More Reviews of Films in Theatrical Release
© by John Arkelian
“Jurassic World” (D): This fourth installment of cloned dinosaurs running amok (the three earlier entries came in 1993-2001) should be called “Jurassic Crap.” It is relentlessly phony – in tone, characters, and situation. In fact, it utterly neglects story and characterization for CGI effects – and the result is tedious. We don’t believe in any of its cardboard cutout caricatures, let alone care about their fate: A pair of annoying teens think it’s a jolly good idea to ignore the sign that says: ‘Mortal Danger: Keep Out or Be Eaten!;’ twenty thousand tourists think a resort built amidst man-eating monsters is the perfect place for a holiday getaway; a mad scientist recklessly splices DNA like there’s no tomorrow; and an undercover military agent dreams of putting raptors on the battlefield (‘Uncle Sam Wants You,’ indeed). Meanwhile, like countless tech-toy-addicts in the real world, the twit charged with managing the two unaccompanied teens can’t pull her nose out of her misnamed ‘smart phone;’ and the general manager of dinosaur island (a grating Bryce Dallas Howard) ridiculously traverses swamps, rock fields, and other rough terrain in high heels. For good measure, a man-made hybrid beast (this installment’s ‘big bad’) manages to trick its captors into thinking it has escaped – by (somehow!) cloaking its heat signature from sophisticated sensors. Then, the incompetent management dispatches a few soldiers with useless dart guns to apprehend the rampaging behemoth. C’mon! The premise of the entire Jurassic series is founded on the indigestible notion that carnivorous monsters would make a suitable tourism destination for family entertainment. And the plot, such as it is, consists of an insufferable succession of howlingly dumb choices and stupid behavior. The only halfway interesting character here is played by Chris Pratt (from last summer’s infinitely more entertaining “Guardians of the Galaxy”), as the trainer of a pride of velociraptors; but, he’s not enough to salvage the movie.
“San Andreas” (C): Instead of fleeing from dinosaurs, the people in this disaster flick have to get away from collapsing buildings, crashing debris, and a towering tidal wave that are activated by a massive earthquake along California’s San Andreas fault. San Francisco gets the worst of it; and a search and rescue expert (Dwayne Johnson) moves heaven and earth to find his ex-wife and daughter amidst the deadly chaos. There’s a ham-handed moment of product placement overkill, in which 99.9% of the students in a lecture hall have laptops made by the computer company that has fruit for its logo: Is this a movie or a commercial? But, overall, it’s an okay disaster movie: There’s nothing new or noteworthy about it. But, at least, we get a little invested in its characters’ fate. It elicits a mild emotional response at a pivotal moment – and that’s more than its dinosaur-infested competition can say. For ages 18+: Brief coarse language.
“Inside Out” (C/C+): This Disney/Pixar animated film takes us inside the psyche of a young girl named Riley, where five key emotions (Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear) are represented as separate embodiments of her personality. Led by Joy, they collectively manage her life. But happiness is on the wane when a long-distance move uproots Riley from the life she has always known and casts her adrift in an unfamiliar place and lifestyle. Riley longs for home, and Sadness takes the ascendancy – precipitating an inner crisis which the five emotions collectively try to address. Two of them are marooned far from the levers that guide their charge’s emotional life and must undertake an adventurous journey home. But, the one-note morose mopiness of Sadness grates, and the prevailing comedic tone of the movie is a tad too juvenile and rambunctious to strike much of a chord with older viewers. Ironically, however, it is precisely a boisterous character (the child’s imaginary friend, who is part cat, part cotton candy) who achieves a moment of real poignancy.
“I’ll See You in My Dreams” (B): A gentle story about a single woman of a certain age (60-something, perhaps?) who finds friendship with one man and romantic interest with another, at a time when she’s no longer looking for such things. Blythe Danner plays Carol, who is parted early in the film from her remaining constant companion, a golden retriever, having lost her beloved husband years earlier. Taking impromptu refuge on her patio one night from a four-legged intruder, she makes the acquaintance of the low-key new pool-guy (Martin Starr’s Lloyd) the next morning. He wonders if she has expired on the patio lounge. He’s a poet at heart, with a dry sense of humor, and they share a fondness for karaoke. (Carol wows him with a professional-caliber rendition of “Cry Me a River.”) Meanwhile, a charismatic older man at the country club boldly announces his interest in Carol. Sam Elliott’s laconic Bill has his own boat: Having no one to support after he’s gone, he’s intent on enjoying life, complete with the unlit cigar that never leaves his lips. Carol’s first date with Bill quickly births a second, and more – and romance is unexpectedly in the offing. And her friends – played by Mary Kay Place, Rhea Pearlman, and June Squibb (who was so good in 2013’s “Nebraska”) – can’t wait to hear the details. There’s one more person to juggle when Carol’s out-of-town daughter (played by Toronto-raised Malin Akerman) comes to visit. The result is a heartwarming, serio-comic character study. Its humorous moments are subdued; thankfully, this is not a slapstick comedy. Rather, it a humane, appealing study of life, character, relationships, and change. How nice it is to see a mature woman portrayed as still being a very beautiful one – in the person of the classy Danner. Go see it! Very brief coarse language.
“Love + Mercy” (B/B+): An engrossing biopic about the musical wunderkind behind the Beach Boys, this film jumps back and forth between the 1960s and the 1980s. Paul Dano plays the gifted but troubled Brian Wilson in the earlier time period, while John Cusack plays his older incarnation. Both of them deliver fine, nuanced performances, portraying a man who confides to a near-stranger (Elizabeth Banks’ Melinda Ledbetter, who comes to play a pivotal role in his life) that he is “lonely, sad, and frightened.” Whether at the pinnacle of success or crumbling under the oppressive thumb of a self-declared healer (Paul Giamatti’s oppressive Eugene Landy), Wilson comes across as a lost soul – someone who lacks the wherewithal to function normally in society. His idiosyncratic personality, his all-consuming musical muse, shyness, and a legacy of emotional abuse at the hands first of his father (played Bill Camp) and then his guardian Landy, leaves Wilson adrift. But his oddness doesn’t keep us from liking him: On the contrary, there’s a boyish innocence about him that is very appealing, whichever actor is portraying him. We knew nothing about this film going in (and precious little about the Beach Boys either), so it was a very pleasant surprise. We were heartened to see Joanna Going’s (who made a lasting impression in 1991’s “Dark Shadows”) name among the supporting players, but she is given too little to do as Wilson’s mother.
“Insidious, Chapter 3” (Canada/USA, 2015) (C): A so-so prequel to the 2010 & 2013 movies of the same name, this installment concerns a teenage girl (Stefanie Scott) whose attempts to contact her deceased mother are instead answered by a spectral predator. Her desperate father (Dermot Mulroney) turns to a reluctant medium (Lin Shaye) for otherworldly guidance. There’s nothing particularly new or noteworthy here. The film gets some brief chills from the tried but true expedient of something jumping out at us from the dark. But, the cast buoys the material, actually generating some pathos as it elicits our empathy. For ages 18+: Brief coarse language.
“Good Kill” (B/B+): Flying in under the radar, this drama about a U.S. Air Force pilot who is reluctantly relegated to piloting lethal UAV (or unmanned aerial vehicles, better known as drones) from the comfort and safety of Nevada is one of the year’s best movies. Working from an air-conditioned trailer on a military base on the outskirts of Las Vegas, Major Egan (Ethan Hawke in a strong performance) targets enemy personnel in far-off Afghanistan and Yemen with a missile-firing drone. He can see his targets, but they can’t see his remote-controlled miniature aircraft, let alone him. For Egan, sitting in front of a computer console is no substitute for being in the cockpit of a high-performance jet fighter: He jokingly tells his colleagues that it’s like going from a Ferrari to a Ford Fiesta. But, it’s not really matters of status that are starting to eat away at him. Rather, it’s the whole business of killing by remote control – and at a safe distance. The conflict seems, well, unbalanced: He takes lives at the push of a button, against foes who can’t see him, let alone shoot back: “I feel like a coward, taking potshots from half a world away.” Every evening, in a startling contrast to the lethal nature of his work, he drives through the neon signs of Vegas on his way to his beautiful wife (January Jones), kids, and backyard barbeque. The sharp disconnect between his day-job and the mundane normality of his home life gradually and subtly starts to take a toll on this very professional, very steady officer. Despite efforts to avoid “collateral damage,” innocent people do get killed (including children who happen to pass on bicycles at the wrong moment), something that incrementally add to Egan’s burden of guilt. And things get far worse when the military starts taking orders from the CIA: A disembodied voice from far-off Langley, Virginia starts giving Egan and his team their marching (and shooting) orders, and, it seems, the ruthless CIA has far fewer qualms about their methods and targets: Instead of reasonable grounds to believe that some target is ‘a bad guy,’ they base their decisions on mere profiling (any military aged male may be arbitrarily presumed to be a hostile – actual or potential!). The ensuing change in “rules of engagement” is the last straw for Egan, as his belief in what he is doing starts to unravel, along with his marriage. His equally conflicted co-pilot (Airman Vera Suarez, played by Zoe Kravitz, who is also currently on view in “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Insurgent”) asks: “Since when did we become Hamas?” And there is another evocative blurring of the lines between right and wrong, as the U.S. team is obliged to watch recurring instances of an Afghan woman being raped by a serial offender. He’s not their target, and they don’t want to give away their unseen presence in the skies above, so they are obliged to watch a violent crime without intervening. (Here’s one case when even those of us who have grave qualms about the routine use of assassination by the state would be itching to pull the trigger.) Canadian actor Bruce Greenwood does a fine job in a strong supporting role as Egan’s commanding officer: “Don’t ask me if it’s a just war. That’s not up to us,” he tells Egan. “Good Kill” is a remarkably good movie: A strong cast; a subtle, but powerful, moral dilemma; convincing interpersonal drama; admirable subtlety; and cogent questions about the endless war we’re conducting by long-distance and at remote control, make it a must-see. It makes its points – about the morality (or lack thereof) of this kind of warfare and about the toll it takes (in post-traumatic stress) on military men and their families – without being didactic. “Good Kill” was nominated for the Golden Lion (Best Film) at the Venice International Film Festival. For ages 18+: Coarse language and briefly disturbing scenes.
“Ex Machina” (B+/A-): Yes! At last, a movie worth getting excited about! Smart, original, and utterly engrossing, this minimalist exploration of what makes us human is a modern science fiction classic. A bright and very decent young computer programmer (Domhnall Gleeson as Caleb) seemingly wins a contest to spend several days at the home of his reclusive internet-billionaire/inventor boss (Oscar Isaac as Nathan). If home it can be called: The glass and rock research facility is, like an iceberg, mostly underground on an isolated estate that comprises hundreds of acres (exterior shots were filmed amidst the mountains, forests, and glaciers of Norway). He gets a card-key (bearing his startled image) that grants access to some rooms, but not to others. Ostensibly, the purpose of the visit is a chance to bond with the boss. But the iceberg analogy fits here in two ways – first, Nathan is a bit of an iceberg himself, cold, abrasive, imperious, and, we immediately suspect, ruthlessly intent on some hidden agenda; and, second, this is very much a story about what is concealed – in the human psyche and otherwise. It turns out Caleb’s selection wasn’t random at all: He was handpicked for the task of meeting and interacting with an artificial intelligence created by Nathan in the form of a woman. And the lovely form she takes is that of Swedish actress Alicia Vikander. “Ava” has the actress’ face and her voice, hands, and feet – the rest of her is a transparent automaton, whose gears gently whir (in a nice bit of sound design) as she moves or turns. Caleb is asked to administer the so-called “Turing Test,” named after the real-life British computer pioneer (and wartime code-breaker) Alan Turing, a test that aims to determine if an apparent A.I. can truly think independently. The great strength of this film is its quiet conversations between Caleb and Ava, with the two parties separated by a clear wall. There’s an elegance about those scenes that leave us grappling to uncover who is testing whom and why. Ava was made to be attractive to Caleb (and, it seems, to this reviewer); but, is she attracted to him in turn? Are whispered confidences real? Intent – real, feigned, apparent, or disguised – is in question for all of these characters. For instance, what is it that Nathan really wants to learn? He dismisses Caleb’s well-intentioned logical analysis and demands instead a more visceral reaction from his guest. Meanwhile, Nathan’s mute servant Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) tends to his every need submissively and in utter silence. Her silent watchfulness, Nathan’s prickliness, the isolation of the setting, the locked doors, the ubiquitous surveillance, the vaguely unsettling musical score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, the mysterious power failures, Ava’s demeanor of lonely sadness – all these things, and more, lend the film a palpable sense of subdued foreboding. We have the sense that something undefinable is very wrong here, or that something soon will be. Things take a somewhat more conventional dramatic turn near the end, but that does not diminish the power, the subtlety, the mystery, and the beauty of this film. “Ex Machina” is (as of early June 2015), the best film of the year so far: Kudos to writer and first-time director Alex Garland. The film’s title, incidentally, is Latin for “from the machine,” though the words more often appear in the expression “deus ex machina,” or “god from the machine” (which, in the realm of plays and literature denotes a sudden resolution to an insoluble problem through the unforeseen intervention of some outside force). For ages 18+: Coarse language; nudity; and some violence.
“Mad Max: Fury Road” (B): From 1979 to 1985, Aussie George Miller made three inimitable films about his titular antihero Max, set in an inhospitable future. His post-apocalyptic Australia was a place of endless desert, where ruthless survivors eke out a hardscrabble existence scavenging for food, water, and fuel, while violent pseudo-biker gangs of punks (and worse) menace everyone else with rape, enslavement, and murder. There is a madcap quality to Miller’s Max movies – combining dark humor with savage predators, wildly outlandish characters, and frenetic running road battles that are choreographed marvels of hyper-violent mayhem. Through it all travels the solitary ‘road warrior’ Max, who, like his ‘Man with No Name’ antecedent in the Sergio Leone westerns, can’t help but put his loner ways and hard-earned cynicism aside long enough to help underdogs who would perish without him. Thirty years after his last Max movie, Miller returns to the series that made him famous, but without his erstwhile leading man, Mel Gibson. His replacement in the role is Tom Hardy, who barely makes an impression. He is half-crazy (and muzzled) for half the story; and far from talkative for the rest. It’s easier to connect with a new character – the distaff alter ego of Max: the appealingly named Imperator Furiosa, nicely played by Charlize Theron. Forced to be an agent of brutality and oppression, she’s making her bid for redemption, turning against the warlord who commands her involuntary allegiance, by taking his prized lovely ‘wives’ on a desperate bid for freedom. Their plight becomes Max’s as they engage in a ferocious running battle with the murderous forces intent on stopping them. The cast of characters is as outrageously outlandish as ever: The pursuers travel with drummers and a demented guy on a fire-spewing electric guitar, and the warlord’s soldiers (Nicholas Hoult conspicuous among them) spray-paint their mouths silver when they’re on the verge of dying in battle and moving on to their odd conception of “Valhalla.” It’s a frantic chase movie in a post-apocalyptic setting – not for all tastes, to be sure – but undeniably entertaining. Hardy lacks Gibson’s charisma (why not bring Gibson back as an aged Max instead?), but he’s okay as a cog in the madly spinning wheel of the story, while Theron and the several beautiful young ‘wives’ give us someone to make a more emotional connection with. There are lapses in logic here and there (what do a squad of grannies on motorcycles do for fuel, shelter, water, and food?), and the resolution feels pat, blithely suggesting a measure of security for the survivors that doesn’t seem born out by the facts. But things move far too quickly for us to dwell on such logical slips. “Mad Max: Fury Road” actually improves on a second viewing, perhaps when unburdened by the weight of preconceptions. For ages 18+: Violence and adult subject matter.
“Aloha” (C): Bradley Cooper plays a military man turned contractor, who is in Hawaii to get native people on side with development plans for a military facility. His aide de camp is a perky air force officer (Emma Stone) – though the very notion of a pilot being assigned to drive a civilian around in a jeep defies belief. Hawaii is also home to Cooper’s ex-flame (played by Canada’s own Rachel McAdams). She’s married to the proverbial man of few words (John Krasinski), and she has two kids. (The eldest, Grace, is played by newcomer Danielle Rose Russell, who has a charismatic presence onscreen.) A romantic triangle starts to form. But Cooper’s character has a history of ‘commitment issues.’ Can he settle down with the right woman? And which of the two women is the right one? And there are some shady machinations by the military-industrial complex at play, too, with Bill Murray and Alec Baldwin representing those interests. Written and directed by Cameron Crowe (“Say Anything” and “Jerry Maguire”), “Aloha” actually grated at first: Its gratuitous (if low-key) goofiness felt pointless and unfunny. It seemed to have nowhere to go, plot-wise. And its characters seemed jarringly inauthentic. It came across as an in-joke, one we weren’t in on. And the result, at first, was something like fingers scratching along a chalkboard. But, to our surprise, the film eventually grew on us. Somehow, we gradually developed some interest in the relationship between the three leads, as their characters eased into something more believable. And Emma Stone’s winning charm and buoyancy is hard to resist wherever it appears.
“Tomorrowland” (C): There are some promising moments in Disney’s live action, sci-fi adventure story, when a teenage girl named Casey (Britt Robertson) touches a retro-looking talisman and is instantly transported to a wheat field with the spires of a futuristic city rising, Oz-like, on the near horizon. There it is: a vision of a peaceable future, where science, technology, and mankind are not wracking rapacious havoc with the natural world which is our only habitat. Such moments, and the subsequent early glimpses we get of activity inside the city of the future (people embarking for space exploration, athletes diving through water held in airborne translucently porous pools, and young people playfully soaring above it all with jetpacks strapped to their backs) hint of adventure and wear a gloss of optimism that is actually kind of inspiring. But all of that promise is squandered with a pedestrian story: The precocious English girl, Athena (Raffey Cassidy), of the early scenes, turns out to be a robot. And George Clooney’s embittered eccentric inventor turns out to be the sour, disappointed, adult version of a boy who once shared the same sense of awe and optimism briefly inspires us in the film’s early scenes. The story’s big menace is a completely underwhelming let-down. And, once we get to spend more time in the future, it proves hollow: There’s no real sense of life there – it’s as insubstantial as a hologram. The weak, inchoate plot doesn’t give its characters enough to do; in the end, there just isn’t enough of a story worth telling – a deficiency that its effects-heavy visuals only exacerbates.
“Poltergeist” (USA, 2015) (C+): This remake of the wonderful 1982 movie of the same name is a pale imitation. The original, co-written by Steven Spielberg and directed by Tobe Hooper, was a note-perfect blend of discrete ingredients, placing a very believable American family in an instantly familiar suburban setting, then gradually segueing from playful humor to edge-of-your-seat suspense and danger: It was smart, involving fun. The remake tries to reassemble those same ingredients, and it has a serviceable enough cast on hand, led by the likeable Sam Rockwell (who was so good in 2013’s “The Way Way Back”). But effects loom too large this time, while the characters and story just don’t make a lasting impression. It feels well-intentioned but pedestrian, and its family in jeopardy never really connects with us on an emotional level (a deficit which is the bane of a great many movies in recent years). By contrast, whole scenes from the great 1982 original (not to mention Jerry Goldsmith’s delightfully emotive score) still linger in the memory.
“The Age of Adaline” (B-): A twenty-something woman named Adaline (born in 1908) has a car crash that’s followed by immersion in cold water and hypothermia; then, she’s conveniently zapped by lightning. It not only brings her back from near-death, it also (somehow) leaves her immune to aging. So, she continues to look 20-something, as the years (and decades) go by. Not many years have to pass before people start to notice. And she can’t very well rely on the old commercial slogan, “Only my hairdresser knows for sure,” to deflect the questions of the curious (government agents among them) forever. Her solution is to change her identity and place of domicile every ten years. And her aged daughter now has to pass for her grandmother. It sounds like every vampire’s dilemma (though there is nothing supernatural about Adaline), or like the premise for the television series “Forever.” The pseudo-scientific “explanation” for Adaline’s condition – and its conveniently timed modification at a critical moment in her life – won’t win any prizes for persuasiveness. But, ignore the rationale and just go with the story of a lonely woman – a woman who doesn’t dare reveal her secret or allow herself to get close to others, since they invariably age and fade while she remains the same. That premise actually works pretty well, certainly better than the rather insipid trailer suggested. Blake Lively is serviceable as Adaline; she doesn’t come across as having a lot of depth, but that can be interpreted here as an impenetrable facade – an aura that works okay in context. And she’s nicely supported by Michael Huisman (as her aspiring love-interest Ellis), Ellen Burstyn as her daughter, and especially Harrison Ford & Kathy Baker. The story gets some emotional mileage out of Adaline’s love for her cute little dog, who has replaced human friendships in her day-to-day life.
“Avengers: Age of Ultron” (C): Writer/director Joss Wheddon used to be so good: “Buffy,” “Angel,” and “Firefly/Serenity” really got us involved with his characters. But big budgets have ruined him. This second-gathering of superheroes from the Marvel comics stable has the same old hyperactivity of its genre, with endless flying ‘bots, ‘rock ‘em, sock’em’ fist-flying bust-ups, and collisions and explosions galore. It’s all oversized, CGI-dependant action, all the time. And, it’s a bit of a bore as a consequence. The characters are okay, but there are lots of them, and we don’t get quality time with any of them. And the new guy – floating around in red-face and matching cape – is kind of ridiculous. Do hurtling objects in motion a movie make? George Lucas, for one, always used to think so: And he made scads of money putting that lowest common denominator credo into practice. Likewise, “Avengers 2” is a passable time-waster; but, shouldn’t movies – even action movies (and even ones derived from comic books) – aspire to just a little bit more? What was it the man behind the curtain said, about a “clinking, clanking, clattering collection of caliginous junk”? Too many movies fit that description, supposedly upping the ante in the effects and action department while utterly neglecting the sine qua non of good storytelling – characterization and simply having a story that’s worth telling. There’s nothing new here (especially not a rogue, and gratuitously malevolent, A.I. in a big robot body), unlike last summer’s very funny, very entertaining, very endearingly character-centered “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Ho hum: “Bored now,” as a character from Whedon’s better days memorably remarked.
“While We’re Young” (C+/B-): Writer/director Noah Baumbach’s films are not for all tastes. They’re character-driven but invariably off-center – with a vague sourness of tone. That’s certainly true here, as a 40-something couple (Ben Stiller & Naomi Watts) get shaken out of their complacency by their friendship with a couple half their age (Adam Driver & Amanda Seyfried). The more mature pair are ‘mature’ in years only, as they soon shamelessly emulate the lifestyle of their supposedly more hip and spontaneous new friends. Driver wears a hat, so Stiller dons one, too – you get the idea. But what you see is not necessarily what you get with people, and one of these characters has a manipulative agenda. The trouble is that the characters tend to grate: They just aren’t very likeable, though the women fare better than the men. Most of the time the men are shallow poseurs. Is it meant to be funny? Who knows? It doesn’t generate any laughs, at any rate. Charles Grodin makes the best impression as Watts’ father. For ages 18+: Coarse language
“True Story” (C+): A successful investigative journalist with the New York Times plays fast and loose with the facts, in the name of a better read, and finds himself disgraced and out of work. But a new story conveniently beckons, when he is at low ebb, in the form of a man who is accused of murdering his own wife and children. The accused killer is apprehended in Mexico, traveling under an alias, namely, the journalist’s identity. Apparently based on the memoir of a real-life reporter, none of this rings particularly true: Jonah Hill (best known for comedic roles) is hard to buy as an investigative journalist; James Franco is too blatantly manipulative and creepy to ever be a credible witness (as he preposterously purports casts himself as a misunderstood victim instead of a mass murderer); and Felicity Jones (who makes the strongest impression here) inexplicably wanders the house she shares with Hill and stares into space. Instead of dispensing cheap thrills, it’s lazily ominous. And what on earth are Hill and Jones doing living in the middle of nowhere in Montana anyway? For ages 18+: Coarse language.
“Unfriended” (C): Several chat-room friends are stalked by a supernatural hacker out for lethal revenge in a horror yarn that is inventive only in devoting all of its run to the depiction of a computer monitor display, with inset pictures of several “Skyping” teens. It’s the first anniversary of the suicide of their ostensible friend, who was filmed in a compromising situation and then hounded to death by online mockers. Now, she may have returned – looking for payback. Oddly enough, it’s not scary; but it is passably watchable as its chief character (Shelley Hennig’s Blaire) ably flicks back and forth between various online applications – texting privately to one friend while in the midst of a video-conference call with several others. Like a game of online musical chairs, the body count mounts as first one, then another of the chat-room friends checks out, permanently, from causes that are suggested rather than shown explicitly. For ages 18+: Coarse language; violence; and crude subject-matter
“Home” (B-/B): The Boov, diminutive purple aliens who inclined to run away in the face of danger, are able to appropriate Earth as their new home by dint of their superior technology. One of their number, “Oh,” is a misfit in every way. But he finds friendship with a feisty human girl, Tip, and her cat. This animated sci-fi adventure is aimed primarily at kids, and its modus operandi is silly humor. But, surprise, surprise, it actually manages to be heartwarming, and even (on occasion) rather touching. It’s a cute variation on the odd couple theme, with an intercontinental road-trip (via flying car powered by neon-colored fruit-flavored beverages!) thrown-in. There’s cross-species bonding and a satisfying moral about rising above our seemingly deep-set fears and limitations: Nicely amusing, all in all.
“It Follows” (B-/B): It opens with a young woman tearing out of her home on a quiet residential street early one the morning, wearing only her underwear, as she frantically scans her surroundings in barely suppressed terror. What is she so terrified of? Later, we pick up the story of Jay, another young woman, of about 19, whose intimacy on a date with a somewhat older guy ends badly. It seems he’s infected her with a hitherto unknown sexually transmitted disease. It doesn’t involve a virus; rather, this particular affliction consists of a haunting by a demonic (or ghostly?) entity which relentlessly stalks its prey until it kills them. The only way to get temporary respite from its lethal pursuit is to pass along the haunting, via sexual intercourse, as though it were an STD. The interesting wrinkle here is that the ghostly follower can assume the guise of anyone: “It could look like someone you know, or it could be a stranger in a crowd. Whatever helps it get close to you.” (The ‘Follower’ is only visible to its prey.) But, that wrinkle aside, the central premise – that a haunting (and attendant death by supernatural agency) can be averted only if the afflicted one passes it along to someone else – is directly derivative of “The Ring.” Still, this variation on that theme is nicely done – admirably eschewing the horror genre’s unimaginative staples of gore and CGI effects in favor of a much lower key kind of natural realism. These characters, in their late teens, feel authentic; and we see the world through their eyes. (Indeed, grown-ups rarely make an appearance here.) “It Follows” has a low-burn suspense, like a bad dream about trying to flee a relentlessly approaching doom. Written and directed by David Robert Mitchell, the film has a solid cast, with Maika Monrow as Jay, Lili Sepe (as her sister Kelly), Keir Gilchrist (as their friend Paul), Daniel Zovatto (as their friend Greg), Jake Waery as the boy who deliberately ‘infects’ Jay, Olivia Luccardi (as Yara), and Bailey Spry (as Annie, the doomed girl in the prologue). The result is an above-par horror film, intelligently written and performed, with a quietly dreamy quality – a film that gets points for character development and subtlety. Admittedly, there are gaps in its internal logic: We see Jay about to swim out to a boat (perhaps to pass on her curse to those onboard?), but the scene is never referenced again. Also, an attempt to dispatch ‘the Follower’ with a gun seems odd: After all, it’s a supernatural something, not the Invisible Man, who’s after them. And what’s with a pool full of blood after the gun-play? (Is it the Invisible Man after all?) For ages 18+: Brief coarse language; nudity; and sexual content.
“Danny Collins” (B): An aging rocker still draws crowds (of likewise aging boomers) who relish his play-list of hits from the 1970’s. But Danny Collins is hollowed-out by drugs, drink, and a sense of meaninglessness. All of his worldly success feels empty. He has a much younger sex-pot consort, but she’s unfaithful, and, in any case, it’s a loveless match. But, something happens to propel Danny from his soulless existence: He is belatedly given a handwritten letter that John Lennon wrote to him 40 years earlier – a letter that extorts Danny to stay true to his artistic integrity and not sell out. That message may be late in arriving, but it prompts Danny to reflect on the path not taken. His soul-numbing concert tour is put on hold, and he decamps to suburban New Jersey to find the grown son he never knew. And he resolves to abandon the popular but artistically weak songs written by others in favor of his own writing, work that he has neglected for four decades. Al Pacino may be a tad hard to buy as a rock singer, but the actor’s considerable reserves of innate charisma win us over in a story that ingratiates itself with us as its protagonist progresses along the path of redemption. Annette Bening is very winning as the hotel manager Danny is keen to woo (she’s a classy, attractive woman who’s more age-appropriate for him than his usual choice of women). And the rest of the cast – among them Bobby Carnavale (as Danny’s resentful son), Jennifer Garner (as Danny’s daughter-in-law), Christopher Plummer (as his friend and business manager), Melissa Benoist as Jamie (as the sweet front desk clerk), Giselle Eisenburg (as Danny’s precocious granddaughter with ADHD), and Katarina Cas (as Sophie, Danny’s sexy co-habitant) – likewise add to the film’s success. For ages 18+: Coarse language and drug use.
“The Longest Ride” (B): The latest film adaptation of a novel by Nicholas Sparks may share formulaic traits with its predecessors, but they yield a better than expected result – delivering two romantic stories for the price of one. One is set in the present: Sophia (Britt Robertson, who will be starring in the upcoming “Tomorrowland”) is studying art at a North Carolina university, as she prepares to depart for New York. She’s due to leave in two or three months, but her chance meeting with a handsome and manly competitive bull-rider Luke (Scott Eastwood, who is a son of Clint Eastwood) quickly turns from mutual attraction to romance. Opposites attract, but can people who are so different make a successful life together? Meanwhile, they meet an ailing man Ira (Alan Alda) who tells Sophia about his own great love – for Ruth (Oona Chaplin, daughter of Geraldine, granddaughter of Charlie) during and after the Second World War. Ira is played as a younger man by Jack Huston; he and Chaplin (and especially Chaplin!) are the real standouts here. Robertson and Eastwood do serviceable work, but it’s the historical couple and their romance that has the greater romantic gravitas: That’s the real meat of the story; the modern couple is the side-course, as far as emotional impact is concerned. Canadian actress Lolita Davidovitch plays Luke’s mother; but it’s a shame the script doesn’t give her more to do. For ages 16+: Mild sexual content.
“Woman in Gold” (USA/U.K., 2015) (B): One woman’s quest to right a longstanding wrong is at the heart of this true story about her attempt to reclaim a famous painting by the great Gustav Klimt that was looted from her wealthy Viennese family (along with the rest of their possessions) after the German annexation of Austria (the so-called ‘Anschluss’) in 1938. The painting found its way into the hands of a prominent Vienna museum, where it became a beloved icon of the Austrian people. Maria Altmann is determined to reclaim the painting, and it’s as much a matter of principle as is of property. The Nazis robbed her family of everything (including, in some cases, their lives), with the enthusiastic cooperation of their Austrian collaborators. It’s a crime that must not go unpunished. The film divides its time between the present day and flashbacks that begin with the painting’s creation in 1907. (The “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer” was re-dubbed “The Lady in Gold” by the Nazis to spare themselves any reminder that it depicted a beautiful Jewess.) Helen Mirren and the entire flashbacks cast captured our sympathies: Canada’s own Tatiana Maslany (of “Orphan Black” fame) plays Maria in her early adult years, Antje Traue (the German actress from “Seventh Son” and “Pandorum”) is her aunt Adele, a woman of even greater beauty and grace than the famous painting that depicted her; Allen Corduner makes an impression as Maria’s father Gustav; Max Irons plays Maria’s opera singer husband Fritz; and Jonathan Price is engaging in a brief role as the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. For Maria’s battle is a legal, as well as personal, one. Throughout, she is aided by a young lawyer played by Canada’s Ryan Reynolds. He delivers a credibly low-key performance, but the real flash here goes to both generational depictions of Maria, and her highly-cultured family in pre-war Vienna. It’s a wistful look back at a more civilized time and place, one that was shattered by shocking barbarities large and small. Supporting players include: Charles Dance, Katie Holmes, Elizabeth McGovern, an underutilized Daniel Bruhl (as real-life titled aristocrat turned investigative journalist Hubertus Czernon), and Henry Goodman (as, we think, Maria’s uncle). For a page-turning account of the real story, see the award-winning non-fiction book “The Lady in Gold” by Anne-Marie O’Connor. For ages 18+: Very brief coarse language.
“Run All Night” (USA, 2015) (C-): Liam Neeson plays Jimmy Conlon, a mob enforcer whose best days are behind him. Guilt over the lives he’s taken has reduced him to a semi-permanent state of drunkenness, and he subsists through the loyalty of his longtime mobster chum and overlord, Shawn (Ed Harris). But that sole bond is snapped when Jimmy is forced to kill Shawn’s no-good son Danny (Boyd Holbrook) to save his own long-estranged son Mike (Joel Kinnaman). The film gets us to that state of affairs through some pretty-contrived plotting. But, it’s really just a way to get to the point of the movie – which is one man’s against-all-odds, hopelessly mismatched running battle to protect his son from the vengeance of his one-time friend. Gunfights, lethal hand-to-hand combat, and chases by car and by foot ensue. Genesis Rodriguez plays Mike’s wife, Vincent D’Onofrio is a rare police detective who’s not in cahoots with the criminals, and the musician Common appears as a mighty far-fetched assassin. This is director Jaume Collet Serra’s third action film with Neeson. The result is instantly forgettable. Of the cast, Ed Harris makes the biggest impression of the bunch, as a man who is intent on lethal retribution even against the man he loves like a brother. For ages 18+: Coarse language and violence.
“Pretend We’re Kissing” (Canada, 2014) (B): We never heard of this film before we saw it. It’s a quintessentially ‘small’ film, the stuff of festivals and repertory houses: It lasted only a week at our large suburban multiplex, unfortunately. (At one screening, this reviewer was the only soul in the theater, which was good for this reviewer, but bad for the movie and for the theater’s inclination to try offbeat fare in the future.) It turns out that it is offbeat, quirky, and unapologetically Toronto-centric – a refreshing change from run-of-the-mill romantic comedies. Dov Tiefenbach (as Benny) makes a startlingly ‘un-leading man’ looking leading man – a younger cousin to a younger Woody Allen, he’s a self-involved nebbish – kind of homely, kind of neurotic, and kind of sweet. Tommie-Amber Pirie (2009’s “The Trotsky”) is appealing as Jordan, the young woman of Benny’s dreams, with whom he’s brought together by chance. Will her sudden fickleness (a somewhat heavy-handed plot device) rain on his romantic parade? Zoe Kravitz (from “Divergent”) plays Benny’s oft-nude, kooky roommate Autumn. The result is offbeat and engagingly out of the ordinary. It’s an even more indie kin to 2013’s Toronto rom-com “The F Word” (a.k.a. “What If”). “Pretend We’re Kissing” is written and directed by Matt Sadowski, in his feature film debut. For ages 18+: Coarse language; nudity; and sexual content.
“Insurgent” (C): This sequel to 2014’s “Divergent” is based on the second novel in a trilogy by Veronica Roth. The series is set in a vaguely post-Apocalyptic future. In a walled-in version of Chicago, all of society is carefully divided into five factions (Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless, and Erudite) based on each prospective member’s temperament. Those who don’t fit in are relegated to ‘the Factionless,’ who are the Untouchables of this regimented, if outwardly contented, society. In the first film, one faction’s nefarious plotting led to a power-grab and massacre. The second film opens in the aftermath of those events, with our heroes – Tris (Shailene Woodley) and Four (Theo James) – on the run from the autocratic, ever more overbearing regime. They’re appealing enough as the leads, with such supporting players as Kate Winslet, Ashley Judd, Miles Teller, Octavia Spencer, Naomi Watts, and Daniel Dae Kim. But, this installment has nothing useful to add to its predecessor: It’s just more of the same – caste divisions, life-threatening simulation games, casual treachery, one-dimensional villains, first love, and a young heroine in the ‘Hunger Games’ mold. As noted, it’s more of the same, but, this time, the novelty has worn off. The result is mildly entertaining, but no more than that. For ages 16+: Very brief (but gratuitous) coarse language and violence.
