By William Wolf

THE BEST TEN FILMS OF 2017  Send This Review to a Friend

The films on this list have been selected from among those released in New York theaters during the year and are listed in order of preference.

1. THE POST

THE SHAPE OF WATER

LAST FLAG FLYING

THE OTHER SIDE OF HOPE

THE DIVINE ORDER

BOMBSHELL: THE HEDY LAMARR STORY

THE SALESMAN

1945

I, TONYA

THEIR FINEST

Other outstanding films of 2017 listed in no special order include: Graduation; Darkest Hour; Faces Places; Molly’s Game; The Women’s Balcony; Lady Bird; Foxtrot; Menashe; A Fantastic Woman; Dunkirk; Beatriz at Dinner; Call Me By Your Name; Downsizing; Aftermath; Afterimage' Wonder Wheel; Wonderstruck; The Florida Project; Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; Stronger; Maudie; Mudbound; Victoria & Abdul; First They Killed My Father; Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story; Detroit; The Big Sick; The Promise; In the Fade; Wind River; Jane; The Unknown Girl; BPM (Beats per Minute); The Midwife; The Fencer; Indivisible; Footnotes; My Journey Through French Cinema; The Ticket.

BROADWAY UNPLUGGED 16TH ANNUAL CONCERT  Send This Review to a Friend

The most rousing reception in the 16th annual Broadway Unplugged Concert last night (November 30) went to Chuck Cooper, who in the final solo number on the program sang the iconic “Old Man River” from “Showboat.” Without a mike, Cooper cannily built to a climax that soared with the intense feeling that the song communicates when sung from the depths of the soul with the painful awareness of the racial suffering reflected. It was a supremely powerful performance.

The opportunity to hear singers without amplification, as it once used to be on Broadway, is what creator-writer-co-director and host Scott Siegel likes to call listening to voices “designed by God.” He used that description again as he hosted the event, held at the Merkin Concert Hall, and wittily introduced an impressive array of 15 vocalists.

There were other memorable performers in addition to Cooper. Farah Alvin, for example, wrung every bit of emotion out of the poignantly resentful “Cry Me a River” from “Swing!” The great William Michals was on hand, opening the show with a heartfelt “God Bless America,” the durable anthem that Iriving Berlin wrote, included in “This Is the Army.” Michals also soloed impressively with “Where’s the Girl?” from “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” and he teamed with Douglas Ladnier for the amusingly macabre “Pretty Woman” from “Sweeney Todd.”

On his own Ladnier did romantic justice to “Stranger in Paradise” from “Kismet.” A highlight of the evening was Robert Cuccioli singing the amusingly reflective “Where Is the Life that Late I Led” from “Kiss Me, Kate.” Other male stalwarts with excellent voices included Hunter Ryan Herdlicka singing “Younger Than Springtime” from “South Pacific;” Brian Charles Rooney performing “Love Can’t Happen” from “Grand Hotel;” Bob Stillman enthralling with “It All Fades Away” from “The Bridges of Madison County;” Kevin Spirtas mining “Zorba!” for the affirmative “Life Is,” and John Easterlin superbly singing “Wanting You” from “The New Moon.”

Ethel Merman is lo longer with us, but Klea Blackhurst is. She let go entertainingly with Merman-style blasts as she power-housed “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” from “Anything Goes.” I can still hear her as I write. Likable Jenny Lee Stern brought freshness to the warhorse “Cabaret” from “Cabaret.” Looking great, Emily Skinner dazzled with her interpretation of “Poor Unfortunate Souls” from “The Little Mermaid.”

Other crowd-pleasers were Maxine Linehan singing “Unexpected Song” from “Song & Dance” and Kristin Dausch tearing into “Some People” from “Gypsy.” The gang assembled for a finale to sing “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” from "The Sound of Music."

Accompaniment was provided delightfully by Ross Patterson, musical director, arranger and pianist, Tom Hubbard on bass and Mairi Dorman–Phaneuf on cello. Rick Hiknson was co-director and stage manager, Joe Burke assistant director and assistant stage manager and Holly Cruz production assistant and in charge of musical staging.

Scott Siegel announced that as a result of contributions received, fifty students of the arts were invited to attend the concert. At the Merkin Concert Hall, 129 West 67th Street. Reviewed December 1, 2017.

NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL 2017--WONDER WHEEL  Send This Review to a Friend

Woody Allen has turned the tables on those who criticize him for his penchant toward having older men in love with younger women in his films. In “Wonder Wheel” it is an older woman in love with a young hunk.

