I started the month struggling to get rid of the bronchitis I’d contracted around Christmas. It took entirely too long to get rid of. Consequently, I didn’t return to movie theaters until well into January. At least I survived the month—to our great sadness, Cindy’s teacup poodle, Cassie, passed away this month.
MUSIC: I’m taking a break from reviewing oldies while I focus on more contemporary music. I drilled and graded every song released by Rihanna, then started working on various other albums by favorite artists that have been piling up (by Ingrid Michaelson, Jonatha Brooke, Fifth Harmony, Monkees, The 1975, Alicia Keys, Radiohead, Ariana Grande, etc.).
BOOKS: I finished listening to The Stranger Within by Kathryn Croft, a mystery-melodrama on audio, while reading various mystery short-stories on the printed page, including several by John D. MacDonald.
Other highlights this month: Jenna was terrific as Sally in the YADA production of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown; I saw comedian Brian Kiley perform at Flappers comedy club; the Academy Award nominations were announced. Looks like I have a few films to watch before the ceremony, including Hacksaw Ridge, Lion and Manchester by the Sea. Among the lowlights: my car needed a $500 repair. GROAN!
Here’s what I saw in January.
FENCES (2016)—Going in to my screening, I was unaware that Fences (directed by and starring Denzel Washington) was an adaptation of a play, but it sure didn’t take very long to figure it out. Turns out it’s based on August Wilson's 1983 stage drama, which won a Pulitzer Prize; it co-stars Viola Davis as the long-suffering wife of Washington, who plays a kind of a bitter douchebag. The movie, while rather long, is full of great performances and has some genuinely touching scenes; the last 20 minutes are so are in serious need of some trimming. Otherwise, very well done. (9)
MOANA (2016)—Disney’s 45th animated feature film has a lot going for it: a first-rate voice cast led by Auli'i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson and Flight of the Conchords star Jemaine Clement; a terrific fable-like story; interesting characters; great humor; and songs by Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda. What more could you want? Nothing, that’s what! This is a nearly perfect film, full of wonder and magic and melody, all about a girl who sets out to save her Polynesian island from a terrible curse. The film follows Zootopia, another perfect Disney animated confection from 2016. Can’t wait to see this one again! (10)
PASSENGERS (2016)—Two space pictures came out at the end of 2016: Passengers, which was mostly panned by critics (31% TM) and Rogue One, cheered by considerably more (85% TM). And yet, I found Passengers to be the far more entertaining movie. No, it’s not perfect, but I was never bored, and it has a comprehensible, uncluttered story, good performances and an upbeat ending. Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence—two wonderful, always engaging stars—headline this sci-fi romance movie in which Pratt, one of 5,000 passengers on an interplanetary journey, is inadvertently awakened only 30 years into his 120-year trip. Although the film asks the viewer to swallow some pretty preposterous plot developments, it held my interest throughout. (8.5)
ROGUE ONE (2016)—This first Star Wars “anthology” film is basically a prequel to 1977’s A New Hope; it might as well be called Episode 3.5. Felicity Jones plays Jyn Erso, a rebel fighter trying to extract some secret plans for the fabled Death Star. The movie is jam-packed full of evil Storm Troopers shooting deadly laser guns at our heroes, our heroes shooting and killing many Storm Troopers, innumerable spaceships flying around and crashing, and a couple of scenes with Forest Whitaker that manage to short-change his incredible talents even worse than Arrival did. I found most of the movie unbearably boring, despite great special effects. The original Star Wars movies (the first two, at any rate) were great fun as well as action-packed, but the filmmakers of this movie have opted to put none of that fun into this anthology film. (SPOILER ALERT—stop reading if you haven’t seen it.) And every single good guy in the movie has been killed by the end—what an unbelievable bummer! (6)
JACKIE (2016)—Here’s the good news: Natalie Portman makes a lovely, convincing Jacqueline Kennedy. She captures the accent, the mannerisms, the very essence of Jackie. Unfortunately, the performance is trapped within the confines of a dreary, slow-moving, plotless, flashback-ridden movie that doesn’t do anything and doesn’t go anywhere. A total bore. (3)
LA LA LAND (2016)—Even though this movie won an avalanche of Golden Globes and is poised to win many Oscars, it seems like a lot of people run hot and cold on this movie. Well, I loved it. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone act up a storm in this old-fashioned musical, and while it’s true that Gosling’s character is kind of a dick in the first half, he does redeem himself. I would agree that there are some slow spots, but the dancing and energy and rapport between the leads more than make up for it. Writer/director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) scores again! Too bad J.K. Simmons’ part is so small, but he is great in the very short time he’s around. (10)
SWALLOWS AND AMAZONS (2016)—I found this film included on several “Best Movies of 2016” year-end lists. It’s a fun, pastoral, heartwarming story for the entire family, based on a 1930s novel (and taking place at that time). The wonderful Kelly MacDonald (Trainspotting, Black Mirror) is simply marvelous in a plot about a widow whose four children embark on a sailing adventure in the middle of a lake, which contains an island with several secrets. A gem! (10)
HIDDEN FIGURES (2016)—True story about three brilliant black women who helped NASA succeed in the 1960s space race against the Russians, and how they paved the way for landing a man on the moon. The movie clobbers the viewer over the head with numerous racist acts and laws during the era of segregation (the ladies have to use separate restrooms, coffee dispensers, etc.). That’s a small quibble—these things really did exist—but there are times when it seems like all of the white people in this movie fall into two categories: the racist and the super racist. Still, this is a moving, inspirational biography about women deserving of a memorial. The leads (Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe) are first-rate, and Monáe is a real dish to boot. (9)