“Cinderella” (B-/B): Disney’s live-action retelling of the well-known fairy tale, helmed by director Kenneth Branagh, has nothing really new to add; but it is attractively presented, with a good cast, lovely English locations, and sumptuous costume and set design. Lily James (whom we failed to recognize as Lady Rose from “Downton Abbey”) makes a sweet and gentle, but determined and steadfast, heroine. The loss of her mother, and later her father, followed by the abuse she endures at the hands of her step-mother and step-sisters has not dimmed her inner light. Nor have those travails weakened her resolve to live by her mother’s simple but resonant call to “Have courage and be kind.” The appealing cast includes Hailey Atwell and Ben Chaplin as Cinderella’s parents, Richard Maddin (Robb Stark in “Game of Thrones”) as the prince, Derek Jacobi (who makes a impression) as the kindly King, Cate Blanchett as the stridently abusive step-mother, Helena Bonham Carter as the Fairy Godmother (she shamelessly chews the scenery in her husband’s movies but manages to tone it down a notch here, though she still plays it too much for comedic rather than serious effect), Stellan Skarsgard (who doesn’t have a lot to do), and Sophie McShera (Daisy from “Downton Abbey”) and Holliday Grainger as the step-sisters. There’s a nice moment when Cinderella meets the Prince: Each of them is riding a horse, and an equine pas de deux unfolds as the two horses circle each other as their riders talk. This version is more traditional than 1998’s revisionistic “Ever After” (with Drew Barrymore), but that version was the more memorable of the two.
“The Gunman” (C-): Sean Penn is woefully miscast as a private contractor black-ops specialist and killer for hire. The film opens with him and his fellow assassins up to no good (including the cold-blooded murder of a senior politician) in the Congo, on behalf of foreign mining interests. As an incidental side-effect, their dirty work helps push that benighted place into the interminable abyss of brutal internecine conflict and lawlessness. Initially, the only redeeming thing about Penn’s character is his genuine (if implausible) true love for a good woman. And, Italian actress Jasmine Trinca is the real stand-out in this otherwise uninvolving story. Years later the pair’s paths cross again, this time in Spain, when Penn, and his erstwhile partners in crime, are getting violently dispatched by forces who reckon that they know too much. Lethal gun battles and savage hand-to-hand conflict ensues. The role doesn’t suit Penn; and, in any event, it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. Not even the flamboyant presence of Javier Bardem can elevate this stuff above the pedestrian. Ray Winstone makes a brief impression as a scruffy aging killer; but, overall, the whole thing feels tired and tedious – save for the sparks that ignite every time the aforementioned Jasmine Trinca is on screen: She radiates warmth, attractiveness, and real feeling. For ages 18+: Coarse language and violence.
“Chappie” (USA/Mexico, 2015) (C-): In the very near future, Johannesburg, South Africa (which doesn’t feel very African here, channeling instead the persona of a generic modern metropolis with a squalid underbelly) is home to the world’s first robotic police force. These titanium guardians of law and order are semi-autonomous robots – capable of independent action that’s governed by their programming. But their inventor, an implausibly callow young engineer played by Dev Patel (who is miscast) aims for something more – full-fledged artificial intelligence. He contravenes orders from his corporate boss (an underused Sigourney Weaver) and bestows his A.I. breakthrough on a damaged “scout” (as the humanoid robots are known), that is otherwise destined for the scrapheap. It works, and ‘Chappie’ (voiced by Sharlto Copley) awakens. Trouble is: He’s been abducted by street punks (played by actual South African punk-musicians Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser), and he learns their manners, mores, and lingo – all of which are ugly. Indeed, the story’s detour into street punk life is a one-way trip, and it makes for a distressingly vulgar and distinctly unengaging journey. The punks look and act like extras from a “Mad Max” movie: It’s all too much. True, the joys of surrogate parenthood eventually soften the edges of Chappie’s adoptive kin, but not before Ninja and his crony (Jose Pablo Cantillo) give their mechanical charge over to the not so tender ministrations of a gang of street thugs. Chappie is meant to evoke the behavior and worldview of a young child (despite his forced diet of every variation on the eff-word). So, how are we to react to scenes of him being tricked, tormented, and ‘burnt alive’ by vicious punks? He may be made of metal, but his distress and fear are all too human – facts which render his mistreatment mighty unpleasant to behold. Just as bad is his creator’s nemesis in the supposedly civilized part of town. The fellow engineer played by Hugh Jackman inexplicably wears a sidearm and holster to the office – and goes so far as to threaten his colleague, pistol-drawn, right there amidst the cubicles! That’s a ‘corporate culture’ we haven’t seen before – one that fails to get over the credibility hurdle. Nor is it plausible that Jackman’s competing vision of robotic policing – massive armored behemoths called “moose,” which are remote-controlled by a human operator – were ever designed for urban policing: They look like they belong instead on a nightmarish battlefield. (Making matters even more absurd, they can fly!) Jackman is a good actor (he’s very good as Wolverine, for instance); but his character here is ridiculous – and the fault lies at the doorstep of the South African-born Canadian director and co-writer Neill Blomkamp (who made 2009’s overrated “District 9”and 2013’s “Elysium”). All three movies embrace a dystopian, science-fiction/action vision of a violent and brutal future. The potential appeal of Chappie, a robot who has sentience and a soul, is severely undermined by his own street punk demeanor and by the sheer absurdity of the violent storylines that swirl around him. One hoped for, perhaps, a more humane variation on “Robocop” (though there is no man instead this mechanism); but it ends up being just about as bleakly violent and brutal as that other franchise. For ages 18+: Extremely coarse language and some brutal violence.
“The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” (U.K./USA, 2015) (C): The gang’s all here in this follow-up to the 2011 film about a bunch of English seniors who retire to a likewise past its prime hotel in Jaipur, India. These films have struck a resonant chord with filmgoers of a certain age. It is a welcome change to see something crafted for someone other than the young adult crowd, something that manages to do without explosions, computer-generated effects, and mindless action sequences. And who could ask for a better cast? Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton (sparring partners from television’s popular “Downton Abbey”) are here, as are Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Celia Imrie, Diana Hardcastle, and Ronald Pickup. It’s practically a who’s who of accomplished British acting talent. They’re joined this time by Richard Gere and David Strathairn. And Indian class-act Lillete Dubey makes an impression as an attractive middle-aged woman, the mother of the hotel’s hyperactive proprietor. He, in turn, is played by “Slumdog Millionaire’s” Dev Patel, and, frankly, he tends to grate here (as he does in “Chappie”). It’s about starting over, finding love later in life, and, well, just living life – as former strangers in a still somewhat strange land. The reason to see this movie (and its predecessor) is the pleasure to be gleaned from seeing such good (and instantly familiar) actors in an ensemble piece. But their individual and collective charisma can only take the film so far. Plot-wise, it revolves around callow Sonny’s clumsy efforts to impress the presumed representative of a prospective investor, while he simmers with jealousy over his fiancée’s dancing instructor. That makes for a mighty thin gruel. Worse still, like its predecessor, this film feels heavy-handed and cloying: ‘Look at the sweet old souls and their romantic complications,’ it seems to be saying. It wants us to like these characters; but it feels unintentionally condescending – toward them and its target audience. Perhaps it’s unfair to rate it on the same scale as a serious drama when it aims more for comedic fluff, but it failed to engage with this reviewer, who found it rather tedious, despite its talented cast.
“Unfinished Business” (F): Low-brow, coarse, and ever-so-dumb, this purported comedy drove this reviewer away at the midway point. What on earth is an actor of Tom Wilkinson’s high caliber doing in this dreck? And what is fumy about making fun of a character who’s supposed to be a dimwitted bumpkin? Warning: Extremely coarse language and nudity.
“The Lazarus Effect” (C-): An unlikely assortment of scientists (one resembles a slacker teen) and a videographer (played by Sarah Bolger, one of the two Irish-immigrant kids in 2002’s exemplary “In America”) experiment with bringing dead things back to life, a line of inquiry that can only end in disaster. But they cannot revivify this tired old trope: There’s not much there, it’s predictable and pointless and wholly dependent on things jumping out of the dark for its slight scares. Neither Mark Duplass, nor Olivia Wilde is at all convincing as a scientist.
“McFarland” (B-/B): A pretty-good variation on the sports underdog theme. It’s set in small-town America, except that this small town is almost entirely Hispanic, with most of its inhabitants toiling in the fields picking produce. A high school coach and his family end up here, after he has butted heads too many times in other teaching posts. He starts a cross-county running team and inspires them to victory against competitors from more privileged communities. Based on a true story, “McFarland” benefits from its cast, including Kevin Costner (who is appealing as an exemplar of decency and humanity) and Maria Bello. It also has a novel setting and an unusual sport going for it. The supporting cast is very solid; and the film has two or three genuinely emotional moments (though it is a tad cloying at other times). It also has touches of humor – and a nice culture-shock theme, complete with a quinceañera party thrown for a non-Hispanic 15-year-old girl.
“Focus” (C+/B-): A professional conman and thief (Will Smith) takes a newbie (Aussie actress Margot Robbie from “The Wolf of Wall Street”) under his wing. Mentor and apprentice, partners in crime, and on-again, off-again romantic interests, they ply their illicit craft at a big sports game in Texas and on the race car circuit abroad. Smith is okay, though his usual charisma seems oddly tempered by a vague world-weariness here (maybe because he’s a lot older than the apple of his eye). And Margot Robbie is undeniably sexy. But the film does not have much else going for it. Its inexplicable surfeit of extremely vulgar and gratuitously lewd language is off-putting. And, though it inhabits terrain once tread by “The Sting” and the “Mission Impossible” television series, it’s not in the same league with either of them. It is adequately entertaining (vulgarity aside) while you’re watching it; but, truth be told, it is instantly forgettable. Since it’s all a con, it’s hard to get invested in any of it, though it does pull a mild surprise or two out of its bag of tricks. If you do see it, skip the IMAX version. IMAX advertises itself as having ‘Earth-shattering sound’ and it definitely is ear-shatteringly loud. How is that a plus, let alone something you’d want to pay extra for? For ages 18+ only: Foul language and sexual talk aplenty!
“Still Alice” (USA/France, 2014) (B+/A-): Alice (Julianne Moore) is successful, as smart as a whip, impressively articulate, and beautiful: She’s a respected professor of linguistics at Columbia University, happily married (to Alec Baldwin), and the mother of three grown children (Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth, and Hunter Parrish). She’s just turned 50. She’s at her prime of life. Then, the unthinkable happens – she is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. If that weren’t bad enough, she learns that it is hereditary and that each of her offspring has a fifty/fifty chance of suffering the same fate. And, a dire fate it is: Alice’s life starts to unravel, slowly, in fits and starts, but relentlessly, as she gradually feels parts of herself slipping away. The result is a very moving portrait of a woman facing a frightening fate: She is doomed (as, in a sense, all mortals are, in one way or another); and it is heartbreaking to see the incremental diminishment of such a remarkable individual. Co-directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland (who also collaborated on 2006’s “Quinceañera”), “Still Alice” is based on the novel by Lisa Genova. Julianne Moore delivers an award-caliber performance as a woman who is strong and vulnerable at the same time. At the time of writing of this review, she is a nominee for an Academy Award as Best Actress, having already won in that category at the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors Guild, BAFTA, and the National Board of Review. This may be Moore’s best work – and that’s saying something! And she is backed by solid supporting work by the rest of the cast. For ages 18+: Some coarse language.
“Kingsman: The Secret Service” (U.K., 2014) (C-): This mash-up of James Bondian tropes combines slapstick, 007 spoof, and a half-serious imitation of that same gentleman secret agent genre. The result is an unappealing inconsistency of tone – part broad parody, part over-the-top action flick, with a surfeit of gruesome hyper-violence. There’s a ridiculous mad villain (Samuel L. Jackson) – with a lisp and a succession of designer baseball caps. His blade-runner Girl Friday, whose gazelle-like prosthetic legs are razor sharp (and lethal), is far more intimidating than her deliberately cartoonish boss. And the Big Bad’s big threat is to induce a world-wide bar-room brawl. It doesn’t engage our belief or interest. By far the best scene here has the unflappable gentleman agent (Colin Firth, who is part James Bond, part John Steed of television’s late, lamented “The Avengers”) take on a pub full of thugs, armed only with his umbrella. A closing scene, with a royal bare bum is mighty dumb – and in bad taste, to boot. Welsh actor Taron Egerton shows some promise as the young protagonist from the wrong side of the tracks. The same goes for Sophie Cookson as his fellow new recruit and friend, though she has less screen time. The violence is surprisingly brutal and unpleasantly gory (not least, a frenetic kill-fest in a racist ‘church’); it is off-putting, and it doesn’t belong here; nor does the over-abundance of dirty words. For ages 18+ only: Very coarse language and brutal gruesome violence.
“Seventh Son” (USA/U.K./Canada/China, 2014) (C/C+): No one would mistake this exercise in medieval-era sword-and-sorcery adventure as High Fantasy. It’s not in the same league as Tolkien, Lewis, or LeGuin – nowhere near it, in fact. But, what you see is what you get. And what you see – an aging knight (Jeff Bridges, with an amusing accent) who likes to drink too much between hunting down rampaging witches, troll-like bogarts, and other assorted inhuman menaces, takes on a new young apprentice (Ben Barnes) – will moderately entertain fantasy buffs. The estimable Julianne Moore seems miscast here as the chief villain (a vengeful witch): It’s a role with no room for subtlety or nuance, alas. Swedish actress Alicia Vikander (as the young hero’s love interest) fares better, as does Olivia Williams as his mother. Canada provides the beautiful mountain and forest backdrops (care of its British Columbia locations). The chief villainess’ roll-call of fierce subordinates is kind of silly (a woman who turns into a panther, a six-armed man who seems to have taken a wrong turn from somewhere in Hindu mythology, and the like); and so is the inevitable over-reliance on effects: People turn into oversized monsters every few minutes. It never aims very high, but it is a passable time-waster for genre aficionados.
“Jupiter Ascending” (C-/C): A competent cast (among them Sean Bean) is underutilized in favor of over-the-top action. It ends up being all effects, all the time. Ho hum. And, for reasons which defy human understanding, a lot of attention is devoted to a pair of magic flying boots – ridiculous! Why is sci-fi so often done so poorly? Though, frankly, it’s a malaise that transcends genres – yet another instance in which if you’ve seen the trailer, the rest of the movie has nothing useful to add.
“Black or White” (B): A good cast, led by Kevin Costner, is hampered somewhat by a heavy-handed story, which has a white grandfather pitted against a likewise well-meaning black grandmother (Octavia Spencer) for the custody of their mixed-race (and sweetly precocious) granddaughter. The result is neither racially controversial nor provocative, though some have portrayed it in those terms. Its white protagonist is clearly not racially prejudiced: His disdain for his charge’s birth father is perfectly well-founded on other grounds. In an odd choice, the filmmakers consign Jennifer Ehle to utter silence, with non-speaking appearances in dream sequences. Another misstep comes in the contrived form of a violent struggle late in the film. Scripting flaws can’t sink the above-average performances; but they do make this lighter-weight fare than might have been the case. For ages 18+: Brief coarse language.
“A Most Violent Year” (B): A self-made man from ethnic (Hispanic) roots is a success at his business, but he’s betting everything on expansion while simultaneously fending off a criminal investigation of the home-heating oil industry and rivals who play dirty (and rough). His own wife is the tough-minded daughter of a minor gangster. With a scenario like that, and marketing that stresses those things, it seemingly had all the makings of a gangster film. The pleasant surprise is that it is actually about a man of integrity. Abel Morales (Oscar Issac) is ambitious and competitive; but (happy surprise), he is also a decent, even good, man. He resists pressure to return violence for violence, and even resists his wife’s (Jessica Chastain) proclivity for breaking the rules. David Oyelowo (who has the lead role in “Selma,” also currently at theaters), Albert Brooks, and Catalina Sandino Moreno (who gained fame in the lead of 2004’s “Maria Full of Grace”) are among the solid supporting cast. For ages 18+: Coarse language and brief violence.
“American Sniper” (B/B+): Director Clint Eastwood’s account of the experiences of real-life U.S. Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (played Bradley Cooper), who was a lethally proficient sniper during the Iraq War, is a good war movie. What is completely unclear is why it’s getting so much attention, pro or con. This reviewer didn’t find it jingoistic. It doesn’t really address the rights or wrongs of being at war in Iraq: That war is simply the setting against which one man’s story unfolds. It is a personal story, not a geopolitical statement. Nor does it redefine film-making as we know it (though one of its early trailers, which juxtaposed quick scenes from the battlefield with ones from the home-front, mostly in silence, was a stellar example of how to make a compellingly effective trailer – an art that has been all but lost in recent years). It’s just a story about a man (and to a lesser extent his wife) who get caught up in the stress of being a soldier. For ages 18+: War-related violence and coarse language.
“Into the Woods” (USA/U.K., 2014) (C-): This film adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim stage musical fails to engage. This reviewer was not taken by the songs, the singing, or the fairy tale mash-up. The stories of Jack and the Beanstock, Rapunzel, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, are all woven together (rather artificially, and in ways that do justice to none of them), along with an original story about a baker and his wife. In lieu of any real feeling, it has Meryl Streep in a fright wig. Gravitas, pathos, a sense of adventure, or even a semblance of fun are all lost in these woods. It’s just a vehicle for instantly forgettable songs. Its cobbled-together story makes its characters more the stuff of parody, or ‘panto,’ than anything else.
“Taken 3” (France, 2014) (D): Liam Neeson’s charisma can’t save the third in the series of movies about a one-man army: He’s a semi-retired spy, who lays low the assorted villains who threaten his family. This unfortunate installment is woefully half-baked, with an inept premise and plotting. There are Keystone cops aplenty (the usually first-rate Forest Whitaker actually grates here), and a barrage of pointless and way-overblown pursuits, which are clearly there only so the film can indulge in gratuitous collisions and crash-ups. The unconvincing chief villain lets us know he’s a baddie by snarling and grimacing, then, oddly, fights to the death in his underwear. Did we say it was pointless? We never believed a minute of it.
“Blackhat” (USA, 2015) (C): A convicted computer hacker is sprung from prison to assist American and Chinese authorities in tracking down a malevolent new cyber-threat. Lead Chris Hemsworth is meant to be the movie’s idea of ‘a hunk,’ but he is miscast and unconvincing in this role. How many ‘computer-geeks’ are also men of action, anyway? And how on Earth does he suddenly acquire the weapons skills and nerves of steel to acquit himself so well in lethal hand-to-hand combat? Indeed, the same questions might be asked about the underwhelming main villain. A machine-gun battle in the very midst of a procession of thousands of people late in the film throws the story’s tattered shreds of credibility to the four winds. Accents make it hard to understand what some oriental members of the cast are saying. Recurring close-ups of light signals pulsing through the circuitry of computers are ever-so-uninvolving. And the presence of Chinese characters and locations show every sign of marketing objectives trumping good storytelling: This movie looks and feels like it was made to appeal to Chinese filmgoers. Not one of director Michael Mann’s better moments.
“Penguins of Madagascar” (C-/C): The supporting birds from the Madagascar movies get lead billing in this animated spin-off, but it’s too silly, raucous, and juvenile to engage grown-ups.
“Exodus: Gods and Kings” (U.K./USA/Spain, 2014) (C): “The Lord is a man of war,” says the book of Exodus, and those seven words inform the new dramatization of the mass exodus of 400,000 Jews from their captivity in Egypt around 1300 BC. In “Exodus: Gods and Kings” God tells Moses “I need a general.” We actually don’t see much of the Jews, except en masse. Instead, the film chooses to concentrate its attention on the relationship between two princes of Egypt: One, Rameses (Joel Edgerton) is destined to become absolute leader of a powerful empire; the other, Moses (Christian Bale) is a celebrated general and trusted right-hand to the current pharaoh. Ostensibly the monarch’s nephew, Moses is cousin to Rameses, but they have been raised as brothers. And throughout the story, their relationship is a complicated intertwining of sibling rivalry and a genuine brotherly bond – a bond that persists, beaten and bruised, but still there, even when they find themselves on opposite sides of a conflict of, well, Biblical proportions. The story is familiar enough: Moses is born Jewish and secretly adopted as an infant by the pharaoh’s sister, who raises him as her own son. When this fact becomes known, Moses is exiled: He is raised as an Egyptian prince, and he has proven his talent and loyalty time and again; but his rank, and the esteem in which he has erstwhile been held, are stripped away in the blink of eye – a fate that can befall any of us – all on the strength of his blood-ties to a people who have been enslaved for 400 years.
But Moses’ fall from worldly grace brings him to a different kind of grace, when he is enlisted by God to be his general and to extricate the Jews from their long captivity. Oddly enough, God is depicted in the movie as bellicose young boy with an English accent. It seems more akin to a Greek god arbitrarily appearing in some human form than a convincing shape for the Creator of the Universe to assume. More importantly, it’s a persona that does not even try to convey holiness or love. This belligerent child is used to giving orders, not explanations or expressions of empathy. Indeed, religiosity is conspicuous by its absence in this film. Recruited by this higher power, Moses trains volunteers and launches a campaign of guerilla warfare against the regime. But it fails to achieve the desired result (pharaoh’s heart was hardened after all), leading to this exchange: “Where have you been?” asks Moses. “Watching you fail.” answers the boy-God. (Moses has a good come-back, asking his task-master why he’s suddenly so impatient after 400 years!) God takes matters into his own hands, visiting the proverbial ten plagues upon the Egyptians – besetting them with frogs, locusts, boils, hail, and the rest. But the filmmakers sneak in an extra one – with a flotilla of oversized crocodiles ferociously attacking some human mariners and then themselves: The ensuing bloodbath taints the Nile for miles in both directions. Moses balks at the final plague, which is the death of the nation’s firstborn; but this God is not for turning. Director Ridley Scott imbues the movie with a gritty realism, though he can’t resist indulging in hollow effects-driven spectacle during the second half.
Bale has a certain dark charisma as Moses, and he abjures the self-righteous, holier-than-thou intonations of Charlton Heston in 1956’s “The Ten Commandments.” But he remains a soldier, rather than a spiritual leader. There is a humorous moment when a pagan priestess is asked, “What do the entrails say?” only to dryly reply, “They don’t say anything. They imply.” And those of us who prefer the kinder, gentler message of the New Testament may find common cause with the question, “What kind of fanatics worship such a God?” which is exclaimed in despair after the mass killing of Egyptian children by supernatural means. The question might have meant more, however, if it hadn’t been uttered by a man (Rameses) who is hardly above such ruthless measures himself. What the film fails to deliver is even an iota of emotional connection (for the viewer) to its characters and events.
“Serena” (USA/France/Czech Republic, 2014) (C): Someone obviously thought it would be a good idea to reunite the successful pairing of Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence from “Silver Linings Playbook” and last year’s “American Hustle.” The concept here is a refreshingly retro one – revolving around a big, old-fashioned romantic drama, with larger-than-life tempestuous emotional sweep. It’s meant to be a grand love, full of life or death passion, of a sort that hearkens back to an earlier era. But that era had something the present day does not, namely, big movie stars with a glamor and presence their successors simply do not possess. The great stars of yesteryear are an extinct species; today’s stars just don’t have the ineffable ‘stardust’ needed to carry the weight of the oversized emotions at work here. The story is set in the Smokey Mountains of North Carolina in 1929. An ambitious young timber baron, George Pemberton (Cooper) meets his match in a strong woman, Serena (Lawrence), who, as he puts it, ‘gives no quarter and expects none.’ She’s an equal partner in every sense – as at home in a lumber camp as she is atop a galloping horse. Her first act is to single-handedly train an eagle to keep an airborne eye out for the poisonous snakes that endanger their workers. All that’s well and good: It’s a passionate romance between two powerful people. But the concept is betrayed but a script that’s no more than half-baked, and a story that unconvincingly takes a permanent detour into melodrama. Before long, the female protagonist shows just how ready she is to do dark deeds in the name of their marital and business success. Enter First Assassin (played by Rhys Ifans), an unduly peculiar character who hangs about, looking menacing, just waiting for the word to put his straight-razor to deadly use. And there’s George’s junior partner (played by Swedish actor David Dencik), a man whose nervous and abrasive manner make it hard to see how he ever became a trusted friend. It seems he resents his partner returning with a wife, let alone one who wants to take a co-leadership role in the company. And there’s the ill-used ‘other woman’ (played by Romanian actress Ana Ularu), who improbably locks gaze (in a wordless challenge) with Serena and even more improbably undermines Serena’s steely poise in the process. All of this is just too contrived and clumsy: The betrayals, murders, and jealousies are too plentiful and too artificial. The ensuing drama feels scripted, not earned. Jennifer Lawrence has done very good work elsewhere; but she is miscast here. For one thing, she’s too young to play a femme fatale. And the bleached-blonde hair robs her of authenticity. The result is a disappointment from Danish director Suzanne Bier, who made “After the Wedding” and “Brothers.” The script needed a major rethink. Too bad they didn’t keep the core concept (the passionate love) and rewrite everything else.
“The Theory of Everything” (B+/A-): One of the best films of the year to date, and a nice dramatic romance, it tells the touching real-life story of Stephen and Jane Hawking. Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones deliver strong performances – and both are likely to get award nominations for the roles. She’s all sweetness and strength of character, pulling him out of the despair to which he nearly succumbs in the wake of a grim prognosis. He’s all bangs and innocent boyish grin – a characterization that treads perilously close to being all of one cloying note, but avoids crossing the line. And the early scenes, with the two of them as students at Cambridge nicely capture the feel of life in English academia. And there’s an authentic simplicity to their attraction at first sight, which is expressed with admirable economy of language: (Him) “Hello.” (Her) “Hello.” (Him) “Science.” (Her) “Arts.” Not everything was sweetness and light as their lives unfolded, but the ebbs and flows of their relationship take us along for the low-key, gentle voyage
“Nightcrawler” (B): Jake Gyllenhaal is convincing as a platitude-quoting psychopathic creep (maybe too convincing for comfort), but it’s far from pleasant to watch him in action: “What if my problem wasn’t that I don’t understand people but that I don’t like them? What if I was the kind of person who was obliged to hurt you for this? I mean physically.” As a matter of fact, it is unrelentingly ugly – not to mention increasingly far-fetched. This self-taught paparazzi of lurid crime stories and grisly car crashes soon starts creating the news by orchestrating a little calamity on his own. If that didn’t strain our credulity to (and beyond) the breaking point, he browbeats a high-powered businesswoman (Rene Russo) into accepting his ever-so-sleazy sexual advances. C’mon! This gives ridiculous new meaning to “doing anything for a story!” That proposition is very nearly as insulting to women generally as it is to the Russo character in particular. For ages 18+: Extremely coarse language and disturbing subject matter.
“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part One” (C+): Jennifer Lawrence continues to elevate this movie franchise as the dauntless Katniss Everdeen, a young woman with uncommon reserves of inner strength. We believe it when she confronts a tyrant, played by Canada’s Donald Sutherland, with the challenge: “If we burn, you burn with us.” But the source material (the series of novels by Suzanne Collins) and the basic premise (a dictatorship that rules with a combination of brutal repression and ritualized lethal “games”) are nothing special. The so-called games are over in this installment, and the oppressed many are stating to rise up in rebellion against the oligarchic few who rule them. But nothing that happens here is very engaging, let alone compelling. It’s simply buoyed by a few good performers – with Lawrence supported by the likes of Sutherland, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, and series newcomer Julianne Moore. Woody Harrrelson has very little to do this time out; while it’s nice to see Elizabeth Banks without her hitherto clownish make-up and wigs. Cynically dividing the final book in the series into two movies (as Peter Jackson has needlessly divided “The Hobbit” into three), with an abrupt “to be continued” non-ending (and a year-long wait for the rest), is truly unforgivable.
“Whiplash” (B): A student at a prestigious music school lives for his dream of becoming a great jazz drummer. He is thrilled to be asked to join the senior band, directed by a forceful conductor, who pushes his students to go beyond their limits. But to call the conductor a martinet would be to utter a towering understatement. He’s a nasty, foul-mouthed bully, who degrades and terrorizes those in his charge. Miles Teller (who was first-rate in “The Spectacular Now”) and J.K. Simmons both deliver award-caliber performances. But, what apparently began as a short film (to earn the financing for this full-length feature) ought to have remained a short. The added running time gives it ample opportunity to go off the tracks, story-wise, with multiplying improbabilities and cascading excess (like a gratuitous car wreck). Great performances, but an uneven story, yield a result that’s good, but not as good as should have been. And there’s a troubling arc to the story, which seems to suggest that professorial bullying (of the most outrageous sort) actually works! Warning: Saturated with foul language.
“Rosewater” (B-/B): News satirist and comedian Jon Stewart can highly effective at lampooning the hypocrisy and sheer dumb stupidity of politicians on his mock news series “The Daily Show.” He can also be annoyingly self-indulgent and infantile in his slapstick comedic antics (silly facial contortions and all). But, who’d have known, he is also quite competent as a filmmaker. This dramatization depicts the unjust 118-day imprisonment of Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari (played by Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal) on self-evidently preposterous charges of ‘spying.’ He was in Iran to cover the 2009 election, which resulted in a highly-suspect reelection by the incumbent (Ahmadinejad) over his seemingly more popular rival (Mousavi). Popular discontent with the seemingly hijacked election and with Iran’s repressive regime led to sustained massive street protests, culminating in a harsh crackdown by the regime. This film is a good depiction of an innocent man struggling to retain his integrity and self-respect during months of intimidation and psychological abuse. There’s a highly amusing scene in which the prisoner temporarily turns the tables on his captors by titillating them, Scheherazade-style, with a made-up tale of the reputedly decadent West. Shohreh Aghdashloo (2003’s “House of Sand and Fog”) brings her customary warmth and dignity to the supporting role of Bahari’s mother. There’s nothing particularly new here, but “Rosewater” makes its points competently and with a minimum of overt violence.
“Birdman” (B): Will this bird fly? It’ll very much depend on the viewer. Michael Keaton plays an actor who wants to prove his bona fides as a real actor, having experienced fame by playing a cartoon superhero (the “Birdman” of the title) in the movies. He’s on Broadway for the opening of a serious play, that he scripted and directed. But he’s hearing voices – an actor on the verge of a nervous breakdown, as he does battle with his superhero persona. And he’s got his hands full with a troubled daughter (Emma Stone), and a prima donna co-star played by Edward Norton. There’s a strong ensemble cast (Naomi Watts makes an impression); and director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu makes original use of extended seamless single shots, with the camera frequently following characters up and down the theater’s backstage halls and stairs. This is one odd movie. For this critic, it worked, as a subjective, eccentrically original portrait of a man at (or beyond) the psychological breaking point. But, it will not be for all tastes.
“Boyhood” (USA, 2014) (B): The movie’s opening scene is its most evocative: A five-year-old boy lies on his back upon the green grass gazing up at the clouds passing on a blue sky, as if transfixed by a waking dream. The scene summons Longfellow’s words: “A boy’s will is the wind’s will / And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts.” Richard Linklater’s new film, “Boyhood,” is an immersion in the life of one (fictional) boy. Filmed over the course of twelve years with the same cast (we literally see the children grow up before our eyes), the film follows the life of Mason (Ellar Coltrane), his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), and their parents (Patricia Arquette & Ethan Hawke). Writer/director Linklater is known for his conversational, introspective, and naturalistic portraits of everyday life and relationships – witness the trilogy of films starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy that began with 1995’s “Before Sunrise” and revisited that couple at other stages of their relationship in “Before Sunset” (2004) and “Before Midnight” (2013). “Boyhood” follows a similar pattern, save that it focuses on the challenges, initiations, questions, and discoveries of childhood, following its lead character from the age of five till he arrives at college at the age of eighteen. When we meet Mason, he’s a bit of a dreamer. “You’re still staring out the window all day,” observes his mother. But his life and that of his sister are filled with the familiar terrain of childhood: There are backseat squabbles in the car (Samantha sings Justin Bieber songs just to bug her brother); there’s boyish curiosity about the opposite sex that manifests by looking at lingerie models in a Sears catalog; there’s the uprooted, helpless feeling that comes with a family move; and there are the dashed hopes of a reconciliation between their estranged parents. It’s the ebb and flow of everyday life – adjusting to new schools, struggling to fit in, and trying to suss out our place in the world. The kids’ mother is unlucky in love. Her second husband becomes abusive, and Mason comes home to find his mother sobbing on the garage floor. As they flee, she tells her kids, “Don’t look back,” since, sometimes, self-preservation means leaving broken or poisoned relationships behind us. Meanwhile, the kids’ birth father grows out of his early irresponsibility and becomes a good parent, telling his son that the boy’s mother is “Just as confused as I am… We’re all just winging it.” And, quite often, that’s all any of us can do in life, simply doing the best we can – as parents, as children to our own parents, as siblings, as friends, as Christians, or just as human beings trying to make our way in a confusing world. One of Mason’s teachers scolds him for coasting on his natural talents and admonishes him to ask himself: “What do you want to be? What do you want to do?” Those are universal questions – commonplace, yet singular in their specificity for each and every one of us. “Boyhood” is 165 minutes long, but it never wears out its welcome, as it takes a leisurely journey through the lives of one family. For ages 18+: Coarse language, including some briefly crude sexual talk.
“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” (USA, 2014) (C+/B-): Andy Serkis, who plays the leader of intelligent apes in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” says that, “the heart of the story is about… family, empathy, prejudice, and tribalism.” And, he’s right. Those elements of the movie – before it inevitably segues into the pyrotechnics that dominate all big-budget commercial movies nowadays – are what make it worth seeing. Action films and computer-generated effects are a dime a dozen; but what really makes an impression are stories about the human condition. In effect, the 46-year old Apes franchise divides the human condition into two (armed) camps: Human beings and anthropomorphized apes. Here, apes have gained intelligence, and a rudimentary grasp of human speech, as a byproduct of drug tests that aimed to find a treatment for Alzheimer’s and which instead spawned a lethal epidemic that’s devastated human civilization. Serkis’ character, named ‘Caesar’ by the human who raised him, leads a society of apes in a redwood forest near San Francisco. Their overriding commandment is: “Apes not kill apes;” and their guiding philosophy is expressed in just three words: “Home, Family, Future” – words, surely, that encapsulate what’s most important in our lives, too. But fear, hatred, aggression, betrayal, and violation of the injunction not to kill, all follow hard on the return of humans (who want to reactivate a hydroelectric dam that’s situated in the apes’ territory). Past contact between the species has been difficult, to say the least, so their reunion is fraught with everything from wariness to outright hostility. The result is a parable about tribalism, that ubiquitous human habit of dividing ‘us’ from ‘them.’ Once such dividing lines are drawn – on the basis of such things as race, religion, or nationality – those on the more powerful side of that insidious boundary have all the excuse they need to exploit, oppress, or attack those deemed to be ‘other.’ In the movie, species is the line that divides the tribes; but it might just as easily be any other perceived difference. Once we postulate a “difference,” we legitimize a dichotomy – between how we want to be treated and how we treat others. So it has always been throughout human history, alas. But there are also differences between individuals in each camp. Caesar can get past his suspicion of outsiders and his instinctive protectiveness toward his own people: He can feel empathy for the struggling remnant of the human race. But his decision to cooperate and try to live in peace with the human tribe is anathema to his closest friend: As the past victim of human experimentation on animals, Koba is too full of rage, bitterness, and the drive to return hurt for hurt, to accept living in peace. Sound familiar? It’s the age-old human story of sectarian conflict – in places like Israel and the Occupied Territories. Few things are harder for us (man or apes) to overcome than our deeply ingrained prejudices. But, unless we do; unless we prevail over the deep-seated habit of dividing ‘us’ from ‘them,’ we will never outgrow the brutal, cruel side of our nature in favor of a world in which the lamb can lie down next to the lion.
“Chef” (USA, 2014) (B): Part-comedy, part character-study, all paean to the sensory pleasure of good food, this film is a sheer torment to watch on an empty stomach. It’s another very welcome addition to the subgenre of food-film, taking its place among such greats as “Mostly Martha,” “Babette’s Feast,” “Chocolat,” and Big Night.” Written and directed by Jon Favreau (who also stars), it concerns Carl, a man who loses his job as head-chef at a successful restaurant in the wake of ill feelings caused by an adverse review by a restaurant critic. A bid to reestablish himself finds him on a cross-country trip in a refurbished food-truck, where his Cuban sandwiches and beignets (a form of deep-fried pastries) draw appreciative crowds. Along for the ride are his young son Percy (Emjay Anthony), who longs to re-bond with his dad, and Carl’s best buddy Marin (engagingly played by John Leguizamo). Sofia Vergara plays Carl’s glamorous, and well-to-do, ex-wife, who remains his loyal friend and chief booster. The supporting players include Bobby Carnavale (from “Blue Jasmine”), Scarlet Johansson, Dustin Hoffman, Oliver Platt, Robert Downey Jr., Amy Sederis, and Canadian comedian Russell Peters. A scene showing the preparation and frying of a grilled cheese sandwich will leave your mouth watering. This charming independent film has a lot of heart and humor, as well as a surfeit of cuss-words. It’s a very welcome break from the usual cookie-cutter parade of summertime effects movies. Go see it! For ages 18+: Frequent coarse language.
