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The Death of Stalin [Review by CLGJr]

Hannah Arendt long ago suggested that humanity’s most immoral acts might not be so special after all. If the Third Reich’s reign of genocide gave us the “banality of evil,” can any harm we inflict on each other ever truly be horrific? I’ll leave that question to the political philosophers. In the meantime, “The Death of Stalin” submits that history’s worst figures should wither under our mocking gaze rather than control us with fear. It’s an unsettling experience, but a rowdy, peculiar romp of historical fiction.

Armando Iannucci, our preeminent film and television provocateur, pulls back the Politburo curtain in May 1953. The titular event leaves a monumental gap in Soviet leadership. A writer known for lacing his acerbic humor with jaw-droppingly creative profanity reduces some of the period’s most fabled monsters into shambling nincompoops. (Seriously, partake sometime in a Selina Meyer turn of phrase on “Veep” if that’s not a part of your pop culture diet.) Stalin infamously hosted late-night drinking and John Ford soirées for his inner circle. He forced them to really lean into that whole comrade thing. Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi, droll as ever) even keeps a running list of which dinner jokes met with the General Secretary’s approval. A stray remark could land anyone’s name on the secret police list administered by the bulldog-bear hybrid Lavrentiy Beria (a magnificent Simon Russell Beale). His forces, the NKVD, carry out torture and executions with more causal More >

Annihilation [Review by CLGJr]

The Sophomore Slump forgives not. The expectations following a promising debut sometimes can spur artistic leaps (see, e.g., Christopher Nolan, Darren Aronofsky). More often for the brash auteur, critical capital dries up on the second try. Just ask Ana Lily Amirpour or Richard Kelly. Definitely don’t ask Michael Cimino, whose third time behind the camera is truly the stuff of ignominious legend. To this list, I submit Alex Garland, the screenwriter-turned-director responsible for some of the most noteworthy sci-fi thrillers of the new millennium. The fine “Sunshine,” the haunting “28 Days Later,” and the sublime “Ex Machina” all set the stage for Garland to up the budget and casting antes in service of a magnum opus. Those expecting his coronation with “Annihilation” will have to wait at least another picture more.

Based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer, “Annihilation” tells a story far less bewildering than it presumes. Johns Hopkins biologist Lena (a relatively inert Natalie Portman) mourns the loss of her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac). Kane kept his Army-issue weapons, while Lena traded hers in for a microscope. Having been presumed killed in action, Kane suddenly reappears like a drugged-out Lazarus to shake Lena out of her mitosis lecture languor. In no time at all, she is chatting with psychologist Dr. Ventress (a nearly flat-lining Jennifer Jason Leigh) and signing up for a repeat of the mission that we learn had kept Kane away for almost a year. A force field known as More >

The Emoji Movie [Review by CLGJr]

My texts are widely known (disparaged?) for their proper capitalization, syntax, and punctuation. Rarely, though, do I allow the words to speak for themselves. In the Simpler Times™️, I might have adorned iMessages with a “;)” or a “:P,” when feeling particularly playful. More elaborate constructs, ASCII emoticons in nerd parlance, never suited me. Why go through the pains of a “Sup Son” when “:-/”communicated the same ennui with fewer thumb strokes? The moment that emoji–yes, everyone, that is the preferred plural form–crossed the delicate threshold separating tween convos from adult dialogue, my reaction was a decided 🤔. Or was it 😐? Either way, I am now smitten. The emoji keyboard is imprinted on my cerebral cortex in a way that its QWERTY forebear never will be. If there were applications to the Unicode Consortium, I would hand mine in yesterday.

Imagine my delight, the ecstatic 😱+😍, with which I greeted the first rumors of “The Emoji Movie.” Now imagine my face as I exited the theater. No emoji face, hand, or symbol alone adequately reflects the feeling. Perhaps this chronology will do:

😏 (light amusement around 2:00) ➡️ 😬 (visible grimace around 5:01 after the first “joke” landed with a theater-shaking thud) ➡️ 😦 (creeping disbelief through 30:00) ➡️ 😒 (unmitigated annoyance by 59:59) ➡️ 🤢 (a well of sickness, aided by rapid ICEE consumption, rising around 1:00:00) ➡️ 😶 (loss of recognizable human emotion, cut to credits)

Why, Sony Pictures Animation did you consider More >

Dunkirk [Review by CLGJr]

Second only perhaps to the prestige biopic, every filmmaker, actor, and other Hollywood hanger-on seeking the mantle of “serious artist” has turned his or head to the hellscape that was World War II. That specific trajectory assumes greater importance for those who established their names on popcorn-fueled blockbusters and action heroism. Even cinema’s mainstream iconoclasts have found reservoirs of inspiration in the European theater and “Natzi”-killing. The conflict proving that its predecessor had neither made the world completely safe for democracy nor ended all wars is tailor-made for silver screen appraisal. The villains were worse than any screenwriter could conjure. The settings crisscrossed continental Europe, North African deserts, the great oceans, and the deep blue skies. Is there any wonder that over 1300 movies have used its narrative to extract the best from the business?

