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Film Dispenser Short Takes (3/14/17)

Our critics offer some brief home video reviews for the most recent wave of 2016 releases to hit streaming, DVD and Blu-ray. With only one clunker in the bunch (yes, I mean you, Assassin’s Creed), there are a lot of quality films hitting the streaming and physical media markets of late. So, fire up your Apple TV, Roku, iPad, laptop or Blu-ray player, and get caught up on some of the better films you missed during their fall 2016 theatrical runs.20th Century Women (Scott Phillips):  If writer/director Mike Mills’ last film, Beginners (2010), was inspired by his father, then it’s probably not a stretch to suggest that 20th Century Women is a tribute to his mother.  Annette Bening plays Dorothea, a self-critical single mother who worries about the responsibility of rearing a teenage boy on her own. Living in a large home in Santa Barbara with a variety of eccentric tenants and neighbors, she enlists Julie (Elle Fanning), Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and William (Billy Crudup) to help teach her son, Jamie, about life and love in 1979. The film is a tapestry of brief flashbacks and flashforwards that give the audience the beginnings and the ends of most of the characters we meet as the narrative unfolds. Usually quirky movies about quirky people leave me cold, but 20th Century Women has the right amount of heart and humanity to go with its oddball cast of characters and plotless plot. Bening and Gerwig deserved Oscar nominations for their work here. The film is a master class in subtlety. Highly recommended.  (8.8 out of 10)Assassin’s Creed (Marie O’Sullivan):  I would probably say that if you have any clue at all about the world from which the motion picture of Assassin’s Creed has sprung, and in which it is set, you will no doubt have a much better time than I did. I tried really hard, but I just couldn’t get into the premise. I found the film and Jeremy Irons’ performance to be silly. And Marion Cotillard, what are you doing?!! I did like the sequences where the movements of modern day Fassbender and his ancient ancestor are merged together in some of the action sequences – but what I loved most was the idea that Michael Fassbender grows up to be Brendan Gleeson. That was worth watching.  (3 out of 10, but probably more if you know anything about the game)Doctor Strange (Scott Phillips): I’ve always been a fan of the Eastern mysticism branch of Marveldom, so I entered Doctor Strange with a sense of optimism that was largely validated by the film itself. Sure some of the usual tropes are present and accounted for: brief origin story, rich guy turned reluctant superhero, training montages and the gadget or technology that can destroy the world. But, there can be fun in the familiar, and Doctor Strange delivers as a crowd-pleaser. The powerhouse cast includes Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton and Benedict Wong. For all the white-washing controversy that haunted the making of the film, you have to admit that Tilda Swinton nails her role as The Ancient One. With a solid blend of action and humor, Doctor Strange is a welcome trip into a new corner of the MCU. If your enjoyment of the film is fleeting, have no fear. The next Marvel film is probably only a few months away.  (8.3 out of 10)Fences (Adam Kautzer): I was very lucky to see Fences off-Broadway a very long time ago.  It did not have the powerhouse combination of Denzel Washington and Viola Davis.  That said, the play left its mark on me. Intimate, angry, knowing, epic in character, verbose and loquacious in the vein of Death of a Salesman, August Wilson’s play is designed to be complicated and to be felt.  Denzel Washington as director has taken the brilliant play and lovingly adapted it for the screen with little fuss or cinematic ticks.  The film is designed to showcase the play which is about the crumbling of Troy (Washington) and Rose (Davis) as time, age, children and lost chances get the better of them. The beautiful language and the damaged characters are still as fascinating and confounding as in the play, remaining intact with the most thoughtful of edits by Washington as director.  (8.5 out of 10)

Jackie (Scott Phillips):  The tedious formula of birth-to-death biopics has given way to a wave of impressionistic takes on historical figures based on a small period of their lives or a milestone event. In Jackie, director Pablo Larrain, immerses the audience in the days immediately following the assassination of John F. Kennedy as the widowed First Lady plans his funeral and navigates the transfer of presidential power with one goal in mind: preserving her husband’s legacy and his place in American history. Natalie Portman gives the best performance by an actress in 2016 (sorry, Emma Stone) and puts us inside the heart and mind of Jackie Kennedy as the foundation of her world is crumbling around her. Much has been made of the accent employed by Portman. Not only is it stunningly accurate, but it never becomes an affectation or distraction. The haunting score by Mica Levi (also Oscar-worthy) lends the proceedings a constant sense of dread as we watch a remarkable woman cope with, and ultimately control, one of the most important moments in American history. Superior film-making.  (9.3 out of 10)

Patriot’s Day (Adam Kautzer):  Oftentimes docudramas are either stale or overheated from an overt agenda. Peter Berg’s newest film, Patriot’s Day, does neither, falling perfectly within the confines of emotionally-resonant film-making that conveys a level-headed sense of real life events. Patriot’s Day tells the tale of the Boston Marathon Bombings and the 104-hour manhunt that followed. Rather than focusing on one character, Berg chooses to tell a kaleidoscopic story with an ensemble headlined by Mark Wahlberg, John Goodman, Kevin Bacon, J.K. Simmons and Michelle Monaghan. Like Howard Hawks before him, Berg has a keen interest in process and professionally adept men and women working in groups.  This strength works in favor of the story which focuses clinically on the details of the investigation with punctuations of emotions. Patriot’s Day does not end on a victorious, or even triumphant, note but one of healing and love.  Berg’s film is about healing and uniting in the darkest of times.  (8.5 out of 10)  [To read Adams’ full-length review of the film, click here.]


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