“How to Train Your Dragon 2” (B+): Like its first-rate 2010 predecessor, “How to Train Your Dragon,” this animated fantasy adventure will bring tears of joy to the faces of those moved by the sight of a boy atop a jet-black dragon flying into the clouds and then soaring down toward the glistening sea below. And the good news is that composer John Powell (whose beautiful, emotionally moving score in the first film deservedly earned him an Academy Award nomination) is back. The sweeping emotive main score and the Celtic melodies are back too, to the movie’s great credit and strength. The scenes of flight, to that glorious music, are some kind of wonderful, conjuring beauty, freedom, and exhilaration in ways that entrance and move the viewer! The original film was co-directed by Dean DeBlois, who also co-wrote the screenplay, and Chris Sanders, based on the series of books by Cressida Cowell. Canadian director DeBlois is flying solo this time around; and the second entry in the series does a good job of broadening-out the already memorable characters and exposing them to new challenges and to lasting changes. The first film was an Oscar nominee for Best Animated Film; and this one deserves the same recognition. The story puts its own twist on the familiar trope of a boy and his faithful dog, by imagining a Viking boy who doesn’t fit in and his remarkable bond with the likewise unique black dragon who he names ‘Toothless.’ Vikings and dragons are relentless foes until Hiccup shows them a better way. His peacemaking rises to well-nigh Canadian proportions in the second installment, as Hiccup bravely tries to reconcile new enemies in the spirit of live and let live. The theme of finding heroism in unexpected places is continued, with a protagonist who does not fit the mold or the expectations of his normally ‘fight first, ask questions later’ folk. Canadian Jay Baruchel is note-perfect as the eccentric individualist Hiccup (who is fond of making ironic observations); Gerard Butler returns as his father Stoick, as does America Ferrera as Hiccup’s friend Astrid, and Craig Ferguson as the town blacksmith Gobber. Cate Blachett plays an important new role as Valka, who shares Hiccup’s affinity for dragons. A slight disappointment comes in the loudly bellicose form of Drago (Djimon Hounsou), who brings nothing interesting to the role of chief new villain. More interesting is the rascally Kit Harrington (“Game of Thrones’” Jon Snow) as the sometime scoundrel Eret. For ages 13+: Not suitable for young children
“The Fault in Our Stars” (C+): Two teens meet at a support group session. Hazel (Shailene Woodley) is struggling with leukemia, and she takes an oxygen tank wherever she goes. Augustus, also know as Gus (Anzel Elgort), has a prosthetic leg. He’s hopelessly cool and nonchalant; she’s eager to experience more of what life has to offer. Friendship quickly turns to romance; and a shared interest in a famed book by a reclusive novelist takes them on a trip to Amsterdam. The result is likeable enough romantic fare, with a bittersweet tone; but there’s nothing truly memorable or new here. Woodley, who was so good in “The Way Way Back,” “The Descendants,” and “Divergent,” continues to make an impression. Her male counterpart is adequate in a mostly one-note role. The supporting players include Nat Wolff (as their blind friend Isaac); Laura Dern & Sam Trammel (he’s the shape-shifting barkeep from “True Blood”) as Hazel’s parents; Willem Dafoe, as the pointlessly cantankerous recluse; and the lovely Lotte Verbeek (a Dutch actress who appeared in television’s “The Borgias”). The screenplay is by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weberfrom the novel by John Green. But the pair did much better work in 2013’s “The Way Way Back.” Judging by those in attendance, the target demographic seems to be girls in their pre and early teenage years. They seemed moved by the film; this reviewer found it merely fair to middling. But there are distracting contrivances along the way, chief among them the gratuitously obnoxious novelist. Everything to do with him seemed completely pointless. And his kinder female amanuensis’ excursion to the many steep steps of Anne Frank’s house seems inexplicable, given the obvious struggle (and danger, even) climbing those many stairs poses for the heroine. Why take her there in the first place, given her physical handicap? Brief very coarse language makes it unsuitable for the young.
“Edge of Tomorrow” (USA, 2014) (B/B+): A man keeps reliving the last day of his life over and over again. He can remember the earlier versions; but no one else can. And there’s a great deal riding on his persuading someone to believe him and changing any number of incremental events in each new version of reality. It’s the near future, and Earth has been invaded by aliens. It’s not going well for humanity. The tentacled, octopus-like invaders (their tendrils and centrally controlled behavior make them seem like giant rogue nerve cells, each part of a physically disconnected single organism) have quickly overrun mainland Europe. But a human expeditionary force, the likes of which has not been seen since 1944, is set to cross the English Channel on the very day in question in a bold bid to turn the tide of the war. Despite a poor choice in titles (it sounds like it’s the name of a soap opera), this science fiction drama is a welcome surprise. The protagonist, a military PR man with no stomach for hands-on warfare, undergoes a distinct character arc – from the inept and frightened civilian-in-uniform to hero. And the transformation is earned, by learning from one mistake after the other on the succession of ‘do-overs’ that always end with his death. Tom Cruise is very good in the role of a shanghaied media man who must become a soldier, with the help of a warrior-woman played by Emily Blunt. And Bill Paxton steals every scene he’s in as a wryly no-nonsense sergeant. Paxton is pleasure to watch in action here, as he has been in his other recent roles – as a coach in “Million Dollar Arm” and in a recurring role in the past season’s “Agents of SHIELD” on the small screen. The filmmakers adroitly and inventively convey the idea of repetition without being repetitious. And the playful story is a refreshing blend of strong characterization, sci-fi action, understated romance, and unexpected moments of humor: (A) “Are you an American?” (B) “No, sir. I’m from Kentucky.” It’s good enough for a second viewing (no temporal loops required); and that’s saying something these days.
“The Grand Seduction” (Canada, 2014) (C-/C): This English-language remake of the 2003 Canadian film “La grand séduction” (a.k.a. “Seducing Dr. Lewis”) relocates the setting from a small fishing village on the coast of the St. Lawrence to a small fishing village, Tickle Cove, in Newfoundland. The fish are gone and most of the hundred or so inhabitants are without work and utterly dependant on public welfare checks. But, there’s hope of enticing a factory to town – if, and only if, they can show that they have a resident physician. They contrive to get a young sawbones (Taylor Kitsch) to come by blackmailing him. Once there, they do their very best to charm him into staying – by providing him with a steady stream of grateful patients, a gaggle of people who claim to share his passion for the game of cricket, a fatherly mentor (Irish actor Brendan Gleeson, who is the village’s impromptu leader), camaraderie-fueled fishing lessons, a recurring selection of five, ten, and twenty dollar bills apparently ‘lost’ on the pier for him to find, and all his favorite foods. Anticipating his needs by tapping his phone, the locals baulk at no deception to entice their visiting doctor to stay. The seaside location is lovely, and director Don McKellar has assembled a good cast (Gleeson is appealing enough in the lead, CBC television comedians Mark Critch, Mary Walsh, and Cathy Jones are on hand for comic antics, as is the eminent Gordon Pinsent, and it’s nice to see “New Waterford Girl’s” (1999) engaging Liane Balaban, even though she is given precious little to do). The film strives for a tone akin to “Waking Ned Devine,” with its good natured villagers stretching the truth for a good cause. But, it’s all pretty predictable; and, its one-joke situational comedy is just not very funny – however well-intentioned the effort. It feels like made-for-TV fare, and it never makes much of an impression. The result is a disappointment, though those hankering for undisguised Canadian content, lovely maritime locations, and undemanding light humor might find it worth a look.
“X-Men: Days of Future Past” (USA/U.K., 2014) (C+/B-): Through the expedient of time travel, this latest entry in the X-Men series unites younger and older versions of the same characters. Things in the future are dire: Huge automatons created to destroy the mutants have done their work with relentless efficiency. Able to adapt to (and mimic) the special powers of whichever mutants they encounter, they are unstoppable. A few surviving mutants have gathered at a base in the Himalayas with a desperate plan – to send the consciousness of Wolverine (the always charismatic Hugh Jackman) back in time, where he will possess his own body and do what needs to be done to change history. This plot device has the advantage of letting us see two versions of many characters in action – their younger and older selves. The interaction between the characters and the contrasts between their attitudes at two different times in their lives makes for an interesting story. For instance, in the midst of an apocalyptic war, the usual villain of the piece, Magneto (Ian McKellan) has seen the error of his ways and reconciled with his old friend, the benevolent Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart); but in the past, their younger selves (played, respectively by Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy) are still at violent loggerheads. A distraught McAvoy has one of the film’s most emotional lines as he resists the responsibility being imposed upon him: “I don’t want your suffering! I don’t want your future!” By far the best (and the funniest) scenes in the film involve the high-speed antics of a character called Quicksilver (Evan Peters) who can move faster than the eye can see. His pivotal role in the breakout of an imprisoned mutant is an inventive pleasure to behold. For non-aficionados, the outlandish abilities (and sometimes appearance) of many of the mutants strains credulity; but, if you can get past that comic book provenance of the material, you’ll find the story and characters entertainingly done.
“Maleficent” (USA/U.K., 2014) (B) — See Artsforum’s review by John Arkelian in our Featured Film Reviews section, at this link:http://artsforum.ca/film/featured-film-reviews
“Million Dollar Arm” (C+/B-): Based on a true story about a struggling sports agent who conceives the notion of searching for new professional baseball talent in the hitherto untapped market of India, the movie is part stranger in a strange land, part odd-couple (though the odd pairings here tally to four or more characters), and part underdog makes good story. ‘Jerry Maguire Goes to India’ could have been the subtitle, as Jon Hamm scours the subcontinent for cricket players with good pitching arms (Oddly enough, neither of the two finalists who accompany him back to America are cricket-players.) The half of the movie set in India is the most engaging, with colorful culture shock, a grumpy traveling companion (the always engaging Alan Arkin), and the start of the protagonist’s long journey to sort out his priorities and values. Stateside, Bill Paxton steals every scene he’s in as a coach with a mischievous twinkle in his eye: Paxton has been on an impressive roll lately, delivering magnetic, standout performances here, in “Edge of Tomorrow,” and in a recurring guest-star spot on television’s “Agents of SHIELD.” Taken together, that work is some of the best in his career.
“God’s Not Dead” (C+): It is a riddle befitting theproverbial sphinx: Is the objective of advancing a message of some kind (it may be religious, moral, scientific, environmental, or political) compatible with good storytelling? Or are the two objectives mutually incompatible? When one’s objective is didactic, that is, intended to instruct, persuade, or convert the audience to some ideological, doctrinal, or philosophical world-view, the ever-present danger is that the lesson will come equipped with heavy-handed preachiness. For some reason, movies about religious faith are particularly susceptible to that pitfall, as well as to corniness – even when viewed by those who already share the faith the movie seeks to promote. “God’s Not Dead” is the second Christian faith movie to hit theaters in May 2014, along with “Heaven is for Real.” It is unapologetically a Christian message movie; and, yes, it shows plenty of evidence of the message-movie failings noted above. It may be shamelessly manipulative, but so are any number of other film genres (like the terminally ill teen in love gambit). Somehow, though, it manages to do two things pretty well: It emotionally moves the viewer on several occasions, bringing a tear to the eye with its bittersweet stories of faith, loss, and the promise of redemption. Even much better movies have a hard time engaging viewers on a viscerally emotional level; so the movie earns points in that regard. It also posits a reasonably intelligent debate between a Christian believer and an atheist: Its central premise involves a classroom debate between a university student (Shane Harper) and his zealously atheistic professor (played with charm by Kevin Sorbo). How many university students could hold their own in such circumstances in the real world is questionable. But it is convincing in context, and both antagonists wield some thoughtful arguments. Having said that, though, it must be pointed out that this film is not in the same league as 2008’s “God on Trial” or the exemplary 2011 film “The Sunset Unlimited” – films of great urgency, depth, and sophistication. Some of the performances (those mentioned above, as well as the professor’s emotionally abused wife, and a young college-aged convert to Christianity whose religious choice brings with it a painful breach with her Muslim father) are quite good; elsewhere they can be a tad awkward. There are missteps aplenty, what with the professor bullying and threatening his sparring opponent – acts which would earn him a dismissal. And, who needs the cameos by one of the God-fearing bearded guys (with his curiously mini-skirted wife) from television’s inane-looking “Duck Dynasty.” If it is fair game to make a movie to advance a cause or to preach a message, is this movie’s message apt to be heard by any but those who already share its faith stance? For non-believers, a subtler approach might work better. Weaknesses aside, “God’s Not Dead,” is better than expected – and it’s not without wisdom: “To the wrong person, you’ll never have any worth. But to the right person, you’ll mean everything.”
“Godzilla” (C): The early trailer looked promising, focusing, as it did, on short, tightly-edited scenes of people threatened by an unseen cataclysm of well-nigh apocalyptic proportions. But, those self-same excerpted scenes, when viewed in situ, come across as histrionic rather than gripping. And, how involving can a movie be when it involves oversized monsters who are the size of skyscrapers? The Godzilla franchise has been around since 1954. There’s no explaining its longevity. The effects have improved markedly over the ‘man in a rubber suit’ of the Japanese original; but the premise is as overblown, clunky, and ultimately ridiculous as ever. The result is okay as a summer time-waster; nothing more.
“The Amazing Spider-Man 2” (C/C+): The successful film franchise about a young man who can ‘do whatever a spider can’ (as the theme song from the old animated television series put it) was “rebooted” in 2012. In this case, that meant simply starting afresh – with a new star (British actor Andrew Garfield replacing Tobey Maguire, who headlined the earlier three films in 2002-7), a new director (Marc Webb replacing Sami Rami), and the addition of the adjective ‘amazing’ to the title. But we liked Maguire better in the role: He seemed more grounded in reality; his successor is more one-dimensionally jokey. In this second installment of the franchise ‘reboot,’ young Peter Parker has to contend with a super-villain named Electro, who is intent on destruction for its own sake. Not even the presence of an Oscar-winning actor (Jamie Foxx) can invest Electro with an ounce of sympathy or interest. He’s lost beneath the make-up. And his back-story really is the stuff of a comic book – and not in a good way: He is zapped by high voltage lines, then by a vat of electric eels; instead of killing him, that electrifying experience inexplicably gives him superpowers. Boring! Dane DeHaan, of the unnaturally-hued eyes, is marginally more interesting as Parker’s one time friend, turned villain, Harry Osborn. But the mega-corporation (Oscorp) that he inherits is a bit too overtly (and pointlessly) nefarious to pass the credibility test. That’s the trouble here: There’s a good cast, but the tone is just too dependent upon its comic book origins – full of the de rigueur explosions, collisions, stunts, and effects that over-saturate so many movies nowadays.It’s all competently done, of course; and there’s a more than competent cast (with Emma Stone, Sally Field, and Canada’s Colm Feore, in addition to those already mentioned); but it never rises above the level of Been There, Seen That.
“The Quiet Ones” (USA/U.K., 2014) (C): A university professor (Jared Harris) is intent on proving that seemingly psychic afflictions – of the demonic possession and/or ghostly haunting varieties – are really just the manifestation of some explainable psychological disturbance on the part of the afflicted person. Ordered to take his controversial work off-campus, he decamps, with an unlikely trio of student assistants, to a rambling and deserted old manse in the countryside. There, he locks Jane (Olivia Cooke), the subject of his ‘Experiment’ (he talks about it as if it ought to be capitalized), in a cell-like room and subjects her to such well-established scientific methodologies as séances and hypnotism! (In case you missed the sarcasm, such techniques are hardly the stuff of a respectable scientific experiment.) Adding to the already significant strain on own credibility, two of the students (Erin Richards and Rory Fleck-Byrne) are sleeping with each other (the mini-skirted nursing student is fond of dressing like a sex-pot during these pseudo-scientific undertakings); the prof himself seems to be involved with the female assistant; and the new guy (Sam Claflin), who is along to document the whole thing on video, falls for the subject of all these proceedings. He is also the only one to question the dubious morality of the psychological strains they’re putting on poor Jane. Despite the all of the film’s stresses and strains on good sense, the result is moderately entertaining. It relies over-much on the primitive expedient of sudden loud noises for its scares; but that’s still an improvement on the genre’s usual reliance on gore. And Olivia Cooke brings a nice combination of gamin beauty, vulnerability, and mystery to the séance table. For ages 18+: Coarse language; violence; and brief nudity.
“Oculus” (C+/B-): A young woman is obsessed with the tragedy that ended in the violent deaths of her parents and the incarceration for presumed criminal insanity of her young brother. She attributes the shattering of her family to an antique mirror which she is convinced is a demonic source of malevolence and madness in all who possess it. Reunited with her brother in the house where their lives were savagely marred years ago by violence and terror, Kaylie is determined to destroy whatever malign sentience calls the mirror home. But all the careful preparations for the planned confrontation with their supernatural nemesis fail to adequately prepare the siblings for (or protect them from) the power of whatever lurks within the mirror to cloud their perceptions. Apart from two or three moments of gruesomeness, the film relies mostly on a sense of mounting unease. The story divides its time equally between past and present. And its cast in both time frames is uniformly strong. Karen Gillan, the fetching flame-haired Scottish actress who played Amy Pond on “Doctor Who” (in 2010-13) brings steely determination and courage to the role of Kaylie. And the actress, Annalise Basso, who plays her younger incarnation is just as affecting. The same goes for Brenton Thwaites and Garrett Ryan, who play the adult and childhood versions, respectively, of Kaylie’s brother Tim. Katee Sackhoff (best known as the tough-as-nails Starbuck on television’s “Battlestar Galactica” reboot) and Rory Cochrane are also very good as the ill-fated parents. The result is a small, but surprisingly successful horror film that (mostly) relies on psychological scares and suspense in favor of gore and effects overkill.
“Draft Day” (B-/B): Kevin Costner is very appealing as Sonny Weaver, the general manager of a losing professional football team. Does he go with conventional wisdom come ‘draft day,’ when teams pick their new players? Or does he trust his gut? We get a hint when someone tells Sonny, “You see things other people don’t see.” The subject-matter (picking football players) would ordinarily have about as much lift as a lead balloon for non-aficionados. But the underdog theme appeals, and the film is buoyed by its cast, foremost among them Costner, who has done great work before in sports movies like “Field of Dreams” and “Bull Durham.” The film makes frequent use of split screens, inventively tweaking that technique by having a person in one screen overlap the adjacent screen
“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (B-): The second stand-alone film about the titular Marvel comic-book hero pits him against a treasonous conspiracy within the ranks of SHIELD, the organization he serves now that he’s being awakened from World War Two vintage hibernation. Chris Evans manages to make his upright, All-American hero admirable and refreshingly sweet-natured. He’s a decent man, but he’s not a pompous one. For contrast, he is paired with Scarlett Johansson’s sassy (and sexy!) spy-girl Natasha Romanoff, who gets all of the best lines: “Can any of you boys direct me to the Smithsonian? I’m here to pick up a fossil.” We get engaged with these characters and the sense of a world being undermined and subverted by dangerous ideologues in sheeps’ clothing, people who are fond of asserting that ‘building a better world, sometimes means tearing the old one down.’ And the more down-to earth heroics (like one man against eight or more in an elevator) are effective action sequences. Inevitably, though, things culminate in over-sized flying gunships and way larger than life CGI pyrotechnics. Less truly is more; and, while the film concentrates on the smaller stuff it exceeds expectations. Among the able supporting players are Robert Redford, Samuel L. Jackson, Anthony Mackie, and Canadians Cobie Smulders and Emily Van Camp.
“Noah” (B-/B): Director and co-writer Darren Aronofsky (2010’s “Black Swan”) offers an idiosyncratic version of the Biblical story about the man chosen by God to survive a watery extinction-event with his family and a menagerie of representatives from Earth’s animal kingdom. The Biblical account is very brief, which leaves Aronofsfy a great deal of room for invention. That would be fine; but what is very hard to fathom is why he chooses to depart from what the Bible does say – in numerous critical respects. In the movie, there’s a stowaway, in the person of a ruthless king (the very sort of fellow who is meant to perish in the Deluge). His presence prompts a mutiny – and a lethal hand-to-hand fight. And a central premise of the film is that only one of Noah’s three sons has a spouse on board, leading to bitter resentment on the part of the second son. But, the Bible plainly states that Noah, his wife, his three sons, and each of their wives were on board the Ark. Finally, the movie posits that Noah (rather arbitrarily) interprets God’s plan as the utter eradication of mankind; hence, Noah intends his voyage to be a suicidal one, once their care for the animal passengers is no longer required. That harsh notion, along with the purported shortage of wives and the presence of a dangerous stowaway drive all of the plot and conflict – yet each of those plot elements is in direct contradiction with the source material. And, curiouser still, Aronofsky gives Noah some larger than life help, in the form of earth-bound angels who resemble lumbering ‘transformers’ made out of stone. Huh! That has to be the most bizarre depiction of an angel ever conceived; and those strange sci-fi concoctions do not belong in this story. The movie does replicate the Bible’s account of Noah’s drunkenness, nakedness, and shame; but that sequence is as inexplicable in the movie as it is in the Bible itself and would have been better thrown overboard. The film lays on an environmental message pretty heavily; but that’s one contrivance that seems readily compatible with the story. And, Bible or no, Noah’s right: Nothing will change while sinful human beings (and by that he means all human beings) exist. Indeed, post-Deluge history has made the point: We’ve gone straight down the same road to ruin as the first time round. On the plus side, however, the movie is buoyed by its cast (among them Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Anthony Hopkins, Ray Winstone, Emma Watson, Logan Lerman, and Douglas Booth). The grittiness of the life it depicts, the believable dignity of its protagonists, and the beauty of its locations (the Ark’s landfall was filmed at Iceland’s glorious black beach, well-beloved by this reviewer) are what make the film worth seeing. It didn’t need the heavy-handed plot contrivances, the violent conflict, and the intended infanticide.
Editor’s Note: Read Artsforum’s all-new (August 2014) review of “Noah” on DVD at this link: http://artsforum.ca/film/on-dvd/on-dvd-2-0
“The Wind Rises” [“Kase Tachinu”] (Japan, 2013) (B): This may be the last film by the masterful Japanese director, Hiyao Miyazaki, who apparently intends to retire. His gorgeous, wonderfully imaginative, animated films are always a wonder to behold. Most are founded in Japanese folklore and myth. His latest feature is grounded in recent history. It tells the story of Jiro, a young boy who is fascinated with airplanes; he grows up to design fighter jets for the Japanese military before the Second World War. (The adult version of Jiro is voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt.) It is not this reviewer’s favorite Miyazaki film, by any means; the warplane connection casts a bit of a pallor – even though the story’s protagonist is neither a warmonger nor a rabid nationalist. And his romance with Nahoko (Emily Blunt) is rendered low key by Jiro’s personality: He’s a dreamer but a cerebral one in the Mr. Spock mold, not given to frequent displays of emotion. But, Jiro’s dream planes hearken back to the strange creatures of earlier Miyazaki films. And the glorious renderings of flight, landscapes, and skyscapes are to die for!
“Nebraska” (USA, 2013) (B+/A-): It opens with an old man shuffling along the side of a highway. He’s trying to walk to Nebraska (two states, and several hundred miles, away from his home in Montana) to collect the big cash prize promised in marketing mail he received from an outfit touting magazine subscriptions. Woody (Bruce Dern in the role of a lifetime) is retrieved by his family before he can get far, but he is intent on going “to get my million dollars” and he stubbornly refuses to listen to those who would turn him from his intended path: “I’m going to Lincoln if it’s the last thing I do. I don’t care what you people think.” Bowing to the inevitable, his younger son, David (Will Forte) agrees to drive Woody to his desired destination. And so begins a road-trip that’s as much as a journey into the troubled relationship between father and son as it is across solely geographical terrain. David sells audio equipment for a living and his girlfriend has just left him: He’s adrift in life. His older brother, Ross (Bob Odenkirk), is more successful, working as a television news anchorman, but he’s bitter about their father’s past history of alcoholism and neglect: “He never gave a s–t about you or me.” Their plainspoken mother, Kate (June Squibb in a colorfully earthy performance) is at the end of her tether with the old man who seems to be half out of it much of the time: “You dumb cluck. You pretty near gave me a heart attack!” David is more patient and understanding toward his father: “He just needs something to live for. That’s what this is about…. Go easy on the guy…. You and I both know this is not about the money. It’s about… how much longer is he going to be around? At least, semi-coherently. What’s the harm in letting him have his little fantasy for just a couple more days?” So off they go – father and son, joined along the way by David’s mother and brother. A late night mishap leaves Woody temporarily without his artificial teeth and witha small gash requiring stitches and an overnight stay in a hospital. The delay necessitates a detour to relatives in Woody’s hometown (population 1, 358), where they encounter his equally laconic brothers (“you Grant brothers sure are men of few words”); a couple of ne’er do well small-town hick nephews who are eager to relieve Woody of the some of the fortune they think he has inherited; a bully of an ex-business partner (Stacy Keach’s Ed Pegram) who has the exact same thing in mind; Woody’s ladylike ex-flame Peg (played in very naturalistic fashion by Angela McEwan); and a parcel-full of memories. David learns things about his father he never knew, things like the aforementioned first love; a later extramarital flame that might have sundered his parents; Woody’s traumatic experiences in the Korean War; and his loss at an early age of two siblings. Woody also comes to realize that his father was generous man, and that others were far too prone to selfishly take advantage of him. The result is both gentle and gently-paced. Dryly funny, it is full of nostalgia and affection for its characters. Filmed in black-and-white, “Nebraska” is a blend of character-study and Americana. It is about growing old, memories, and the things that make us who we are. It’s also about accepting those close to us – flaws and all – with generosity, love, and understanding. Despite their bumpy past, David clearly cares for his irascible father – and with that caring come both understanding and loyalty: When someone asks David if Woody has Alzheimer’s, David replies, “He just believes stuff that people tell him.” Beneath the surface of alcohol abuse, gruffness, and apparent lack of sentimentality, there is a gentleness, kindness, and honesty to Woody that David sees and values. The film has an award-caliber performance by Bruce Dern and strong supporting work from everyone else. There’s a nicely understated moment of poignancy when husband, wife, and son visit a cemetery: Kate gives a sarcastic running commentary on its occupants, but Woody is silent – the fond memories he has for those he has lost implicit in his sad and contemplative demeanor. Directed by Alexander Payne (“Sideways” and “The Descendants”), “Nebraska” earned a great many nominations and awards. For example, it was nominated at both the Academy Awards and Golden Globes in six major categories: Best Film, Actor, Supporting Actress, Director, Original Screenplay, and Cinematography. At BAFTA, it was nominated for Actor, Original Screenplay, and Cinematography. At the Screen Actors Guild, it was nominated for Actor and Supporting Actress. At the AFI, it won Movie of the Year. At Cannes, it won Best Actor and was nominated as Best Film. At the Independent Spirit Awards, it won Best First Screenplay and was nominated in five other major categories. For ages 18+: Some coarse language.
“All is Lost” (USA, 2013) (B+/A-): “I am. I tried. I think you will all agree that I tried. To be true. To be strong. To be kind. To love. To be right. But I wasn’t… and I am sorry.” Imagine a movie with only one actor and practically no dialogue at all. Imagine then that such a movie has the power to utterly immerse you in its environment, in its situation, and in the dogged determination of its protagonist. Its power is all the greater for the spareness of language; in place of words we get an elemental struggle of man against nature. And when that solitary actor is Robert Redford, you can be sure that the performance will grip you. The nameless man he portrays is on a solo sailing journey across the Indian Ocean. He is awakened one morning by the jarring impact of a collision and the sudden rushing-in of sea water. His boat has collided with a large metal shipping container (the size of a train car) that’s floating at sea. It has torn a gash in his boat’s hull near the water line, and the damage has knocked out his boat’s radio and electrical power. He is alone, in the middle of a vast, unforgiving expanse, without the means to call for help, to monitor approaching weather conditions, or to readily chart his position. However, he is very calm and competent, methodically assessing his changing situation and taking incremental steps to address it. But, like the Biblical Job, our man encounters a cascading series of misfortunes. In the absence of dialogue, we share the character’s heightened awareness of the sounds of the wind, the water, and the creaking, damaged boat. Indeed, sound becomes a tangible, living thing in the movie, integral to our sense of experiencing what the man does. A subtle musical score hints at melancholy, in counterpoint to the matter-of-fact resolve with which the man meets each new challenge. But his admirable composure is sorely tested by misfortune, in a story that has to do with confronting our own mortality. Another calamity, in the form of a fierce storm, flings him overboard; but he drags himself back on-board. He is dauntless in his foresight, planning, and economy of action. He does what needs to be done in the order in which it needs doing. But none of those things may ultimately suffice. Sometimes, man simply cannot prevail over nature, or over fate, however much persistence, brawn, or ingenuity he brings to bear. It’s a struggle of man’s indomitable will against relentless misfortune. Perhaps the film is telling us that perhaps our victory lies not in the outcome but in the struggle itself. Or, conversely, maybe it suggests that all the perseverance in the world is ultimately in vain – doomed to be an exercise in futility on a journey that, for all of us, can only end in death. Might it be that only in accepting defeat, in giving ourselves up to the inevitability of our deaths, can we free ourselves from the onslaught of fate’s relentless slings and arrows? The story is open enough to interpretation to admit these, or other, conclusions. Along the way, there are memorable images aplenty: The man hoists himself 65 feet above the deck in an attempt to repair something; his legs dangling over the precipice as his arms grasp the mast in a symbolic embrace; the boat is twice flung upside down but manages to right itself as the struggle for survival continues; we sometimes see the boat from high above (in what seems, figuratively, like God’s perspective) or from deep below the surface, with sharks circling below the boat as a hidden, symbolic reminder of the unseen dangers pitted against man by fate. Our man is pressed to the breaking point, with hunger, thirst, and exposure added to the inherent seeming hopelessness of his predicament. He improvises a way to desalinate sea water; he learns how to navigate manually with a sextant; he holds out for his best chance at encountering a passing ship. He staves off despair, but in Redford’s low-key performance, we get subtle signs of the stresses and strains the ordeal is exacting. He cries out once, very briefly, in anguish, anger, and despair at the bleak unfairness that none of his methodical and sound measures have sufficed. In another scene, there is lovely, underplayed hesitation about flinging a bottle with a farewell message into the sea – it’s a moment that’s fraught with meaning, signifying a marker in his acceptance of mortality. The ending is open to interpretation, a gentle ambiguity that lets us decide how things end. Written and directed by J.C. Chandor, “All is Lost” is a gripping character drama and morality tale. It was nominated for Best Sound Editing at the Academy Awards and BAFTA. At the Golden Globes, it won for Best Original Score and was nominated for Best Actor. At the Independent Spirit Awards, it was nominated for Best Film, Actor, Director, and Cinematography. And its stunt performers were nominated at the Screen Actors Guild Awards. The result is highly recommended – and not to be missed! For ages 18+: Very brief coarse language.
“Enough Said” (USA, 2013) (B): It may be hard to credit, but one person’s ex can be another person’s dream-date. Characteristics and habits that may grate on one partner may be of no consequence at all to another. It’s all a matter of perspective. But what if your own perspective on a prospective partner gets skewed by someone else’s? That’s the premise of this low-key romantic comedy about a middle-aged woman whose reentry into the tricky business of forming a romantic relationship is complicated by the fact that her new friend happens to be the highly critical ex-wife of the very man she’s seeing. Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) has been divorced for ten years, and she’s about to become an empty-nester, as her daughter, Ellen (Tracey Fairaway), prepares to leave for college. At a party one night, she meets two new people – Albert (the late James Gandolfini), a burly, bearded, self-described ‘slob,’ with whom there are immediate signs of mutual interest, and Marianne (Catherine Keener) a sophisticated divorcee who becomes first a client of Eva’s masseuse-services and then a friend. Eva admires Marianne: She’s a poet and well-off (an unlikely combination in the real world), and she has a sophisticated sense of style. As their friendship grows, the pair confide in each other – Eva about the ‘rough around the edges’ new man she has begun to date, and Marianne about the entirely too unpolished former husband she’s glad to be rid of. What neither of them realizes for a long time is that Eva’s new beau is Marianne’s ex-spouse. When Eva realizes the truth, she keeps it from both Marianne and Albert, maintaining her relationships with each of them without disclosing it to the other. But she also comes to perceive Albert differently, gradually becoming critical about his weight, his idiosyncrasies, and even his lovemaking. None of those things troubled Eva before; but they do now, and they are threatening to fracture the romantic relationship: “I’ve been listening to her say the worst things about the one guy that I really started to like.” How do we sort out our perceptions: Are small things just that, or are they signifiers of bigger differences to come? And how do we tell the difference? Eva’s best friends, Sarah (Toni Collette of “The Way Way Back”) and Will (Ben Falcone), give her a living reminder of the give and take of married life. Meanwhile, her daughter’s friend Chloe (Tavi Gevinson, who makes a real impression in the role) is becoming a surrogate daughter to Eva, precipitating jealousy in her actual daughter. For her part, Albert’s daughter, Tess (Eve Hewson), is an unreconstructed, obnoxious snob. The result, written and directed by Nicole Holofcener (2006’s “Friends with Money”), is subdued in tone, relaxed in pace, soft-spoken, and conversational. Its chief protagonist is, perhaps, a bit goofy; but this is meant to be a comedy after all. It’s down-to-earth, pretty authentic in tone, and refreshingly grown-up – in stark contrast to most North American romantic comedies. “Enough Said” was nominated for Best Actress at the Golden Globes; Best Actor at the Screen Actors Guild Awards; and Best Actor and Screenplay at the Independent Spirit Awards.
“The Spectacular Now” (USA, 2013) (B+/A-): “I’d like to think there’s more to a person than just one thing.” So says a character in this delightful coming of age film based on the acclaimed novel by Tim Tharp. And it’s a philosophy that permeates the story. Its characters are multi-dimensional, and they feel ever-so-authentic. When we first meet 18-year-old Sutter Keely (Miles Teller), we may be forgiven for thinking that he is a stereotypical “alpha-male jerk,” as the director puts it. But, are we in for a surprise! Behind Sutter’s easy-going ways (even in painful situations, he smiles and says, “It’s all good”) and cocky self-confidence, lies a core of self-doubt and sadness. He prides himself on being the life of the party; he’s all charm and popularity. But behind the façade lurks a more sensitive reality – and hints of it become apparent six-and-a-half minutes into the film, when Sutter is awakened from a drunken stupor on a stranger’s front lawn by a girl from his high school with whom he has never previously exchanged a word – a girl who is delivering newspapers at the crack of dawn. Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley) is a breath of fresh air: The proverbial girl next door, she’s sweet, honest, and unpretentious. But she’s no cliché: She doesn’t run with the in-crowd, but she’s no shrinking-violet either. Something – maybe it’s just the fact that Sutter has misplaced his car, or maybe it’s mutual curiosity – brings this odd couple together, first as unconventional friends, then as something more. Their stark differences make Sutter and Aimee an unlikely match in the eyes of their friends. Indeed, Sutter’s best friend warns Sutter that, “You’ll break her heart.” But Aimee has her own ideas about the ideal match: “We’ll have some things in common, but then we’ll bring all these different dimensions to the table so that… life doesn’t get boring.” The pair soon begins to influence one another – for better and for worse: Sutter endues Aimee with more assertiveness (“[You’ve] got all these people telling you that you can’t do shit… You need to start standing up for yourself.”); but she also emulates his fondness for drinking. And things threaten to spiral out of control when Sutter is finally reunited with his long-absent father, the missing parent whose absence has emotionally wounded Sutter. He sees himself in his father, and he doesn’t like what he sees: “As long as I can remember, I’ve never not been afraid: Afraid of failure, of letting people down, hurting people, getting hurt. I thought if I kept my guard up and focused on other things, other people, if I couldn’t even feel it, then no harm would come to me. I screwed up. Not only did I shut out the pain, I shut out everything else – the good and the bad – until there was nothing.” Among its many nominations, “The Spectacular Now” won the Special Jury Prize at Sundance, and it was deservedly named one of the Top Ten Independent Films of the Year by the National Board of Review. It is a sheer delight, taking us in unexpected directions with complex, fully dimensional characters, as it explores their complicated relationships and their emotional inner lives. Its antihero, Sutter, is flawed and endearing. And there’s a remarkable authenticity to these characters that hasn’t been much seen in stories about this age-group since the films of John Hughes. Filmed in Athens, Georgia, where the director, James Ponsoldt (2012’s “Smashed”), grew up, it offers a tangible sense of place while deliberately minimizing pop-culture references in an effort to be timeless. A film about character needs a good cast, and “The Spectacular Now” has an excellent one. The two leads are as pitch-perfect as they are memorable. Teller, who looks and sounds a lot like a young John Cusack, appeared in 2010’s “Rabbit Hole” alongside Nicole Kidman; and he has a supporting role opposite Woodley in 2014’s “Divergent.” For her part, Woodley seems to be an star in the process of igniting; she made a strong impression in 2010’s “The Descendants” and she is currently on view in the much better than expected “Divergent” – with a tragic romance, “The Fault in Our Stars” (for which advance reviews have been glowing), coming soon. There’s a strong supporting cast in evidence here, with Brie Larson (as Sutter’s popular ex, Cassidy, who concludes that they cannot make a future by living only in the moment); Jennifer Jason Leigh (as Sutter’s mother, Sara); Mary Elizabeth Winstead (as his sister, Holly); Masan Holden (as his best friend, Ricky); Bob Odenkirk (as his surrogate father figure and employer, Dan); Andre Roya (as a concerned teacher, Mr. Aster); Kyle Chandler (as his neglectful father, Tommy); and, in a small role, Kaitlyn Dever (as Aimee’s protective friend, Kristal). The result is an outstanding character film, with ample moments of romance, poignancy, and humor. And it’s got some wisdom going for it too: “It’s fine just to live in the now, but the best part about the now is there’s another one tomorrow.” “The Spectacular Now” is one of the best films of 2013 – and it is highly recommended. For ages 18+: Coarse language and brief sexual content.