As usual, Allen’s new film set in 1950 Coney Island is beautifully filmed—the cinematographer is Vittorio Storaro—and gorgeous to look at. Kate Winslet gives a colorful, dynamic performance as Ginny, who is approaching 40 and is the frustrated wife of James Belushi as Humpty, who operates a carousel as the two try to make a living along the Coney Island boardwalk. Ginny labors as a waitress in a clam joint.

Ginny has a 10-year-old son, Richie (Jack Gore) from her former marriage, and Allen finds humor in the kid’s being an incipient firebug who likes to set things ablaze, a running gag in the film. Ginny is frustrated emotionally and sexually and, longing for romance and an upswing in her life, is ripe for an affair.

Things take an exciting but forbidden turn when Justin Timberlake as Mickey, a war vet studying to write plays but working as a lifeguard, and Ginny get hot for each other. Allen gives the character of Mickey the job of narrating to frame the story.

Belushi also delivers a strong performance. The situation is complicated by Humpty’s daughter, Carolina, played by Juno Temple. They have been estranged, and as the as plot spins, she is hunted by mobsters with her life in danger. She married a gangster against her father’s advice and, having turned informer to the FBI, is now hunted by thugs assigned to kill her.

That would seem enough of a plot, but life gets even more entangled when Mickey is attracted to Carolina, which bodes ill for the older Ginny, Carolina’s step mother. Allen’s screenplay meshes the ingredients with suspense, all the while being true to the characters he has created.

In “Wonder Wheel” the main thrust is drama, but punctuated with the humor that comes from our observing the characters and the trouble they get into from our safe distance. More specific humor comes from the kid firebug bit. Overall there is an undercurrent of romanticism abetted by the glimpse into Coney Island past. This may not be Allen’s strongest film, but it is certainly enjoyable, even moving at times, and further evidence that this most prolific of American directors continues to hone his skills and entertain us. An Amazon Studios release. Reviewed December 1, 2017.

NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL 2017--VOYEUR  Send This Review to a Friend

Years ago a friend tipped me off that if I ever go to Louisville, Ky., and stay in a particular hotel there is a room I should ask for because it has a peephole through which one can observe whatever hot things are going on in the room next door. I never got to Louisville but I did get to see “Voyeur” at the 2017 New York Film Festival. It is a documentary directed by Myles Kane and Josh Koury covering the second hand voyeuristic adventures of writer Gay Talese.

A problem with the film is that there is not much voyeurism in which we can indulge. Yes, a little. But there is more talk than action as Talese explores what he has been told by Gerald Foos, who bought a motel in Colorado in the 1960s. Foos boasts that he has set up a system that allows him to spy into hotel rooms from above, and he escorts Talese to view his handiwork.

Talese, who had known Foos for a long time was working on a book, “The Voyeur’s Motel” and there was even a pre-publication chapter in The New Yorker. But a time discrepancy occurred, which put a dent in Foos’s ownership account.

Talese talks at length about his research and what happened. He is an interesting raconteur and he is a renowned writer with an illustrious career and reputation. However, the film becomes long-winded and for a movie with its tantalizing title it doesn’t deliver very much for the viewer who would like to see more, and certainly for the confirmed voyeur. A Netflix release. Reviewed December 1, 2017.

NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL 2017--THE OTHER SIDE OF HOPE  Send This Review to a Friend

Even though this film takes place in Finland, its dealing with refugees gives it a universality that is particular pertinent in light of immigrants struggling to find safety and new lives in countries that will receive them. Take notice, Donald Trump.

Writer-director Aki Kaurismãki, who injects wry humor in his films even when the subject is serious, delivers impressively once again with “The Other Side of Hope.” Khaled, played likably by Sherwan Haji, is a Syrian refugee from death and destruction who smuggles his way into Finland because that’s where the ship on which he stowed away happens to be bound. We see him first when he emerges soot-covered from his hideaway.

Khaled wants to gain asylum and also is determined to find his missing sister and get her to Finland. He has lost track of her and desperately wants friends to locate her. Meanwhile, he goes through the interview process with authorities in hope of being allowed to remain. We see a woman interviewer trying to be understanding but also asking pertinent questions that must be weighed.

Khaled also must find work, and that is where Kaurismãki interweaves human and humorous elements into the story. We meet Wikström (the excellent Sakari Kuosmanen), a traveling shirt salesman who walks out on his alcoholic wife. After placing his keys and his wedding ring on the table, he exits to start a new journey. He buys a restaurant, staffed by incompetents who are a funny lot.

