Monday, March 6, 2017

The Films of January-February 2017

The Ardennes

Claire in Motion

xXx: Return of Xander Cage

The Salesman

They Call Us Monsters


The Daughter

Oklahoma City

War on Everyone

A United Kingdom

Fifty Shades Darker


Kubo and the Two Strings

My Life as a Zucchini

Dying Laughing

The Red Turtle

The Last Word


Donald Cried

The Women's Balcony

A bout with bronchitis and a serious paucity of worthwhile titles mean the quickest of capsules on the first 21 films of 2017. Fuller and more regular reviews will resume forthwith.

"Sleepless": perhaps the most January movie ever released in January, an actioner of multiple laugh-out-loud plot twists and a supremely hammy lead performance by Jamie ("Stay with me, man!") Foxx. You may enjoy it with a group of friends, each pointing out different absurdities and impossibilities.

"The Ardennes": an intriguing premise - when a robbery goes haywire, A (C's brother) and B (C's girlfriend) leave C behind to take the fall, then become lovers while C's in stir - and some visual style give way to an increasingly uninteresting and unpleasantly violent plot.

"Claire in Motion": or as one critic dubbed it, "Claire in Slow Motion." Betsy Brandt mostly holds the viewer's interest over 80 minutes as a math professor whose husband mysteriously disappears and who comes to find how much she didn't know about him.

"xXx: Return of Xander Cage": X this one off your list.

"The Salesman": Asghar Farhadi's deserving Oscar winner (albeit in a weak foreign language category) is a melodramatic mystery involving a sexual assault, a bathroom, a stairwell, and a previous tenant who left a roomful of possessions.

"They Call us Monsters": a well-meaning and empathetic but incomplete documentary about teenagers tried and sentenced as adults.

"Gold": a patent (and rightly failed) Oscar-bait performance by the usually dependable Matthew McConaughey sinks this endless "Wolf of Wall Street" meets "Treasure of the Sierra Madre."

"The Daughter": Ibsen goes to Australia in this never believable two family melodrama that squanders the talents of Geoffrey Rush and Sam Neill.

"Oklahoma City": a well-researched and -reported documentary that details how government heavy-handedness at Waco and Ruby Ridge motivated Timothy McVeigh to domestic terrorism.

"War on Everyone": John Michael McDonagh, the sick mind responsible for 2014's "Calvary," returns with this desperately overwritten and profoundly unfunny crooked-cop comedy, with Alexander Skarsgård and Michael Peña completely miscast as partners on the Albuquerque P.D.

"A United Kingdom": the sort of sweet, simple movie they might play on Video Night at the old folks' home, with David Oyelowo as the heir to the throne of (what would become) Botswana and Rosamund Pike as the English girl he falls in love with while studying abroad.

"Fifty Shades Darker": all the giggly, anticipatory humor that made the first film such fun is missing from this workmanlike sequel.

"Kedi": a snoozy documentary, less fun than a YouTube video, about the street cats that have become a unique part of everyday life in Istanbul.

"Kubo and the Two Strings": a bizarre and boring animated mashup of personal origin story, fairy tale and samurai epic. How it scored an Oscar nomination is beyond me.

"My Life as a Zucchini": the pick of the (admittedly weak) crop of animated Oscar nominees, this Swiss import features enough heart, wit and character development to see it over the line.

"Dying Laughing": a scattershot documentary about stand-up comedy that's never as engaging as any episode of David Steinberg's Showtime interview series "Inside Comedy," which you should check out On Demand instead.

"The Red Turtle": majestic hand-drawn animated sequences vie with ponderously long stretches devoid of action in this last of the Oscar nominees, from Japan's famed Studio Ghibli.

"The Last Word": a cringe-inducing would-be comedy in which Shirley MacLaine plays a wealthy, ornery widow who demands the local paper's obituary writer (Amanda Seyfried) pen hers in advance and just how she wants it. We lasted about 45 minutes.

"Lovesong": a light-on-action indie about the repressed and inchoate feelings between best friends Sarah (Riley Keough) and Mindy (Jena Malone). Keough came to my attention last year in the great "American Honey," and here holds the screen and the picture in her thrall, much of its 85 minute runtime playing out across her extraordinarily expressive face. I look forward to seeing more of her.

"Donald Cried": no, not that Donald (though I give the Nuart credit for its marquee: "Sad!"). This is a comedy of inappropriate behavior (in the mold of "Toni Erdmann") about a Manhattan banker who returns to Rhode Island to sell his late mother's home and, having lost his wallet, reluctantly lands at the doorstep of his onetime best friend, the overgrown man-child of the title. It comes together in the end.

"The Women's Balcony": high spirited and good natured if only intermittently funny Israeli comedy about an Orthodox synagogue that collapses and is rebuilt without the special space of the title, triggering a war of wills between the sexes.

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