“In A World” (USA, 2013) (B): Cue the deep, resonant voice (think Orson Welles, James Earl Jones, Lorne Greene, or whomever voices the commercial spots for a truck named after a male sheep): In a world in which an authoritative voice can seduce people into buying a movie ticket, those who possess such voices (and know how to use them) can make a good living in this highly specialized subset of voice-over acting. Writer and director Lake Bell has fashioned a low-key dry comedy about the world of vocal pitches that feels, at first, like a mock-documentary (complete with nods to the real-life trailer voice-over king, the late Don LaFontaine). Only ‘this time it’s personal,’ as such narrators are wont to say. The 34-year old Bell plays Carol, a vocal coach who happens to be the daughter of the story’s preeminent movie trailer voice-over narrator (Fred Melamed’s Sam). A pompous, overbearing windbag (attributes that seem to go with the job, at least among its male practitioners), he is far from nurturing or supportive. To the chagrin of his daughters – Carol and Dani (played by the warmly appealing Michaela Watkins), Sam has taken up with a woman who’s their age. In an engaging surprise late in the film, however, it turns out that Alexandra Holden’s Jamie is not at all the dumb young blonde we all think she is. Turns out she’s remarkably sensible, supportive, and proactively protective of her new family’s well-being. Carol gets a break and moves into her father’s professional territory, awakening his rivalry and resentment. Meanwhile, his heir apparent (Ken Marino’s self-satisfied Gustav) is intent on adding Carol to his roster of amorous conquests, not realizing that she has come out of nowhere to become his competition for a coveted voice spot. Rounding out the cast are Rob Corddry as Dani’s good-natured husband Moe; Demetri Martin as Louis, a sweet-natured work colleague who is shyly smitten with Carol; Geena Davis, who seems to be channeling real-life studio executive Sherry Lansing; and an unnamed Irish charmer who has an eye for Dani. It’s an appealing lot, and an above-par comedy (that was supposedly shot in a mere 20 days). Its eccentric characters generate warmth more than outright laughs. For ages 18+: Coarse language.
“The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones” (C): Based on the first of novelist Cassandra Clare’s series of six fantasy novels for young adults, this new franchise wannabe is two parts “Twilight” and one part “Harry Potter,” with a garnish of under ripe, teen-friendly “True Blood” on the side.. It has, thankfully, a lot less of the insufferable teen angst of the “Twilight” movies, but like all three of its antecedents, it is populated by all manner of werewolves, vampires, witches, and other supernatural curiosities. One day young Clary (Lily Collins, who made an impression in a supporting role in 2009’s “The Blind Side”) sees something no one else can. Turns out she’s the progeny of a “Shadowhunter,” a warrior devoted to finding and slaying the demons that prowl the world of non-magical “mundanes, “ like you and me. When her mother (“Game of Thrones’” Lena Headley in a small role) is abducted by a renegade Shadowhunter, Clary has to come to grips with an unseen world she never knew existed and with her own place in it. She falls in with some young Shadowhunters and a mutual attraction quickly develops with one of them, Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower), much to the chagrin of the human boy Simon (Robert Sheehan) who harbors an unspoken (and unrequited) love for Clary. There are triangles aplenty here, as another Shadowhunter, (Alec played by Kevin Zegers) carries a same-sex torch for Jace. Nor does another Shadowhunter (Jemina West) welcome the intrusion of an outsider into their tight-knit clique. Skirmishes ensue; aid is sought from a ridiculous ‘High Warlock of Brooklyn;’ and werewolves (among them, Aidan Turner, who was appealing as a vampire in the BBC’s “Being Human”) come to rescue. The romantic longing might appeal to ‘tweens, but there’s nothing new here – whether it’s the romance or the sword and sorcery stuff. The titular ‘city of bones’ barely comes into the story at all; and a mystical cup (that once contained angel blood) that preoccupies these characters seems like a grail-quest that’s not worth all the trouble. Indeed, the motivations of the chief villain (played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers) remain obscure and none-too-compelling. And, why are the young protagonists so fond of sporting skankwear (with Goth and streetwalker accessories)? It’s the stuff of poseurs, for that’s exactly what this forgettable trifle is populated with. Lead Lily Collins is cute; but, like her peers here, she’s also rather callow — far too young to be taken seriously as the central figure in a would-be tragic romance. The best one can say about the mediocre result is that it isn’t as bad as its irritating trailer suggested it would be.
“Chennai Express” (D+/C-): Bollywood must be an acquired taste — acquired, maybe, after a year of sensory deprivation. Utterly over-the-top and manically exaggerated in every hyperbolic gesture, facial expression, utterance, and stunt, “Chennai Express” is a live action cartoon — except not an entertaining one like “Kung Fu Hustle.” When you’re the cinematic equivalent of a jack-ass, it pays to at least be loveable. But this film instead simply assails the eyes and ears with juvenile slapstick and obnoxiously loud sound volumes. The only saving grace in evidence here is the beautiful visage of its Danish-born female lead Deepika Padukone. It’s hard to fathom why this film made so much money back in Mother India (or anywhere else).
“Paranoia” (C+): An ambitious young employee at a major high-tech firm gets canned by the autocrat who runs the place, then (improbably) blackmailed into rejoining the same tyrant’s payroll — this time as a corporate spy, with orders to infiltrate the upper echelons of a rival company and steal their star-gizmo. The far-fetched premise can’t bear close scrutiny, but the lightweight suspense confection it yields is mildly entertaining (and just as instantly forgettable). The title is a bit of a misnomer, though, as they say, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you. Liam Hemsworth is meant to be matinee-idol hunky (for the distaff members of the audiences); for the rest of us, he’s just cookie-cutter adequate as the protagonist who (impossibly) makes a leap from probationary intern to new executive and wunderkind with no intermediate steps. Gary Oldman may overact as the man ruthlessly pulling Hemsworth’s strings, but at least he’s fond of emoting. Harrison Ford sports a buzz-cut and a deceptively easygoing manner as Oldman’s corporate nemesis. Amber Heard starts off as a cool businesswoman, but soon swoons for Hemsworth. The lovely Embeth Davidtz (who hit all the right notes as a calculating opportunist in “Mansfield Park”) is an accomplished corporate manipulator, Julian McMahon plays a one-dimensional tough-guy (he should be credited as Chief Thug), and the talented Richard Dreyfuss is woefully underused as the protagonist’s perhaps too desperately colorful dad.
“The Butler” (C): This superficial and surprisingly tedious contrivance from director Lee Daniels (who put his name in front of the film’s title for reasons unknown) was very loosely suggested by the story of a black man who worked in the White House as a butler during the administrations of eight presidents. It’s hard to pin down precisely why “The Butler” fails to connect on a dramatic, let alone emotional level. Its lead, Forest Whitaker (as the mostly fictional Cecil Gaines), is typically very engaging; but, we feel no interest in him here (even when we can make out what he was saying) — or in most anybody else. Voice-over narration can be an effective way of telling a story, but it doesn’t work this time — because its chief character has nothing interesting to say. Other than maybe four very briefly emotional moments, we simply do not care about any of these people. The one who came closest to being interesting is the rebellious older son, who gets involved in the civil rights movement in the sixties, before taking a brief detour into the violent tactics of the Black Panthers. His unwillingness to simply maintain silent dignity and carry on — which is a job prerequisite for his butler father — creates far more interest than all the tea serving that goes on inside the executive mansion. Even so, the civil rights stuff (marches, sit-ins, and peace buses), and the hateful discrimination it encounters, seems trite and uncompelling. As for what happens inside the White House, let’s face it: noneof the butlers (be they black or white) had any role to play in policy shaping. (What’s next: ‘White House Mechanic?’) And we are not convinced by this movie that the hired help even overheard any of the good stuff! Oprah Winfrey looks too old (and inexplicably frumpy) for the part of Cecil’s wife Gloria, until her character catches up with her, and the role is too broadly drawn to feel authentic. But the movie’s worst failing is that it is dull. (That, and making a saint out of Obama! Good grief, the only “change” the man has brought in is a slightly darker skin tone. His administration has kept Guantanamo open, enacted a weak health care regime, made illegal assassination by drone part of routine state practice, came down on whistleblowers like a ton of bricks, and engaged in unprecedented and unconstitutional secret surveillance of all Americans — not to mention the rest of us. The movie’s anointing of him at the end felt saccharine, wholly undeserved, and oddly reverse-racist: Let’s celebrate him because he happens to be more-or-less black?) And, the celebrity role call of outlandish presidential impersonators — Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower, James Marsden John F. Kennedy, John Cusack as Richard Nixon, Liev Schreiber as Lyndon Johnson, and Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan — comes across as gimmicky and distracting. (The oddest casting choice of the lot may be Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan!) On the other hand, Minka Kelly makes a sympathetic impression in a small role as Jacqueline Kennedy, as does David Oyelo as the Gaines’ eldest son Louis. Elsewhere, the cast of dozens includes Vanessa Redgrave, Mariah Carrey, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz, Melissa Leo (as Mamie Esienhower), and Elijah Kelley & Isaac White (as the Gaines’ younger son Charlie, in older and younger incarnations). For ages 18+: Some coarse language, and one extremely vulgar and lewd attempt at sexual humor.
“Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters” (C-): Like 2010’s “Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief,” this sequel derives from a series of young adult fantasy novels by Rick Riordan. Its protagonists are so-called “demi-gods.” In other words, they are the ‘half-blood’ adolescent progeny of mixed marriages between a mortal human and an immortal from the pantheon of Greek gods. The result is close kin, in style, tone, and premise, to the Harry Potter series. The chief protagonist is Logan Lerman’s eponymous Percy Jackson, the son pf sea-god Poseidon. He leads some friends, and a newly discovered half-brother (a gentle teen Cyclops named Tyson, played by Douglas Smith) on a quest for the fabled Golden Fleece to heal the wounds inflicted upon the demi-gods’ country camp (whose real world coordinates are in British Columbia) by enemies intent on harming them. Along the way, they uncover a plot by disaffected demi-gods to resurrect Kronos, the Titan progenitor of the Olympian gods, who is also their mortal enemy. The feeble motivations of the cabal who seek to unleash this uncontrollable destructive force upon the world don’t bear scrutiny: It never seems to occur to them that Kronos will be as hostile to them as he is to the absent Olympians they so resent. Among the cast are Alexandra Daddario as Percy’s friend Annabeth; Leven Rambin as his rival Clarisse (the belligerent daughter of Ares); Brandon T. Jackson as Grover (a fawn); Anthony Head as Chiron the centaur (a role played by Pierce Brosnan in first film); Stanley Tucci in a small role as Dionysus; Canada’s Nathan Fillion (of “Firefly” fame) as the god Hermes (working incognito for a courier company); and Jake Abel as the disaffected demi-god Luke. Best suited to early to mid teen audiences, this so-so adventure would benefit from fewer effects and more character-driven drama. As it stands, it is watchable, but no more.
“Elysium” (C): In 2154, Earth is an ugly place, ruined by reckless industrial activity, pollution, overpopulation, wanton resource, exploitation, and the rest of humanity’s bag of tricks. The few who can afford it have evacuated Mother Earth for a more inviting domicile aboard a massive space station spinning its way across the sky. Resembling a country club for the rich, complete with lush expanses of green vegetation, the titular Elysium (the name refers to an idyllic haunt of the fortunate dead in Greek mythology) was filmed in Canada’s British Columbia. Its denizens have ready access to med-pods with the miraculous ability to cure any disease (and even, impossibly, to instantly reconstruct a face that’s been blown away by an explosion). Meanwhile, the sprawling slums on terra firma were largely shot near Mexico City. Android enforcers maintain order here through oppression and mechanized kangaroo courts. Matt Damon plays Max DaCosta, an ex-con factory worker, and an everyman who is one of the countless men, women, and children who have had the misfortune to be born into a life of grinding poverty and hopelessness. In this ugly world, life is cheap. Those who try to ascend to the magical city in the sky are shot from the sky without mercy, but many are desperate enough to try it anyway. So is Max, when a preventable accident at work (those who give the orders pay no heed to worker safety) exposes him to as lethal dose of radiation that only a med-pod in the sky can cure. Fortunately for Max, his services are wanted by smuggler and black marketeer (Wagner Moura’s Spider), who outfits Max with a metal exoskeleton that greatly enhances his endurance and strength. On the not so lucky side, however, once Max acquires top secret data that can permanently alter the balance of power between rich and poor, he becomes an enemy of the state, marked for violent death (as if the radiation poisoning wasn’t enough) by the regime’s ruthless defense chief (Jodie Foster) and her brutally savage mercenary minion (Sharlto Copley’s sadistic Kruger). That puts Max’s lady love (Alice Braga’s Frey) and his loyal friend Julio (Diego Luna makes a strong impression in the fairly small role) in harm’s way. William Fichtner plays John Carlyse, the capitalist owner of the terrestrial sweatshop where Max is injured and then brushed aside like unimportant collateral damage. Chase and pursuit, and all sorts of unpleasantries ensue. Written and directed by South Africa’s Neil Blomkamp (of 2009’s somewhat overrated “District 9”), “Elysium” has the same visceral grittiness of his earlier claim to fame. But, precisely like that earlier film, it is off-puttingly ugly and violent. While the earlier work used aliens and humans metaphor for racial apartheid in South Africa, the new film is a straight-forward blend of dystopic science fiction and action movie. But it feels half-baked, lacking sufficient momentum (mechanical Max ambles aimlessly in his earthbound slum, seeking sanctuary with Frey after a big shoot-out, for no very convincing reason, other than the screenplay’s need to place her in jeopardy) or strongly drawn characters. Mostly, they come across as two-dimensional, as the story has a clichéd, tired feel to it. There’s nothing new in its vision of a bleak future. And, sad to say, one can glean the entire by-the-numbers story just by watching its trailer. For ages 18+: Coarse language and harsh violence.
“White House Down” (C-/C): Home-grown terrorists invade the White House as part of a far-fetched coup d’etat to remove a president who has dreams of Middle Eastern peace in our time. Even with high-level inside help, it is impossible to credit a sizable gang of such transparently obvious thugs getting into such a secure location disguised, none too convincingly, as maintenance men. And doesn’t anybody wonder (before they unleash their attack from within) what they’re doing lolling about watching movies in the White House screening room? How many mercenaries (in “disguise” as an on-call geek-squad) do you need to change a projector bulb, anyway? And when the inside man (or woman) is revealed as such, it comes as no surprise at all; his (or her) scowling disaffection is obvious from the get-go. That character’s turn to treachery and murder may surprise other characters in the movie, but the audience will see it coming a mile away. Channing Tatum is adequate, if forgettable, as Cale, a one-man army, who happens to be visiting the White House for a job interview on the very day that it’s taken over. Jamie Foxx is not particularly persuasive as the president; Maggie Gyllenhaal musters a little more of our interest as a Secret Service agent; while Jason Clarke is too blatantly villainous as the chief mercenary (if he had a mustache, he’d doubtless twirl it while striking an evil pose). Also on hand are Richard Jenkins (as the Speaker of the House), Joey King (as the hero’s daughter Emily; the actress is also on view in “The Conjuring”), James Woods (as a retiring senior Secret Service agent), Canada’s Rachelle Lefevre (as Cale’s ex), and Nicolas Wright (as a tour guide and comic relief). “White House Down” is the second movie in 2013 to deal with a violent assault on the seat of executive power in the United States; “Olympus Has Fallen” was the first of the matched pair. Both have the same premise; both rely on gunfire, explosions, and hand to hand combat to the exclusion of much else; both have an indestructible one-man wrecking crew there to single-handedly defeat all the bad-guys; and neither has anything new (or interesting) to add to the terribly tired conventions of the action genre. This one does find a way to insert a car-chase into its restricted geographical confines; but the ridiculous scene in question is yet another tedious example of Hollywood’s addiction to the overblown. (Won’t someone get that particular monkey off Hollywood’s back?) A few throw-away allusions to the military-industrial complex amount to nothing more than hot air. Compare this hollow excuse for pyrotechnics to a real thriller about an attempt to overthrow the government — the riveting 1964 film “Seven Days in May” — and you’ll be left bemoaning Hollywood’s woeful determination (for the past many years) to hew to the lowest common denominator. Instead of interminable explosions and shootings, why not put some effort into writing a compelling plot and developing more interesting characters? As things are, it’s marginally watchable as a time-waster; nothing more. For ages 18+: Coarse language and violence.
“2 Guns” (C-/C): This odd-couple buddy/ action/heist gone wrong picture concerns a pair of reluctant allies to need to cooperate to fend off the lethal attentions of rogue Naval Intelligence personnel, a corrupt CIA operative, and a Mexican drug boss — all of whom want the $40-odd million in dirty money our heroes appropriated from a bank in the course of their drug investigation. Trouble is: neither of the protagonists initially realizes that the other is also an undercover drug trafficking investigator. (Exactly what the Navy is doing purportedly investigating drug running on dry land is one the screenplay’s many unanswerable questions.) Unduly violent and coarse, relying, as per usual, on gunfire in lieu of intelligence or creative storytelling, this film has one thing, and only one thing, going for it. That’s the comic banter between its unlikely buddies, Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg. At one point, they have each other in neck grips: (A) All right, all right! On the count of three, we’ll let each other go. (B) All right. (A) One, two, three. (Nothing happens) (B) Now you’re making me not be able to trust you.” The banter is amusing; but it’s not enough to redeem the movie. Directed by Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur, this instantly forgettable action flick also features the attractive Paula Patton, Bill Paxton in a coldly villainous turn, the talented Edward James Olmos, who is wasted in this cardboard role, as well as James Marsden and (very briefly) Fred Ward. For ages 18+: Coarse language; brutal violence; and nudity. [Note: This film is patently unsuited to minors, but that didn’t stop some sorry excuse for a parent from inflicting it upon the children in her care at the screening attended by this reviewer — proof positive that we need hard age restrictions in place of the completely useless “parental accompaniment” ratings now in vogue.]
“The Wolverine” (USA, 2013) (B-/B): By far the most interesting member of the X-Men mutants’ gallery of heroes, the irascible, anti-social Logan returns in his second solo movie. His brusque manner (he doesn’t play nicely with others), his solitary, laconic ways, and his solidly basic mutant traits (he is practically indestructible; he doesn’t age; and he sprouts dagger-like metallic talons, when he’s angry or cornered, that are mighty useful in a fight) — come with some bushy sideburns and all the considerable charisma Hugh Jackman brings to every role he plays. This time out, Logan is living like a hermit on an Alaskan mountainside, grieving the loss of his beloved Jean Grey (Famke Janssen); she appears to him in recurring visions — whether they are real or in his mind is unclear. But a female samurai (Rila Fukushima’s fearless Yukio makes a very strong impression as an accomplished swordswoman with precognitive powers) comes to fetch him to Japan at the behest of a man Logan saved in wartime Nagasaki. Yashida (played as a young man by Ken Yamamura and as an old man by Hal Yamanouchi) is now the tycoon in charge of a huge technology corporation. He is dying, but he offers to make Logan mortal again to repay an old debt: “Eternity can be a curse. The losses you have had to suffer… a man can run out of things to care for, lose his purpose.” But Logan is skeptical. “What they did to me, what I am, can’t be undone.” Besides, his would-be benefactor may have motives which aren’t as selfless as they seem: (Yoshida) “The ability to heal can be passed to another. I can make you mortal.” (Logan) “Trust me, bub, you don’t want what I got.” Yoshida plans to leave his son out of the succession loop by bequeathing his company to his granddaughter, a sweet young woman named Mariko (Tao Okamoto). That’s made her the target of violent men. And there’s something troubling about Yoshido’s chief physician (played by Svetlana Khodchenkova), too. Indeed, it turns out that her mutant nickname, Viper, is all too apt. Hiroyuki Sanada rounds out the cast as Shingen, a warrior of uncertain allegiances. Jackman’s aforementioned charisma, gruff charm, and toughness (“I can do this all day, you twisted mutant bitch!”) make him the everyman’s superhero. He’s a plainspoken tough guy (“A lot of people have tried to kill me… and I’m still here.”) with a good heart, and he contrasts very nicely with both the cool as ice and completely self-assured swordswoman and the proverbial princess — each of whom makes a very different heroine (and foil) to his solitary reluctant warrior. As someone in the story points out, the Wolverine is a “ronin,” or a samurai without a master. And, his armor is hidden on the inside, courtesy of the indestructible (and fictitious) “adamantium” metal that’s fused to his skeleton. Directed by James Mangold (who directed “Girl, Interrupted” and “3:10 to Yuma” and executive produced television’s “Vegas” in 2012-13), “The Wolverine” combines appealing characters with high octane adventure (watch for a rip-roaring fight atop a moving train, a scene that leaves all the emotionally uninvolving train derailments in “The Lone Ranger” looking like the CGI excess they are in comparison), an exotic oriental location, and a tormented antihero to winning effect. The story, location, and characters have a distinctly ‘Bondian’ (as in ‘Bond, James Bond’) flavor to them — and it’s a kinship of tone that suits this material very well indeed. For ages 18+: Violence and very brief coarse language.
“The Way Way Back” (USA, 2013) (B+/A-): When you’re 14 years old, being awkward, self-conscious, and disaffected usually goes with the territory. But that goes double for the protagonist of this utterly charming coming of age story. Duncan’s (Canadian actor Liam James) parents are divorced. He’s close to his mother, Pam, (a nicely nuanced performance by Toni Collette), but he dislikes her boyfriend. His prospective new step-father, Trent (Steve Carell in a non-comedic role), is overbearing, quick to find fault, and surreptitiously disrespectful toward Duncan. On the drive to his summer home, while the others are asleep in the car, Trent is positively demeaning: “Duncan! On a scale of one to ten, what do you think you are?” (Duncan, after hesitating) “A six.” (Trent) “I think you’re a three! Since I’ve been dating your mom, I don’t see you putting yourself out there bud! You could try getting that score up at my beach house this summer!” It’s clear that Trent dislikes Duncan as much as the boy dislikes him. We’re used to seeing affability from Carell; but this time, it’s just a paper thin mask worn by an obnoxious jerk. It’s interesting to see Carell in such a different light; he pulls it off very convincingly. The picturesque seaside holiday community on the Massachusetts coast where these uneasy cohabitants decamp for the summer is filled with well-drawn characters. Next door, there’s a scene-stealing, believably flamboyant Allison Janney as the unapologetically tipsy neighbor Betty, who’s prone to saying whatever she is thinking, no matter how inappropriate. She’s got a gorgeous daughter, Susanna, played by the charismatic AnnaSophia Robb. (Robb has consistently impressed this reviewer ever since we first saw her in 2005’s “Because of Winn-Dixie.” She also starred as a young Carrie Bradshaw in television’s “The Carrie Diaries” in 2012-13 and co-starred in 2007’s “The Bridge to Terabithia.”) Susanna is nothing like shallow, affected, studiedly insouciant girls she hangs out with (including Trent’s daughter Steph, played by Zoe Levin); and, like Duncan, she misses her absent father. And Betty’s young son Peter (River Alexander), whose lazy eye she’s persistently keen on masking with a patch, is on hand for comic relief. When he flees the unhappy home for solitary daily perambulations, Duncan is befriended by the young man who manages the local water-park. Owen (Sam Rockwell) is a real-life Peter Pan — easygoing, self-confident, free-spirited, funny, and blissfully irresponsible. He’s also good-hearted, and he senses that Duncan needs a friend: (Owen) “I’m afraid I’m gonna have to ask you to leave!” (Duncan) “What?” (Owen) “You’re having way too much fun. It’s making everyone uncomfortable.” (Duncan) “Okay.” (Owen) “Wow! I was just kidding! That wasn’t even my best stuff!” So, he gives Duncan a job and a sense of belonging amidst the merry band of adult misfits and self-styled individualists who staff the water-park. There’s Caitlin (Maya Rudolph), Owen’s no-nonsense coworker and sometime girlfriend, who cares for him but is distressed by his refusal to take anything seriously; Roddy (played by the film’s co-writer/co-director Nat Faxon), who likes to ogle the park’s daily array of nubile teenage girls; and Lewis (played by the film’s other co-writer/co-director Jim Rash) as the resident high-strung neurotic. (Faxon and Rash were two of the three writers behind 2011’s “The Descendants,” which won an Academy Award as Best Adapted Screenplay.) Meanwhile, on the home front, Trent has introduced Pam to his longtime married friends Joan (the sexy Amanda Peet) and Kip (Rob Corddry). What Pam doesn’t know at first, but gradually divines (along with Duncan), is that Trent has been having an annual summer fling with Joan for years. Is Pam desperate enough to avoid another failed relationship to look the other way if Trent is unfaithful? Duncan fears that she will. But he’s not the only one on a character arc in this thoroughly enchanting coming of age story. Well-written and well-acted by its ensemble cast, “The Way Way Back” is one of the best films of the year, a welcome (and rare) beacon of quality amidst all the cinematic dross. Highly recommended — and worth seeing more than once. Go see it! Very brief coarse language.
“The Conjuring” (B): Get ready to be creeped-out by this haunted house story about a couple and their five daughters who discover that something malignant and menacing is going bump in the night in the isolated old house they just bought in the countryside. Things get slightly less unnerving when a husband and wife ghost-hunting team arrives on the scene; being old-hands at this sort of stuff, they’re harder to scare. Although the script is a conjuring-free zone (its title notwithstanding), there are restless spirits aplenty and one malice-filled demonic entity that’s got adverse possession on its one-track mind. The cast deliver good performances, with Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga (as paranormal investigators Ed & Lorraine Warren), Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston (as the put-upon couple Carolyn & Roger Perron), and Shanley Caswell, Hayley McFarland, Joey King, Mackenzie Foy, Kyla Deaver as their five daughters. Sterling Jerins also appears briefly as the Warrens’ daughter Judy. These characters capture our sympathies. And, the houseful of mostly girls come across as both believable and vulnerable; even if the lone man of the house does make the decidedly reckless decision to investigate a walled-off basement at night with nothing but a box of matches to light his way in dread central. Directed by the Malaysian filmmaker James Wan (2010’s “Insidious”), and supposedly inspired by a ‘true story,’ “The Conjuring” is admirably effective at generating chills.
“R.I.P.D.” (C-/C): These putative ‘men in black’ from the great beyond may be just the ghosts of their former selves; but the recently departed big city detective Nick (Ryan Reynolds) and the more posthumously seasoned 19th century western lawman (Jeff Bridges) assigned to be his postmortem partner still serve and protect the world of the living from undead bad-guys. It’s an odd couple cum buddy story with the usual surfeit of CGI gimmicks — including an assortment of outlandish looking ‘deadies’ who look like extras from the MIB movies. What makes it worthwhile is Jeff Bridges’ crusty, cantankerous, and goateed sheriff; the curiously named Roy Pulsipher is a variation on his less comedic turn as Rooster Cogburn in 2010’s “True Grit.” It’s a colorful character that deserves a better movie. And he gets all the good lines: “Damn. I don’t know what eyes to shoot you between.” Also along for the ride are Kevin Bacon as Nick’s former partner; the appealing newcomer Stephanie Szostak, whom we look forward to seeing again in future films, as Nick’s wife Julia; and the likewise charismatic Mary-Louise Parker, who has been effortlessly irresistible ever since she came to our attention in “Fried Green Tomatoes,” as the boys’ ‘Rest in Peace Department’ supervisor.
“Twenty Feet from Stardom” (A-): Here’s a hidden gem — all too easy to
overlook amidst the many so-called “blockbusters” of summer — that ought not to be missed! It is the documentary story of background singers — most of them female, black, and thrust into prominence in the Sixties — who are powerhouse singers in their own right! Its cast of real-life characters include: Merry Clayton, Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, Tata Vega, The Blossoms, The Waters Family, and Judith Hill. They’re a thoroughly engaging group of women — and my, oh my, can they sing. They tell their stories, we see and hear clips from their past vocal glories, and there are remarks by the stars like Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Sting, Bette Midler, Stevie Wonder, Chris Botti, and Sheryl Crow with whom they worked. The traditional role of the backup (or background) singer is to “come in, make things sound good, take a little credit, and go home quickly.” The nature of the gig is that, “You don’t hold onto your own persona,” but, we learn, there’s also a fulfillment to be found in “blending in,” or harmonizing, with others on stage or in the recording studio. Some backup singers are content to remain in the background; others tried to make it on their own. If they didn’t make it to the big-time of fame and fortune (one was reduced to cleaning other peoples’ houses to make ends meet), it wasn’t for lack of talent. A couple of these singers, like Tata Vega, were compared favorably with Aretha Franklin; another sang rocking solos with the Rolling Stones. Some had solo albums. But that twenty feet “can be a pretty long walk,” as one of these incredibly talented artists says. Directed by Morgan Neville, “20 Feet from Stardom” has a bit of “The Sapphires” about it, and a bit of “Searching for SugarMan.“ If you like an inspiring underdog story, instantly appealing characters, and great music, drop what you are doing and get thee to this wonderfully entertaining film — right away! It is one of the top two films of 2013 thus far (as of mid-July), along with “Mud;” but it is likely to be lost in the tsunami of loud hype that accompanies all the vacuous “big” films. Brief coarse language.
Editor’s Note: Read Artsforum’s all-new (July 2014), in-depth review of “Twenty Feet from Stardom” on DVD at this link: http://artsforum.ca/film/on-dvd/on-dvd-2-0
“Pacific Rim“(C+/B-): Huge invading monsters, dubbed “Kaiju” are coming through an inter-dimensional portal under the sea and laying waste to Earth’s coastal cities. Mankind’s only means of fighting back is to construct equally immense robots, known as “Jaegers,” each of which contains two human pilots connected to their mechanical avatar through a shared “neural handshake.” The premise is utterly silly, of course. But the film manages to entertain, despite its reliance on oversized slug-fests. And, more than that, it actually succeeds in generating suspense about the outcome of those outlandish brawls. The hero of the piece is a washed-up Jaeger pilot named Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) who lost his co-pilot brother in an encounter some years earlier. He’s teamed with novice-pilot Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) whose talent for the job may be eclipsed by her burning need for revenge against the monsters that destroyed her family. The supporting cast includes Charlie Day as Dr. Newton Geiszler, who provides comic relief in tandem with Ron Perlman’s Hannibal Chau and Burn Gorman’s Dr. Gottlieb. The brusque father and son co-pilot team of Herc (Max Martini) and Chuck Hansen (Robert Kazinsky) also make an impression. But, the real star of the show is Idris Elba’s dignified and determined Stacker Pentecost, commander of the war against the Kaiju. He emanates authority and he earns the respect he’s shown. And he gets all the best lines — some of them deadly serious (“Today at the edge of our hope, at the end of our time, we have chosen to believe in each other. Today we face the monsters that are at our door, today we are cancelling the apocalypse!”), others dryly funny (“One, don’t you ever touch me again. Two, don’t you ever touch me again.”) It’s a slicker, big-budget revisiting of the movies about gargantuan rampaging monsters in the Fifties and Sixties — without the rough effects and out of synch dubbing of those guilty pleasures. It’s not what one would expect from director and co-writer Guillermo del Toro, who crafted the infinitely more nuanced and sophisticated “Pan’s Labyrinth.” But, on the other hand, del Toro also brought us the broad, but still thoroughly entertaining, “Hell-boy” movies, to which “Pacific Rim” is closer kin: “Haven’t you heard? It’s the end of the world. Where would you rather die? Here, or in a Jaeger?”
“The Lone Ranger” (D-): Put this lame-brained nag out to pasture. It turns a heroic figure into a bumbling clown and degrades an adventure story into a woefully ill-conceived amalgam of unfunny farce and hyperactive, would-be action spectacle that positively bores with its absurdly frenetic crashes and its painfully unrealistic CGI stunts. When city-raised lawyer John Reid (Armie Hammer) goes west to join his Texas Ranger brother Dan Reid (James Badge Dale), he runs smack into the escape of a savage desperado (William Fichtner’s brutal Butch Cavendish) and a slick but scheming railroad man, Latham Cole (what is the eminent Tom Wilkinson doing in this movie?). The heroic brother (who’d have made a far more convincing Lone Ranger than his bumbling, bungling younger sibling) is killed, leaving his inept kin to seek justice. Left for dead, John Reid is (eventually) revived by a reluctant Tonto (Johnny Depp), who regards his ‘kimosabe,’ quite rightly, as a bit of a fool, and an eccentric “spirit horse” named Silver. Many chases, explosions, and train crashes ensue — none of them in the slightest realistic. What is ‘realistic’ (unfortunately) and terribly unpleasant is the chief villain’s ghoulish taste for human flesh; it’s that awful trait that causes Tonto to think he is a ‘wendigo,’ a malevolent shape-shifting spirit in human form. Although the main story is set in 1869, there’s also a pointless framing story set in 1933 San Francisco, a device which only serves to distract and to further distance us from any meaningful engagement with these overblown goings-on. The distaff side of things is represented by Ruth Wilson, as Dan Reid’s widow Rebecca; and by Helena Bonham Carter, as Red Harrington, a brothel madam who sports a rifle in her prosthetic ivory leg. Neither has much to do, and Bonham Carter, much like Depp, has become too accustomed to playing caricatures. This material deserves better than parody. But it’s comedy that they’ve opted for, and Tonto gets all the best lines: “Dead men strike fear into the heart of the enemy;”and, “There come a time when good man must wear mask;”and, “Horse says you are a spirit walker: A man who’s been to the other side and returned. A man who cannot be killed in battle.”The inane content does not cohabit comfortably with some revolting elements, like cannibalism. And what jack-ass (director Gore Verbinski that means you!) turns the exciting William Tell Overture into an occasion for a Keystone Kops routine? It’s “Pirates of the Caribbean“ on dry-land — except not the first, entertaining “Pirates,” but rather one of its tiresome and tediously overblown sequels. Johnny Depp, who despoiled the “Dark Shadows” franchise in 2012, with help from his co-conspirator Tim Burton, is playing a clown in outlandish make-up here as well. Oddly enough, though, in a movie that is utterly devoid of characters we like or care about, his dead-pan clowning as Tonto is the best of the slim pickings this misfire has to offer; but that’s not saying much. Do yourself a favor and skip it!
