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Review: '50 Shades of Black'

Director Michael Tiddes' film includes a lot more on-screen speculation about what an African
American audience might want to see, as opposed to just showing them. Read More

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Review: 'Five Oscar-Nominated Shorts'

Four out of five of the Academy Award nominees for best short documentary have real stature. The fifth is the HBO Films-produced Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah by Adam Benzine. It's a middling account of the prickly director of Shoah-a nearly 10-hour documentary about the Holocaust-which would be better suited as a bonus feature in a Blu-Ray re-release. One always bets on the Holocaust when filling out an Oscar pool; if this wins, it will overshadow four far more worthy choices. Courtney Marsh's Chau: Beyond the Lines is the result of eight years spent with an inmate of a Vietnamese rural hospital full of grievous terata cases, many deformed beyond imagination. The birth defects were caused by America's "Operation Ranch Hand," the » Read More

Review: '50 Shades of Black'

It's a movie you wanted attacked, and with a good angle of attack, too—50 Shades of Grey was rather beige. 50 Shades of Black has a white element to its presentation; director Michael Tiddes' film includes a lot more on-screen speculation about what an African American audience might want to see, as opposed to just showing them. As the adventures of Daffy Duck prove, there's nothing like seeing a sitting mallard get blasted with both barrels. Marlon Wayans (ingratiatingly wimpy) and Kali Hawk (with bangs and clumsy sweater) act out the Beauty and the Beast rituals of "Christian Black" and "Hannah Steele." As her roommate is ill, dowdy Hannah has to go interview the Seattle plutocrat. (Sample question: "You have mad stacks of cash. How » Read More

Review: 'Lady in the Van'

A charming memoir of a smelly, prickly old lady, The Lady in the Van is based on material that was first performed on stage, then as a radio play. Surprisingly, as a movie it hasn't lost any keenness. Its writer and subject is Alan Bennett (played by Alex Jennings), a playwright whose breakthrough was being part of the Beyond the Fringe quartet that paved the way for Monty Python. In 1973, when Bennett moved to Gloucester Crescent in London's Camden Town, it was a changing district—awaiting the gentry who inhabit it today. Priding themselves on their liberality, the neighbors put up with one Miss Shepherd (Dame Maggie Smith) a transient old lady living in her van on the street. When the parking police tried to run her off, Bennett » Read More

Review: 'Cinequest 2016'

Palo Alto-bred auteur James Franco, incandescent performer Rita Moreno, and indie film guiding light Robert Hawk are this year's Maverick Spirit Award winners at the Cinequest Film Festival in San Jose, March 1-13. Opening night's film has one of the last appearances of the late Alan Rickman in director Gavin Hood's critique of the drone program, Eye in the Sky. And closing night features The Daughter, an Australian film starring Geoffrey Rush and Miranda Otto. Cinequest 2016 offers 26 Bay Area made films, including a work in progress by SJSU's Spartan Studios—a modern-day adaptation of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's 1892 work, The Yellow Wallpaper. Harold Lloyd's 1924 Girl Shy will also be shown, with Dennis James playing the California » Read More

Review: 'Son of Saul'

One of the 10 best films of last year-and one of the finest films ever made about the Holocaust-is Son of Saul, the 2015 Grand Prize winner at Cannes by the debuting Laszlo Nemes. It's impressive in many ways, but the film's successful blend of the closely focused with a leafy, transcendental finish is maybe the most startling. Shooting in 35mm film, Nemes takes a monochrome subject and gives it vivid, lurid color, as the expressionist green of stricken faces is sometimes encrimsoned by the constant fires. 'Bela Tarr was my school', Nemes has said. The great Tarr's seriousness, spaciousness and focus on the greatest calamity of the 20th century are reflected in this distillation of 36 hours at Auschwitz. » Read More

Review: 'Anomalisa'

