"La La Land" looks to rule the night, but is there an upset in the making? 

There’s no #Oscarssowhite controversy at this year’s Academy Awards, but there is plenty to talk about. Will “La La Land” walk away with a record number of Oscars?* Will Denzel Washington win his third, and Meryl Streep her fourth? Will Matt Damon’s feud with host Jimmy Kimmel rear its ugly (and hilarious) head? This column focuses on the “big six” categories, but those in Oscar pools can expect “Zootopia” to win Animated Feature, “O.J. Made In America” to take Documentary Feature, “The Jungle Book” to win Visual Effects and “The Salesman” to take Foreign Language, in part because its Iranian director (Asghar Farhadi) will not be there, and it’s become a trend to speak out against the government at this year’s award shows.

For Best Picture, the result is a runaway. “La La Land” tied a record held by “All About Eve” (1950) and “Titanic” (1997) with 14 nominations, and most pundits have it winning anywhere between 8-10 total Oscars, including the big one. “La La Land” won the BAFTA (British Oscar), Producer’s Guild (PGA) and Director’s Guild (DGA) awards, all of which are notable precursors to Oscar glory. It’s also a technically impressive, beautiful film that’s about struggling artistry, which the Academy has repeatedly embraced (hence the recent Best Picture wins for “The Artist” and “Birdman”). Anything other than a “La La” victory will be a tremendous upset; if it happens (and it won’t), it’ll be either “Hidden Figures,” “Manchester By The Sea” or “Moonlight.” Nominees “Hacksaw Ridge,” “Hell Or High Water,” “Fences,” “Lion,” and “Arrival” are all good movies, but not strong contenders. Will win: “La La Land.” Should win: “La La Land,” as it was my number one movie of 2016.

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It’s an amazing spectacle of a film, visually pleasing but lacking good story, characters, and acting. It is worth the price of 3D just for the visuals. 

Is It Worth $10? No 

Is it Worth $15 for 3D? Yes  

Let's be clear from the start. "The Great Wall" is a spectacle film. It should not nor does it aspire to place itself into any sort of screenplay- or acting-based awards categories. Rather, it rather lets its driving force be solely in cinematography. For this reason, the film is better enjoyed in 3D, where the 3D -- done very well -- helps highlight the scale, the beauty, and the spectacle. The infamous Sun Tzu classic "The Art of War," though not mentioned in the film, seems to have given the filmmakers some level of inspiration as they are able to turn grotesque and frantic fighting into elegant and masterful performance art, accented by soft yet vibrant colors and Busby Berkeley-level synchronization.

The story follows medieval soldier of fortune William (Matt Damon) and his pal Tovar (Pedro Pascal) as they travel deep into the East in search of the fabled black powder. Their comrades are killed by some monster and once they are captured by the Chinese and brought to a section of the Great Wall fortress, William uses a severed appendage of the monster as a bargaining chip. Commander Lin (Tian Jing) is impressed and the Westerners are kept alive, conveniently, for a massive attack by hive-minded creatures of legend called the Tao Tei that can only be killed by shooting/stabbing them in the eye. As William grows fond of his captors, he learns the values of trust and fighting for a cause.

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Unfunny, unrealistic, and unwatchable. 

Is it worth $10? No

Schools such as the one in “Fist Fight” surely do not exist. If they do, I don’t want to know about them. This movie is a crass, unrealistic, and worst of all unfunny look at a high school that is truly out of this world.

In truth, that it is all of the above is not in itself bad, as this is a comedy, which means as long as it’s funny all is forgiven. But it’s not funny. In fact, the so-called “humor” is when the film is the most pathetically inept.

Roosevelt High School is not a place you want to send your kids, or worse, be employed. Most of director Richie Keen’s movie takes place on the last day of school, during which teachers have completely checked out and seniors seem to be trying to get expelled before graduation (alas, there is no mention of graduation). Students wear t-shirts with expletives, watch porn in the hall, destroy water fountains, vandalize cars, harass the security guard (Kumail Nanjiani), masturbate in the bathroom, etc.

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"A Cure for Wellness" succeeds as a refreshingly different take on big-studio horror.