“Despicable Me 2” (C+): Last time ‘round, in 2010’s “Despicable Me,” the super-villain Gru (Steve Carell) gave up his villainy (stealing the Moon was on the agenda then) in favor of being a surrogate parent to a trio of orphan waifs. Now, he’s contentedly settled into that role, tucking the kids in at night, impersonating a fairy godmother at a surprise party when the actress hired to do so can’t make it, and devoting himself to the production of unpalatable jams in the immense lair beneath his suburban house. But a mysterious new villain has the authorities concerned, and they shanghai Dru into helping them identify and thwart the new threat. But, in truth, he doesn’t need much convincing. His new domesticated life lacks the excitement and panache of what went before: (Agnes) “Are you really gonna save the world?” (Gru) That’s right, baby! Gru’s back in the game with cool cars… gadgets… and weapons!” Indeed, Gru’s mad-scientist colleague, Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand), has bailed-out, unable to give up his taste for, well, the nefarious. The returning characters (Gru, and the kids — Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Agnes (Elsie Fisher), and Edith (Dana Gaier) — and Gru’s army of minions) remain as amusing as ever; they are even a little endearing. But neither the plot nor any of the new characters engage one whit. Among the latter are Lucy (Kristen Wig) a Fed on her first field assignment, Eduardo (Benjamin Bratt) a manic chef and scheming bad-guy, and Antonio (Moises Arias) as the villain’s annoying son. But it is Gru’s army of gibberish-speaking yellow minions (many of them voiced by Pierre Coffin) who truly loom large this time round: If you find their antics amusing (as this reviewer does), the film will provoke laughs of the slapstick variety.
“MonstersUniversity” (C+/B-): “I’ve been waiting for this my whole life! I’m gonna be a scarer!” So says the pint-sized, one-eyed monster Mike Wazowski (voiced by Billy Crystal) in Pixar’s prequel to that studio’s 2001 animated hit “Monsters, Inc.” After a prologue depicting Mike as a child, we see him arrive at what he’s certain will be the realization of his lifelong dream — his freshman year at the Monsters U. of the title. Its students come in all shapes and sizes; but they all have one objective — to join the elite ranks of the “scarers,” whose nocturnal visits to the human world channel enough child-generated fright power to fuel their world. But Mike’s a misfit, and, his dreams of glory are about to be dashed on the shoals of Dean Hardscrabble’s (Helen Mirren) scorn: “Mr Wazowksky, what you lack simply cannot be taught. You’re just not scary.” Just as dismissive is the over-sized fur-ball with teeth, fellow freshman Sullivan (John Goodman), who is destined to become Mike’s best-bud, but who starts off here as an antagonist. But circumstances put the popular Sullivan on the outs as well, and the pair end up in a fraternity wanna-be, ‘Oozma Kappa,’ amusingly run out of the house of another misfit’s mother. Mike organizes this seemingly hopeless ragtag band of rejects and enters them into a competition, with a reluctant Sully along for the ride. Will friendship, ingenuity, and sheer determination win over scary brawn? You betcha! The antics of the misfits are amusing, and even a little bit endearing; and the filmmakers put a cute spin on campus life. The result isn’t quite as good as the original; but it’s still good fun.
“Much Ado About Nothing” (B): DirectorJoss Whedon has reportedly long been fond of staging impromptu readings of Shakespeare at his home in Santa Monica. This time out, he put the whole thing on film over the course of a twelve day shoot, assembling alumni from his past television and big-screen projects to populate a labor of love: It’s a modern-dress adaptation of the Bard’s romantic comedy that’s shot in black & white. “Angel” standouts Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof are rivetingas Beatrice and Benedick, a couple whose seeming mutual disdain and wonderfully eloquent verbal sparing masks an attraction that neither cares to acknowledge. For devotes of the “Buffyverse,” from which “Angel” sprang, it’s a treat to see this pair reunited. When last we saw them (in May 2004), these talented actors played lovers who were cruelly parted by tragedy; their reunion is a most welcome one. They positively sparkle — and spark — together. Canada’s own Nathan Fillion is on-hand as a nicely subdued Dogberry; and his halfwit of a local constable is quite a contrast to his heroic Captain Malcolm Reynolds of the late, very much lamented “Firefly” (and its big screen incarnation “Serenity”). Also among the players are Riki Lindhome (who makes an impression as an erotically all-woman variation on the nominally male role of Conrade); Sean Maher (from “Firefly”) as Don Pedro, a man intent on malicious mischief for its own sake; Clark Gregg (from Whedon’s greatly overrated big screen superhero slugfest “The Avengers”); Reed Diamond (from Whedon’s series “Dollhouse”) as Don Pedro; and Jillian Morgese as Hero. While it does not eclipse the superlative 1993 version of “Much Ado About Nothing,” this film’s pairing of Acker and Denisof is very nearly as memorable as that of Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh in that earlier adaptation of Shakespeare’s play. The witty repartee is a delight — and so are the lead players.
“World War Z” (C/C+): This global conflagration pits Brad Pitt against hordes of scurrying CGI zombies, who are only seen en masse and at a distance until late in the story. Its hero jets around the world for no very compelling reason (feebly trying to track down the source of the infestation that is quickly decimating humanity) and with scarcely anything to show for ‘pit-stops’ (pun intended) in Korea and Israel. With inexplicable disregard for his fellow passengers, he detonates a hand grenade aboard an aircraft in flight– and, impossibly, lives to tell the tale when the plane hurls from the sky and is blown to smithereens on the ground below. He amputates a limb without medical experience; he outruns impossibly fast undead; and he makes deductions about the biochemistry of a contagious viral disease that elude all of the scientists in the room. His Gerry Lane is an investigative jack of all trades, but we never believe for an instant that his character is the solution to what’s ailing mankind. Mireille Enos (TV’s “The Killing”) doesn’t make much of an impression as his wife Karin. Frankly, they should have jettisoned all the pointless globe-trotting and focused instead on an everyman tending to his family in peril: It might have made for a more emotionally-involving (and believable) story. Israeli actress Daniella Kertesz shows promise as a soldier; but she doesn’t have much to do. Adapted from a novel by the same name, “World War Z” is directed by Marc Forster, whose uneven resume includes “Machine Gun Preacher,” “Quantum of Solace,” and “Monster’s Ball.” This film is instantly forgettable, completely unbelievable, and utterly inferior to the state of the zombie-art storytelling and characterization in television’s eminently involving “The Living Dead.” Leave your incredulity at the (heavily barricaded) door.
“Margarita” (Canada, 2012) (C+): The eponymous heroine — played with warmth and dignified composure by the appealing Nicola Correia Damude — of this Canadian ‘dramedy’ is a 24-year-old Mexican woman employed,
ostensibly, as a ‘nanny’ in a Toronto home. But, in fact, Margarita is a Jill of all trades to the Lawson family: She cooks; she cleans; she repairs gutters and cleans the pool; she’s a surrogate mother/elder sister to the couple’s teenage daughter, and she’s an all-purpose adviser, life-coach, and help-meet to all three members of the family. As the only male Lawson says, “She’s so handy and reliable and smart and beautiful — like a daughter and…” To which his wife replies, “Do you have the hots for her?” Ben’s (Patrick McKenna) a dentist, Gail’s (Claire Lautier) a doctor; but they’re living above their means, and something has to give. They reluctantly conclude that they’ll have to let their longtime live-in help go; but no sooner do they make that decision than
they realize how helpless they are at organizing their lives without her. To make matters worse, Margarita is at a crisis in her relationship with her same-sex romantic interest, Jane (Christine Horne), a law student who seems reluctant to make the kind of commitment which Margarita desires. And, the Lawsons’ rebellious daughter, Mali (played with precocious verve by Maya Ritter), who is named after the northwest African nation as a token of her liberal parents’ social activism and their patronage of Third World causes, is emotionally connected with Margarita and resolutely unwilling to be parted from her. And, unbeknownst to all of them, Margarita is in the country illegally, and she is suddenly in jeopardy of imminent deportation. Co-directors Dominique Cardona and Laurie Colbert, who also collaborated (with others) on the screenplay, have fashioned a likeable, if superficial, confection. It is a very simple story; but, its characters draw you in and gradually win you over. But, its uneven, inconsistent tone makes it hard to tell if it’s meant to be a comedy or a character study. It ends up being a bit of both, and it veers too near the bland at times. Early on, the editing is (briefly) awkward, with some truncated mini-scenes (the parents talk in the house, while Margarita and Mali ride bicycles) that give things a piecemeal, episodic feel. Both the premise and the script feel slighter than they should; and one might quibble about the likelihood (or emotional healthiness) of a family that is so dependant on a third party to do things for them. But accepting that that dependency exists, what is even tougher to accept is that they would ever contemplate severing the metaphorical umbilical cord. After all, Ben flat-out concedes that, “You’re like family to us.” It’s true; she is like a member of their family — and an indispensable member at that. Margarita’s rejoinder says it all, “In Mexico, we don’t fire family.” She’s disappointed; but we’re left a tad incredulous. Most of the time, Margarita seems like the only grown-up (and mature) member of this eccentric family. One supposes that that is the core of the story’s comedic premise; the trouble is that it isn’t a compelling foundation upon which to erect the story edifice. The result is slender but buoyed by a solid likeability factor — in lieu of real substance. This reviewer would love to know what the same cast and crew could do with a sturdier premise and a reworked screenplay that offered more dramatic substance and less saccharine empty calories. Produced with the assistance of Telefilm Canada’s “Low Budget Independent Feature Film Assistance Program,” the film bodes well for better work from all of its participants in future. “Margarita” won the Audience Award for Best Film at the 2012 Women’s International Film Festival in France. It has also won audience and diversity awards at festivals devoted to same-sex relationships; incidentally, its lesbian romance is tastefully and lovingly portrayed and is unlikely to discomfit those of other sexual persuasions. For ages 18+: Coarse language, brief partial nudity, brief sexual content. [Note: “Margarita” opened in theatrical release in Toronto on June 21, 2013.]
“Man of Steel” (USA/Canada/U.K.) (C/C+): Kryptonians clash and things crash and explode (including half of Manhattan); but at no time does this empty so-called “reboot” ever connect with the viewer on an emotional level. It’s just another pointless CGI extravaganza. But we’ve all been there, and done that — many times over. The film was directed by Zach Snider, whose underwhelmingly cartoonish ‘ouevre’ to date includes “300″ (which was full of angry men ridiculously attired in nothing but red capes and skimpy swimwear), the overblown “Watchmen,” and the leering “Sucker Punch,” with its ‘barely legal’ sex object named ‘Babydoll.’ The cast is serviceable enough, but really no more than that, with Henry Cavill as Kal-El, Amy Adams as Lois Lane, Michael Shannon as villain-in-chief General Zod, Russell Crowe as Jor-El, Diane Lane as Martha Kent, Christopher Meloni (“True Blood’s” deposed vampire CEO) as a military man, Lawrence Fishburne as Perry White, Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer (from 2007’s “Fugitive Pieces”) as Lara, and Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent. But nothing here makes much of an impression, let alone a lasting one. When, as a young man, Clark Kent discovers his extraterrestrial origins, he seems oddly nonplussed by the discovery, instantly shedding the identity he has had since infancy (as Clark Kent, son of a Kansas farmer) and identifying himself — to himself and others — as Kal-El, resident alien from another planet. A lot of time is spent on the doomed world of Kyrpton, but all it amounts to is an excuse to show high-tech gadgets and exotic creatures. The last half of the film consists of nothing more or less than alien supermen duking it out in Kansas, Metropolis, and the sky overhead. When Clark Kent’s earthbound father says, “People are afraid of what they don’t understand,” he should have added, “and with good reason.” His adopted son’s tediously protracted dust-ups with his extraterrestrial distant-kin cause catastrophic damage on the ground — leveling numerous skyscrapers in downtown Manhattan. The ensuing death toll of innocent civilians must be in the many thousands (if not tens of thousands); but, curiously, those many off-screen deaths are never actually referenced in the screenplay. Superman’s original father, Jor-El, confidently predicts that, “You will give the people an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.” Those are nice words; but what kind of Superman is so seemingly oblivious to the dire collateral damage that he leaves in his wake? Maybe he is not so very dissimilar to his snarling (and inexplicably belligerent) foe, General Zod, who unpersuasively suggests that, “No matter how violent, every action I take is for the greater good of my people.”
“The Purge” (USA/France) (B-): Thissurprisingly effective mix of social satire, near-future dystopia, and family under siege action thriller, set in the near future of 2023, posits an America where all laws are suspended for a 12-hour period annually to enable the populace to ‘release the beast within’ in a countywide catharsis and purge themselves of violent, anti-social instincts. A television newscast features the headline “Decriminalised murder: An outlet for American rage!” One well-to do family prepares to hunker down for the night of lawless free-for-all, behind armored windows and doors in their gated community. There is something distinctly unsettling about ordinary people turning on their fellows: It hearkens back to the elegantly horrifying classic short story “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson. But this outing is perhaps closer kin to an episode from the original “Star Trek” television series, in which inhabitants of a well-ordered planet ran amok in a preordained orgy of wanton violence when prompted to do so by the forces controlling their society. The trouble is that the folks in “The Purge”: are not under some kind of sophisticated external mind-control; they are free to participate or not, though there clearly is peer pressure to at least refrain from objecting. At the outset of the film James and Mary Sandin (Ethan Hawke and Lena Headley — she is the ruthless, incestuous queen-mother of “Game of Thrones” and the eponymous heroine of the late, lamented “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles”) seem to have no strong qualms about the annual purging, though they opt out of actively participating. Their son asks, “Why don’t you guys do it?” To which they reply, “Because we don’t feel the need to.” (Ironically, they do get their inner “Straw Dogs” rage on when they have to fight and kill to protect themselves from intruders who are intent on murder.) Yet not only are they blithely non-judgmental about those who do ‘feel the need,’ James has also made a very lucrative living selling security systems to those who can afford them. Writer and director James DeMonaco has some non-too-subtle satirical touches that suggest that the main victims of the annual night of rage come, disproportionately, from the ranks of the poor, the homeless, and the otherwise defenseless. Who would miss them?, the story seems to ask. At first, one suspects that the Sandins’ decidedly peculiar son Charlie (Max Burkholder) may prove to be a risk from within their fortifications. After all, he has a hidey-hole adorned with hand-drawn pictures of murder and mayhem, and his favorite gadget is a remote controlled spy-cam built into the body of a bizarrely mutilated doll. But nothing much is made of what seems at first glance to be a damaged psyche. Instead, Charlie inexplicably has the most vital conscience of the group. By opening the gates and letting a poor black man who is being hunted come into their protected space, Charlie acts instinctively to help a complete stranger. But his parents are less sanguine about his compassionate act: In their minds, the stranger may be dangerous to them — so they use brute force to apprehend and subdue him. But things get worse, much worse, when a gang of college-aged yuppies in masks — led by a smugly ruthless young man (Australian actor Rhys Wakefield, billed as “polite stranger”) arrive on the scene. Their calm ultimatum: ‘Give us our prey, or we’ll break in and kill all of you.’ The Australian actress Adelaide Kane plays the Sandins’ beautiful teenage daughter Zoey, who is prone to recklessly wandering off on her own in a house under deadly siege. The net result is effective, suspenseful, and creepy — even if many things (starting with the premise itself) do not make sense. Pride of place in the illogic sweepstakes goes to the preposterous notion that Zoey’s older boyfriend, who has secreted himself in the house, plans to kill Zoey’s father, because James stands between him and Zoey. Hmmm. What is wrong with that picture? Sure, the boyfriend can evade prosecution if he kills James in cold blood during the appointed time-frame of “the Purge,” but he won’t escape Zoey’s disapproval (not to mention bitter loathing). That’s not a coherent (let alone sane) way to win the affection of the apple of your eye. It’s a huge, glaring story misstep which very nearly derails any semblance of credibility. But there’s more: The Sandins, as we’ve seen, don’t ‘feel the need;’ so why are they content to cozy-up on the sofa to be entertained by the mayhem occurring outside? The implication is that they don’t really ‘approve;’ yet their ‘disapproval,’ if that’s what it is, inexplicably doesn’t preclude them from watching behavior (popcorn in hand, no doubt) by othersthat they themselves would disdain to emulate. Also, for a house that’s fortified to the point of near impregnability, it turns out that it’s actually pretty easy for intruders to get in: All that’s needed is a pick-up truck and a few chains. Also, wouldn’t a gated community have armed guards on the perimeter? And, why don’t the security measures include a fortified “panic room,” the modern day equivalent of a castle-keep, in the event that retreat is necessary? Ultimately, the premise itself doesn’t bear close scrutiny. Being given a carte blanche license to kill is not synonymous with people going stark raving crazy for twelve hours. Yet people here do go insane — in a wild-eyed frenzy of bloodlust. Why does the suspension of sanctions for murder awaken such a bloodlust? Why only in some people and not others? The screenplay is silent about these mysteries. If the temporary insanity sparked by free rein to kill were universal, members of households would turn on each other, and that would hardly leave the survivors feeling good about themselves in the bloody aftermath. Last but not least, why isn’t everyone — especially those who are without expensively fortified sanctuaries — armed to the teeth? Given permission to kill at will, no doubt some people would be happy to indulge; but it would give them considerable pause if their intended prey were in a position to fight back.
“Now You See Me” (France/USA) (F): A quartet of insufferably glib stage magicians (Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, & Dave Franco) confound and amaze the gullible with seemingly impossible feats of make-believe wizardry. In fact, though, all of the empty razzle-dazzle is just part of an utterly absurd scheme to pull off a series of big heists. The characters are as phony as the premise; and there is something about this crass, self-congratulatory bit of so-called showmanship that grates — from the first moment to the last. Not even the usually reliable Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine can help. Indeed, Freeman’s solemn intonations about the nonsense unfolding on-screen only serve to ratchet up the annoyance factor. The closest thing to a three-dimensional character here comes courtesy of Mark Ruffalo; and even his efforts are sunk (in a piranha-filled tank) by ridiculous revelations late in the film. French director Louis Leterrier’s two “Transporter” action films were entertaining fun; this counterfeit “entertainment” decidedly is not. On the contrary, it is so awful it needs to disappear permanently — puff of magician’s smoke, optional.
“After Earth” (D-): In the aftermath of alien aggression, mankind has evacuated Earth. Its paramilitary “rangers” strive to achieve “ghosting,” a mumbo-jumbo of inner calm that somehow makes them invisible to marauding alien monsters. That’s a mighty dumb idea right off the get-go, and things only go downhill from there. The object of this exercise seems to have been to create a vehicle for co-producer, star, and story creator Will Smith’s teenage son, Jaden Smith. But the wheels fly off this ungainly cinematic enterprise the moment it lumbers into view. Jaden Smith delivers a dreadful, amateurish performance: There is only one note here, and it is badly off-key. The boy is wooden; his voice sounds like it’s stuck in the no man’s land of adolescence, and, frankly, he comes across as a member of what used to be called “the awkward age.” For his part, pere Smith comes across as atypically dour and charmless: He plays a no-nonsense military hero, with the curious moniker Cypher Raige — a man of few words, who, when he does speak, is apt to give stern screenwriting sound-byte advice like this: “Fear is not real. It is a product of thoughts you create. Do not misunderstand me. Danger is very real. But fear is a choice.” He takes his callow, untested son (is ‘art’ imitating life?) along on what is supposed to be a no-risk mission in hopes of bonding and, perhaps, giving the son a chance to prove himself. Things go terribly wrong (for the characters as well as for this misfire of a movie) and lives are in jeopardy. The boy, Kitai, has to make a solo journey across very dangerous terrain in the forlorn hope of saving their two lives. When an oversized bird of prey, recently intent on feeding the boy to its hatchlings, suddenly sacrifices itself to save the boy, the result is one part touching, but two parts ridiculous. Sophie Okonedo and Zoë Kravitz round out the cast, as the elder Smith’s wife and daughter, respectively. “After Earth” was directed and co-written by M. Night Shyamalan. He continues the freefall he began with 2008’s “The Happening” and 2010’s “The Last Airbender.” Where is the man behind such excellent films as “The Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable,” and “The Village” and such reasonably good films as “Signs” and “Lady in the Water?” Rumor has it that Will Smith had a major uncredited hand in directing the film — personally coaching his son Jaden Smith and guiding the development of the story and its presentation on-screen. If so, he has to take the lion’s share of the blame. Abort this mission! Its crew lost in space.
“Epic” (C+/B-): This animated 3-D fantasy adventure film is based on the book “The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs,” whose author, William Joyce, who also contributed to the screenplay. A teenage girl from our world is magically reduced in size (to perhaps an inch in height), where she discovers a whole other world with fantastical, faery-like inhabitants. Mary Katherine (or ‘M.K.,’ as she now likes to be called) comes from a broken home: Her parents’ marriage foundered on her oh-so-eccentric scientist father’s mono-maniacal obsession with the tiny world only he believes exists. But M.K. (voiced by Amanda Seyfried) no sooner arrives at his country home to stay with him, than she is swept into the diminutive world at whose very existence she, like her mother before her, has hitherto scoffed. And she arrives there at a time of crisis. Malignant creatures known as Boggans are intent on spreading rot and destroying the forest. Their sly leader, Mandrake, is voiced with dry wit by Christoph Waltz: “I’m going to destroy the forest. But I’m only going to do it once, so try to pay attention.” On the side of light and life are Queen Tara (Beyonce Knowles) and her royal guard, the Leafmen (warriors who dart through the air astride hummingbirds). Their captain, Ronin (Colin Farrell), has to balance his duty with his love for the queen and his responsibility as a surrogate parent for the brash and disobedient Leafman-in-training Nod (Josh Hutcherson), who has just quit the service in a huff. With the queen in mortal danger, the Boggans set to attack in force, and a royal heir’s fate uncertain, it’s a pivotal moment, one that will have consequences for the wider world. Adventure and derring-do ensue. Along for the ride are Chris O’Dowd (of “The Sapphires,” as a brave snail named Grub); Aziz Ansari (as his chum, a slug named Mub), Steve Tyler (as a psychedelic glowworm and archivist named Nim Galuu), and, for comic relief, a three-legged dog named Ozzie. M.K.’s dad, the stumbling, bumbling, absent-minded Professor Bomba (Jason Sudeikis) is too broadly comedic — a manic cliché of a scientist who cannot see the forest for the tress. His antics frequently cross over into the land of the silly, which drains the story of dramatic heft. Indeed, the film, directed by Chris Wedge, who also directed “Ice Age” (2002) and “Robots” (2005), might have worked even better if it had hewed a bit closer to the serious and the dramatic. Its basic outline is reminiscent of such fare as Hayao Miyazaki’s “Princess Mononoke” and “The Secret World of Arrietty,” as well as films like “Fern Gully” and even “Avatar,” save that this variation on that theme is lighter. Still, the result is good light fun, with some likable characters and attractive visuals.
“Mud” (A-): The banks of the Mississippi River, in the southern state of Arkansas, is the setting for this atmospheric reverie about two 14 year old boys, a forest-covered island, a boat lodged high up in a tree, and a mysterious drifter named Mud. Written and directed by Jeff Nichols (2011’s “Take Shelter”), “Mud” is as languid as the river on which it is set. Ellis (Tye Sheridan of 2011’s “The Tree of Life”) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland in his film debut) are fast friends. Ellis has two parents who love him but who can’t live together anymore. His mother (beautifully played by Sarah Paulson, who was a political adviser to Sarah Palin in “Game Change”) has had enough of river life, and the feared separation of his parents will mean the loss of the houseboat upon which they live. Ellis’ father (Ray McKinnon) is a man of few words, who is embittered by the breakdown of his marriage and the impending loss of his livelihood on the water; but he is also a man of quiet dignity, a man who is not afraid to tell his son that he loves him. For his part, Neckbone has been raised by his irreverent uncle (Michael Shannon, who was the lead in the same director’s “Take Shelter”); it’s not a conventional upbringing, but he, too, is loved. When the boys hear a rumor about a boat deposited by a past flood high up in the embrace of a tree, they set off to explore and to claim the boat as their prize. But the boat out of water is already occupied — by a straggly drifter who calls himself Mud. Matthew McConaughey is excellent in the role of a man who has devoted himself to the fruitless love of one woman, the inconstant and unreliable Juniper (how nice to see Reese Witherspoon in a rare dramatic role). Mud is part dreamer, part man on a mission, and part spinner of tall tales; in short, he is a grown-up version of Huckleberry Finn. Is he dangerous? He admits to having killed a man who wronged Juniper — a man who has ruthless kin (Paul Sparks and Joe Don Baker) who are dead-set on lethal vengeance. The boys resolve to help Mud. His plan is to somehow get the boat out of the tree, mend it, reunite with Juniper, and head south for the open sea. To accomplish those things, he needs supplies (including a motor) and a way of secreting messages to his woman under the noses of those (on both sides of the law) who are hunting for him. Meanwhile, Ellis is doing some boyish wooing of his own, with an older gal named May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant). And, it turns out that Mud has past roots in this area himself, along with a surrogate father figure of his own (played Sam Shepard). The result is at once a compelling character story (every member of the cast named above do memorable work that is infused with subtlety and authenticity) and a rewarding coming of age story, with insights on father and son relationships. While there is an intrusion of violence late in the film, it is, for the rest of its mostly gentle run, utterly engrossing, as are the diverse characters which its fine cast imbues with life. These are laconic folks, but, my goodness, they feel as real as the hot sun overhead or the waves lapping on the shore. Released in May 2013, “Mud” is easily the best film of the year so far. Its focus on character and place bring to mind such diverse southern stories as “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Stand By Me,” television’s “I’ll Fly Away,” “Red Sky at Morning,” “Spencer’s Mountain,” and television’s “The Waltons.” That is not to say it is exactly like any of those distant country cousins in subject-matter or tone; but it shares with each of them a gently nostalgic recollection of youth and innocence coming of age in a southern setting. “Mud” is highly recommended. Go see it!
“Star Trek: Into Darkness” (C+/B-): “Star Trek” has been around since 1966, and it spawned five separate television series, an animated television series, twelve feature films (including this one), and innumerable books. “Star Trek” is beloved by its many loyal viewers. So, why put the franchise into the hands of a man, director J.J. Abrams, who has freely professed to caring not one whit for it? Abrams, who was also at the helm of the so-called franchise ‘reboot’ — the 2009 feature film “Star Trek” — has more recently also taken on responsibility for a new movie in the competing (and vastly different) “Star Wars” franchise. Sadly, in what feels like undue confusion between the two series, “Star Wars’” emphasis on action and violence has infiltrated its way into Abrams’ two installments in the “Star Trek” series. His gambit has been to re-imagine the early days of the characters from the original 1966-69 television series, presenting younger versions of those iconic characters but freely deviating from their already established histories — through the expedient of a kind of alternate timeline. Thus, his version of Spock and Uhura are romantically involved, despite the fact that for a Vulcan such relationships ought to be highly problematic (and, one might even say, ‘illogical.’) Among the returning core cast, we have Chris Pine (as Kirk), Zachary Quinto (as Spock), Karl Urban (as McCoy), Zoe Saldana (as Uhura), Simon Pegg (as Scotty), John Cho (as Sulu), and Anton Yelchin (as Chekov). All are well-cast, but among the three key players, Spock and McCoy are somehow more convincing than Pine’s Kirk. Quinto is particularly strong as a young Spock. Overall, however, Abrams’ two Trek films feel like imitation Trek, rather than ‘the real McCoy.’ Take the Enterprise engine room, for example. It’s all wrong, resembling an earthbound industrial facility, instead of the futuristic, beating heart of the ship. There are chemical tanks and pipes and catwalks and all the accoutrements of what looks like a terrestrial waste treatment plant: It’s clunky and ugly and utterly unpersuasive — in stark contrast, for instance, to the powerfully pulsating, futuristic engine room of television’s “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and its film spin-offs. By contrast, the bridge gets it equally wrong for different reasons — its assemblage of transparent and white consoles look like the set design for a spoof about intergalactic hair-stylists. The ship’s exterior, on the other hand, is fine. Indeed, throughout the long history of “Star Trek,” the Enterprise has always been an indispensable character in its own right — an emblem of mankind’s better, nobler future, the technological incarnation of our voyage of discovery to the stars, and, yes, a transcendent symbol of human triumphalism — achieved through the mastering of technology (and our own presently destructive inclinations) to benevolent and constructive ends. Canadian actor Bruce Greenwood returns as Kirk’s mentor Admiral Pike, while the comely Alice Eve makes an impression as a new member of the crew. Peter Weller is a bit of a cliché as an admiral gone bad (a trope that has been done to death already in “Star Trek’s” four spin-off series on television). But the best new addition here, and one of the best things about the movie, is Benedict Cumberbatch’s villain. That actor is from the British television series “Sherlock.” His character here is supremely self-assured, endowed with super-human strength, and filled with active malice for Starfleet; he makes a compelling, charismatic, and, best of all, very smart villain. Here is how he perceptively goads Spock: “Mr. Spock. The mind of the Enterprise. The fearless genius who ensures a calm force of intelligence guides their every mission. But look deeper and you will see an outsider who does not belong, a man of two worlds. This tears him apart, the constant battle between what he thinks and what he feels. What does he do? Does he follow his head, embracing logic and the path of reason? Or does he follow his heart, knowing the emotions he cannot control may destroy him? I will help him decide…” And we can almost feel some sympathy for the bad guy: “My crew is my family, Kirk. Is there anything you would not do for your family?” The story has to do with friendship, and with ruthlessness pushing morality (and the rule of law) to the side in the name of fighting terrorism and foreign (here, alien) adversaries. But its attempts to mirror our contemporary world’s lamentable bungling of such issues (post 9/11 we have stupidly allowed our leaders to make a mockery of our basic freedoms and our core values in the spurious name of keeping us “safe” from real or exaggerated enemies) is rather trite and clumsy. And, just because a story is told in the genre of science fiction or fantasy does not exempt it from the prime directive of good storytelling: It must adhere to internal consistency and internal logic; or it fails. This film misses the internal logic mark in large ways and small: How could a single Starfleet admiral finance and assemble a massive secret weapon that the rest of his organization knows nothing about? How does he man a rogue warship with an obedient crew that is ready, aye ready, to fire upon and destroy their peers without lawful cause, or even a convincing excuse? Why does the pursuit of a villain take an inexplicable detour to the Klingon homeworld? Why don’t said Klingons detect a starship in orbit around their planet? (Or do they not object to unannounced visitors?) Why does Scotty continue to be followed around by a small, mute alien, who seems to be his mascot? It’s pointless, distracting, juvenile, and oh so dumb. Why is a large starship able to fly at great speed and do battle with only a skeletal crew? And why does it come equipped with a huge room that is completely unmanned, yet equipped in all its cavernous expanse with precious life support? Said room, which must be as long (or longer) than a football field, has no discernible function — except to provide a place where two jet-propelled intruders can fly through a hatch and slid fast and furious across the conveniently lengthy ad hoc ‘runway’ provided by this otherwise purposeless room. The configuration of a ship should suit the logic of starship design; it should not exist solely to provide a venue for an action stunt in the script. The film opens with an action scene that seems inspired by the opening of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” but it glosses over the crew’s deliberate infraction of Starfleet’s non-interference directive. On the plus side, the film’s moments of wit and banter are appealing: (Bones) “Are you feeling homicidal, power-mad, or despotic?” (Kirk) “No more than usual.” Or, how about this exchange: (Kirk) “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” (Spock) “The man who said that was later betrayed and killed by his ally.” (Kirk) “Well, it’s still a hell of a quote.” On the other hand, a ferocious hand-to-hand fight atop crashing spaceships and flying cars looks better suited to the cartoonish environs of “Star Wars,” than the more peaceable (and sophisticated) kingdom of “Star Trek.” May we make a suggestion? Instead of placing “Star Trek” in the hands of a single director, any single director, and instead of revisiting and revising story lines that have been told before, why not assign each new movie to a new and different director, stipulating that each must devise new entirely characters and distinctly new stories — all within the broad established parameters of the so-called “Star Trek bible.” That way each new film would have its own distinct tone: One might be an adventure, one might be a mystery, one might be romantic, one might be scary, another might be humorous But none need be derivative, or dependant on characters and events we’ve already seen. Does the franchise dare to try wholly original stories? One thing’s for sure, at its heart it is supposed to be about exploring strange new worlds and boldly going where no one has gone before. So, please, let’s leave Earth behind, and go see the universe.
“The Great Gatsby” (Australia/USA, 2013) (C): The latest adaptation of the 1925 novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald is set in 1922 — the America of the ‘Roaring Twenties’ and the ‘Jazz Age,’ a time, for some, of ‘flappers,’ jazz, and bootlegged liquor. In Fitzgerald’s novel, it’s also a time of decadence going head to head with idealism. Nick Carroway, an idealistic, impressionable, and mostly decent young man, takes a simple cottage on the grounds of the mysterious, enigmatic Jay Gatsby, a self-made millionaire who throws wildly outlandish parties but is never seen at them. The one person Gatsby hopes will appear at one of his parties is his long lost love Daisy, who lives in a mansion on the other side of the bay, married — lovelessly — to the old-money, but brutal Tom Buchanan Initially, Nick is a means to Gatsby’s end, insofar as he is Daisy’s cousin; but, in time, he also becomes Gatsby’s friend. Nick admires Gatsby (“He was the single most hopeful person I have ever met”) and his romantic loyalty to “an incorruptible dream,” even as he cautions his friend that, “You can’t repeat the past” (to which the supremely self-assured Gatsby replies, “Why, of course you can.”) But fidelity to romantic love does not end well here, for it collides head-on (and fatally) with the superficiality, and what Nick calls, the “carelessness,” of those characters who do not share Gatsby’s elevated adherence to idealism. Directed by Baz Luhrmann, who co-wrote the screenplay, “The Great Gatsby” goes off the deep end in its first half, with scenes of riotously overdone hyperactive spectacle that assault the eyes and ears with their sheer gratuitous excess: Luhrmann stages Gatsby’s parties in precisely the same, wildly over-the-top frenzy of manic activity and outlandishness that infused his 2001 film “Moulin Rouge.” Those ridiculous, grotesquely bizarre scenes, presumably meant to resemble some febrile Bacchanalia, bear no relationship to the real world, and they grate. They also undermine our getting invested in the characters. The same goes for the miniature near-orgy organized by the adulterous Tom: Why would a supposedly honorable Nick participate, leeringly, in that hedonistic excess? In addition to the heavy-handed “Moulin Rouge,” Luhrman has directed 2008’s “Australia,” 1996’s “Romeo + Juliet, “ and 1992’s “Strictly Ballroon.” It seems he’s happiest when he throws self-restraint to the winds and gives free rein to all that is lurid. Another case in point: Between the fictional millionaire’s row on Long Island where the wealthy reside, and the metropolis proper, squats the grotesquely ugly “Valley of Ashes,” an industrial dumping ground that Luhrmann depicts as a visual hell on earth. Again, garish excess sinks credibility. And, speaking of the garish, two inhabitants of that dark no man’s land — Buchanan’s mistress and her doltish husband — feel more like caricatures than they do real people. Frankly, the most (and perhaps only) affecting relationship here is the friendship between Gatsby and Nick. As to the cast, Leonardo DiCaprio conveys charm and romantic obsession as Jay Gatsby, though he is less persuasive at embodying gravitas and impending tragedy. For her part, Carey Mulligan seems more mopey and inward-looking than sparklingly effervescent as Daisy Buchanan. The typically wide-eyed Tobey Maguire is inconsistent as Nick Carraway, seeming to careen between being half-besotted by decadence and decrying it. Newcomer Elizabeth Bebicki makes an impression as Nick’s potential romantic interest Jordan Baker. The cast also includes Joel Edgerton (Tom Buchanan), Isla Fisher (Myrtle Wilson), Jason Clarke (George Wilson), and, in a curious casting choice, Amitabh Bachchan — an Indian actor playing the Jewish-American racketeer Meyer Wolfsheim.
