Doctor Strange

Fanboys and Fangirls will certainly make an appointment to see Marvel’s Doctor Strange, and they won’t be disappointed. The superhero movie du jour features a character I was completely unfamiliar with, but it turns out he’s a rather engaging bloke, in an ‘Avengers meets the mystical world’ sort of way. I still love my Avengers more (Iron Man, Captain America, Thor…), but Doctor Strange is a solid, entertaining action-adventure sci-fi fantasy, especially for fans of the Marvel universe, where bad stuff happens and the heroes win out, without all the intense violence, darkness, and brooding that has come to characterize the DC Comics’ caped crusaders (Superman, Batman, etc.).

Trolls

I had one of those little plastic troll dolls. I recently trashed it in an effort to purge stuff from my childhood bedroom. The doll was short and naked and dirty and had wild hair shooting out of its scalp. Who knew that just a few months later, I’d be sorry I let it go? It could have been a collectors’ item! My hindsight (along with a twinge of nostalgia) was provoked by Dreamworks’ new animated movie, Trolls. It’s far from a classic-in-the-making, but it is entertaining, even if the premise is somewhat appalling (in a Hunger Games meets Shrek of way). The colors are bright, the music is infectious, the writing is witty, and it’s got a happy ending. Hot lunch! (inside joke)

Hooligan Sparrow

I love gutsy women and Ye Haiyan aka Hooligan Sparrow has got to be one of the gutsiest around. As a Chinese women’s rights activist she has put herself in serious peril over and over to get the government to treat women better. In this gripping documentary, American based Chinese filmmaker Nanfu Wang also puts herself in jeopardy simply by telling Ye’s story. She begins in the south of China on Hainan Island with a group of women who are protesting outside a school whose principal, accused of supplying six underage girls to government officials for sex, has been given a slap on the wrist. And this first encounter with the police (and their undercover thugs) and the women on the front lines of China’s women’s activism sets up the whole film. The filmmaker is questioned by police and becomes along with Hooligan Sparrow the object of constant surveillance and intimidation.

Hacksaw Ridge

Hacksaw Ridge is a decent movie that sheds light on a great, little-known story about a war hero who never touched a gun. The film has something for just about everyone — religious convictions for the faith-based crowd, romance for the chick-flick crowd, and (very) intense battlefield scenes for the macho crowd. It’s a hybrid that in many ways feels like a composite of a bunch of war movies we’ve seen before. But it finds its unique sweet spot in the character of Desmond Doss, played by Andrew Garfield (99 Homes, Spider-Man).

Ixcanul (Volcano)

This fascinating drama takes its audience into a culture few of us will ever experience. Ixcanul means volcano and the film takes place in a village that is just on the edge of an inactive one in the mountains of Guatemala. A family lives there cut off from the modern world, speaking Kaqchikel, the ancient language of the indigenous Mayans. The few times they interact with the outside world they mistakenly trust a translator with an agenda to tell them what was said in Spanish. Though it is mainly a coming of age story of the central character Maria, it is also a tale of the divide between the powerful and the powerless, and a starkly written and beautifully shot enthnography of a mysterious place out of time with the world. It is probably too slow for many people (Mainstream Chick, I’m talking to you), but I was taken with it. And it’s Guatemala’s Oscar entry for Best Foreign Film.

Moonlight

Moonlight doesn’t have any major star-power going for it, but the film could easily become one of those smaller, underdog indies that breaks through the field this Awards season– if enough people see it and word of mouth spreads. It’s a poignant drama adapted from a play called “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” by Tarell Alvin McCraney. The film chronicles a young black boy’s tumultuous and painful journey of self-discovery and sexual identity as he grows up in a rough Miami neighborhood. Three different actors portray the lead character Chiron (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes), and the transitions are impressively seamless.

Reflections from the Middleburg Film Festival

I’m told this was the best slate of movies ever presented at the Middleburg Film Festival. So I picked a good year to make my debut trip into Virginia horse country to partake in four days of film, schmoozing, and lively discussion. Granted, I did not get the full-on glitz and glamor experience, choosing to stay in a lovely $79/night Hampton Inn about 30-minutes from the main venues, rather than the stunning but pricey $700/night Salamander Resort & Spa owned by the festival’s founder. But it was still a solid introduction to a festival that, in four short years, has sown the seeds to compete with the likes of Sundance, AFI, Toronto Film Festival, etc. (I think Cannes is safe). Here’s the blow-by-blow:

American Pastoral

American Pastoral starts off strong, then takes a turn down a very long, dark and twisted road that I was more than ready to exit by the end of the film’s 108 minute running time. It felt much longer. The film is based on a 1997 Philip Roth novel that tells the story – over several decades – of Seymour “Swede” Levov (Ewan McGregor), a man who seems to have it all: He excels in sports at his New Jersey high school, becomes a successful businessman, marries a beauty queen, Dawn (Jennifer Connelly), and builds a seemingly idyllic life for himself and his family in a small town outside Newark. But his daughter Merry (Dakota Fanning) is a nut job. She gets mixed up with a bunch of radicals in the turbulent 1960s and disappears after being accused of a murderous act. Dawn has a breakdown, then a facelift, and seems content to never see Merry again. But Swede refuses to give up on his beloved daughter and embarks on a years-long quest to find her. The journey takes a heavy toll on Swede – and the audience.

The Accountant

There’s a whole lot going on in The Accountant, but somehow it all adds up to a surprisingly entertaining action movie with an interesting story, some well-timed comic relief, and a very strong cast. So don’t let the odd premise — of a brilliant but socially-awkward numbers-crunching assassin with Asperger’s — scare you away. It’s one of my favorite movies of the year for sheer mainstream movie appeal, easily besting last week’s highly-anticipated drama The Girl on the Train.

The Birth of a Nation

The story of Nat Turner deserves a big screen telling. He inspired his fellow slaves to fight back against their owners and sent shock waves across the South in 1831 when he led the biggest rebellion against the institution of slavery in American history. Nate Parker wrote, directed and stars in a fairly straight forward retelling of the story, though an off-screen controversy has probably hurt the reception of this film. That said, it is a good movie, though not what I was expecting considering the overwhelming Sundance and Toronto festival buzz.