallery shows featuring slow motion footage of morbidly obese nude women writhing. Adams make a good film noir character, jumpy and anxious. A package delivers the manuscript of a tense novel just completed by her ex husband played by Jake Gyllenhaal. Over the course of the story we learn Adams left Gyllenhaal after an affair with her now unfaithful second husband. As she reads the ex husband’s manuscript, the story comes to life–a tale of late night crime and violence on the interstate. The story within the story includes the excellent Michael Shannon as a burnt out lawman, and Isla Fisher as one of the victims. Fisher unnerves us further as she is obviously a stand-in for Adams in her ex-husband’s tale. I love this kind of psychological thriller, but they don’t always work. Ford wants the film to shock and impress and it does look interesting. But the story within the story feels a little clunky and the ending left me disappointed. Sometimes this revenge fantasy takes its revenge out on us viewers. Does it deliver what it promises? Creepy film noir. Is it entertaining? A little confusing with a poor pay off. Is it worth the price of admission? A haunting disappointment.
“Loving” presents the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving beginning with the opening line “I’m pregnant.” Richard, played by a taciturn Joel Edgerton, says “Good” and asks Mildred, played by Ruth Negga to marry him. The proposal is bold because Richard is white and Mildred is black and the year is 1958 when Virginia law banned mixed marriage. The couple drives to Washington, D.C., ties the knot, and returns to rural Virginia, where their union displeases local authorities. Asleep in their bed one dark night, police barge in and arrest the couple. They get a lawyer who strikes a bargain with a local judge: forgive jail time in return for the two leaving the state. But they love Virginia and miss their family and ultimately homesickness drives them back. Mildred steps up and writes Attorney General Bobby Kennedy who in turn puts them in touch with the American Civil Liberties Union. The case goes to the Supreme Court and the Loving cases changes the law of the land. “Loving” tells this story with quiet power. Edgerton keeps Richard Loving quiet, a man who prefers his emotions private. Ruth Negga makes Mildred Loving a deep well, a “Steel Magnolia” who quietly leads her husband to make history. “Loving” looks good, and I like the way it uses cars of the period to show the passage of time. The couple don’t even attending the Supreme Court hearing. Edgerton merely tells his lawyer to tell the court “I love my wife.” Jeff Nichols directs with restraint and turns this event into a smell gem. Does it deliver what it promises? Surprising love story with a legal twist. Is it entertaining? True inspiring history. Is it worth the price of admission? A lesson for the ages.
“Arrival” presents a puzzle that only Amy Adams can solve. A dozen egg shaped monolith space ships land at different spots around the world. America and the other nations send in their armies to investigate. One night a helicopter lands and the military arrives at Amy Adams house. She plays a linguistics professor named Louise, grieving the death of her young daughter and the end of her marriage. Forest Whitaker embodies the strong silent military man come to ask if she can figure out a way to communicate with the visitors. She shares the project with scientist Jeremy Renner. Together they encounter and begin the process of figuring out how to message the “other” beings. “Arrival” doles out story points slowly and surely and holds the viewer’s attention for the first third. But then the flash backs start and the writers fold in the professor’s back story, or is a back story or something about to happen? Many will love the mystery. Romantics can dip into their imagination and the serious can fashion a theory to explain it all. As for me, I got a sense the writers might have given up and left everything in the air. “Arrival” has nice performances and Amy Adams remains interesting and talented. “Arrival” looks great with nice special effects and a lot of fog to obscure the “others.” “Arrival” runs long, runs out of gas, and feels like a movie in need of an ending. Does it deliver what it promises? Sci fi mystery. Is it entertaining? Intriguing at first but runs out of gas. Is it worth the price of admission? Close encounter, but no cigar.
The excellent Benedict Cumberbatch brings prestige to the new Marvel superhero movie “Doctor Strange.” He begins the story as an arrogant surgeon, possibly the greatest surgeon in the world. One night speeding on a mountain road, he looks away, smashes his car, wrecks his body, and all but loses the use of his hands. Miserable and unable to perform surgery, he searches for a cure, and discovers the world of the Ancient One, a mystic played by Tilda Swinton with a shaved head. Swinton promises to heal Cumberbatch teaching him the secrets of the universe. “Doctor Strange” pushes the special effects envelope as the characters discuss infinite possibilities of time and space. Fans of the graphic novel will get this dialog better than us mere civilians, but it’s fun to hear and interesting to watch. Rachel McAdams doesn’t get much beyond the usual suffering girlfriend role. Chiwetel Ejiofor adds interest as the Ancient One’s assistant. Benjamin Bratt makes a cameo and shows up again after the credits. This series has plans for him. Mads Mikkelsen plays the usual evil genius who must be stopped. In spite of a great beginning and some interesting ideas, “Doctor Strange” suffers the usual let down of most superhero movies. The last third turns into a run of the mill special effects laden fight between good and evil, offering nothing new. Does it deliver what it promises? Another Marvel super hero played by a great actor. Is it entertaining? Snappy dialog and great special effects. Is it worth the price of admission? For fans rather than civilians.