When Wikström discovers the homeless Khaled, he feels sorry for him and gives him a place to sleep in a storage space that he maintains. He also gives him a job in the restaurant, which isn’t doing very well. An extremely funny part of the film involves successive failed attempts to make the restaurant ethnic, with waiters dressed accordingly, as the place shifts ridiculously between Indian and Japanese.

There is also humor in the set-up for preparing a fake ID for Khaled, and a relief when the phony document works. Kaurismãki never loses sight of the human drama and the stakes involved and works up suspense regarding Khaled’s precarious status and the hunt for his sister. Wikström’s life is also about to take another turn. The plot also highlights the hatred by anti-immigrant thugs, one of whom viciously attacks Khaled.

The director never loses the opportunity to wrap events with offbeat humor. “The Other Side of Hope” is a thoroughly engrossing and ultimately uplifting film that strikes a blow in favor of treating refugees properly. It is one of my favorite films of the year. A Janus Films release. Reviewed November 29, 2017.

NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL 2017--CALL ME BY YOUR NAME  Send This Review to a Friend

Shown at the 2017 New York Film Festival and now in commercial release, “Call Me By Your Name” is a sensitive story of a budding gay relationship told against a colorful summer background in northern Italy with visuals that further the film’s simmering but mostly understated sexuality. The accomplished film has been directed by Luca Guadagnino, with a screenplay by James Ivory, Guadagnino and Walter Fasano based on the novel by André Acimen.

The set-up involves Professor Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg), who invites a student to aid in his research, as he does every summer. This summer of 1983 the student is an American, Oliver (Arnie Hammer), a handsome young man to whom the professors son, Elio (Timothée Chalamet), is drawn.

At 17, Elio is unsure of his sexuality, although he has a girl as a friend. What the film gradually observes is the temptations that arise on the part of both Elio and Oliver, with the older Oliver a constant lure. In one sense, this is a coming of age story as well as a drama about the discovery of sexual identity.

This could easily have become a sleazy tale, but the complications that fascinatingly escalate step by step command serious attention. There is also an interesting element in the relationship between Elio and his father. As for Oliver, he must proceed with caution both because of the his position with Perlman and the inexperience of Elio.

The lead actors are excellent, and supporting roles are also well played. Above all, the direction by Guadagnino hits the right notes, as does the cinematography by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom. A Sony Pictures Classics release. Reviewed November 24, 2017.

NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL 2017--MUDBOUND  Send This Review to a Friend

Based on Hillary Jordan’s novel, “Mudbound” is a major film attempting to shed light on race relations and societal juxtapositions against a background of struggles on the land in the Mississippi Delta. Set after World War II, the film reflects an effort by director Dee Rees, who wrote the screenplay with Virgil Williams, to tell a sweeping story in intimate terms.

At the core are two families, one white, the other African-American, each with a tough existence, but as one might expect, the black family suffering most as a result of the discrimination prevalent at the time in a South with the KKK still marauding.

An excellent cast contributes toward making the various characters lifelike, and the filmmakers have opted for individual narrations to both further the story and increase our understanding of the characters and what they face.

Henry McAllan, played by Jason Clarke, with his wife Laura portrayed stoically by Carey Mulligan, has bought land and a rickety house into which they move. Henry’s younger brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) is more aware of Laura’s needs and longings than her husband is. One discerns a possible romantic inclination in him as well. The grandfather in the family, played by Jonathan Banks) is thoroughly reprehensible for his bigotry.

Working the land that McAllan has bought is the Jackson family. Interestingly, popular vocal star Mary J. Blige is cast in the demanding role of Florence Jackson, married to Hap (Rob Morgan), and she makes the most of her dramatic opportunity,

An important part of the plot involves the friendship that develops between Jamie and the Jacksons’s son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), who bond despite race divisions and the frowning upon white-black relationships. In the military and fighting abroad, Ronsel has experienced relative freedom for the first time and a relationship with a white German woman that will later produce a dangerous situation back home.

The plot becomes extremely intricate, with deeply emotional events occurring, and sometimes the story seems over-extended. However, the humanity that pervades “Mudbound” at times has a powerful impact. The film is also visually potent with excellent cinematography by Rachel Morrison. A Netflix release. Reviewed November 17, 2017.

TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2017--BORG/MCENROE  Send This Review to a Friend

Tennis was on the agenda big time on opening night of the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). The selection was “Borg/McEnroe,” directed by Janus Metz, a dramatization of the famous 1980 Wimbledon court battle between Sweden’s Bjõrn Borg and America’s John McEnroe.