“The Company You Keep” (USA, 2012) (B): What becomes of young radicals when they have passed into middle age? According to this film from director Robert Redford, some assimilate and lead middle class lives, with erstwhile revolutionary zeal transmogrified into law-abiding progressive activism; some are haunted by regret over past mistakes; and a few carry on with “the struggle” however they can. All three possibilities are represented in this story of fictional members of the real-life Weather Underground, a group of college-aged activists founded in 1969 in the midst of America’s domestic turmoil over the Vietnam War. (The group took its name from the lyrics of a song by Bob Dylan: “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”) Their agenda called for radical activism, including bombings and rioting against the ‘establishment.’ The movie does not delve too deeply into their radicalism, painting them more as misguided idealists than violent radicals who espoused an extreme left-wing ideology. Be that as it may, the group collapsed with the signing of the Vietnam peace accords in 1973. The movie looks at former radicals some 40 years later. Most of them are living under assumed identities, since they are still very much wanted by law enforcement agencies for past transgressions. One of their number, Sharon Solarz (a very persuasive performance by Susan Sarandon) has been living as a suburban housewife and mother. But she can no longer live with her regret for being involved in an action that cost a man’s life. She has resolved to turn herself in to the authorities, never suspecting the ripple effects her act of conscience will produce. A determined small town report (Shia LeBeouf) takes up the story, and it leads him to a respected small town lawyer (Robert Redford as Jim Grant aka Nick Sloan), who champions progressive causes and is a loving single-parent to his young daughter (played by the young singing sensation Jackie Evancho). Brash, arrogant, and oblivious to the collateral damage he leaves in his wake, the reporter comes to suspect that the respected lawyer is a former radical; he uncovers the man’s true identity, forcing him to flee. Redford’s character, we learn, is in fact innocent of the violence attributed to him; but, as he wryly says, “Innocence will only get you so far.” His search for the one person who can clear him (at the cost of implicating and surrendering herself) reunites him with old colleagues he hasn’t seen in many years. Meanwhile, the reporter is on a parallel search of his own, determined to uncover the truth of things at all costs. There’s a nice subplot here about journalistic ethics, or the all-too-prevalent lack thereof, as the reporter’s more restrained and principled boss (Stanley Tucci) admonishes him that, “You don’t just destroy someone to see if you can uncover something.” The film is a quietly engaging ensemble character drama, with a stellar cast. Julie Christie plays the unrepentant radical Mimi Lurie, who was the great love of Nick Sloan’s youth, but who now sees things very differently: (M) “The struggle didn’t end just because you grew tired of it.” (N) “I didn’t grow tired of it; I grew up.” And watch for Nick Nolte (as a blustery aging activist), Chris Cooper (as the law-abiding brother of Redford’s Nick, who endangers himself for the love of his brother), Brendan Gleeson (as a retired detective with some secrets of his own), Brit Marling (2011’s “Sound of My Voice”) as a young woman who stands to be hurt by the reporter’s relentless search for his big scoop, as well as Richard Jenkins, Anna Kendrick, Sam Elliott, and Terrence Howard. Set in New York City, upstate New York, and various locales in Michigan (including Ann Arbor, where the real-life Weather Underground was founded on a university campus), the movie was actually filmed in and around Vancouver, British Columbia. Gently-paced, “The Company You Keep” is a welcome respite from the ubiquitous cinematic fare of action and violence. It’s a diverting character study with a strong ensemble cast, a dash of mystery, and some useful questions about how far it is legitimate to go in the name of principles.
“Iron Man 3” (C+): “I’m Tony Stark. I build neat stuff, got a great girl, occasionally save the world. So why can’t I sleep?” The opening words of the latest installment in the superhero saga about a rich inventor with a cool flying suit of armor captures the tone of things nicely. Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark is inventor, wealthy industrialist, playboy, and wisecracking superhero. He’s powered by the aforementioned space age suit of armor, an electromagnetic battery of sorts in his chest, and abundant supplies of manic energy. But, after two earlier films of his own and a key role in 2012’s “The Avengers,” Stark is showing signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He’s ready to settle down with his right-hand gal (and love interest), Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), but a terrorist known as ‘The Mandarin’ (who starts off as a walking, talking cliché, then transforms before our eyes into a thoroughly amusing fellow, courtesy of Ben Kingsley) and his team of super-soldiers have other ideas. Along for the ride are Guy Pearce (as the villain-in-chief), Rebecca Hall (as Maya, a beautiful scientist with ambiguous loyalties), and Don Cheadle (as Stark’s go-to guy in the military). Downey’s interactions with just about everyone entertain, thanks to Downey’s charm and the screenplay’s smart-alecky dialogue: A villain taunts Stark by saying, “Is that all you’ve got? A cheap trick and a cheesy one-liner?” To which Stark coolly replies, “Sweetheart, that could be the name of my autobiography!” The sassy banter, the softer moments with Paltrow, and the armored suit stuff all work quite well. The best action set-piece is a daring rescue of a dozen or more people ejected from an aircraft in mid-flight. Stark gathers them up “Monkeys in a Barrel” fashion, expressly referring to the children’s game of that name as he does so. What fails to impress, however, are the mad scientist and his super soldiers. They just aren’t very interesting or credible as the story’s big menace. Directed by Shane Black.
“The Colony” (Canada, 2013) (C-/C): In this post-apocalyptic drama, a few survivors of a new ice age (possibly brought on by man’s tampering with the environment?) find an insecure sanctuary in an underground industrial complex. For reasons that are not entirely clear, they are lethally preoccupied with the prospect of any of their number falling prey to a common cold or flu. How is it that such commonplace illnesses would put the entire colony at risk? In the real world, the mortality rate for colds is nil, and it’s pretty low for most varieties of the flu, too. Besides, where would a flu virus come from in a small community that’s closed off from the outside world? Such lapses in logic aside, we are told that the community has suffered fatalities from contagious illness, with the result that a case of the sniffles lands you in quarantine. If you get worse, you get a bleak choice: a bullet or a one-way walk in the perpetual winter outside. But a twitchy Bill Paxton is in charge of security, and he prefers to keep things simple, ruthlessly curing a runny nose with his trusty rifle. It’s an awfully heavy-handed introduction to an otherwise promising premise, that is, a small group of survivors trying to stay alive in a suddenly hostile environment. The group’s leader, played by Laurence Fishburne, is decisive, capable, and humane. (Why he put a clearly unstable Paxton in charge of the gun is not clear.) He sets off for a distant outpost of other survivors, with two companions, including the story’s earnest young protagonist (played by Canadian actor Kevin Zegers), when that outpost goes silent. There’s a wintry trek through the snowbound ruins of civilization, a long descent into a towering smokestack, and a nervous exploration of the bloodstained, seemingly deserted industrial complex below. But, the promise of the film’s core concept (a few men and women struggling to survive a global natural catastrophe) is squandered by its routine pay-off, to wit: marauding cannibals and firefights. The villains are not zombies, but they look and act much like them, with a tall, bald, and ugly alpha-male in leather who is prone to howling like the titular villain in 1999’s “The Mummy.” It’s all too conventional and clichéd: In lieu of a thoughtful drama about survivors trying to cling to their humanity, we get a routine hodgepodge of action and horror. The cast is okay (with pride of place going to Fishburne, who brings gravitas to the proceedings); but the story lacks originality or depth, and the film sets may look wintry, but they never really feel wintry. For her part, Canadian actress Charlotte Sullivan does a passable job as the female lead, but her hair-do and make-up is all wrong: She looks like a ‘valley-girl’ or stereotypical ‘dumb-blonde,’ when she’s actually playing a woman with some smarts and leadership qualities. The half-baked result is marginally entertaining for sci-fi/horror buffs, but it falls far short of its potential.
“The Place Beyond the Pines” (B): It opens with sound and fury, as three motorcycle stunt-drivers roar around the interior of a metal sphere — fast, and furious, and trapped. And the same can be said of Ryan Gosling’s volatile young antihero Luke. He leaves the circus to stay behind in Schenectady (a town in mid-state New York, population 66,000) when he learns that a past liaison with local gal Romina (Eva Mendez) has produced a baby son (Jason). Gosling is a tattooed, tee-shirt-wearing drifter; he rides a mean motorcycle but has no other talents. A man without apparent direction or goals, he makes a very deliberate change of course, staying put in a place where he has no job, no home, and no connections (other than a long-lost fling and the baby it produced), determined to be a proper father to his child. “Don’t talk down to me,” he warns Romina, when she points out his lack of means of supporting them. Although she has another man (Mahershala Ali as Kofi) in her life, Romina seems susceptible at first to the possibility reuniting with Luke. But, if she entertains such notions, she soon brushes them aside, and Luke along with them. Meanwhile, he has been befriended by Robin, a gruff car mechanic and part-time bank robber played by Ben Mendelsohn. Robin tempts Luke into pulling a bank robbery; and once the initial shock at what he has done has past, Luke finds that he has a taste for it — it’s a high-adrenaline way to get money, and it utilizes his dare-devil skills. But his compulsion to take ever greater risks soon puts him at odds with his partner in crime (“If you ride like lightning, you’re gonna crash like thunder”) and on a collision course with the law, as personified by Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper of “Silver Linings Playbook”) a lawyer turned policeman who comes face to face with a fleeing Luke. That encounter traumatizes Cross, making him a public hero but also leaving him unfit for future work policing the streets. He is approached by corrupt cops, led by the perhaps too overtly sinister Detective Delucca (Ray Liotta), and cajoled into reluctantly going along with an act of criminal corruption they perpetrate. To his credit, Cross has second thoughts and recants, but he is cagey and self-interested enough to put the situation to his advantage, propelling himself back into a legal career as an Assistant District Attorney. (Gosling’s fellow Canadian, Bruce Greenwood, who appears as a DA, tells Cross that, “You’re too smart for your own good.”) Fifteen years later, Cross’ marriage (to Rose Byrne) has ended, his retired judge father (Harris Yulin) has died, and his son AJ (Emory Cohen) is a spoiled rich kid who is already in trouble and headed for more. The son moves in with the father, but Cross is too busy with his new political campaign to be a proper father and guardian. And fate takes a hand, when the new teen in town, AJ, insinuates his way into the life of Jason (Dane DeHaan), neither boy then suspecting the incident that brought their fathers face to face fifteen years earlier. Much like Caesar’s Gaul, all of director and co-writer Derek Cianfrance’s (2010’s “Blue Valentine”) story is divided into three parts. The first concerns Luke; the second concerns Cross; and the third concerns their two sons. The trio of interconnected stories deal with moral choices, and the unforeseen consequences of the choices we make, for good or ill. It has some mostly decent and respectable characters who slip and do the wrong thing; and it has some mostly down and out characters who may be trying to achieve a good end through bad means. Full of causality ripple effects, it is also about conscience. Listening to our conscience, or not, is no guarantee of happy results, it seems. But, this tale of unfolding tragedies also offers its audience the hope for redemption and for healing the cycles of injustice and the legacy of poor choices which can haunt our lives. For ages 18+: Abundant coarse language, some violence, and mild sexual content.
“The Sapphires” (Australia, 2012) (B): In 1968, Australia’s aboriginal people were still were very much second class citizens, the objects of racial discrimination every bit as noxious as that still extant (at the time) in the United States. Indeed, not long before the period depicted in the film, fair skinned aboriginal children were subject to be involuntarily removed from their homes and raised by white families. But, four feisty young aboriginal women are determined not to let prejudice stop them from making their mark. Enlisting the help of a cynical, heavy-drinking, and mostly washed up Irish musician, Dave Lovelace, as their manager, they become a girl-band and switch gears (at Lovelace’s insistence) from country and western ballads to American soul music. They win an audition to go to Vietnam to entertain American troops serving there. And they’re a big hit! Along the way, old wounds and rivalries are healed, romance blossoms, and girl-power proves triumphant. Inspired by a true story, “The Sapphires,” is an uplifting, remarkably entertaining treat. The songs are irresistibly great fun (check out the soundtrack on CD from Sony Music). And audiences will be charmed by the cast, with Irish actor Chris O’Dowd ( as Dave Lovelace), Deborah Mailman (as Gail, the eldest member of the quartet, who guards the others like a mother-hen), Jessica Mauboy (as the vocally gifted Julie, a young woman who already has a baby but who is fiercely intent on making something of herself), Miranda Tapsell (as the petite, sexy, and feisty Cynthia), and Shari Sebbens (as Kay, who is fair enough to pass for white, and who was, as a consequence, forcibly removed from her community as a child to ‘learn white ways’). The result is a simple, sweet-natured, endearing story, with rousing music. It’s the feel-good movie of the year (to date) — and it’s guaranteed to charm!
“Oblivion” (B): It’s the year 2077. In the aftermath of a devastating war with aliens, a ravaged Earth is all but deserted by humanity. The Moon lies shattered in the sky overhead. Survivors have relocated to Titan, one of Saturn’s moons, leaving behind immense power plants which are tapping Earth’s oceans for fusion energy needed in mankind’s new home. The automated water harvesters are guarded by flying spherical drones. The only human input needed is the pair of humans left behind to monitor things and to repair drones damaged by alien scavengers who survived the war. But Jack (Tom Cruise) and Victoria’s (Andrea Riseborough) assignment on Earth is nearly over, and they are counting down the days to rejoining the rest of humanity on Titan, by way of the space station left in Earth orbit. The pair inhabit a sleek sky-platform: ‘Vicka’ monitors things from there while Jack goes to work every day in an ever so cool futuristic flying machine that is equal parts helicopter, mini-jet, and dragonfly, and which looks like a Dyson vacuum cleaner. Jack locates downed drones and repairs them, he has run-ins with “scavs,” and he takes time out to enjoy a sylvan retreat known only to himself. In the evenings, he and Vicka swim and make love in a transparent swimming pool suspended in the sky. It’s a futuristic idyll. But Jack is troubled by recurring dreams about another woman, one who seems inexplicably familiar to him. And he is less eager than Vicka to abandon Earth for a new life off-world. Every morning, when the orbiting space station comes back into range, Vicka is asked by their supervisor Sally (Melissa Leo), “Are you and Jack still an effective team?” There’s something about the perky but insistent way in which she intones that mantra that vaguely unsettles the viewer. And Jack’s whole belief system is thrown into disarray when he discovers human survivors on Earth, among them Morgan Freeman, and, somehow, in a crashed space vessel, the woman of his recurring dreams, Julia (Olga Kurylenko), in suspended animation. Jack has always been given to understand that all human survivors of the war have had their memories wiped. He passively accepts that fact, despite the glaring absence of any coherent explanation for why such an erasure should have been performed. But he starts to wonder if his dreams and waking visions are memories trying to seep back into his consciousness. Directed by Joseph Kosinski, from his graphic novel, “Oblivion” is a pleasant surprise, much better than its annoying early trailer suggested. The trailer was noisy and full of gunfire and explosions; the film itself is surprisingly more thoughtful. Indeed, its quiet sections are its best bits, with the circadian rhythms of daily life and a relationship between Jack and Vicka that starts off as seemingly committed and secure but grows strained by developments. Indeed, their relationship is somehow more touching than the more conventional one that later develops between Jack and Julia. The story offers some unexpected surprises: Most work quite well; but by the end, things get too conventional and action-driven. And some plot devices don’t bear close scrutiny. Why do beings that appear to scamper about on four legs (when we think they are alien) later walk like men? How wild must a coincidence be before it fails to pass screenwriting muster? (Just happening across a crashed ship that just happens to have a sole survivor who just happens to be someone critical to your past is a mighty long run of coincidences.) How can individual memories persist at all in the circumstances we come to understand in the film’s final big reveal? (To say more would be to spoil a key plot surprise.) And why do the filmmakers squander some of the film’s originality with a too-conventional final confrontation and an improbable denouement? However, missteps aside, the net result is an entertaining ride. Brief coarse language.
“42” (B): Jackie Robinson made history by becoming the first professional baseball player to break the color barrier, first with the Montreal Royals in 1946 (though the film gives awfully short shrift to his time in Canada) and then with the Brooklin Dodgers in 1947. Writer/director Brian Helgeland has fashioned a story about a talented athlete and a proud man who finds the courage and the resolve to endure the taunts, insults, and provocations of racists who object to a black man playing baseball with white teammates. To succeed, he has to suppress his righteous anger and refrain from replying in kind to the bigots whose goal is to drive him from the league. Chadwick Boseman’s Robinson is a decent man, and a strong one, because he has not only to endure offensive behavior but also to control his justified urge to respond in anger. It helps to have the love of a good woman, and Robinson had just that in his smart and supportive wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie), a woman who is strong and independent enough to defy the “whites only” sign on an airport washroom. And a barely-recognizable Harrison Ford delivers a career best performance as the eccentric, gravelly-voiced, curiously-named Branch Rickey, the Dodgers CEO. A devout Methodist, Rickey was morally offended by racial discrimination and not afraid to say so, defiantly challenging a counterpart at another team to reflect on how he’d account to God for being apart of an athletic apartheid. (He was also a wily baseball team executive, keenly aware that an untapped source of talented players lay just out of reach across the absurdly artificial barrier of skin color.) That character (and the performance behind it) is a wonder to behold. Supporting players include Christopher Meloni (as the Dodgers’ tough as nails manager Leo Durocher) and Alan Tudyk (of “Serenity”) as the nastily racist manager of an opposing team. The result is an uplifting character drama, an underdog makes good story about a few people who beat the odds. It’s refreshingly old-fashioned, and it combines entertaining baseball scenes (the best of which involve Robinson’s boldness at stealing bases, and driving pitchers to distraction in the process) with characters who earn our interest and admiration. And, happily, it does all that without any cuss-words!
“Revolution” (B): Rob Stewart, the Canadian cinematographer, writer, and director returns to the subject of the Earth’s imperiled environment with a documentary look at some of the man-made things that ail Mother Nature, among them: acidification of the sea, species extinction, rising greenhouse gases (we have put a staggering one quadrillion pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution), the plummeting numbers of phytoplankton (the microscopic seagoing organisms that produce fully half of all the oxygen in our atmosphere), and the wanton felling of 75% of the world’s forests. In his 2006 documentary “Sharkwater,” Stewart decried the decimation of sharks, age-old predator species that kept entire aquatic eco-systems in balance. But he has bigger fish to fry this time around, arguing that it’s not just ocean-going predators that are at risk, but all life on Earth — us, included. The result is somewhat heavy-handed and unfocused, but it nevertheless strikes a chord by juxtaposing natural wonders with man-made devastation (like ocean ‘dead-zones’ and the toxic trailing ponds of northern Alberta’s oil-sands), and contrasting hundreds of carcasses of dead marine life with an engaged and idealistic groundswell among young human beings to change the world. Stewart narrates and also appears in the film, perhaps infusing himself too often, and too gratuitously, into his story. But, then, it is presented as a personal journey; and it ends with a noble expression of hope: “The revolution will start with a revolution of the mind, the decolonization of the mind.”
“Safe Haven” (C): A young woman flees the aftermath of a violent crime scene by inter-state bus. When it stops for a break at a small seaside town in North Carolina, Katie (Julianne Hough) decides to stay and make a new life for herself in the picturesque community. (It’s a bit of a puzzle why Katie takes up residence in a very isolated cabin in the woods, however. Sure, she wants to keep a low profile; but her isolation also makes her vulnerable) Before long, she has a job waitressing and a developing interest in a shopkeeper , widower, and single parent of two young children , Alex, played by Josh Duhamel. But, unbeknownst to Katie, there’s a relentless, seemingly obsessive, detective (David Lyons) hot on her trail. What caused Katie to flee, and what is fueling her pursuer’s single-minded hunt for her is not revealed until late in the film, which is a curious choice, though viewers can guess much of it. And once we do have all the facts, some of them don’t bear close scrutiny as to credibility. Director Lasse Hallsrom did first-rate work in 1991’s “Once Around,” 1999’s “The Cider House Rules,” and 2000’s “Chocolat.” This adaptation of a novel by Nicholas Sparks yields inoffensive but decidedly mediocre results. The Canadian actress Cobie Smulders makes a strong impression as Jo, a young woman who befriends Katie; and, truth be told, she’s got more of a screen presence than the lead. And Mimi Kirkland is appealing as Alex’s precocious young daughter Lexi. The setting is pleasant, conveying a warm nostalgia for small town America, and the romance is okay; making for a mildly entertaining diversion.
“The Host” (C): In Earth’s near future, our world has been colonized by an alien species, known as “Souls,” who take over the bodies of their hosts, in metaphorically vampiric fashion. From the Souls’ point of view, they perfect the worlds they take over — eliminating war, privation, and environmental ills. But their version of Eden comes at high cost for humanity — their bodies continue, but their minds and souls are gone. Or so everyone assumes till one particularly resilient human girl, Melanie (Saorise Ronan), who has been on the run from the aliens, is finally captured, and possessed by one of them, named Wanderer. The entity that takes over Melanie’s body also takes possession of her memories, gradually revealing clues to the whereabouts of other human survivors, including Melanie’s younger brother Jamie (Chandler Canterbury), to the aliens’ chief human-hunter, known as Seeker (Diane Kruger). But, then, unexpectedly, Melanie’s suppressed psyche starts to reassert itself, and commences an inner struggle with the other consciousness occupying her body. The struggle turns to dialogue then to mutual sympathy and friendship. It makes for an unusual love triangle, as Melanie’s old beau, Jarod (Max Irons) finds himself in competition with another human man, Ian (Jake Able) who loves Wanderer (whom they dub Wanda) in Melanie’s body! Early in the film, the voice-over inner dialogue between Melanie and Wanda feels, frankly, rather ridiculous: (M) “How do you think I feel?” (W) “I know how you feel! That’s the problem.” It very nearly sinks the film. But once Melanie/Wanda rejoins the human survivors and the film dials back its very awkward use of voice-overs, things improve — and even become somewhat affecting. It’s much better to communicate the inner conflict in ways other than a literal inner dialogue that’s audible to the audience. But there are other instances of silliness: For no apparent reason, the aliens exhaust the Earth’s supply of white suits and shiny sliver sports cars, for instance. William Hurt steals the movie as Melanie’s cantankerous, but also very humane, old Uncle Jeb. The film was written and directed by Andrew Niccol from the novel by Stephanie Meyer. The film does not seem to have done well very well at the box office, which is surprising insofar as it is actually somewhat better than the unbearably inane “Twilight” series, which was also based on Meyer’s books. A familiar face late in the film is Emily Browning (“Sleeping Beauty”) in an unbilled appearance.
“Olympus Has Fallen” (C): With a scenario that seems inspired by recent headlines, armed commandoes from North Korea storm the White House, taking the President (Aaron Eckhart) and other high-ranking governmental officials hostage in the bunker below the chief executive’s residence. They slaughter scores of Secret Service men to accomplish that objective, but they have something far more nefarious in mind than a simple hostage-taking or blackmail. It’s a plot of such apocalyptic proportions that it might appeal to the real-life demagogues who rule North Korea and who are so fond, of late, of threatening unilateral nuclear war. Unluckily for the murderous brigands, they are opposed by a one-man army in the person of an out-of-favor Secret Service agent (Gerard Butler) who takes the battle to the bad guys. Radha Mitchell plays his wife, which is a bit of disappointment after her own memorable stint as a kick-ass heroine in “Pitch Black.” Morgan Freeman, Melissa Leo, Dylan McDermott, Angela Bassett, and Rick Yune are among the above-par supporting cast. Others have dubbed it “Die Hard in the White House,” and, right on cue, it delivers abundant gunfire and mayhem, interlaced with a few sarcastic jibes, just as that moniker would suggest.
“The Croods” (B): A prehistoric family presided over by Nicholas Cage (as Grug) and Catherine Keener (as Ugga) live by simple rules, a key one of which is that anything new is dangerous and to be avoided. That’s why Grug prefers the safety of their cave. But the extended family, which comprises the parents, a feisty old granny (voiced by Cloris Leachman), and three kids, has among their number a teenage girl, Eep (Emma Stone), who thirsts for adventure and discovery. She gets her chance when an unauthorized nocturnal excursion brings her face to face with a handsome stranger named Guy (Ryan Reynolds) and his comical animal sidekick dubbed Belt (Chris Sanders). Guy has unfamiliar ways, and he knows about such strange things as fire — and shoes. He also (somehow) knows that an earth-changing cataclysm (propelled by continental draft) is on the way — and that no cave will safeguard against it. Soon the family is forced to flee, and to follow the lead of Guy. It’s a galling situation for Grug, who feels his leadership slipping away: His tried and true reliance on brute strength (he has never been ‘an ideas man,’ he laments) just won’t cut it anymore. And his teenage daughter is attracted to a boy! Casting the thoroughly modern-sounding Cage in the role is a counter-intuitive choice. But, he’s the narrator, and the dichotomies between the actor’s vocal persona and the ‘what you see is what you get’ nature of his character provides some ironic commentary on a world undergoing massive changes. This 3-D animated film is visually appealing, funny, and surprisingly engaging. It will appeal to children and adults alike.
“Oz: The Great and Powerful” (C-/C): Those who love 1939’s “The Wizard of Oz” will be disappointed by the missteps and facile storytelling of this would-be prequel. The idea here is to tell us how a small-time magician named Oscar Diggs ends up in the Land of Oz years before he becomes the aging Wizard we meet in the earlier film. Director Sam Raimi does some things right — and many things wrong. As to the former, the film does try to be consistent (more or less) with what we already know of Oz. The look of that magical world — its countryside, city, castles, and inhabitants is very good. But missteps abound in other respects, starting with the characterization of the presumptive Wizard as callous womanizer, whose wanton infidelities actually make the Wicked Witch wicked! It’s a bad idea — ill-conceived, facile, and doomed to make us dislike the second-rate magician who aspires to greatness. And, James Franco never feels quite right for the part. He plays a cad well enough, but caddishness ought not to be part of the character’s make-up. As it is, that less than admirable aspect of the man’s make-up sits uneasily, and, well, unconvincingly, with his transformation by fits and starts into a do-gooder. This Oz has not one witch but three, fetchingly played by Mila Kunis (sweet and innocent until spurned), Rachel Weisz (treacherous and deceitful from the get-go, for reasons which are never clear), and Michelle Williams as Glinda (who inexplicably resides in the South in this film, instead of the North where the earlier film situated her). One question, though, why does the otherwise engaging Theodora (Kunis) skip about the countryside before her fall from grace in a get-up that looks like she just walked off a high fashion runway in Paris? Astonishingly, the best characters in the film are a diminutive China Girl (no allusion to the Orient is intended — she’s made out of porcelain), voiced with sad vulnerability by Joey King, and a benign flying monkey turned sidekick and valet voiced by Zack Braff. There’s a bit of excitement near the end, but, as usual in contemporary movies, there’s an extreme surfeit of computer-generated effects throughout and a gratuitous reliance on action scenes to the detriment of a better sense of character and place. Compared to its illustrious predecessor, all we can say of this clumsy interloper is that, “We aren’t in Oz anymore,” at least not the Oz we know and love.
“Jack the Giant Slayer” (B): Director Bryan Singer reinvents the familiar fairy story about the farm-boy with a handful of magical beans, a bean-stock that grows into the clouds, and man-eating giants into a grown-up drama that offers just the right mix of fantasy, adventure, and romance. The titular Jack (Nicholas Hoult) is a young man who grew up on stories of giants, castles, and derring-do. Before he knows it, he’s caught up in all three, smitten by the beautiful, independent-minded princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) whom he chivalrously defends when she ventures incognito into a public fair. The beans appear, and so does the towering beanstalk, which leads to an encounter with not one giant but an entire land of giants. These giants have a bone to pick with mankind, and the appearance of the beanstalk gives them the way down to Earth. The always appealing Ewan McGregor is on hand, not in the romantic lead, but as Elmont, the chief of the king’s knights, combining bravery and skill with a hint of priggishness. One wishes to see more of him in the story. Ian McShane plays the king, Stanley Tucci his treacherous chief counselor, and Eddie Marsan as Elmont’s right hand man. The giants look computer-generated; but they are suitably fierce. They are fond of biting the heads off humans; but such scenes, while violent, nicely avoid gory visuals. For a change, characterization gets its due. The film hasn’t done nearly as well at the box office as “Oz: The Great and Powerful,” but “Jack” is definitely the fantasy that’s worth going to see. It is a surprisingly entertaining and all grown-up take on the story once associated with childhood, a story that admirably reminds us that true ‘royalty’ lies not in titles or worldly status but in strength of character..
“Side Effects” (C): An earnest psychiatrist (Jude Law) treats a troubled young woman (Rooney Mara) with a succession of drugs; but they all induce unwanted side effects, until things go from bad to worse with the patient killing her husband (Channing Tatum) while, it seems, sleepwalking. She ends up in a mental hospital, and the good doctor’s practice, reputation, and personal life go into free fall. But, convinced that he did everything right, he is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery only he can see exists. Director Steven Soderberg is striving for a dark, Hitchcockian-style psychological drama, but “Side Effects” only comes into its own in its second half, when Law’s character tries to unravel the truth of things. The first half centers on Mara’s mopey, uninteresting character, and that part of the story fails to engage. Why paint Mara’s character in such distinctly cold, morose, and unlikable shades? The character is off-putting from the get-go, which divests her of any interest in her. And revelations late in the film are needlessly lurid. The script needed some finessing. Catherine Zeta-Jones and Mamie Gummer are among the supporting players in a film that grows on you as it progresses, thanks almost entirely to Jude Law’s presence.
“This is 40” (B): Two of the 40-ish characters from 2007’s “Knocked Up” experience simultaneous midlife crises in a foul-mouthed comedy from writer/director Judd Apatow. Two of his real-life children play the couple’s kids, while his real-life wife (the engaging Leslie Mann) plays the female lead. Paul Rudd plays her husband. Much sex talk and highly coarse language ensues. And there’s an inescapable product placement presence by an electronics company named after a fruit. The foxy Megan Fox makes an impression among the supporting players; and Melissa McCarthy is a surprise hoot in the film’s end credits gag reel — despite the direly adverse impression she earned in the intolerable “Identity Theft” trailer. At 134 minutes, it’s unduly long, even as it unfolds as a series of vignettes rather than a seamless story. The barrage of extremely crude language (and behavior) is unnecessary, not to mention coarsely juvenile; but, despite those intrusions of verbal ugliness, the movie (and its characters) do engage while you are watching them, even if they are forgotten soon thereafter. For ages 18+: Severe coarse language and sexual references.
“Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters” (D+): The fairy tale about a little boy and girl who are imprisoned in a cottage made of candy by a witch intent on their deaths was among those collected by the Brothers Grimm (they published it in 1812). The children end up out-smarting their captor. According to this film, that childhood experience was the start of a lethal lifelong grudge-match between the siblings (played by Jeremy Renner and Gemma Aterton) and a never-ending succession of malevolent witches. The result is hyper-violence, CGI-effects, and a blend of over the top action, and smart-alecky quips. It’s a distant, none too bright cousin to much smarter character-driven fare like television’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” And it all unfolded in this neck of the cinematic woods in ear-deafening, 3-D excess on an oversized IMAX screen. (Why waste such technological perks on such bombast?). Still, when all is said and done, those fond of fantasy/horror/ action hybrids will find it marginally worth seeing. But it’s not suitable for children.
“Argo” (B): In 1979, the American embassy in Iran was invaded by Islamic revolutionaries and its staff was held hostage in flagrant violation of international law and the protected status of diplomats. Anger over American support for Iran’s previous autocratic regime and over America (reluctantly) giving sanctuary to that regime’s strong-man, Shah Reza Pahlavi; as well as a maelstrom of internal political divisions in Iran between secular left and militant Islamists, all contributed to the action of the radicals. But it was endorsed by Iran’s leading cleric, the Ayatollah Khomeini. In the end, 52 hostages were held captive for 444 days. But six of their colleagues eluded capture and found secret refuge at the homes of Canadian diplomats in Teheran. With Canadian help, they were smuggled out of Iran under false identities. Director Ben Affleck’s account of their escape is the subject of “Argo.” The movie aroused considerable controversy in Canada for demoting the Canadian role in the safe escape of the six Americans to that of a bit player, consisting mostly of providing room and board to the six. Although even that role entailed considerable risk to the Canadians involved, that version of events relegates Canada to a supporting role in a clever ruse devised and executed by a daring CIA agent. Affleck plays the man in question, Tony Mendez. And whatever the truth of the matter may be, Affleck’s cinematic variation on history is a great success as sheer entertainment. Unlike “Zero Dark Thirty,” it invests a story in which we already know the ending (the six fugitives escaped!) with real suspense and keeps it suspenseful throughout. Indeed, even a second viewing of the film keeps viewers on the edge of their seats! Now, that’s the hallmark of successful suspense! Sequences back in the States involving a duo of Hollywood filmmakers (Alan Arkin & John Goodman) enlisted to perpetrate the great escape are entertaining (has Arkin ever not been a pleasure to behold in any movie?), but the light-hearted, comedic tone of those sections of the story seem jarringly inconsistent with the tone of the rest of the film. It is incontestable that the film invents some events (a near riot in a market and a break-neck pursuit on an airport tarmac) in the cause of entertaining storytelling. But, the extent to which it may (or may not) unfairly downplay, or ignore outright, Canada’s role in the escape of the six fugitives is one that needs to be examined in another setting. Be it accurate or not, the film succeeds as entertainment! “Argo” earned six Academy Award nominations, winning in three of those categories, as Best Film, Adapted Screenplay, and Editing. Best film of the year may be overstating it; but it is surely one of the year’s most suspenseful.
“Silver Linings Playbook” (B+): Written and directed by David O. Russell, from the novel by Matthew Quick, this film is peopled with quirky characters, only some of whom suffer from bipolar disorder. And off-kilter dialogue between off-beat characters is what makes this movie tick: (P) “You have poor social skills. You have a problem.” (T) “I have a problem? You say more inappropriate things than appropriate things.” Bradley Cooper plays Pat, a man who has a violent nervous breakdown after walking-in on his wife when she’s illicitly having sex with another man. Released from the mental hospital in the aftermath of that trauma, Pat moves back in with his parents — Jacki Weaver’s Dolores and Robert De Niro’s obsessive-compulsive Pat Sr. Pat is intent on reconciling with his ex, restraining order or no; but, in the hope of distracting Pat from that doomed goal, a well-intentioned friend hooks him up with a fellow eccentric, in the person of Jennifer Lawrence’s Tiffany. Tiffany is not one to filter what she thinks: (T) “You’re not a standup guy today, Pat!” And, (P): “How old are you?” (T) “Old enough to have a marriage end and not wind up in a mental hospital.” Their exchanges are mildly abrasive, but there’s an appealing attraction beneath the caustic surface: (T) “You know, for a while, I thought you were the best thing that ever happened to me. But now I’m starting to think you’re the worst.” (P) “Of course you do. Come on, let’s go dance.” And dance they do, as Tiffany has her sights set on a dancing competition. Not to be outdone in the eccentricity sweepstakes, Chris Tucker is on hand as Pat’s magnificently off-the-wall friend Danny. The film is one part dark humor, one part romance. Bothingredients are infused with sassy dialogue. But, between the dark, deadpan humor and the romance, there is no contest: It’s the romantic relationship component that makes the film. “Silver Linings Playbook” earned eight Academy Award nominations, winning as Best Actress; and the film earned many other nominations and awards elsewhere. It’s nice to see Julia Stiles (in a small role as Tiffany’s sister.) For ages 18+: Coarse language,
“Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away” (B-): Director Andrew Adamson has strung together sequences from a bunch of different Cirque du Soleil shows — involving everything from water-worlds, to upending ones on which characters clamor on vertical inclines, to odes to The Beatles and Elvis. The paper thin linking device that nominally connects these disparate scenarios is a young woman’s meandering search for the trapeze “Aerialist” she watched under the big-top (and took a liking to) before he disappeared in a sandy whirlpool. The Cirque acts are a pleasure to behold, lending themselves nicely to the film’s 3-D presentation; but the near-absence of a story feels like a handicap when the context is a motion picture instead of a live show. The acrobats are marvelous, of course, but the most human and appealing touch here is the silent, gamine-like figure of the girl, nicely personified by the pert and winsome Erica Linz, as she travels from one outlandish world to the next. The presence of a naïf who serves as a surrogate for us in observing the proceedings has been used in some of Cirque’s live shows and it is akin to “Alice in Wonderland” (Clara, the protagonist in “The Nutcracker” plays a similar function) — except that this ‘Alice’ is cast as a passive observer when we yearn to see her interact with the wonders she beholds. Linz engages us from the moment she walks innocently onto the grounds of a conventional circus, but she has far too little to do thereafter. And, why not contrive nearly new Cirque material for the movie, instead of stringing together bits and pieces from very different existing shows?
