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2016

There’s nothing particularly bad about this biopic of Chuck Wepner, the Bayonne Bleeder, the fighter who went the distance with Ali (mainly as a human punching bag) and was the inspiration for Rocky.  Liev Schreiber gets to trot out his semi-lovable, Joisy-accented galoot, and at times, you actually feel bad for the guy, a palooka with a heart of tin who is given a taste of the big time and handles it poorly (drugs, booze, women, and perhaps most distressingly, disco).  But you don’t ever really develop an interest in him.

You’ve seen it all before, and even with the exertions of Schreiber, a pasty and portly Jim Gaffigan (as Chuck’s loyal and unctuous sidekick) and Elizabeth Moss (his suffering wife), you end up asking “to what end?”  Or, in Joisy parlance, “What the fuck?”

The film also makes a huge mistake by trying to recapture the Ali-Wepner fight, which feels as if it was held in a community rec center.

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The ridiculous premise of this movie, and the ensuing byzantine plot, are so audacious that it almost makes up for being such a piece of crap. Ben Affleck is an accountant. But not your everyday accountant. He is autistic, but has had the more extreme manifestations of that condition beaten out of him by his rigid, military father. Accordingly, he can function, and function he does. He has millions of dollars. He owns a Jackson Pollock. He has gold bullion. He can shoot a watermelon from a mile away.

He works in a strip mall as an accountant, when he is not doing the books for local farmers, he is doing them for  large, dirty multinational corporations while ratting out their wrongdoing to the Department of the Treasury.

The only really good things I can say about this movie are that it is watchable in an aghast, mouth open kind of way, and Affleck, playing a character who is struggling to convey emotion, almost appears to be on the verge of laughing out loud every scene. And every scene gets progressively funnier and funnier.

It’s terrible but marginally entertaining.

 

There are very few films that deal with the concepts of faith and even fewer that tackle religious faith.  Modern audiences probably could care less about religious faith, and Hollywood cares even less than the audiences, given the short shrift the town affords religion.  Though after Mel Gibson’s masochistic and extremely profitable The Passion of the Christ, Hollywood saw money in them thar’ hills and started to make treacly “miracles on earth” fare, serious engagement is rare.

The Apostle is one of the few films that actually explored the limits of faith and the working of religion in a modern context.  It is a masterpiece.  The Exorcist, another classic, is generally known as The Daddy of Shock Gore, but in fact, it is a deep and complicated story of hell on earth, and the perils of believing that such a hell doesn’t exist among us.  Most recently, Calvary fit the bill.  That’s about it.

Martin Scorsese has co-written and directed a fourth masterpiece, which has much in common with the prior three films. The Apostle gave us Robert Duvall as a fallen minister who has to rebuild from the ground up after having turned his back on his belief and his community.  The Exorcist, while ostensibly about the demonic possession of a little girl, is really about a fallen and broken priest (Jason Miller) and his own test of faith.  Similarly, Calvary offered Brendan Gleeson as a modern Irish priest living in his own Gethsemane, attempting to withstand the assault on faith by near every denizen of the town he serves.

Silence, which was almost entirely ignored by the the film community, centers on two 17th century Jesuit missionaries (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) who secret themselves to Japan in search of their mentor (Liam Neeson), rumored to have apostatized.  As is their calling, when they arrive, they immediately begin to minister to and convert Japanese peasants, for which the punishment is severe and faith-shaking.  Garfield wrestles with the consequences of his actions, and his discussions with the Japanese Inquisitor and his translator (Issei Ogata and Tadabanou Asano, respectively) are enlightening yet fraught with danger.  They are trying to break Garfield, who convincingly plays as a man of his time, showing all of the anguish and compassion attendant to his situation.  He is bedeviled even more by the appearance of his guide  (Yosuke Kubozuka) who consistently betrays him and other Japanese Christians, only to ask for confession, an absolution Garfield finds increasingly difficult to give.

This a gorgeous, meditative film, and Scorsese eschews his hallmark of dizzying and inventive camera movement for a simpler, more staid approach.  The effect is classic and contemplative.  Garfield, who was nominated for the overpraised Hacksaw Ridge, is mesmerizing.  One of the best from last year, and woefully overlooked (it received a nomination for best cinematography).

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Wow.  Somebody remade the goddawful Sisters.  But instead of unfunny sisters, it is unfunny moms.  A lot of slo-mo partying, over use of the words “tits” and “vagina” by women – FOR WOMEN- some celebs (JJ Watt, Martha Stewart), and a weird veering between cartoonish and melodramatic.  In the midst of this asinine film, we get real tears from Mila Kunis’ daughter and an alt-something duet as defeated Mom Kunis breaks down JUST BEFORE THE BIG PTA VOTE!  But don’t worry.  She gives a big speech to all the other moms and . . .  well, I won’t spoil it.  But one word: uplifting.