The film, which I am belatedly getting around to writing about, is really on two levels—the tennis matches and the portraits of the players themselves. Each actor is first rate, Sverrir Gudnason as Borg and Shia LaBeouf as McEnroe. The film, although over-long, has a generous helping of excitement. But it is plagued by a basic difficulty.

It is all personality and no real tennis. Yes, there is plenty of cleverly done editing of clips to give the impression of the match. How much better it would have been to see real clips of the actual match itself! But that would have been a documentary.

Such an approach would not have made it possible to dramatize the anxieties and lives of the two players, as the actors in the roles would not match those we see on the court. By not going back to the real match, the film could show the two stars going through some motions on the court to lend authenticity, but emoting in the reality-based drama.

As involving as the portrayals are, the more their skills are touted, the more I longed to see the real tennis combat. But it has to be said that the editing by Per Sandholdt and Per K. Kirkegaard is outstanding, as is the direction by Metz. The interweaving of the clips is extremely effective. LaBeouf often steals scenes with the bad-boy outbursts for which McEnroe was known.

As is the custom, the opening night screenings of the film were followed by a packed party in the TIFF Lighthouse building to celebrate the internationally popular event. Posted November 1, 2017.

TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2017--LADY BIRD  Send This Review to a Friend

Greta Gerwig has earned a good reputation as an actor and now, with “Lady Bird,” she shows that she also has considerable talent as a writer-director.

Gerwig chronicles the restlessness of a high school girl In Sacramento who wants to break loose from her mother’s grip, which includes plans for a close-to-home college education instead of letting her daughter fly away. ( Lady Bird is really named Christine, but she chooses to be known as Lady Bird to help make her seem special.)

The title role is played by the excellent Saoirse Ronan (“Brooklyn”) and although she does a skillful job, I find her appearing too old for high school age. She looks more like a person already into the world beyond that and this bothers me on the credibility count.

I know there is a lot of buzz about the film, which apparently speaks to many who have had growing up problems of their own. But while on the one hand, Ronan gives Lady Bird plenty of spirit, her personality can be rather annoying as we watch her go through the paces of her assorted experiences and attitudes.

Lady Bird is bent on going to college in New York to see broader horizons. This idea is anathema to her mother, Marion, given a superb performance by Laurie Metcalf. The father is portrayed by Tracy Letts, convincing as usual.

There is much to enjoy in watching Lady Bird wrestle with life and in laughing at some of the humorous lines and situations, and Gerwig directs sharply. But I find the title character rather tiresome at times. You may feel otherwise. An A24 release. Reviewed October 30, 2017.

NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL 2017--THE SQUARE  Send This Review to a Friend

The art world gets a daffy satirical going-over in “The Square,” written and directed by Ruben Östlund and set in Stockholm. The film is overlong at nearly two and one-half hours, as well as being disjointed, but it does manage to deliver some laughs at various points in spoofing doings at a major museum.

Claes Bang plays Christian, who has a temporary appointment as the museum’s curator, and an unusual exhibit sets the stage for mayhem. A small square is blocked off outside the museum as an area that is meant to be an oasis of trust and caring. What will be the reaction of people who either look at it or step into it? Modern art, you see, with a social function.

But plot contortions lead to a public relations disaster. A campaign to call attention to the project, unthinkingly OK’d by Christian, backfires dramatically. Christian is in a hot spot, as is the museum.

What passes for romantic interest is a quickie sexual escapade between Christian and an American journalist played by Elisabeth Moss. She hops into bed with him and when it is clear that it was a one-nighter, she turns angry in a rather silly reaction, as there was no indication that it would be anything more. Moss is good actor, but the part is a vapid one.

A scene that I enjoyed most was an accident involving a pile of dirt heaped as supposed art. When the dirt is accidently knocked apart in cleaning, it has to be repiled to make it look as if nothing happened. As if it would make a difference. The gag touched a nerve with me, as I have recoiled at such banal exhibitions at museums that are passed off as contemporary art.

Christian gets into another kind of trouble when he has his cell phone stolen and sets out to find out who did it by passing out leaflets in a building. This sets in motion a complication that takes some time to be clarified.

There is plenty going on in the romp with various targets, but despite portions that strike the funny bone, other elements are heavy handed. If the film were far shorter, it would be easier to take. A Magnolia Pictures release. Reviewed October 27, 2017.

  

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