A straight-up Kickstarter-funded anomaly, Anomalisa by Charlie Kaufman (with co-director Duke Johnson) is touching but transitory. It's a tragic stop-motion animated tale with resemblances to Lost In Translation. In Cincinnati in 2005, Michael (voiced by David Thewlis) comes to the Hotel Fregoli to address a convention. He's the author of the best-selling customer-service text How May You Help Them? This expert in the technology of smiling and self-effacement is, in a word, miserable—I think I have a psychological problem, he confesses to a woman whom he dropped hard 10 years previously for no reason. The lady in question is Bella Amoroso, and with a name like that, we can expect romance. It doesn't happen like that-Michael has been » Read More

Review: 'Lamb'

I'm going to describe the premise of a movie, and if your first reaction to that description is: "there is no way in hell that I will watch this," I understand. Every viewer has a deal breaker, a film about a subject they wouldn't watch; it might be cruelty to animals, home invasions or blood of any sort. Ross Partridge's risky film, Lamb, is about an 11-year-old girl who goes travelling with a 47-year-old male stranger into the countryside of Colorado. This subject would make a Jezebel essayist out of many a viewer. The actors play it as a desperate love-lovers on the lam(b), as in film noir. If Tommie (the remarkable Oona Laurence) is the lamb of the title, does this make 47-year-old male (writer, director and star, Ross Partridge) a » Read More

Review: 'Mustang'

Turkish cinema is unique in its capacity to recast American movies from a cultural vantage that is simultaneously Western and Eastern. Just consider Cetin Dnanc's 1982's film, The Man Who Saved The Earth; it is a picture so bogged-down with stolen footage and music from Lucasfilm that it was dubbed the 'Turkish Star Wars.' Similarly, Deniz Gamze Erguven's impressive Mustang, is a Turkish reflection of (and improvement upon) Sofia Coppola's debut, The Virgin Suicides. Like the Coppola's 1999 adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides' novel, the script by Erguven and French director Alice Winocour (Augustine) focuses on a tale of five girls, ages 9-17. Sonay is the eldest (Ilayda Akdogan); Selma (Tugba Sunguroglu) and Ece (Elit Iscan) are in the » Read More

Review: 'The Revenant'

In brief, The Revenant is what The Hateful Eight promised to be: the toughest Western since True Grit, complete with awe-inducing snowscapes; it's dazzling to see such magnificent desolation prevail in a crowded world. Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu based The Revenant on the legend of Hugh Glass, previously told in 1971's Man in the Wilderness, with Richard Harris commencing his series of frontier-ordeal movies. Inarritu sets his violent epic in the midst of the fur trade on the upper Missouri River in the 1820s-the result of a bubble in the price of beaver hides. » Read More

Female Actors Took On Many Leading Roles In 2015

If there was a worse movie in 2015 than Fantastic Four, I didn't see it. And if there's anything we can learn from 2015 in film, it's that complaining vociferously and ceaselessly is always a good policy-especially when it comes to issues of equality. A few years ago, during the height of the Frat Pack, there were so many males on screen I wondered if they'd passed some Elizabethan-style law against women actors. But judging by the year we just had, it would seem that at least some in showbiz were listening to the despair of moviegoers. There was Daisy Ridley, who rejuvenated a male-dominated franchise with her portrayal of Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which handsomely counters George Lucas's tendency to turn the few women in his » Read More

Review: 'Carol'

The title of Patricia Highsmith's 1952 novel, The Price of Salt, contains a dead idiom-the price of salt was something people supposedly chatted about when they weren't talking seriously. "Girl talk," as they would have said once. The film adaptation by Todd Haynes-his first feature film in 8 years-is titled Carol. This single-gender romance, which almost hypnotizes, emulates the 1950s Hollywood melodrama of throbbing hearts, stiff jaws and immaculate wardrobes. But it's missing something. Salt? Carol (Cate Blanchett) is a fur-coated, upper-class housewife from New Jersey, who meets the woman that will change her life across the counter at the toy shop at Frankenberg's department store. » Read More

Review: 'The Hateful Eight'

Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds was revenge against the Nazis, and his Django Unchained was revenge against the slavers. The Hateful Eight is his revenge against Western movies-a softer target. The snowscapes are mammoth, but not splendid enough to justify this specimen of grindhouse nihilism, blown up to roadshow size and in Ultra Panavision 70 photography. Samuel L. Jackson and Kurt Russell are a cold-blooded pair of bounty hunters, blizzard-bound in Wyoming territory. They're stuck in a general store with the new sheriff of Red Rock (Walton Goggins), the cagey son of an infamous Southern bushwacker. » Read More

Review: 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens'

Darth Vader's iron dream is being continued, more than 30 years later, by a new helmeted menace called Kylo Ren. The interesting angle of Star Wars: The Force Awakens is that there's a Napoleonic streak to this Ren. In quiet moments, he prays to the half-melted helmet of Lord Vader. It's a sacred relic, but he has doubts about his own power. This new galactic menace is skilled in harnessing the Dark Side of the Force. Ren knows how to pull secrets out of a person's brain by merely gesticulating at their head. A reveal shows Adam Driver under the bucket-head of chrome and plastic, puffy of lip and Frank Langella-ish in demeanor. People bowed when Vader walked by, but Ren's not as intimidating. » Read More

Review: 'The Danish Girl'

One of the first individuals-perhaps the very first-to undergo male-to-female sexual reassignment surgery, Denmark's Lili Elbe was, in a way, a martyr to the primitiveness of the procedure. The Danish Girl, a film based on David Ebershoff's novel about Elbe, roasted in development hell for years, likely because there was no way to reconcile the bloodiness of the surgeries with the chiffon and the satin. Doing without gore, director Tom Hooper (The King's Speech) makes this a story of doomed romance, as the transsexual artist, Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne), is transformed into Elbe by the care of a solicitous wife. » Read More

Review: 'Macbeth'

A king-pleaser as much as he was a crowd-pleaser, Shakespeare tailored his Scottish tragedy to the new King James: Macbeth was short, violent and full of witches, since His Majesty had a lively interest in sorcery. Director Justin Kurzel's new film version of Macbeth has, in the form of Michael Fassbender, a solemn, dogged soldier with a thousand-yard stare, who climbs his way to the top through murder. But this Australian director (Snowtown) doesn't have a new take on the tragedy-in this view, royalty means nothing except bigger halls to be miserable in and more children to be slaughtered. » Read More

Review: 'Legend'

I'm looking forward to the post-Scorsesean gangster movie. It's getting far too easy to predict the angles of the director's imitators, to coldly admire the fluidity of the tracking shots, and then try to convince myself that there's some truth to the endless justification of thugs. Legend is director Brian Helgeland's take on the career of the Kray Brothers. They're maybe best known in parody form through the Piranha Brothers sketch by Monty Python, though in the 1990 film, The Krays, actors Martin and Gary Kemp played the pair of gangsters who ruled London's Clubland. » Read More

Review: 'Creed'

Whether snorting with fury in the ring or shyly avoiding a lady's eyes, Michael B. Jordan is something to see in Creed. It's the seventh and latest Rocky movie. It's also the one with the best director of any of them, Ryan Coogler, previously of Fruitvale Station. Jordan plays Adonis-Donny-the illegitimate posthumous son of Apollo Creed, Rocky Balboa's challenger in the 1976 original. Back then, it was a million-to-one shot when Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) had his time in the ring with the mouthy Muhammed Ali surrogate Apollo Creed, played by the former Oakland Raider, Carl Weathers. » Read More

Review: 'Room'

Larson's impressively focused acting never lets you blink-she's bonded in a tight inner circle, with the superb, young Tremblay. Whenever director Lenny Abrahamson has the two together, he never goes wrong. He handles even the risky and macabre portions of the story-such as the scene of the monster, Nick, whining to his prisoner that he's been laid off and has suffered unemployment for the past six months. The truth is that Jack is relatively happy. He treats the the room like Pee Wee's Playhouse. Every piece of furniture has a name. He's satisfied at being the complete focus of a mommy's attention-what kid wouldn't be? » Read More

Review: 'Spotlight'