“Mama” (Spain/Canada, 2012) (C+): Two young girls are abducted by their emotionally distraught father after he has murdered their mother. The girls (Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nelisse) end up alone at a deserted cabin in the middle of a forest. But are they alone? When they are discovered five years later, the girls have gone feral, the youngest most pronouncedly so. Indeed, those scenes with the girls are the best part of the film: They’ve become wild animals, and it’s ever so creepy. How did they survive at such tender years? It’s a mystery, though the girls cryptically refer to “Mama.” Unbeknownst to anyone but them, they’ve had a secret protector, a spectral presence who haunted the cabin and seems to have contributed in some way to the girls’ subsistence survival there. The trouble is that that eponymous surrogate “Mama” tags along when her involuntary charges go back to civilization — to the suburban home of their uncle (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his wife (Jessica Chastain). And whatever slender semblance of pseudo-maternal care this frightful specter apparently once possessed is fast being replaced by malevolence — for those who have supplanted her, for the psychiatrist who is studying the children, and, ultimately, for the children themselves, as they are weaned off their unnatural connection to her. The supernatural menace is effectively scary, at least until we see far too much of her near the end. And the film makes an original, perhaps even daring, gambit by initially presenting Chastain’s character unsympathetically — as a very reluctant recruit to her unwanted new role of step-mother. But the story goes off the rails with contrivances that strain credibility well beyond the breaking point. Why would (and how could) this irrational supernatural creature have protected the children in the first place? And why ultimately turn on them? How on earth do people stroll off a highway and effortlessly find the haunted cottage in the middle of a vast arboreal nowhere? Why go to a dark and dangerous place to confront a supernatural killer? Why get so carried away with computer-generated effects, when the first part of the movie was proof positive that less is more? And why concoct such an illogical, unsatisfying, and downbeat ending? The sum of these inconsistent parts is tolerable, but it falls far short of its potential.
“Zero Dark Thirty” (F): “Do your effing job and bring me something to kill.” Those are the terse marching orders handed out to the CIA team that’s trying to track down those responsible for 9/11. One them is Maya (Jessica Chastain), who plays a driven woman who will do whatever it takes to get the job done. The usually interesting Chastain (“The Tree of Life”) is disappointing here. In lieu of characterization (from her or from the script) we get a succession of determined poses — with furrowed brow, with folded arms, with clenched teeth, with sunglasses and without. The first half of the movie is given over to scenes of torture (by the CIA or its minions of suspected terrorists or their sympathizers), and the movie has a complete dearth of moral qualms about such repellant abuse of prisoners. Nor is it shy about showing us horrors like water-boarding. Such grotesque crimes are too recent to go down easily in an ‘entertainment’ context, even if the story is (to some uncertain extent) fact-based. The scenes involving the brutal abuse of prisoners in shameless violation of law and morality — scenes that play out in front of the camera’s unblinking and woefully non-judgmental eye — are repugnant. But the film has another fatal flaw: It is not suspenseful. Its second half reenacts the raid on the compound in Pakistan that was designed to kill the West’s public enemy number one, Osama bin-Ladin. (It’s clear in the film that capturing him alive and bringing him back for trial for mass murder was never part of the plan.) But it’s just gung-ho special forces stuff, utterly lacking in any suspense or tension. That deficiency cannot be blamed on the fact that we all know the outcome of the mission before we see the movie. On the contrary, viewers of “Argo” likewise know the result of that drama before they see the movie; but, unlike “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Argo” nevertheless keeps viewers on the edge of their seats. Acclaimed by many critics (but not this one), “Zero Dark Thirty” won an Academy Award for Sound Editing and was nominated as Best Film, Actress, Original Screenplay, and Editing. But its moral nihilism, one-dimensional characters, poseur performances, and inexplicable absence of anything resembling suspense actually reduce to a very dark zero any value the movie might have had as storytelling or historical meditation. For ages 18+: Strong violence, coarse language, and disturbing content.
“The Impossible” (Spain, 2012) (A-): Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor play a British couple who get caught up in the catastrophic 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami (a natural disaster that claimed nearly a quarter million humans lives from Thailand to Indonesia to Sri Lanka and beyond), while vacationing at a seaside resort in Thailand. They and their three young sons are sundered by the disaster, and Watts’ character is gravely injured. Will they survive? Will they be reunited amidst the human flotsam and jetsam? Based on the experiences of a real-life French family, the story follows their separate struggles for survival. The tidal wave scenes are harrowing; and the emotional intensity of what follows is every bit as gripping. Thanks to effective pacing and first-rate performances from the entire cast, Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona has fashioned one of the best films of 2012. Watts richly deserved her Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations as Best Actress; and, she ought to have won both of those awards. Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin, and Oaklee Pendergast play the three sons, with Holland making an especially strong impression as the eldest son, Lucas (to whom his stricken mother says, “Go help people, Lucas. You’re good at it.”). Highly recommended!
“Django Unchained” (B-): In the American South of the mid 19th century, a bounty hunter (and former dentist!) engagingly played by Christoph Waltz frees a slave (Jamie Foxx) to help him track some wanted men. The unlikely pair gradually bond, become friends, and embark on a desperate mission to rescue Django’s wife from the clutches of a ruthless plantation owner played by Leonardo DiCaprio. What ensues is hyper-violent, with death by gunshot, mastiff attack, pummeling, fire, and explosion. The violence is as deliberately over-the-top as the dialogue, the characters, and the scenario itself. It’ll glean some guilty-pleasure laughs with its dark brand of deadpan humor; but its ugliness — in gore and situation — will also prompt some averted gazes and moral queasiness. Rumors of writer/director Quentin Tarantino’s supposed genius have long been grossly exaggerated. His work (which has all the subtlety of a sledge-hammer) has a certain entertainment value; but, in this case, he strays well over the line into bad taste. He has fashioned a violent, sardonic parody of a western; but the Old South was not the Old West, and all the gun-slinging is out of place here. And, frankly, talk of such atrocities as castration has no place anywhere in civilized company. The film is decidedly not for all tastes; and even for the few who can stomach it, it is an acquired one! Waltz, who is the one and only reason to see this film, won an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor (just as he did for 2009’s equally ugly “Inglourious Basterds” [sic]). But the film’s win for Original Screenplay and nomination as Best Film were wholly unmerited. For ages 18+: Brutal violence and pervasive unpleasantless.
“Les Miserables” (USA/U.K., 2012) (A-): This 158 minute film adaptation of the stirringly beautiful stage musical by Alain Boubil and Claude-Michel Schonberg is that rarest of cinematic forms (nowadays) — a musical. Some of the cast have singing in their past repertoire, others do not. But, we aren’t used to seeing any of them sing; and they do it very well. Inspired by the 1862 novel by Victor Hugo, “Les Miserables” is the story of Jean Valjean. Convicted and sentenced to years of hard labor simply for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family, Valjean endures that grueling punishment and emerges from his unjust imprisonment embittered and unemployable. But the kindness of a stranger, a good bishop, redeems the man and his life. He changes his name and becomes a successful businessman and the mayor of a prosperous town, dedicated to doing good. But a moment of inattention on his part inadvertently dooms one of his employees, Fantine. To make amends, Valjean swears to find and protect her young daughter, Cosette, and to raise her as his own. But he is dogged at every turn by the relentless pursuit of the rigidly dogmatic and unforgiving Inspector Javert. Director Tom Hooper (2010’s “The King’s Speech”) assembles a fine cast, with Hugh Jackson (as Jean Valjean), Russel Crowe (as the implacable Javert), Anne Hathaway (as the ill-fated Fantine), Amanda Seyfried (as her orphaned daughter Cossette), the musical stage’s Samantha Barks (as Eponine, who suffers the pangs of unrequited love and rises above her upbringing to sacrifice herself for another), Isabelle Allen (who plays Cossette as a child), Daniel Huttlestone (as the fearless urchin Gavroche), and Eddie Redmayne (as the earnest and idealistic student revolutionary Marius). And it’s a pleasure to see (and hear) Colm Wilkinson, who played the lead on stage in London and who appears here as the Bishop. For their part, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are somewhat overbearing in the intentionally broad roles as the scheming, jovially wicked Thenardiers. The film goes astray during their popular “Master of the House” sequence by being too overtly vulgar and sexual. Why, for example, show a man in a St. Nicholas costume getting drunk and behaving lewdly? It is unduly crude, as are the scenes showing the cast-out Fantine’s desperate descent into prostitution. Those scenes are in bad taste, and they are too jarringly ugly for this film: They could have been implied or depicted more subtly, instead of immersing us in the moral sewer they depict. What’s good about the film is what’s good about the stage musical. It’s full of deeply moving, beautifully lyrical songs. It’s the stuff both of raw emotion — about love and loss and redemption. And it’s got a wonderful moral: “To love another person is to see the face of God.” There are moments and scenes that will bring tears to the viewer’s eyes, and it is a rare film indeed these days that can command that kind of emotional reaction. But, somehow, the film adaptation is not as consistently affecting as the stage incarnation. Why, this reviewer cannot say. Perhaps there is an immediacy to being in the same room with performers that no film can entirely match? “Les Miserables” was nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning as Best Supporting Actress (Hathaway), Makeup & Hairstyling, and Sound Mixing. It is one of the best films of 2012.
“Lincoln” (A-): An engrossing look at the last few months of the life of the 16th president of the United States of America, Steven Spielberg’s film not only brings the man and his times alive but also usefully reminds us that political life can be about vitally important ideas. The film is set in 1865, in what proved to be the last year of the U.S. Civil War, a bloody four-year conflict that claimed the lives of up to 750,000 soldiers and an unknown number of civilians, but which also ended the evil practice of slavery throughout the United States. Elected president in 1860, and reelected in 1864, Abraham Lincoln was nothing if not a man of profound ideas. In the film, as in life, he communicated those ideas through the humorous parables and stories he was so fond of telling: “I heard tell once of a Jefferson City lawyer who had a parrot that would wake him each morning crying out ‘Today’s the day the world shall end as scripture has foretold.’ And one day, the lawyer shot him, for the sake of peace and quiet I presume, thus fulfilling, for the bird at least, his prophecy.” But Lincoln could stir men with his convictions as readily as he could instruct them through his folksy stories. Witness these words from his Second Inaugural Address on March 4, 1865 (a mere month and a half later, on April 15th, he would be dead at the hands of an assassin): “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” Spielberg’s 150-minute film, with an eloquent screenplay by Tony Kushner, is magisterial in pace but it never outwears its welcome, for the characters it offers come vividly alive. Daniel Day-Lewis is gentle, thoughtful, sad, and indomitable as Lincoln; and Sally Field is a force to be reckoned with as his wife Mary Todd Lincoln. Her husband is in the midst of a relentless effort to cajole, browbeat, or in effect buy enough votes in the House of Representatives to pass the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which would forever abolish slavery throughout the entire United States — north and south. The effort is faltering, and Mary is adamant that it should pass, as her son’s life may indirectly hang on its outcome: “Seward can’t do it; you must. Because if you fail to acquire the necessary votes, woe unto you, sir. You will answer to me.” The use of language in the film is a sheer delight to the ears; and Tommy Lee Jones, as the cantankerous Representative Thaddeus Stevens, a man who does not suffer fools gladly, certainly knows how to tear a verbal strip off of them. Such poetically elegant insults have never been heard before. But Jones also sees things clearly, finding himself an ally of convenience with Lincoln (whom he earlier describes as “Lincoln the inveterate dawdler, Lincoln the Southerner, Lincoln the capitulating compromiser, our adversary, and leader of the God forsaken Republican Party, our party.”) in their mutual effort to abolish slavery. After the Thirteenth Amendment passes the House of Representatives on January 31, 1865 (having already passed the U.S. Senate in April 1864), in the film’s climactic moment, Jones’ pithily describes the result thus: “The greatest measure of the nineteenth century, passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.” Jones delivers a powerhouse performance in a film that’s full of strong performances. Among them are Hal Holbrook, as Preston Blair, the leader of the conservative branch of the Republican Party, and another man of deep conscience: He hates slavery, but he will accept its continuation in the South if that is the price for an end to the war. David Strathairn portrays Secretary of State William Seward, whose loyalty to Lincoln is tested by Lincoln keeping some things to himself. Lincoln may be a gentle, humane man, but there are limits to even his patience: “I can’t listen to this anymore. I can’t accomplish a goddamn thing of any worth until we cure ourselves of slavery and end this pestilential war! I wonder if any of you or anyone else knows it. I know! I need this! This amendment is that cure! We’ve stepped out upon the world stage now. Now! With the fate of human dignity in our hands. Blood’s been spilled to afford us this moment now! Now! Now! And you grouse so and heckle and dodge about like pettifogging Tammany Hall hucksters!” Easily one of the best films of 2012, “Lincoln” was nominated for twelve Oscars, winning as Best Actor and Production Design (Jones should have won as Best Supporting Actor); and it earned many other awards and nominations. In the poignant last onscreen words of its eponymous great man (as he departs the White House, for what we know will be the last time, on his way to a night at the theater): “I suppose it’s time to go, though I’d prefer to stay.” Very brief coarse language
“Life of Pi” (USA/Taiwan, 2012) (B+): A young man en route to America by ship with his family and the animals from their zoo in India encounters survives a disaster at sea. The ship goes down, and Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma) finds himself adrift in a lifeboat with a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and a Bengal tiger he has nicknamed Richard Parker. But nature is pitiless, and soon only boy and tiger remain. Lest you think this is a cuddly variant of a boy and his dog motif, think again. The tiger is a ferocious carnivore, intent on mauling and devouring its boat-mate. And its repeated attempts to do just that are frightening. But, Pi eventually finds a way to establish an uneasy truce between and to ensure their mutual survival. Drifting on the ocean currents, they encounter sights of mesmerizing beauty: There’s a breaching whale, a sea that reflects the sky above, a school of fish leaping through the air, and light-emitting organisms that illuminate the deep below them. The present-day narratives that bookend their strange timeless journey, and even an enigmatic psychological mystery revealed at the end, are far less interesting than the poetically compelling journey of man and beast. Director Ang Lee (1995’s “Sense and Sensibility”) has fashioned a visually striking film adaptation of the novel by Canadian writer Yann Martel. “Life of Pi” was nominated for eleven Oscars, winning four — as Best Director, Cinematography, Original Score (from Canadian composer Mychael Danna), and Visual Effects; and it earned a great many nominations and awards elsewhere.
“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” (B): Before he wrote his heroic epic “The Lord of the Rings” (which is often erroneously referred to as a “trilogy”), J.R.R. Tolkien wrote a lovely, but much simpler, story called “The Hobbit.” Both stories took place in Tolkien’s Middle-earth (which is meant to be a long-ago version of our own world) and both derived from the sweeping events chronicled in his unfinished magnum opus, “The Silmarillion.” Inspired by the mythos of ‘the North,’ infused with Tolkien’s expertise in archaic languages (he was a scholar of Old English), and subtly informed by his Christianity, Tolkien’s heroic fantasy fiction aimed to be nothing short of ‘a mythology for England.’ It hit the mark. And the measure of its success can be found in the enduring love readers have for Tolkien’s depth, breadth, and richness of imagination. He described himself as the “subcreator” of an imaginary world, a world in which the place we dimly recollect as “Faerie” has the power to move, engross, and utterly bewitch us. “The Lord of the Rings” has rightly been hailed by many as the greatest work of fiction of the 20th century. New Zealand director Peter Jackson adapted Tolkien’s beloved epic in three motion pictures (in 2001, 2002, and 2003). Jackson’s films were quite faithful to Tolkien’s book, though one may quibble with this choice or that. Indeed, one may regret the decision, born of perceived cinematic necessity, in Jackson’s three films to boost the action and violence, at the partial expense of what’s best about Tolkien’s story — its rich, visceral sense of place, its immersion in poetry, song, and story-telling, its focus on the inner conflict between good and evil, and its success in devising a whole slew of memorable characters and places. The length of the book and the epic nature of its story demanded its division into three cinematic installments. But, can the same be said for “The Hobbit?” No. It’s a far simpler story, involving, quite literally, a journey “there and back again.” Yet, Jackson has elected to give it the same three-film treatment he gave “The Lord of the Rings,” a much, much longer book. To pad the relatively slender story, Jackson is showing us what happened “off-stage,” by adding material that he has either gleaned from the historical appendices to “The Lord of the Rings” or invented himself (with screenwriters Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens) especially for his film adaptation. The result seems to inflate what really is a straightforward adventure story. The first quandary Jackson faced was what tone he should employ in telling this story. “The Hobbit” was written for children, whereas its much more sophisticated successor, “The Lord of the Rings,” (LOTR) was written for adults. Jackson opted to alter the tone of the story to make it consistent with that of LOTR. That decision was understandable; but, the simpler nature of the story itself (a quest for treasure and an accompanying growth in stature of the character of its diminutive protagonist) cannot support the gravitas which is grafted onto it in Jackson’s adaptation, or its expansion to comprise three films. Mind you, there is plenty to admire here, starting with the note-perfect casting. It is a sheer pleasure to see returning members of the LOTR cast, notably Ian McKellen (Gandalf), Andy Serkis (Gollum), Hugo Weaving (Elrond), Cate Blanchett (Galadriel), Christopher Lee (Saruman), and, in cameos, Ian Holm (as an elderly Bilbo Baggins), and Elijah Wood (as Frodo). Among the newcomers, one could not ask for a better young Bilbo than Martin Freeman, while all thirteen of the dwarves, led by Richard Armitage’s Thorin Oakenshield, deliver convincing performances. There’s a sense of whimsy about these dwarves but it leaves their dignity intact. The writers, director, and cast made a concerted effort to create thirteen distinct individuals out of the dwarfish baker’s dozen; but with such a crowded stage, none of them get enough screen time to make a truly lasting impression. It is harder to overlook the colorful characters given life by Sylvester McCoy (as Radagast the Brown) and Barry Humphries (as The Great Goblin). The filmmakers essentially create the character of the rustic wizard Radagast out of whole cloth: All we get from Tolkien is his name, the name and general location of his abode, and his love for flora and fauna. (He is only an off-stage figure in the books, a character who is briefly mentioned in passing but never met in person.) The film develops those kernels into a fully-realized character — an absent-minded professor of a wizard who mumbles to himself, lets birds nest in his hair, and pays no heed to their droppings that cake his beard. He provides comedic relief, but stays (just) on the right side of the border where believability meets farce. His mode of conveyance — a sleigh pulled over bare ground by large rabbits — is a tad harder to accept, though it does present a memorably funny moment in which the rabbits, thumping their paws in alarm, take off in fear with the sleigh, leaving Radagast to run after them, shouting “Wait for me!” But what strains credibility far worse is his journey by means of said sleigh over a towering mountain range and across more than 200 miles (from the haunted fortress of Dol Guldor to the outskirts of Rivendell). We don’t witness that improbable journey; he simply appears, like a deus ex machina, to impart some information to his fellow wizard Gandalf. The notion that he would have made such a journey, in what seems to be a remarkably short space of time, with such an unlikely mode of transportation strains belief — and strains it severely. And, why make such a trek anyway? He could have conveyed the same information to allies much closer at hand (the elves of Lorien, who were a mere 25 to 30 miles from Dol Guldur) instead of miraculously appearing on the other side of an imposing mountain range at exactly the right time and place to intercept Gandalf & Party, whom he had no way at all to know would even be there. In the book, the former travelers make much of their way to Rivendell along the great East Road; but there’s nary a sign of any road in the movie. And, despite all the natural beauty New Zealand has to offer, the lands just west of Rivendell look wrong — they are rocky and desolate (looking suspiciously like the boulder-strewn filming locations for northern Rohan in “The Two Towers”) when they should be green and forested. The film deviates completely from what we know about Dol Guldur in Tolkien’s books. In the books, Dol Guldur was occupied by the Necromancer (who is really a weakened incarnation of Sauron, that is, the Lord of the Rings, using an alias) for up to 1900 years prior to the events of “The Hobbit,” and the surrounding great forest had gradually darkened into Mirkwood over that extended period of time. The movie compresses background events that take years or centuries into the work of days or months. Similarly, in the book, Gandalf, not Radagast, entered Dol Guldur; indeed, Gandalf himself discovered that the Necromancer was Sauron nearly two centuries before the events of “The Hobbit.” In the film, Dol Guldur is a ruin; but Tolkien’s books suggest that it was intact, since they tell us that the elves ‘threw down its walls and cleansed its pits’ only after the fall of Sauron at the end of the War of the Ring, some 77 years after the events of “The Hobbit.” Of course, the casual viewer will be oblivious to such discrepancies; but for Tolkien devotes, who are legion, such needless deviations from the books will grate — and nowhere more so than in the film’s most glaring misstep, namely, its absurdly literal representation of the “stone giants.” They are mentioned only briefly in the text, and they are mentioned in such a way as to suggest that they are a playful metaphor rather than actual creatures. But the movie makes them literal all right — and inflates them to the size of the mountains themselves. Indeed, the film has the mountains themselves come alive! It’s an instance of ridiculous digital overkill: So-called ‘special’ effects triumph over good sense and authenticity — nearly derailing the entire movie in the process. Less egregious, but still smacking of digital excess, is the preposterous escape of Gandalf and the dwarves along the suspended bridges in the goblins’ underground city. Some of it is exciting, but when a flimsy wooden walkway carrying our heroes careens impossibly down the rocky face of cliffs and remains intact, it’s clear that the film has forsaken credibility, and any pretense at realism, in favor of a video game of hyper-action. By contract, the timely arrival of the eagles near the end of the film, while still larger than life, works, and works very well — delivering a effectively emotional, exciting, and awe-inspiring moment — thanks not to effects but rather to an early example of Tolkien’s notion of “eucatastrope” or an unexpected ‘happy ending.’ The film gets goblins and orcs mixed up, proffering them as two different things, when it’s clear in the books, they are simply different terms for the same thing. A more important misstep is the film’s creation of a grudge-match and blood-feud between a particular orc, Azog (whom the filmmakers give a prosthetic arm) and Thorin. It’s a clumsy way to pad the story, to introduce a pursuit motif, and to personalize the conflict. Further, there is no way that mounted orcs would be hunting on the borders of Rivendell, a zealously defended elf realm. It didn’t happen in the book, and it wouldn’t happen in a faithful adaptation. Another mistake is to suggest that Elrond might try to impede the dwarves on their journey. The film even has Gandalf voice such a concern! Such behavior is utterly inconsistent with Elrond (and Gandalf). The film makes no distinction between the attitudes of the lesser, woodland elves of Mirkwood, and the ‘higher,’ far nobler elves of Rivendell and Lorien. It does a disservice to the characters. So does having the dwarves sneak away from Rivendell like fugitives. In the book, they didn’t — and they wouldn’t have to. There is no particular need to show Gollum unwittingly losing the Ring moments before Bilbo finds it. Worse still, the film replicates a scene from “The Fellowship of the Ring,” with the Ring falling in slow motion through the air and right onto the outstretched finger of a hobbit. There are several other scenes or sequences that deliberately parallel scenes in the LOTR movies. Perhaps it’s self-imitation at the expense of originality? The chase through the goblin city parallels the chase through Moria; Gandalf whispering to a moth to summon help closely mimics his nearly identical escape from Orthanc; and his inspirational words to Bilbo in the trolls’ cave closely echo what he said to Frodo in Moria — though, truth be told, each of those two instances of Gandalf giving comfort and sage counsel to a hobbit works very well as a standout moment in each of the respective films. And “The Hobbit” and “The Fellowship of the Ring” films each have a scene in Bag End in which Gandalf momentarily lets his hidden power (as a maiar, or an angelic spirit clothed in a human form) peek through — his voice grows deeper and imperious, and his physical stature increases. On the plus side, Bag End is lovingly depicted, and the interplay between Gandalf and Bilbo and Bilbo and the dwarves is charming, and sometimes touching. It’s fine to reassemble Elrond, Galadriel, and Saruman (who, with Gandalf, comprise the White Council), but they are given very little to do here. “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is a good movie, but not a great one. For Tolkien purists, it gets some things right, others wrong. It feels like a lesser cousin to ”The Lord of the Rings,” and mayhap that adverse comparison could have been lessened if the filmmakers have strived less assiduously to inflate it to the running length (this first installment of the three part movie is 169 minutes (2h 49m) long) and deeper significance of that larger, epic story. In this case, maybe less really would have been more — had Jackon & Company hewed closer to the source material’s simple, sweet adventure story instead of aiming for a mythic epic.
Note: Empire Theaters Whitby opened the film in several different formats. Peter Jackson’s preferred version, combining 3-D, which this reviewer regards as a pointless gimmick, with a faster frames per second speed than normal films, yielded a strange, too-crystal clear picture reminiscent of yesteryear’s “Viewmaster” slides.
Empire Theatres Comes to the GTA
When AMC made a hasty retreat from Canada in 2012, their 24-screen multiplex in Whitby, Ontario was taken over by Canada’s own Empire Theatres. That chain, a newcomer to the Greater Toronto region, has 2,500 employees and operates 52 theaters across the country, with 434 screens (eight of them IMAX auditoriums). And in Whitby, they operate a facility with two dozen auditoriums, excellent sightlines, spacious seating, and a convenient array of showtimes, including year-round late afternoon matinees. The choice of films at Empire Whitby is good, by suburbia’s unambitious standards; but we would welcome the regular inclusion of festival-type films in the weekly line-up.
On October 1, 2012
“Trouble with the Curve” (USA, 2012) (C+/B-): Clint Eastwood plays Gus, an aging baseball scout, whose failing eyesight prompts his emotionally estranged daughter Mickey (Amy Adams) to tag along on what may be his last talent hunt. While they scrutinize a promising (if highly obnoxious) young hitter, father and daughter warily circle their relationship issues: (A) “Where are you going?” (B) “I’m keeping a safe distance.” (A) “You’re good at that.” And Mickey, who has found refuge in a solitary focus on her career (somewhat unconvincingly as a corporate lawyer), finds the possibility of romance with a charming rival scout (played by Justin Timberlake) they encounter along the way. Despite Eastwood’s natural charisma and Adams’ high likeability quotient, the result is less than the sum of its parts. Too bland, too predictable, too low-key for its own good, it never amounts to much. We see far too much of the abrasive young baseball prospect, whose character serves no purpose in the story; as for the rest, it is inoffensive but pedestrian, lacking strong emotion. It does offer one hilarious line, however. When Adams and Timberlake visit a country music bar, some of the patrons abruptly take to the dance floor with a high-octane stomping of boots that’s enough to knock startled, unsuspecting observers right off their seats. How does Timerlake react to the vigorous clogging? With dry irony: He rhetorically asks, “Too much moonshine?” And it’s a very funny line, in context, giving that brief scene a kick (in this case of the comedic variety) that’s lacking elsewhere in the film.
“Resident Evil: Retribution” (Germany/Canada, 2012) (D-): The fifth film in its series (all of them Canadian co-productions) again pits Milla Jovovich as a kick-ass heroine against legions of zombies and the sinister uber-corporation that (inadvertently?) created them. (The motivations of ‘the suits’ in this series have always defied all comprehension: Isn’t destroying the world bad for business?) In general, this reviewer finds no fulfillment at all in the whole zombie apocalypse genre (with the notable exception of television’s riveting, first-class drama series “The Walking Dead”); but the Resident Evil series has been quite good on occasion. Its third and fourth installments (2007’s “Extinction” and 2010’s “Afterlife”) worked very well as action married to post-apocalyptic survival dramas. But “Retribution” fails to engage. In lieu of a small band of desperate survivors abroad in a hostile, dangerous world, we have Alice and a few fellow combatants engaged in a pointless laboratory experiment run by the relentless Umbrella Corporation. There’s not much to the story; instead we get loud overkill of explosions, gunfire, and monsters on the rampage (among them, ridiculously, Russian zombies on motorcycles!). With most of the world zombified, it is never explained how the evil corporate empire continues to field a private army, complete with a sky full of attack helicopters. Nor is it clear how the evil mutant CEO of Umbrella (a fellow who is inordinately fond of sunglasses) escaped the bomb that seemingly blew him from the sky in the fourth film. However that may be, his place as Alice’s chief nemesis is taken over in this installment by Umbrella’s even nastier computer (affectionately known as ‘the Red Queen’). The computer is intent on killing Alice and her allies; but it makes a less satisfying villain than either the zombies themselves or the power-crazed CEO. And, worst of all, the whole thing plays out in a sprawling test facility at the bottom of the sea — rather like a bigger, less benign version of the holodecks popularized by television’s “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” Setting the conflict in mock-representations of places like Moscow and Tokyo fatally dilutes the authenticity of this story. Alice and Company are reduced to chess pieces on a contrived holographic game-board, and the entire scenario suffers in comparison to the previous two films’ settings in, respectively, the Nevada desert and a besieged L.A. skyscraper. Character development actually mattered in the third and fourth films; here, it does not. All the gunfire, chases, and hand-to-hand conflict quickly become dreary and dull in the absence of characters and relationships worth rooting for. Director Paul W.S. Anderson should have shredded his own script and started from scratch: His “Retribution” is a misfire. And, it’s just plain dumb.
On July 2, 2012
“Brave” (B+): Pixar’s latest animated jewel is set in 10th century Scotland. Its heroine is a plucky teenaged girl with a flowing mane of red hair.
Merida’s parents (voiced by Billy Connolly and Emma Thompson) are monarchs of the land; but their plan to betroth their daughter (beautifully given voice by Kelly Macdonald of “The Girl in the Café,” “No Country for Old Men,” and cable television’s “Boardwalk Empire”) is too fiercely independent to sit still for that, clan-peace or no. In one of the best scenes in the film, Merida competes for her own hand against the eldest born of the other clans. And her remarkable skill with the bow makes her unbeatable in any archery competition. The character of Merida is a compelling one: She’s a wild free-spirit, as brave, bright, resourceful as any male. The protagonist and the setting easily propel “Brave” toward classic territory. What holds it back, however is an over-indulgence in boisterous silliness — in the form, for example, of a trio of mischievous younger siblings, a tendency to lean on exaggerated caricature (in the suitors, their blowhard paters, and an overblown witch, complete with a clichéd talking familiar), and too much emphasis on bears — both friendly and ferocious. Yes, it is an animated movie. Yes, it a children’s movie. But, it need not have been a cartoonish one; and, alas, it is, at times — to its detriment. The plot is not as strong as it should be, and the movie’s juvenile elements hold it back from achieving its full potential. It’s a very good movie as is, but it came painfully close to being a great one.
“MoonriseKingdom” (B+): Director (and co-writer) Wes Anderson is
known for quirky, offbeat films (like “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “The Darjeeling Limited,” “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” and “The Royal Tenenbaums”) and this odd tale of young love is as idiosyncratic as can be. Sporting a dead-pan narration (by Bob Balaban) and a retro-look (that seems older than the film’s 1965 setting), it tells the story of a 12-year old orphan, Sam (Jared Gilman, complete with coonskin hat and geeky glasses) who runs away with the apple of his young eye, Suzy (Kara Hayward) one summer at a fictional 12-mile long island off the coast of New England. (One presumes that their love is platonic, given their tender years, though a passing reference to sexuality leaves the question open.) The girl’s parents (Bill Murray & Frances McDormand); the local scoutmaster (Edward Norton), who runs his troop with military efficiency; and the island’s well-meaning police chief (Bruce Willis) give chase. So does the entire scout troupe, who look as though they are armed for bear. Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, and Harvey Keitel are also along for the ride; but the focus is on the youngsters, and this odd couple is as both as eccentric as they come and unexpectedly affecting. The result is unapologetically quirky. It may not be for everyone, but those who appreciate originality and an oddball sensibility will find it engaging and not a little touching too.
“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” (C): There is something deliciously irresistible about the premise of this story — that Honest Abe,
the tall-as-a-tree-trunk 16th President of the United States, had a secret life as a vampire slayer. Maybe it’s the juxtaposition — suggesting that the man of quiet integrity who rose from humble beginnings (splitting wooden rails) to become a country lawyer, Illinois state legislator, one-term member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and finally leader of a great country during its bloody Civil War, is also a man aggrieved, who is intent on doling out some terrible swift justice with a silver-bladed axe — that so intrigues. But, the film has more than an original premise going for it. (Who knew the Confederacy was in close alliance with a shadowy network of undead plantation owners!) It’s a surprisingly good recreation of its time and place. Better, still, the cast would be very convincing in a straight, vampire-free film about Lincoln. Indeed, newcomer Benjamin Walker is so good as the title character (both as a young and mature man), one longs to see him in an actual biopic of the great man. Dominic Cooper has charisma to spare as his mentor Henry Sturgess; Rufus Sewell isn’t far behind as the chief vampiric nemesis; and Jimmi Simpson, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and Anthony Mackie all make an impression as Lincoln’s first employer, wife, and free black friend, respectively. All that’s good about the film is nearly derailed (along with a freight train in an impossibly frenetic action set-piece) by the overkill of loud extreme-action sequences. Maybe it is perverse to long for more subtlety — and realism — in a movie about a vampire-hunting Lincoln; but, it would have made for a better film. As it is, these vamps have over-sized fangs, and so does the film (based on the novel by Seth Grahame-Smith, the screenwriter responsible for this year’s lamentable parody of “Dark Shadows”). The result has too much CGI, and not enough genuine chills.
On June 12, 2012
“The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” (U.K., 2012) (B-): Assorted British seniors (three men and four women) find themselves in a run-down
residence “for the elderly and beautiful” in India. The rambling place has plenty of character, but it’s no longer the luxurious hostelry it once was. Indeed, one reluctant new guest sums up her new abode with the words, “I’m in hell.” Things aren’t that bad, of course; and, since India is utterly new to most of this septet, they soon find their grand experiment — born in some cases of financial necessity, in others of loneliness and life crises — offers the opportunity to immerse themselves in the strangeness and intoxication of an unfamiliar culture. Some of them find romance; some find friendship; some find a new sense of purpose; and some find themselves. The screenplay is peppered with aphorisms, like: “Nothing happens unless first we dream;” “The person who risks nothing does nothing;” and “The only real failure is the failure to try; and the measure of our success is how we cope with disappointment.” Cliched or not, those sentiments are uplifting ones. But what really elevates this otherwise lightweight story is the presence of so many first-rate British actors, including (but not limited to) Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson, and Bill Nighy. The hotel’s boyishly enthusiastic young proprietor is played by Dev Patel, who underwhelms here, just as he did as the lead in “Slumdog Millionaire.” In the end, the story can be summed-up the words of one of its characters, “This is a new and different world. The challenge is to cope with it — and not just cope, but thrive.”
“Men in Black 3” (USA) (C): The third installment in the comedic sci-fi/action franchise offers more of the same mix of oddball aliens, outlandish gadgets, and bantering agents (Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones) that we saw in the 1997 original and 2002 sequel. This time round, Smith’s character (“J”) has to travel to the past to save his partner’s life. The 60’s version of “K” is nicely played by Josh Brolin, who does a crackerjack job of channeling Jones’ deadpan manner, hangdog expression, and emotional minimalism. Emma Thomson is along for the ride in a supporting role, and she’s a luminous pleasure to behold. Michael Stuhlberg also makes an impression as a gentle alien who likes baseball. The result is mildly entertaining summer fare.
On June 5, 2012
“Snow White and the Huntsman” (B): The popular European fairy tale (the version best known to us may be the one recounted by the Brothers
Grimm in 1812) gets a dark grown-up retelling in this surprisingly good film. It is Rupert Sanders’ feature film directorial debut. Charlize Theron steals the show as the evil Queen. Beautiful, imperious, and utterly ruthless, she is a magnificent villain. And she gets both a name (Ravenna) and a back-story which creates a history and rationale for her lethal brand of blonde
ambition. You can almost feel sorry for her at times, and that makes her a more vital character. There’s a feminist subtext about the exploitation of woman, and Ravenna radiates visceral anger at the twin indignities of women being used and discarded by men and women being dependent upon their beauty and youthfulness for their transient power. Mind you, that hardly makes Ravenna an advocate for women other than herself. On the
contrary, she is prone to draining them of their life force at regular intervals. Her predations bring to mind the more gruesome (and less efficacious) crimes of Elizabeth Bathory (1560-1640), the real-life vampiric Hungarian countess who is believed to have murdered 650 young women in a sadistic, and, needless to say, delusory, quest for prolonged youth and beauty. Kristen Stewart is certainly not the film’s strong point as the eponymous Snow White. The actress’s mopey, somewhat slack-jawed, persona in the “Twilight” movies grated, and she’s much the same here as the heroine who needs to grow from victim to fugitive to Joan of Arc precursor. They needed someone with more charisma and range. Why not Amanda Seyfried, who could give Theron a run for her money in the beauty department? However, Stewart is adequate and doesn’t sink the picture. On the plus side, there is an octet of British talent in the diminutive persons of eight dwarves, among them, Ian McShane, Ray Winstone, Bob Hoskins, Eddie Marsan, Toby Jones, and Nick Frost; and these dwarves, rather like Tolkien’s, are fierce folk rather than cuddly. The castle straddles the seashore; there’s a suitably frightening and dank Dark Forest; and there’s a surprisingly moving enchanted fairy realm, complete with tiny fae-folk astride woodland creatures and a majestic white stag that’s the personification of Nature. The Queen has a loyal henchman in the form of a cringing brother Finn (played by Sam Spruell) who seems almost sympathetic one moment, then more loathsome than his powerful sister the next. (Opinions will vary on his page-boy hairstyle.) Chris Hemsworth (the Australian lead from “Thor”) plays the Huntsman, a role that is filled out to leading man proportions here, and he somehow brings to mind the actor Josh Brolin in look and manner. Sam Claflin is likewise solid as the other potential rival for Snow White’s heart, the princely William. If you are partial to fantasy and fairy tales for grown-ups, “Snow White and the Woodsman” should be on your must-see list this summer. Rumor has it that the filmmakers have a trilogy in mind; if so, let’s hope we’ll see more of Charlize Theron’s coldly fierce Ravenna!