Is it worth $10? Yes

“A Cure for Wellness” stars Dane DeHaan as Lockhart, a young, ambitious executive for an investment firm. When the CEO of the corporation fails to return from a Swiss "wellness spa,” Lockhart is sent to bring him back. Due to unfortunate circumstances, Lockhart himself is involuntarily checked into the spa, where he begins to undergo “treatment.” It isn't long before he realizes all is not right, and he begins his own investigation into the spa’s past and what exactly this mystery “cure” is.

DeHaan has finally found another vehicle to show off his superb acting talents. His Lockhart is essentially a yuppie type, similar to that of Patrick Bateman in “American Psycho” (2000), minus the mental illness. He starts out as an unlikable guy who is ruthless, unfeeling, and motivated only by upward mobility. What he experiences throughout the film slowly softens him up a bit. DeHaan sells his role as an unconventional and almost ineffectual hero just about perfectly. This is easily the best role he has played to date (Yes, even better than his character in “Chronicle” [2012]).

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Best Picture Oscar nominee “Arrival” is also new to Blu-Ray this week.

It’s not easy being a teenager. The combination of surging hormones and experiencing some of life’s difficult challenges for the first time can create a frenzied state in which the good experiences are great, and the bad experiences feel like the end of the world. Most teens get a mix of the highs and the lows that keep them somewhat balanced so they make it into their twenties okay.

Then there’s Nadine, the heroine at the center of “The Edge of Seventeen.” She only seems to get the low points and nothing else. At least she sees it that way. After her father dies of a heart attack, she’s left with her emotional wreck of a mother Mona (Kyra Sedgwick) and her so perfect and happy it’s sickening older brother Darian (Blake Jenner). The only happiness in her life comes from her best (and only) friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson). But one night after a wild party, Nadine catches Krista in bed with Darian—and they aren’t just lying there. This is too much for her to take.

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A great step forward for American action cinema that still doesn’t quite connect.

Is it worth $10? Yes

“John Wick: Chapter 2” has many ingredients for a successful action picture. Before continuing, I must profess my love of action movies. I’ll watch even the cheesiest ones to get my fix (though I draw the line at recent Steven Seagal, I’m not a masochist), even my student films all had an action bent to them, so this review is from the standpoint of a big fan of the genre. And “John Wick” has all of the requisite car chases, hand-to-hand combat, and gun battles a good action movie (and even my awful student films) require. But is it great? Not quite.

Former super assassin John Wick (Keanu Reeves) has gotten revenge on the people who killed his dog in the first film and returns to his solitude to mourn his wife. Mere moments after he buries the tools of his former trade, his doorbell rings; an old acquaintance, Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), has come to demand repayment for an old debt. He wants John to kill his sister, Gianna (Claudia Gerini), whose seat on the high council of a criminal organization Santino covets. When John balks, Santino destroys his home and with it all of the pictures and remembrances of John’s wife. Wick wants revenge, but the rules of their criminal world are numerous and varied. John owes Santino a debt, so he can’t simply kill him, not until he pays off that debt. So John Wick sets out on a violent path to absolve his responsibilities and then get his revenge.

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Now this is how you have fun with Batman!

Is it worth $10? Yes

“The LEGO Batman Movie” is a delightful satire of Batman as a pop culture icon, and a pretty decent Batman movie at the same time. The DC Comics Extended Universe, the “Dark Knight” trilogy, the first four “Batman” movies and even the old “Batman” TV show are referenced with a sly wink and smile. But that’s not all: Voldemort, King Kong and Sauron also appear. The only things all these properties have in common is that Warner Bros. owns them, and they’re part of what makes this movie so amusing.

This spinoff of the 2014 animated hit “The LEGO Movie” finds Batman (Will Arnett) more alone and stubborn than ever. He likes it this way, he says. He even, after saving Gotham City for the umpteenth time in a rousing opening sequence, tells The Joker (Zach Galifianakis) that he’s not Batman’s arch nemesis, and fact he means nothing to Batman. He’s just another bad guy.

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“Loving” is also new to Blu-Ray this week.

