Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Annette Bening Head "20th Century Women"


Annette Bening as 20th Century Woman

By Skip Sheffield

What to do when mom is a free spirit and the younger people are conservative and confused?
That is the basic quandary of “20th Century Women.” Annette Bening plays Dorthea, the senior member of the gang. The setting is Santa Barbara, CA 1979. Dorthea has bought a 1905 Victorian fixer-upper. How a 55-year-old single mom could afford this huge house in pricey Santa Barbara is a question we dare not ask. It does provide a groovy, offbeat setting, and it provides a reason for three other characters; Dorthea’s hunky resident handyman William (Billy Crudup), and upstairs tenant Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a young cervical cancer survivor and photographer who frets about ever becoming a mother.
Then there is Dorthea’s 14-year-old son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), who is facing the typical challenges of adolescence. Jamie has a crush on sexy neighbor Julie (Elle Fanning), who unwittingly (or maybe intentionally) torments him by sneaking into his bedroom at night to snuggle with him, but no sex allowed.
Jamie is the alter ego of writer-director Mike Mills (“Beginnings”), who has a few issues of his own to work out.
Not a whole lot happens in this rambling reminiscence. Dorthea’s Ford Galaxie catches on fire spontaneously. The fire is extinguished and Dorthea invites the fire chief for dinner. She gets a VW beetle, which is way cuter than a Galaxie.
Abbie gets the hots for much-older William and he succumbs. Though she continues to try to date, Dorthea doesn’t really have the hots for anyone. She’s just trying to fit in with changing times and provide as good a life as she can for her son.
Annette Bening is bravely bereft of makeup, and though lined and wrinkled, still beautiful.

Mills captures a time when we all wondered where we were going. It was the era between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. We all know how that went. As we face even more uncertainly, it is comforting to think we will slog through, come what may.

Portman Portrait of "Jackie" as Heroine


Natalie Portman as a Heroic “Jackie”

By Skip Sheffield

Natalie Portman does not look much like Jackie Kennedy. But put her in a form-fitting pink outfit with matching pink pillbox hat and have her reproduce Jackie’s breathy, posh Bouvier accent and you begin to accept Portman as the iconic, courageous First Lady and widow of John F. Kennedy.
Screenwriter Noah Oppenheim sets “Jackie” just before and after the fateful Dallas cavalcade of Nov. 22, 1963 when a sniper with a rifle shot President Kennedy in the head in his open Lincoln Continental convertible. Chilean director Pablo Larrain is quite graphic in his depiction of the blood and brains aspect of JFK’s assassination. That pretty pink outfit is covered with blood and so is Jackie as she tries to hold back the profuse bleeding (and brain fragments) from JFK’s skull.
Natalie Portman isn’t the only one who does not resemble the character played. Peter Sarsgaard looks nothing like Bobby Kennedy. In fact I puzzled for a while wondering if he was supposed to be JFK’s younger brother.
“Jackie” is not a mirror reflection of historic events but an approximation of how the characters felt in time of crisis. Portman depicts Jackie as a strong, determined, sophisticated woman who doesn’t buckle under pressure. In a flashback we see her lead a televised tour of the White House in 1962 and explaining her vision of restoring the presidential residence.
There are other familiar names (but not faces) of era figures. John Carroll Lynch is Lyndon Johnson, who assumed the presidency and Beth Grant is his socialite wife, Lady Bird. Georgie Glen is matriarch Rose Kennedy and Julie Judd is Bobby’s wife, Ethel Kennedy. John Hurt represents Jackie’s devout side as The Priest and Billy Crudup ties things together as The Journalist, interviewing Jackie.
One thing I learned from this movie was that Jackie was a chain smoker. Maybe that helped her keep that imperially slim figure.

None of us will ever know the complete truth of the JFK assassination or how Jackie Kennedy really felt. Natalie paints a portrait of a delicate, resolute heroine, and that is fine with me.

Friday, December 23, 2016

"Sing" Your Little Heart Out


Do you like to sing?