Christopher Nolan takes this heritage seriously with his true magnum opus, “Dunkirk.” Very seriously. Just as his spiritual predecessor Steven Spielberg used the Second World War to break free of aliens and dinosaurs, Nolan invites us to witness his directorial prowess unburdened by comic book flash or CGI wizardry. And witness you should. “Dunkirk” is, hands down, the best genre entry since “Saving Private Ryan.” I might even wager that it’s better.

Leaflets raining down upon deserted streets announce that Germany has pushed Allied forces to the beaches of Dunkirk, France. By late May 1940, More >

The Great Wall [Review by CLGJr]




ZHANG YIMOU: Matt, thanks so much for coming by to talk about the new picture. You got the script, right?

MATT DAMON: Absolutely, Mr. Yimou, but I only had a chance to skim it. I recently finished shooting a movie called “The Martian.” It was a trip. My character grows poop potatoes and staves off insanity by cracking wise. I can only assume I’ll be fielding questions about whether the film is a comedy or drama for years to come.

YIMOU: Sounds confusing. Well, the head honchos at the studio thought you would be the perfect choice for a legend about the Great Wall of China. Mind you, this saga has no basis in local lore.


These three screenwriters and three additional storytellers get full credit!

DAMON: About the script. I have A LOT of questions . . . .

YIMOU: I’ll cut you off right there, Matt, ‘cause I already know where you’re heading. Ok, first, you are the star. Many Chinese actors will be cast, but they will be little more than necessary set pieces. That said, you won’t have to work very hard on this movie. Most of the lines that our narrative brain trust put to paper are three-word sentences. Maximum. What about your character William’s More >

Fences [Review by CLGJr]

We casually toss around the phrase “star of stage and screen,” but few thespians have earned both a Tony and an Oscar. (Never mind the Herculean EGOT.) By one count, only twelve men and women have ever competitively nabbed those twin honors. One such legend has filmed August Wilson’s Pulitzer-winning 1983 play, the revival of which garnered several brass medallions in 2010. The actor is Denzel. The production is “Fences.” The result is the very definition of a mixed bag. I am happy to report, though, that the film’s central performances blaze despite the mise-en-scène nearly extinguishing its oxygen supply.

The third entry in Wilson’s famed Pittsburgh Cycle, “Fences” examines African-American life a full decade before Jim Crow’s de jure death. Wilson’s eye first delicately scans and then gawks with resolute disapproval upon the figure of Troy Maxson. Troy isn’t just a washed-up former Negro League ballplayer; he is nearly swimming in the bottles of gin he enjoys every Friday. At the production’s outset, he recounts past glories and current exploits with equal braggadocio. Troy’s primary audience numbers one, fellow garbage collector Jim Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson), but his words also lasso dutiful wife Rose (Viola Davis). Weekend tranquility dissolves once the children come calling. In succession, we meet the grown Lyons (Russell Hornsby) asking for a $20 loan and the teenaged Cody (Jovan Adepo) requesting permission to play football. The half-brothers share two More >

La La Land [Review by CLGJr]

The opening number of “La La Land” is technically the Technicolor rendition of “Another Day of Sun,” the only ebullience ever captured on a rush hour clogged Los Angeles freeway. The single, swooping take is truly stunning. But it’s a classic bait and switch orchestrated by writer-director Damien Chazelle. The real prologue is the final eleven minutes of his previous effort, the astonishing “Whiplash,” also my choice for Best Picture in 2015. Watch them. You will see a wunderkind (Chazelle as Miles Teller) drawing blood from a punishing encomium to jazz and earning the approval of the critical class (the Fourth Estate as J.K. Simmons). The best way to show your gratitude—and stave off the sophomore slump—might be to glorify the hand that feeds you. “La La Land” is that monument to moviedom and, in the process, the most thoroughly entertaining film you will see in 2016.