Happiness is such an important part of existence that the right to pursue it is enshrined in the Constitution of the United States. But as the old bit of wisdom goes, my right to throw punches ends at your nose. What happens when someone’s right to pursue happiness results in the physical harm of another?

In the case of the “Trolls” that give the movie its title, harm is an understatement. They face death at the hands of big, ogre-like creatures called Bergens. The reason that the large and imposing Bergens feast on the comparatively puny Trolls is because Bergens have been told that the only way they can be happy is to eat a Troll, who are the most naturally happy creatures in existence (they even have light up reminders on their wrists to tell them when it’s “hug time”).

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Wonderfully odd and captivating, this is one of the best films of last year.

Is it worth $10? Yes!

“Oh crap! It’s one of those movies.” That’s the first thought I had mere moments after “Toni Erdmann,” Oscar nominee for best foreign language film, began. It opens with a handheld, slightly shaky, non-descript shot of a mundane house in Germany, and it stays on it for what felt like an eternity. Within seconds I had written the film off as a pretentious noodle. Thankfully, professionalism kicked in and I kept watching. Slowly, and I mean slowly because the movie is close to three hours long, the film drew me in and revealed itself to be a carefully crafted, unique, and astute “comedy.”

The quotes are on purpose. At its core, the movie is a drama. But it does have a comedic setup, scenes that are clearly designed for laughter, and at least one outrageous sequence that wouldn’t be out of place in “American Pie”; after this movie, I will never look at petit fours in the same way again. But “Toni” is much more than a simple comedy.

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Veteran Haitian-American documentarian Raoul Peck—via the writings of James Baldwin—creates an unusual, detailed, and sprawling picture of race relations in America and why a “race problem” exists only to the extent that some people want or need it.

Is it worth $10? Yes

An Oscar-nominated (Best Documentary) American film, “I Am Not Your Negro” verges on creating its own genre, despite the Academy’s facile categorizing. Director Raoul Peck, who was born in Haiti, envisioned the movie to bring to life a staggeringly insightful yet unfinished memoir by the great “Bard of Harlem,” James Baldwin. What’s unusual (and brilliant) is that Peck created not a documentary about Baldwin and his “Remember This House” manuscript, but a film that uses Baldwin’s writings as narration in telling the author’s original story.

With the blessing of the James Baldwin estate, Peck set about to make a movie version of the venerable author’s memoir. Samuel L. Jackson, superb as the narrating voice of Baldwin—in Baldwin’s words—explains that his book meant to collide his experiences and relationships with three of his murdered friends: Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and anti-segregationist Medgar Evers. The director includes Baldwin more in the first-person story—via vintage interviews and photos—than the author himself would likely have, but it’s absolutely to the benefit of this more-important-than-ever film.

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Recent Articles

Blu-Ray Pick of the Week: Manchester By The Sea
“Hacksaw Ridge,” “Nocturnal Animals” and “Bad ...
Oscar Predictions 2017
"La La Land" looks to rule the night, but ...
The Great Wall **½
It’s an amazing spectacle of a film, ...
Fist Fight *
Unfunny, unrealistic, and unwatchable. Is ...
A Cure For Wellness ***1/2
"A Cure for Wellness" succeeds as a ...
Blu-Ray Pick of the Week: The Edge of Seventeen
Best Picture Oscar nominee “Arrival” is also new ...
John Wick: Chapter 2 ***
A great step forward for American action cinema ...

Best Movie In Theaters Now: La La Land

Musical about dreams and falling in love is a masterpiece and the likely Best Picture Oscar winner.

Is it worth $10? Yes

What a beautiful, special film “La La Land” is. It is simultaneously a throwback to classic Hollywood musicals and a modern romance told with style and confidence. To see it is to embrace a tale of dreams, love, heartache and triumph, and experience a level of filmmaking that is superior to most of what’s released today.

Writer/director Damien Chazelle (“Whiplash”) has taken the classic Hollywood musical and set it in the present, yet he’s captured the spirit and essence in a transplendent way. There’s a grand musical score, singing and dancing, but at its heart it’s a love story about artists pursuing their dreams. Set in Los Angeles, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is an aspiring jazz pianist, and Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress. They’re meant for each other, but of course don’t realize it at first.

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