I sure do. Therefore it was a given I would enjoy “Sing,” an animated feature starring a bunch of famous people mouthing animated animal characters.
Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey), an outgoing koala bear, is desperately trying to save an old theater he calls home. So Buster gets the bright idea of holding a singing competition in the old theater. He plans to offer a $1,000 first prize that he doesn’t have that accidentally get inflated to $100,000.
So we get a cavalcade of stars such as Reese Witherspoon, Seth McFarlane, Scarlett Johansson and John C. Reilly, all singing their hearts out in their own voices.

There is really not a lot more to “Sing.” It is a pleasant 90 minutes or so of favorite songs performed by cute animated animal characters. If that rings your chimes, go for it.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

"Passengers" on a Flight to Nowhere


Space Cadets in Love in “Passengers”

By Skip Sheffield

Is there another actress working today hotter than Jennifer Lawrence? I can’t think of one.
In “Passengers” Lawrence manages look sexy even in a space suit. “Passengers” is set in outer space, but it is basically a boy-meets-girl love story. The boy is James Preston, played by Chris Pratt. James is one of 258 crew members aboard the Starship Avalon. The girl is Aurora Lane, played by Jennifer Lawrence.
Due to some unspecified malfunction, Jim awakes from his sleeping pod with 90 years yet to go on the 120-year flight to Homestead Colony to start a new life with more than 5,000 passengers. Don’t ask the specifics on how a body can be kept alive in suspended animation for 120 years. Screenwriter Jon Spaihts (“Prometheus”) provides no answers. Nor should you question how a luxuriously appointed giant spacecraft could indefinitely provide gourmet food and an open bar tended by a friendly robot named Arthur (Michael Sheen). Just go with it and you will better enjoy the ride.
Jim understandably gets lonely, so he wakes up Aurora from her pod. So begins a (space) shipboard romance between two exceedingly attractive people. When Aurora learns Jim deliberately released her from her pod, she is none too pleased.
As with all spaceship journeys, malfunctions develop. Enter Laurence Fishburne as Capt. Gus Mancuso, furrowing his brow mightily.

I have enjoyed outer space science fiction movies since I was a child. You don’t go to them for credibility or believability. You go for the look and the thrill. Norwegian director Marten Tyldum has provided both, with the added bonus of the sexiest space cadet around, Jennifer Lawrence.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Tripping the Light Fantastic in "La La Land"


“La La Land” Revives the Musical for a New Generation

By Skip Sheffield

Is the movie musical dead? Writer-director Damien Chazelle hopes not. Chazelle is only 31, but his charming musical “La La Land” is a loving tribute to the movie musicals of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.
Chazelle is from Providence, Rhode Island, so perhaps his outsider status provided insights into 21st century Los Angeles. The movie begins with a wonderfully silly opening song and dance sequence on an L.A. freeway. Everyone is stuck in his or her vehicle. Why not open a door and dance about on the hoods and roofs of cars? It is totally ridiculous, but it introduces us to the main characters; Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling).
Sebastian is not a good sport in traffic. He cuts off Mia to gain maybe one car length. She flips him off with a bird. Obviously they are destined to fall in love.
Sebastian is a purist jazz pianist reduced to playing children’s birthday parties. Mia is an actress who can’t quite find an appropriate role.
Emma Stone is not a drop-dead gorgeous woman, but she has something about her that makes her fascinating.
Ryan Gosling is no Brad Pitt or George Clooney, but he too has an offbeat appeal. Gosling took a crash course in learning to play the piano, and he is quite convincing.
The artist who calls himself John Legend has a small but crucial role as Keith, a band leader who wants Sebastian to gig with him.
To properly appreciate “La La Land” it is helpful to be a romantic who appreciates love against all odds. It is also helpful to have practical experience with performing music and pleasing an audience. A working knowledge of Los Angeles is helpful too.