Like Haus, I hesitate to categorize “La La Land” as a musical when a relatively meager six songs pepper the storyline. It’s also not a love letter to Hollywood. Chazelle has sent his coy mistress an impassioned ode to her most graceful period. He knows that the Boulevard breaks countless dreams, but he spins disillusionment into the stuff of movie magic. This time Emma Stone and those Bette Davis eyes stand in for the travails of artistic rejection. Her Mia leads a semi-charmed kind of life. When not sharing a cavernous apartment with three other aspiring starlets, she slings lattes at a studio lot More >

Manchester by the Sea [Review by CLGJr]


Boston doesn’t enjoy the same vaunted place in film history as its metro siblings New York and Los Angeles. Hell, even Chicago occupies more reel estate (trademark!), thanks to legends like John Hughes and Roger Ebert. These are the cities with Bright Lights, Bacchanalia, and Brat Packers. But the Hub has quietly been staking its claim for attention. “The Departed.” “Mystic River.” “Gone Baby Gone.” (We will not utter this title.) And the one to rule them all: “Good Will Hunting.” Matt Damon and Ben Affleck made Beantown sexy on the silver screen, won an Oscar for their writing efforts, and still have everyone asking about their preferences over red fruit.

Nevertheless, all of these movies seem to use Boston as a convenient plot device. Actors get to try on their best Southie timbre. Filmmakers can traffic in grittiness without expensive production design. Ok, fine. “Good Will Hunting” wouldn’t exist without two particular safety schools in Cambridge. Those institutions don’t compare to the role that Eastern Massachusetts plays in “Manchester by the Sea.” Kenneth Lonnergan’s third offering requires the setting. It suffuses every fiber of the 137-minute run time. Finally, someone has produced a picture worthy of the location, and it contains some of the year’s best performances.

Casey Affleck anchors the cast in a turn that might finally lay to rest the idea that his elder brother is the better actor. Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a middle-aged man-child who wears misfortune More >

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk [Review by CLGJr]


“Verisimilitude.” It’s a classic SAT word, a ten-center as my Pops might say. But I need an even more affected term. “Simulacrum”? Bingo. It captures perfectly the experience of watching of “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” the latest and downright bewildering picture from Ang Lee. The story is, at least in this adaptation, satire without laceration, social commentary with the fangs whittled down to nubs. Or I could be completely missing a genius move on Lee’s part. It’s actually taken me a long half-month think to be sure. (Sorry, you guys!)

Based on Ben Fountain’s extremely popular novel of the same name, “Billy Lynn” follows the titular hero on his return to the United States after a grueling tour in Iraq. The setting is intentionally rooted in rural Texas, that most sacrosanct ‘Murican locale. Billy (Joe Alwyn) is a member of the Bravos, a company that showed the world you don’t mess with the Army either. He’s perfected the thousand-yard stare and was probably raised on a diet of corn and brisket. Billy gained widespread renown for engaging the enemy in mano a mano combat after attempting to rescue his fallen superior, Shroom (Vin Diesel), using only a handgun. He is G.I. Joe incarnate.

We meet him first attending Shroom’s solemn funeral. The band of brothers includes familiar hotheads, sensitive types, and dreamers. They are led by a tough-as-nails-but-actually-dope leader Dime, a committed Garrett Hedlund. After rifles are fired and tears shed, the men prepare for More >

Moonlight [Review by CLGJr]


The events of the last week have cast a dark pall over the entertainment industry. We’ve seen truly cold opens and a despairing eulogy delivered by a reliably giddy late night host. Amidst the gloom, where is a guy supposed to turn for emotional balm? (Certainly not “Keeping Up with the Joneses,” the accidental whipping boy here at the Parsing Haus.) Now it might seem plain dumb to seek shelter in a wrenching piece of cinema. But when the film is as exceptional, as enthralling, and as essential as “Moonlight,” well, a little more heartbreak is completely worth the eventual sigh of catharsis.

Told in three chapters, each reflecting pivotal points in the protagonist’s journey, “Moonlight” astonishes at every turn. Those episodes bear the titles “Little,” “Chiron,” and “Black,” the middle one being his Christian name. The other two signify respective stages of stunted growth in Miami and adult development in Atlanta. When we meet Chiron as a young boy (an excellent Alex Hibbert), he is sullen beyond words. In fact, he barely utters any. That is, until a chance encounter with local narcotics dealer Juan (the ascendant Mahershala Ali) after Little is chased into a crack den by homophobic scamps. Juan embraces Little like the son he will never have. So, too, does Juan’s girlfriend Teresa as played by the triple threat Janelle Monáe. Their unwavering support bumps up starkly against the drug-addled abuse served up daily by his mother Paula (a fierce Naomie Harris). You don’t have More >

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