With tremendous cynicism, the Catholic archdiocese of Boston concealed the actions of dozens of priests who were known to be serial pedophiles-a story exposed by the Boston Globe in a Pulitzer-winning series in 2002. It's hard to imagine a film approaching this subject without fury, but Spotlight is one such movie-and one honors the film's lack of thundering about the horror of it all. This film lets its audience bring their own anger. » Read More

Review: 'Brooklyn'

One reason to herald Brooklyn as one of the best films of 2015 is that it makes such an eloquent argument in favor of the classic movie studio style, while not being a slavish pastiche of the way movies were once made. In Atonement (2007), Saoirse Ronan was Briony, the child with the piercing eyes, born to stealthily observe and to grow up to be a writer. Ronan is 21 now, in bloom and key to the beauty of director John Crowley's adaptation of Colm Toibin's novel. Her Eilis is a determined, intelligent Irish girl of 1951 who immigrates to New York with the help of a priest named Father Flood (Jim Broadbent). » Read More

Review: 'Heart of a Dog'

Laurie Anderson is a writer, filmmaker and musician. But above all, she is a performance artist. As such, in her new documentary, Heart of a Dog, Anderson approaches the subject of grief just as she approaches every subject she's ever tackled: by sidling up on what she has to say. "I want to tell you a story about a story," she says, describing what a tale-teller leaves out-when codifying memory, when choosing a detail, or when leaving the most painful matters out, either by design or amnesia. Here, she narrates her nested stories through clouds of on-screen images. » Read More

Review: 'All Things Must Pass'

Colin Hanks' fast, thoroughly pleasing documentary All Things Must Pass opens with two dates. In 1999, Tower Records was a billion dollar business. By 2005, it was bankrupt. Like Amazon, and like the other Internet companies that replaced these record and bookstores that once stood everywhere from Tokyo to New York, Tower Records prided itself on its eclecticism. But Tower's founder, the aged but still lively Russ Solomon, seemed to really mean it when it came to informality. One salesman recalls that his only training was being told by his manager: "Everything in the store is $3.88. I'm going to lunch." » Read More

Review: 'Our Brand Is Crisis'

Snit-raddled and recovering from a meltdown, Sandra Bullock's Jane is literally in the wilderness. Over the titles we hear a political campaign ad-style montage of news readers and unidentified voices, speaking about her epic failure. Jane has lost the election she was shepherding, and her consolation prize was a stint in Betty Ford. » Read More

Review: 'Chasing Shadows'

This fall, Warren Miller Entertainment releases Chasing Shadows, the 66th edition of its annual winter sports film. The ride returns with numerous Bay Area stops, including a screening of Chasing Shadows at Campbell Heritage Theater on Nov. 13. This year's installment of the winter sports film series celebrates why skiers and snowboarders commit themselves every winter to a passion that's guaranteed to melt away every spring. And, as always, Warren Miller's annual film tradition marks the beginning of colder weather, winter exploration and cinematography that reignites the excitement for winter sports. » Read More

Review: 'Rock The Kasbah'

Barry Levinson may be the first to do a comedy about Afghanistan, just as he was the first to do a mainstream comedy about Vietnam (in Good Morning, Vietnam). Rock the Kasbah has a line about Afghanistan looking "like Aspen, only during wartime." This movie looks like a comedy, only strangely dry. Levinson shot in Morocco. The desert backdrop suits Bill Murray, who uses the space and silence as a frame for his slow, quiet reaction to trouble. » Read More

Review: 'Steve Jobs'

It had the most interesting approach to the life and legend of Steve Jobs. Thus the eponymous Aaron Sorkin/Danny Boyle film turns out to be the most disappointing of the three Jobs films released in the last 14 months. Steve Jobs' structure is tantalizing. If Nixon had six crises, Jobs (Michael Fassbender) has three, in this dramatic triptych acted out in real-time, and in authentic-to-the-era cinematography. » Read More

Review: 'Bridge of Spies'

It's one of his his very best films, but the true story Bridge of Spies has the typical problem of Stephen Spielberg films. What would be a quick word to the wise in a more subtle director's scene has to be repeated, heightened in closeup, underscored with the strains of John Williams (or Thomas Newman, in this case). » Read More