I have all three, so I am a perfect target audience. No wonder I loved this film. It is totally fake and totally engaging. I hope there are enough hopeless romantics to make this movie a success.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Will Smith Gets Serious in "Collateral Beauty"


Will Smith Gets Serious in “Collateral Beauty”

By Skip Sheffield

How much do you like Will Smith? Do you like him enough to see him portray a severely depressed man with no super powers or martial arts skills?
Such is the case with Howard, a successful New York advertising executive Smith plays who has retreated from life after the death of his 6-year-old daughter and his subsequent divorce.
“Collateral Beauty” is not a feel-good movie. It is more like a feel-bummed movie. Will Smith plays Howard, a successful New York advertising executive whose agency is in grave peril due to his disconnection. Things have gotten so bad; three of Howard’s friends are hired to represent the three things Howard is obsessed with: Love, Time and Death. They are an impressive lot: Helen Mirren, Keira Knightly and Michael Pena.
Edward Norton gets the most screen time as Whit, second in command to Will Smith’s Howard. Whit and his colleague Claire (Kate Winslet) come up with the scheme to jolt Howard out of his depression.
I know about depression from personal experience. There is nothing funny or logical about it. It can be crippling and even deadly. How director David Frankel or writer Allan Loeb thought they could make a comedy out of it mystifies me. At least this movie lifts up the rug to reveal the people struggling with this disability. That’s good, but it ain’t funny folks.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Be Careful at "Office Christmas Party"


Predictable Highjinks at “Office Christmas Party”

By Skip Sheffield

Office Christmas parties are notorious for getting out of hand. That’s the basic premise of “Office Christmas Party,” by the directing team of Josh Gordon and Will Speck (“The Switch”).
There are no fewer than six writers credited for this comedy-farce, set in Chicago. I imagine everyone came up with gags and threw them against the wall to see which would stick.
The main pleasure of this movie is seeing Jennifer Aniston acting like a total bitch. She is Carol Vanstone, CEO of some nebulous internet company called Zenotek. Her brother Clay (T.J. Miller) runs the Chicago branch. Carol wants Clay to slash his employees by 40 percent and deny all Christmas bonuses. Clay is not very smart, but he comes up with a desperate plan to throw the ultimate Christmas party to impress prospective client Walter Davis (Courtney B. Vance), thereby proving the Chicago branch’s validity.
The second pleasure of the movie is Olivia Munn as Tracey Hughes, work wife of recently-divorced Josh Parker (Jason Bateman) who does the actual running of the branch. Ms. Munn is quite lovely in an understated way, and she radiates intelligence that blows away everyman good-guy Jason Bateman.

The party is an out-of-control bacchanal as you might expect. Jennifer Aniston is clearly slumming, but she gives her character some redeeming value. Kate McKinnon is unexpectedly upstaged as goody HR girl Mary. Randall Park gets in a few digs as the token Asian. That’s about it. Be careful at your Christmas parties and don’t drink and drive.

Friday, December 2, 2016

All is Not Well in "Manchester By The Sea"


“Manchester By The Sea” a Downbeat Tale

By Skip Sheffield

“Manchester By The Sea” is a movie that makes me glad I left New England before it was too late.
In truth I had no part in the decision, as I was only seven years old when my parents bought their first house in Fort Lauderdale. Before that we spent summers in New England and winters in Florida. “Manchester” is the downbeat story of a guy who is stuck in coastal Massachusetts. Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a divorced man with a menial job as custodian in the Boston suburb of Quincy, Mass. Lee is in danger of getting fired for mouthing off at a tenant when he gets a call informing him his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) is on the verge of death. Lee hops into his Jeep wagon and races to his home town of the fishing village of Manchester, but he is too late. Joe is already dead. Furthermore, Lee learns Joe had appointed him the guardian of Joe’s 16-year-old son Patrick (Lucas Hedges).
Patrick is popular, a successful athlete and plays guitar in his band, Stentorian. Patrick sees Lee as a loser, and makes no bones about it.
“Why can’t you make small talk like every grownup in the world,” Patrick complains.
Lee can’t make small talk because he is bottled up and depressed. He visits his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) and she tells him to stay away. He also encounters Patrick’s mother (Gretchen Mol), a recovering alcoholic now married to an evangelical Christian (Matthew Broderick in an uncredited role).
So when does the fun begin? It doesn’t. The strongest scene in the film is when Michelle Williams tearfully expresses her love for the ex-husband she could not stay with. Casey Affleck stoically listens. Only his eyes betray his anguish.

Ben’s younger brother is quite an actor. I am sure we will hear of him at Oscar time.