An unsettling and very smart film, writer-director Tom Ford (A Single Man) autopsies the relationship of Susan and Tony (Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal) while recounting a murder story.  The former is seen in flashback, as Adams, a successful, chic but deeply unhappy art dealer, is presented with her ex-husband’s novel as a prelude to their meeting after a long separation.  That relationship blooms as most do – with fire, unwavering support and the feel of having found a soulmate.  It is eventually undercut by Gyllenhaal’s lack of sophistication, emotional instability and the fact that, as Adams’ patrician mother (Laura Linney) wickedly tells her, “he’s too weak for you.”  As Linney deliciously explains, “Come on, Susan. I know you think that we don’t care about the same things, but you’re wrong. In a few years, all these bourgeois things, as you so like to call them, are going to be very important to you, and Edward’s not going to be able to give them to you. He has no money, he’s not driven, he’s not ambitious. And I can promise you, if you marry Edward, your father’s not going to give them to you either.”  As Adams sits in her classy LA house, a living embodiment of her mother’s prediction, she awaits her reconnection with Tony and starts to read his book, an engrossing tale which ends in a chilling act of brutality that seems directed right at Adams.

The performances are astounding. Since Zodiac and through Nightcrawler, Gyllenhaal exudes a compelling mix of sincerity and if not menace, danger, it’s hard to take your eyes off of him.  Adams is properly fragile and haunted, with a lacquered face that evokes a cracking shell.  Linney’s one-scene turn is for the ages, and the contributions of Michael Shannon as a taciturn Texas lawman and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as his frightening quarry are riveting.

Ford has crafted an original, intricate form of noir that is unnerving and unmannered.  Likely not everyone’s cup of tea, but I can’t remember a film I’ve concentrated on as much as this one for some time.  It was one of the best from last year.

After getting through the hackneyed “man leaves wife and daughter to go to the sea” introduction, made more unpleasant by the spunky, Nickelodeonesque cutie pie daughter of oil rig safety engineer Mark Wahlberg and wife Kate Hudson, Peter Berg’s (Friday Night Lights, Lone Survivor, Patriot’s Day)  disaster flick settles down nicely.  The pace is taut, the action gripping, the explanation of foreign concepts effective, and the clash of personalities (true blue safety guys Wahlberg and Kurt Russell versus corporate, dollar-watching rig manager John Malkovich) not too heavy-handed.  A decent expenditure of time, but as my daughter remarked, probably better delivered as a documentary.

The movie hewed pretty close to the facts, but, incredibly, left one off that perhaps seemed to incredible to portray:  college kids were fishing under the rig when it blew up.

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An affecting confluence of nostalgia and deep emotion born of human connectedness, this film presents as a standard coming of age tale, but it is a great deal more.  We find 15 year old Jamie (Lucas Jade Zuman) growing up in Santa Barbara in the late 70s with his idiosyncratic mother (Annette Bening, a mix of traditionalist and free thinker), who raises him in a home in which she rents out rooms to people who will eventually become instrumental in his upbringing.  Her cockeyed plan at the outset is to rely on one of her renters, a feminist photographer (Greta Gerwig), and an older neighbor teen (Elle Fanning) to teach her son how to be “a man.”

Bening beautifully renders a woman grappling with her own doubts, confusing times (she is referred to as a daughter of “the Depression” by her son as if she has an illness, and at one point she notes, “I think history has been tough on men.  I mean, they can’t be what they were, and they can’t figure out what’s next”), and the establishment of her own values (my favorite of her observations is “Wondering if you’re happy is a great shortcut to just being depressed”).

There are too many pitch-perfect, smart scenes to recount, but some merit mention, particularly the scene where the house handyman (Billy Crudup) who – having been deemed an insufficient role model because he and the boy do not connect – signs on as Bening’s guide to the culture, and in particular, punk rock. When Bening and Crudup, who is a bit of a hippie, attempt to dance,  first to Black Flag and later to Talking Heads, the result is a joyous rendering of representatives of two distinct tribes trying to understand the totems of a third.  The scene is almost as funny as when Gerwig insists that everybody at a house dinner party not only acknowledges her period, but says the word “menstruation” out loud.  And Fanning’s advice to the boy after he corrects a neighborhood kid boasting of his sexual prowess with a dissertation on the mechanics of the clitoris (for which he catches a beating) is both cruel and exceedingly wise.

In the wrong hands, this film would be a series of snappy vignettes, one more quirky than the next, and the result would likely have been cloying and unsatisfying.  But writer director Mike Mills never slums for your laughs or tears, and he stitches together the experiences of the characters seamlessly through the process of brief biographical snippets.  Better yet, he has a strong sense of what is authentic, and the film is loaded with grit and heart.

Some will accuse the picture of dragging, but I felt it simply took its time, allowing the feel to make the same deep impression as the dialogue, and nothing felt gratuitous.  One of the best from last year.