“The Avengers” (C-/C): The blockbuster hit of the summer of 2012 left this reviewer wondering what all the fuss is about. Coming from
writer/director Joss Whedon, the man behind the witty, emotionally-involving television series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel,” and “Firefly,” this return to the big screen lacks the smart writing and sheer force of personality that made those series so memorable. Instead, we get an assemblage of superheroes, to wit: Robert Downey Jr.’s Ironman, Mark Ruffalo’s Dr. Bruce Banner and his Hulk alter ego, Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, Scarlet Johansson’s Black Widow, Chris Evans’ Captain America, and Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye. They gather, talk, exchange rivalrous quips, capture the chief villain (Tom Hiddleston’s enthusiastically troublesome Loki), incompetently preside over his escape (from a ridiculously over-sized flying aircraft carrier) , and finally become a team in the all-out smack-down that occupies the last half hour or so of this 143 minute movie. The film gets points for trying to balance the action scenes with some character-driven moments. But, in the end, we don’t really connect with these characters. The most human moments come courtesy of Ruffalo and Gwyneth Paltrow, though their characters never meet in the film. The big action section has poor old New York City buffeted between alien invaders of unknown provenance (and sketchy motivations) and the heroes trying to fend them off. That section works well as simple action, though it has the customary overblown surfeit of computer-generated objects in motion and incessant explosions. However, a key plot device — involving a mysterious glowing energy cube called “the Tesseract” — is pointless gobbledygook. The result is an overlong routine spectacle which, ironically, is better at its action stuff (however familiar and monotonous such fare has become in recent years) than it is at its nobler (but not too successful) attempt to lend its far-fetched band of super-powered brothers some real humanity and substance.
On May 15, 2012
The Coffin was Chained for a Reason: Turning Gothic High Romance into Dreadful Low Comedy — A Review of Tim Burton’s Parody of “Dark Shadows”
© By John Arkelian
“Dark Shadows” (USA, 2012) (D): Based on a television and motion picture franchise that spans nearly 50 years, Tim Burton’s foray into the
world of “Dark Shadows” is a tawdry counterfeit populated by cartoon-like caricatures whose only resemblance to the characters whose names they bear is nomenclature. There are two ways of assessing this muddle: Is it worthy to bear the name Dark Shadows? Or, is it a good movie in its own right, when divorced from expectations arising from its franchise antecedents? The answer to both questions is a resounding no! The original Dark Shadows was a unique amalgam of Gothic romance, suspense, and the supernatural. It aired on weekday afternoons for five years (1966-71) and made a superstar of its
Canadian leading man, the classically-trained stage actor Jonathan Frid. The series had many firsts to its credit. It was the first overtly sympathetic portrayal of a vampire. It was the first time the Gothic romance genre formed the basis of a television series. It was the first time a repertory company of players played multiple roles in stories that imaginatively crisscrossed the centuries. And it was the first time a daytime television series made the leap (in 1970 and again in 1971) into feature films. After its detour to the big screen, Dark Shadows was remade by its creator, Dan Curtis, for prime time television in 1991, with an entirely new cast. Despite superlative
players, strong writing, and handsome production values, only a seemingly unlucky 13 hours of the 1991 incarnation of Dark Shadows were made and aired. But the ‘Shadow-verse,’ to coin a phrase, lived on in the ardent loyalty of its fans — through a myriad of books, DVDs (including all 1, 225 episodes of the original series), soundtrack CDs, new audio dramas, conventions, and more. An abortive attempt to bring Dark Shadows back to television, with yet another cast, in 2004 failed in the form of a never-aired pilot.
Then along came director Tim Burton and his frequent cinematic leading man Johnny Depp. Both claimed to be fans of the original series. But they have
perpetrated a fraud upon those who relished the characters, setting, and tone of the original: In place of High Romance, we get Low Comedy, a succession of sophomoric ‘gags’ which will not even amuse those looking for comedy. The result was, in truth, all too predictable. After all, the grotesque, the garish, the unsophisticated, and the inane are mother’s milk to Tim Burton, and, come to that, to Johnny Depp, too. The cartoon-comedy approach they inexplicably superimpose on Dark Shadows is utterly alien to everything Dark Shadows is, making it abysmally clear that the object of Burton/Depp’s so-called “re-imagining” was to make funof Dark Shadows. What is less clear is the point of spoofing Dark Shadows: Younger viewers won’t get the “joke,” as they won’t know the original material; while fans of the original and 1991 versions will (rightly) be offended.
The problems run deep here, poisoning the tap-root of Dark Shadows from
the conceptual stage onwards. In discussing the ungainly thing they have wrought (like a cuckoo laying its alien egg in another species’ nest) Messieurs Burton and Depp keep stressing the “soap-opera” tone of their film, as if it captures the supposed true essence of the original daytime series. But their premise is flawed in two respects. They appear to equate soap-operas with outright hokiness and phony melodrama, whereas, in fact, those attributes are not universal constants for the medium of soap-operas. More to the point, however, it is a persistent misnomer to call Dark Shadows a soap-opera at all. That genre is usually understood to mean programs (no longer confined to daytime) which focus on marriages, infidelities, catastrophic illnesses, and other assorted domestic imbroglios. Dark Shadows had other things on its mind — reinventing tropes from the horror, mystery, and Gothic romance genres, as it re-imagined and retold stories inspired by Dracula, Frankenstein, The Turn of the Screw, The Portrait of Dorian Grey, Rebecca, The Lottery, and a host of other sources. Its
half-hour daily installments (with five new episodes each week) and cliff-hanger endings more closely resembled the serial drama (like Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, or the 19th century print serial Varney the Vampyre) than it ever did a conventional soap-opera.
It is true that the original Dark Shadows was often clumsy in execution. Despite extremely well-done costumes and sets, engaging characters, and engrossing plotting, it was shot “live to tape,” so stumbles by the cast (both literal and figurative) made it to air. The acting by some cast members strayed into melodrama at times. (In Frid’s case, his charismatic presence and acting skills overcame his occasional hesitation over hastily learned lines. Indeed, Frid has cited his hesitation as an actor as part of his character’s appeal.) But, sporadic awkwardness notwithstanding, the original series was meant to be taken seriously. And that’s precisely how it was received by its 20 million-strong daily viewers. As Jonathan Frid was fond of saying, the clumsiness of execution was relegated to unimportance whenever things coalesced, as they often did. At such moments, the original Dark Shadows conjured a kind of enchanted Brigadoon, a Neverland of the imagination on the rocky coast of Maine, with tragedy, suspense, and star-crossed love in lieu of song and dance. The new movie offers a bad bargain, giving its audience deliberately over-the-top melodrama, gaudy computer-generated effects (like furniture coming alive), and juvenile
humor of the
slapstick variety in place of any semblance of substance. Burton’s flimsy parody barely has a plot; what is there is trite and dull. Its characters make no impression at all. None of these caricatures engage the viewer one whit.
In interviews promoting the new movie, Depp keeps referring to Jonathan Frid, who memorably created the role of the tragic, tormented, mostly well-intentioned vampire Barnabas Collins on the original series. The references grate as much asthey lack good taste. Depp only met Frid once, for a few brief moments on the set of the new film. Referring to him implies that the new movie was intended as an homage to Frid, when, in fact, such a claim rings hollow. The parody they have made mocks and disparages a character Frid always invested with great dignity and respect. Saying, as Burton & Depp have, that Frid ‘passed the baton’ to them is to mislead those who know no better. Frid was induced to appear in the new film (with three other cast-mates from the original series) in a walk-on that lasts all of a split-second; but his momentary presence in the film in no way constitutes approval of the film. As a matter of fact, Frid did not see a script of the movie; and he had no inkling that it would bear no resemblance whatsoever to Dark Shadows. Frid, who died on April 14th, a month before the film’s release, would have been appalled at the inane spectacle that shamelessly calls itself Dark Shadows.
In promoting the new film, Depp describes his conception of Barnabas Collins as “a classic monster” who has “a bit of Nosferatu” in him. And that’s what he resembles in the film: With talon-like fingers, an outlandishly pasty face, dark shadows around his eyes, blue shades that look like they belong on an attention-seeking pop-celebrity, an overly spiky hairdo, an oddly effeminate expression, a jarringly out-of-place fedora, and a flamboyantly green coat, Depp’s faux Barnabas Collins is one part Michael Jackson, one part Nosferatu, one part Edward Scissorhands, and one part gay mime. He is also possessed of a highly affected, wildly exaggerated formality of speech that is fraudulently meant to resemble the way real people talked in the late 18th century. It misses the point, utterly. Frid played Barnabas as a man, albeit a man with an overwhelming problem — not as a monster. That, and the palpable tension and unease Frid’s portrayal conveyed, is what connected his character to viewers so powerfully.
Assessing the new film, too many critics have inexplicably made excuses for its barely-there plot by saying, “Oh, it would have been too difficult to
squeeze over twelve hundred episodes into one movie.” But why on earth would anyone try to do that in the first place? Talk about straw-man arguments! The original Dark Shadows was not one story; it was many, taking place over the course of more than two centuries. Filmmakers approaching that body of material now need only have extracted one storyline — exactly as was done with the earlier motion pictures and with the 1991 television miniseries. Dan Curtis, the man who literally dreamt up Dark Shadows in 1966, died before the new movie entered production. Curtis had a colorful way of dismissing what he regarded as substandard work as the product of “no talent sons-of-bitches.” One wonders what he would have made of the mockery that is Burton’s shamelessly counterfeit Dark Shadows. Curtis used to (immodestly) insist that other would-be interpreters of Dark Shadows — or its particular Gothic sensibility — just didn’t “get” its very specific genre-niche the way he did. That dramatically overstated the case; but Curtis’ assertion
seems downright prophetic when applied (posthumously) to the specific case of the Burton parody.
Fans of the original Dark Shadows will attend the new movie out of morbid curiosity. They will note references to little details from the original (like passing mentions of Maggie Evans, the Blue Whale pub, and Windcliff Sanitorium), but a commonality of nomenclature is the only thing this movie has in common with the past incarnations of the Dark Shadows mythos. In place of a realistic world, we are offered cartoon characters domiciled in overblown sets. This carnival ‘funhouse’ of a Collinwood — with statuary that comes alive (in which the odious 1999 version of “The Haunting” springs to mind) and fireplaces with graven wolf figures that howl (like sets from a poor man’s version of 1999’s “The Mummy”) — is no fun at all. Why? Simply because it is so obviously fake. Why not opt instead for an actual heritage mansion (like New York’s Lyndhurst, Rhode Island’s Seaview Terrace, or any number of estates in England, where the film was actually shot) as a more realistic setting? The fakery of the characters, however, is a stake though the heart of this wannabe Addams Family or Munsters imitation. Not only does Burton gravely (no pun intended!) mistake Dark Shadows for something that’s meant to be funny; he also masquerades self-indulgent juvenile pranks for genuine humor. We get repeated instances of the vampire, who has been locked in a coffin for 200 years, reacting like a fish out of water to the trappings of 20th century life. His encounters with automobiles, televisions, lava lamps, and fast-food eateries adorned with neon signs are all played for would-be laughs; but it’s all the same tired joke in serial repetition. The same goes for the vampire’s curious succession of impromptu sleeping arrangements (hanging upside down and bat-like from the frame of a canopied bed, amidst the towels in an armoire, and in an empty cardboard box). The word for such antics is “dumb,” not “funny.” And setting the movie in 1972 amounts to nothing but a pointless gimmick, designed to provide grist for poking fun at the manners and mores of that decade. Dark Shadows as social commentary? Hardly. As a filmmaker, Burton reaches for fruit that is closer to the ground, especially favoring all that is overripe and under-nourishing. His mockery of Dark Shadows will leave fans of the franchise shaking their heads in dismay. Those who are not already familiar with the Dark Shadows mythos will know only that they have wasted their money on another of Hollywood’s endless succession of inane would-be comedies. It’s time to close the coffin on Dark Shadows until an abler successor to Dan Curtis comes along. For now, the best that can be said about this misfire of Dark Shadows is that it is instantly forgettable.
Copyright © May 2012 by John Arkelian.
Editor’s Note: For a feature article on the history of “Dark Shadows,” see Artsforum’s Featured Film Reviews section at this link: http://artsforum.ca/film/featured-film-reviews
On August 30.11
“The Help” (C+): The plight of black women in America — specifically those who served as nannies and maids in the Deep South of the 1960s — is the subject of this ensemble character drama based on the novel by Kathryn Stackett. A study in contrasts (and occasionally cliches), it juxtaposes the decent, sensible, and long-suffering women who do all the cooking, cleaning, and surrogate mothering with the spoiled young white women who employ them — and callously discard them. The socialites are content to give their children over to effectively being raised by their black “help,” but heaven forbid that a fellow human being of a darker skin tone should use the same household bathroom. The move by the film’s most shamelessly obnoxious character to segregate domestic toilets is a case-study in the utter absurdity of bigotry. But it inadvertently also signals a persistent problem with the film — namely, its displeasing inconsistency of tone. At times, it plays as social satire. Sometimes it’s a drama about racism, sometimes it’s an uplifting story about rising above injustice with sheer determination and pluck, and at other times it’s a semi-comedic study in stereotypes. The two black leads (Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer) fare best in terms of coming across as well-rounded characters, though even they tread very near cliches of, respectively, the wise or recklessly stubborn black woman. Davis’ dignified Abileen is the story’s primary voice, and she starts the film with the words, “Mama was a maid, gramma was a house-slave… Looking after white babies, that’s what I do.” One of the film’s most endearing relationships is that between Spencer’s Minny and her new-employer Celia (played by Hollywood’s new go-to girl Jessica Chastain) — a sexpot, with a proverbial good heart, who is despised by her fellow whites and hopeless at the domestic duties she has taken on with marriage. For her part, as the leading white protagonist, Emma Stone is a little distracting in the role of the aspiring writer and one-woman social conscience (Skeeter), simply by virtue of Stone’s hitherto exclusive background in film comedy. And the usually very good Bryce Dallas Howard grates as Hilly, the leading light of this Mississippi town’s bigots. The fault is not all hers — the role is too strident, too over the top, and just too much. Ditto for the story’s oft-repeated recourse to an extremely crude ick-factor in connection with a novel recipe for pies. Allison Janey, Sissy Spacek, and Cicely Tyson round out the cast, but, to one degree or another, all three seem to be playing caricatures rather than fully-formed characters. “The Help” fell well short of expectations for this reviewer, never approaching the real emotional power of its much better kin, films like “The Secret Life of Bees” (2008) and “Fried Green Tomatoes” (1991).
On March 15.11
“Red Riding Hood” (C/C+): For a movie which retells a popular fairy tale for a more or less grown-up audience, it is fitting to open with the words, “We lived on the edge of a dark forest…” At the risk of sounding unduly wolfish, large eyes really are all the better for drinking in the beauty of Amanda Seyfried’s (“Mamma Mia!”) big blue eyes and golden tresses. She’s the heroine of the piece, a plucky young woman who loves one man but is betrothed (by her parents) to another. As fate would have it, both young man genuinely care for her, and a sort of love triangle ensues — inspired, mayhap, by director Catherine Hardwicke’s direction of the first “Twilight” movie. “Red Riding Hood” is a tad better than the awkward “Twilight” series, but it’s doubtless aimed at a similar demographic, namely teens and tweens. The cast is hampered by a mediocre screenplay and heavy-handed direction, which, for example, has everyone overreact to a nice line (“You have been deceived: The wolf lives here, in the village!”) by staring oh-so-suspiciously at everyone else. Just as bad, the arrival of an itinerant witch-hunter (Gary Oldman), complete with his own troop of mostly African mercenaries (on loan from the despot of Libya maybe?) and an elephantine instrument of torture, has one of the soldiers train his crossbow upon unarmed town-folk for no discernible reason other than to cheaply conjure up some false menace. Many questions go unanswered: Why does Valerie’s grandmother (played by Julie Christie, of all people) live alone in an isolated forest cabin? And why does she wrap herself in an immense wolf-skin so often? Why do men hunting a deadly beast divide into ever smaller (and more vulnerable) groups the closer they get to danger? And why do all the trees sport two-foot long spikes on their trunks? Shortcomings aside, the film looks lush and lovely. A village bacchanal starts okay but anachronistically degenerates into a medieval version of an outdoor disco. Likewise, the screenplay overdoes the whole paranoia thing — another instance of a good idea that’s executed without adequate subtlety and finesse. But the film does have a scary villain in the form of a ferocious werewolf; and it has a competent cast, with Virginia Madsen, BIlly Burke, Shiloh Fernandez, and Max Irons — in addition to those already mentioned. And, for sci-fi buffs, there are a pair of familiar faces from television’s “Stargate SG-1” (Michael Shanks) and “Battlestar Galactica” (Michael Hogan). Both of those television series were filmed in Canada’s beautiful British Columbia, and so was this film.
“Battle: Los Angeles” (B): A world-weary Marine staff-sergeant (a convincing performance by Aaron Eckhart) on the verge of leaving the military is abruptly recalled when the city of Los Angeles suddenly comes under attack. Before long much of the city has been overrun, and our reluctant hero is assigned the task of leading a small group of soldiers behind enemy lines in a risky attempt to rescue civilians who’ve been stranded there. The result is a surprisingly exciting lost-patrol story, with a band of men and women desperately trying to fight their way to safety against overwhelming odds. But there’s an intriguing wrinkle: The invaders are not of this world. They are part of an alien armada that has made earthfall adjacent to many of our world’s major cities. In a nice touch, however, we mostly only get distant or brief glimpses of these alien attackers. To its credit, the film concentrates on the human defenders — and the fear they have to overcome, the despair they have to ward off, and the courage they have to muster. It plays out like a gripping war movie, more than a science fiction drama, and it is much better than the other recent aliens in L.A. film (2010’s “Skyline”) thanks to strong performances from Eckhart, Michelle Rodriguez, Bridget Moynahan, and the rest of the story’s lost patrol.
On January 2.11
“The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” (B-/B): The third installment of C.S. Lewis’ seven book “Chronicles of Narnia” series is a swashbuckling marine adventure, set on the dragon-bowed ship of the title. This time, the two youngest Pevensie siblings — Lucy (a still-precocious Georgie Henley) and Edmund (Skandar Keynes) are joined by an obnoxious younger cousin named Eustace (Will Poulter). Time passes differently in our world and in Narnia, and the young man, Caspian (Ben Barnes), newly come into his inheritance in the previous story is now a young king on a quest to find several missing lords who were lost at sea long ago. Lucy makes an engaging, plucky, and sympathetic protagonist, while Edmund has gained maturity since the previous outings (2005’s “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” and 2008’s “Prince Caspian”). Their cousin, of whom we’ll more in the next outing (“The Silver Chair”) is mayhap a tad too whiny and disagreeable (though such, admittedly, is his nature, initially, in the book). But the real star of the show is the valiant warrior mouse Reepicheep (voiced by Simon Pegg), a brave, noble soul who seeks his heart’s desire in the unknown uttermost east of the world — Aslan’s Country. “We have nothing, if not belief,” he earnestly declares. C.S.Lewis was an eloquent advocate for the Christian faith, and his Narnia books were, in part, allegories for Christianity, with the Great Lion Aslan being a compelling manifestation of Christ in the world of Narnia and his “country” signifying Heaven. The films downplay that intended religious subtext a little, but those who are looking for it will still find it. Aslan makes fewer appearances in this story and one of them — as a lamb (as in Lamb of God) — is omitted altogether; but, as voiced by Liam Neeson, he remains a numinous figure that combines power, great goodness, and gentleness. His appearances on screen, along with the aforementioned Reepicheep, are easily the film’s high points. On the other hand, the film needlessly deviates too often from Lewis’ story, by, for example: inventing a mysterious fog that abducts people, escalating latent rivalry between Edmund and Caspian into outright physical conflict, and extending one character’s transformation into dragon-form much longer than the book did. The underlying flaw that precipitates those missteps (and others) is the filmmakers’ evident desire to ratchet-up the action and the use of special effects (a struggle with a sea serpent becomes a major extended set-piece instead of the much briefer encounter of the book). Action and effects are never as interesting as character development, setting, and genuine emotion. Those latter ingredients are still present, but they are diluted here. And, the whole story has a choppy, episodic feel, as though it is uncomfortable about spending quiet time with its characters between swordplay and derring-do. In that respect, the filmmakers have rather missed the figurative boat. Still, the result is a must for friends of Narnia (amongst whom this reviewer most assuredly counts himself), and it will entertain others as well. But it falls short of its source material.
“True Grit” (A): Siblings Ethan and Joel Coen (“A Serious Man”) have collaborated again as co-writers and co-directors of this second adaptation of Charles Portis’ novel about a iron-willed 14-year girl’s implacable quest to avenge her murdered father. The original (1969) film had Kim Darby as Mattie Ross, John Wayne as the one-eyed, oft-inebriated U.S. marshal Rooster Cogburn (Wayne won an Oscar for his performance), and singer Glen Campbell as the self-satisfied Texas Ranger who rounds out the odd trio. Directed by Henry Hathaway, the original film was an instant classic of strong characterization. The remake is just as good, with newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, Jeff Bridges, and Matt Damon in the leads. Fresh from his Academy Award-winning role in “Crazy Heart,” Bridges is note-perfect as the grizzled lawman, about whom someone says, “He is a pitiless man and fear don’t enter into his thinking.” Fear doesn’t slow him down, but drink and sloth may — until he meets his match in the no-nonsense Mattie. Despite her youth, she doesn’t suffer fools gladly. And she can more than hold her own in horse-trading: Her verbal joust with a local businessman, Col. Stonehill, is worth the price of admission all by itself, with Dakin Matthews channeling Strother Martin’s voice and manner from the original, as a man who has come face to face with an immovable object in the form of the righteously unyielding Mattie. Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper are likewise very good in the roles originally played by Jeff Corey and Robert Duvall. A brief encounter with a man on horseback attired in a bearskin is gratuitously odd, without any discernible reason for its inclusion. But that’s a pretty minor misstep in what is easily one of the best films of the year — and a worthy companion piece to its estimable 1969 predecessor. Highly recommended!
On November 2.10
“The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” [“Lufslottet som sprangdes”] (Sweden, 2009) (B-/B): The second film about the bisexual Goth-girl computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) and her middle-aged journalist ally Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), “The Girl who Played with Fire” wasn’t as good as the first, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” and this third, and final, installment continues the downward trend. The problems here are exactly the same as they were in in the second film. Indeed, this film is really just a continuation of the second one, picking-up exactly where its predecessor left off, instead of being a self-contained story on its own. Once again the two leads spend most of their time apart, robbing us of the best thing about the first film – the uneasy interactions between this very mismatched couple. What’s more, not only are they mostly apart, Lisbeth is mostly confined to a hospital bed or to a jail cell, robbing her character of the ability to be a mover and shaker. (She’s reduced to shaking up her wardrobe and hairdo in time for a head-turning court appearance.) Once more, key villains (a badly scarred ex-KGB type, who just happens to be Lisbeth’s bad father and his hulking henchman) play like something out of a James Bond film: They’re overblown and unrealistic. The unstoppable henchman, for instance, not only feels no pain (no Clintonesque speeches for him, we fear), he also brutally kills whomever he encounters — against all reason and for no reason at all. That’s an artificial way to construct a pre-packaged menace. The scheming security service men are likewise somewhat contrived (and a geriatric assassin narrowly skirts the precipice of excess), but not as much as a rival group, sprung upon us in deux ex machina fashion to serve as unlikely allies for the crusading journalists at Millennium. Among the improbabilities, would a security service cell that’s so clandestine that even its own government doesn’t know it exists deal with a prying pair of journalists by sending two Balkan thugs armed with machine guns to a restaurant in broad daylight? (That’s not exactly in the spy’s playbook under low-profile field operations.) The second and third films were originally made for television (unlike the first) and that may explain the lack of focus in the plot, a pace that meanders, and a failure to relentlessly build suspense the way the first film did. Like the second film, this one has too many secondary characters and subplots. The more they’re on stage, the less we see of the the two leads. And, diminished screen time notwithstanding, it’s the two of them that make this film worth seeing.
“Conviction” (B-/B): This true story of the close bond between brother and sister opens in 1980 Massachusetts. When Kenny (Sam Rockwell) is sentenced to life imprisonment for a brutal murder he did not commit, Betty Ann (Hilary Swank) devotes her life to vindicating (and freeing) him. That means finishing her high school education as a mature student, getting a college degree, and doing the hard-slogging of law school. Years pass, but she reaches her objective: As a freshly-minted lawyer, she takes personal charge of her brother’s case and hits upon the prospect of DNA evidence (if any survives 18 years after the trial) as her brother’s last, best chance. There aren’t any real surprises here; it’s a straightforward account with solid performances by the leads. Rockwell is particularly affecting as the impetuous hothead who gets the blame for something he didn’t do. Minnie Driver is a standout as Betty Ann’s fellow mature law student and ally, in a cast that also features Juliette Lewis, Melissa Leo (of “Frozen River”), Bailee Madison, and Clea Duvall.
On October 26.10
“Stone” (B+/A-): This offbeat character drama earns its credentials for being well-off the beaten trail in its opening flashback scene which juxtaposes a buzzing bee trapped on the wrong side of a window with rapidly escalating domestic tension: When a young wife (played by Pepper Binkley, who makes a strong impression) announces that she wants to leave her husband, he responds by threatening to throw their sleeping child out the second floor window (“You think I won’t?” he barks.) — an unmistakable sign that this is one protagonist who’s capable of acting very badly indeed. And that’s exactly what Jack Mabry (Robert DeNiro) does years later as a parole officer. His achingly unhappy wife (now played by Frances Conroy) is still, ever so reluctantly, with him; he’s mere weeks away from retirement; and he’s in the process of becoming mesmerized, seduced, and corrupted by an inmate (Edward Norton) seeking parole and that convicted murderer’s sexpot wife (Milla Jovovich). She’s trouble with a capital “T” — a seeming nymphomaniac who’s not shy about stalking her prey, and she’s probably crazy, too. Even her imprisoned spouse calls her “an alien from another world.” His own behavior is nearly as unpredictable: When first we see him, Norton’s character sports a ‘corn-row do’ and speaks (inexplicably, as he’s a southern white man) like an inner city black. He’s a born manipulator, and he’s frighteningly good at what he does. But things change directions unexpectedly when he suddenly embraces spirituality and claims to experience a strange epiphany. That change of tact suits the film, given its implicit preoccupation with the notion of sin. The result is riveting, oft strange, and subtly disturbing. It leaves you with questions, but, in this case, that’s a good thing. It’s a film that doesn’t take prisoners: You’re apt to like it very much or loathe it. For this reviewer, it is, simply, one of the best films of the year.
“Hereafter” (B-/B): Three separate stories form the narrative in director’s Clint Eastwood’s look at the borderlands between this life and what lies beyond. One character is a French journalist (played by Cecile De France) who barely escapes death during the catastrophic tsunami that ravages the coast of Thailand. Haunted by her near-death vision of a hereafter, she finds her new preoccupation getting in the way of preexisting relationships and career. Meanwhile, Stateside, a man (Matt Damon) with genuine psychic abilities — abilities he has come to regard as a curse — struggles to have a normal life. But his involuntary connection with what lies beyond the borders of this life imperils his budding relationship with a woman who has just entered his life (played to strong effect by Bryce Dallas Howard). And, in Britain, a young boy who loses his twin brother (Frankie and George McLaren share the twin roles) to a tragic accident and his mother to drug addiction cannot come to terms with either loss. The paths of these three characters converge at the end in a story that’s above average in quality but less compelling that one hopes. The tsunami scene gets things going in very strong dramatic fashion, but most of what follows feels overly casual in pace by comparison.
On October 19.10
“Case 39” (USA/Canada) (C-): When a child services worker (Renee Zellweger) rescues a seemingly victimized little girl (Canada’s Jodelle Ferland) from cold parents who seem intent on doing her harm (the grim pair are stuffing the child into an oven when the authorities break down the doors!), she’s so drawn to the child that she takes her to heart and home, pulling strings to serve as her foster parent. But, it soon becomes apparent that the birth-parents had the right idea after all. Young Lilith (a name like that is a sure giveaway) is not human at all; rather, she’s something demonic, and she preys on her victims by messily destroying everyone they care about. People start dying in gruesome ways (among them, an extremely ugly death by bees). Lilith sheds the good girl act pretty quickly (in fact, far too quickly) for the supernaturally bad seed she is. Despite a good cast (with Canada’s Callum Keith Rennie and Britain’s Ian McShane in supporting roles), the result is an overly-obvious horror story about something malevolent masquerading as something innocent. A wag might also regard it as a cautionary tale about the risks of getting emotionally involved with your work! It is creepy in its unpleasant way, but it gets almost all of its scares through the terribly blunt instruments of CGI effects and things jumping out of shadows unexpectedly. Leaving more to our imagination would, as always, have yielded a better film.
“Secretariat” (C/C+): Although it opens with poetry (“In frenzied excitement, he eats up the ground; he cannot stand still when the trumpet sounds”), this rather pedestrian telling of the story of the champion racehorse ‘Big Red’ (better known as ‘Secretariat’) never achieves poetic heights. It generates some ephemeral excitement and inspiration in a couple of the big races (Secretariat defied the odds to win the coveted ‘Triple Crown,’ becoming, in the view of many, “the greatest racehorse who ever lived” in the process), and there’s a nice scene of eye contact between woman (Diane Lane) and horse. But, otherwise, the film has a tendency toward the maudlin, the melodramatic, and the predictable. As storytelling, it feels both episodic and self-conscious. Its twin stories, of a former ‘housewife’ and an underrated horse both making good, tend to lack subtlety and depth. Emotionally, they just fall flat more often than not: It aims to stir us, but it only attains that goal momentarily, despite some good actors, like Scott Glenn, James Cromwell, Fred Thompson, and John Malcovich (who is not entirely convincing as a flamboyantly dressed Quebecois racehorse trainer).
“It’s Kind of a Funny Story” (B-/B): A teenage boy (Keir Gilchrist) contemplating suicide on a bridge instead checks himself into the psychiatric ward of a New York hospital, where he learns to function in a strange little microcosm of society, with the help of a wisecracking mentor (the oddly engaging and sometimes just plain odd Zack Galifianakis) and a lovely new romantic interest (Emma Roberts, who made a big impression in “Lymelife”). The result is a quirky kind of comedy with heart, one that favors dry, sometimes mildly dark, humor over the more rambunctious variant that befouls most so-called comedies. A teenage variation on “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” territory, with just a hint of the hip, self-aware irreverence of “Scott Pilgrim versus the World,” the film succeeds with its combination of eccentric tone and affecting lead characters.
On October 5.10
“Let Me In” (B+): A 12 year old boy (“The Road’s” Kodi Smit-McPhee) is
unhappy at home and very badly bullied at school. Friendless and alone, he spends the early evenings (before and after supper with his single-parent mother) alone in the deserted playground of his small apartment complex, until one night he is approached by a strange, sad girl, who walks through the snow with bare feet, oblivious to the cold. Abby (played by Chloe Maretz in her second controversially violent role, after the superhero parody “Kick-Ass”) and a reclusive man presumed to be her father (indie-fav Richard Jenkins of “The Visitors” fame) are Owen’s new neighbors. Abby warns Owen that “I can’t be your friend,” but they become just that — in a remarkably poignant relationship between two pre-adolescent kids. But one of these twelve year-olds just happens to be a vampire! Abby seems to long for the normalcy, friendship, and connections to other people that we all crave. But she’s got other cravings, too — uncontrollable ones. Hollywood’s remake of the critically acclaimed Swedish film “Let the Right One In” is a remarkable film in its own right. What’s powerful about it is the tentative, wildly unconventional friendship between this boy and girl. Their gentle, quiet scenes together have a remarkable tenderness. But make no mistake about it: Abby is a monster in her spare time, and the film has a split personality. The relationship between the “kids” is poignantly bittersweet, but when Abby’s vampiric nature asserts itself around her victims, things get brutally violent, savage, and gruesome. It’s hard to say if this film, or the Swedish original, could have entirely done without the violently bloody stuff, but it’s clear, to this reviewer at least, that the film would have been even better if the deadly predation had been handled more subtly, by leaving more to our imagination. Abby’s attacks are more like those of a werewolf or beserker than a vampire in their brutal ferocity; and the use of special effects to depict her unnatural abilities to spring at victims and scramble up trees are distracting overkill — in more ways than one. As things stand, the film is at once sweet, disturbing, and creepy; and, it is one of the best films of the year so far.
“The Social Network” (B): The rise to obscenely excessive wealth of the youthful founder of the popular online social networking site ‘Facebook’ is structured around the lawsuits by his disgruntled ex-partners and other associates. Consequently, most of it is told in flashbacks. What’s surprising is that the story of a monumentally obnoxious young man (he’s a callow fellow with no social skills whatsoever) actually engages our interest and (mild) sympathies. Jess Eisenburg (“Zombieland”) tackles the unenviable task of giving some hints of depth and feeling to an arrogant, hyper-fast talking, and utterly self-involved computer nerd. Early in the film he’s told by the young beauty who has inexplicably been keeping company with him that, ‘Girls won’t dislike you because you’re a nerd but because you’re an asshole.” That goes double for viewers of the film: It’s hard for us to sympathize with such an instantly unlikable character; but, in the end, we do glimpse the needy, friendless adolescent that lurks beneath the outwardly self-confident tycoon. The actress who so accurately sums up that character’s shortcomings is Rooney Mara. Despite the brevity of her time on screen, she makes a strong impression – with character, conviction, and, yes, beauty. That bodes well for the upcoming North American remake of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” in which she has landed the plum role of Lisbeth Salander. (Mara also made an impression in a small role in the funny “Youth in Revolt” as a randy coed named only ‘Taggarty.’) Other members of the cast — especially Andrew Garfield, who plays Zuckerberg’s one-time business partner as a wrongly sidelined and betrayed straight-shooter; Armie Hammer, who plays both of the rich, athletic Winklevoss twins (which the Zuckerman character dubs as ‘the Winklevi’ in an amusing take on plural forms of Latin); Justin Timberlake, who plays ‘Napster’ co-founder as a smoothly amoral schemer; and David Selby (formerly of the cult classic “Dark Shadows”) as a Southern gentleman of a lawyer — also acquit themselves very well. What ends up being hardest to sympathize with are the superficiality and shabbiness of so much of what passes here for life in the fast lane. For example, Zuckerman is intent on making a splash in order to get recognized by Harvard’s prestigious fraternity-like student “clubs;” so, he crashes that university’s computer servers with a website that has male students objectify and crudely rate female coeds. Meanwhile, the fair sex arrive in debutante attire for a social event at one of those self-same clubs. They are greeted by male students in tuxedos, but that’s where the classiness ends: Inside, the women do mock striptease acts and kiss each for the titillation of the males, while both sexes drink to excess and generally carry on like coarse riff-raff rather than the elite they fancy themselves to be. Money (and the faux status that it can buy) they (or their parents) may have; but class, graciousness, and good breeding are nowhere to be found among this crude brood. Then there’s the central conceit — of a superficial website whose be-all and end-all seems to be to encourage the naval-gazing of a generation that feels compelled to tell the world about their every activity and pseudo-thought — however vacuous — and to number as ‘friends’ total strangers whose only connection to them is all too often confined to the dull virtual world of cyberspace. Too many people in today’s world are glued to their e-devices, scanning text, voice, and tweeted gibberish as though it had real import, forgetting in the process whatever they may once have known (or sensed) about the differences between substance and its opposite – the howling, incessant cacophony of too many voices engaged in ‘conversations’ comprised of all that’s inane, empty, self-satisfied, and superficial. If Facebook and its ilk disappear tomorrow, the world will not suffer one whit from their absence. That being said, “The Social Network” is a good movie about oh-so-shallow people.
On Sept. 29.10
“Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole” (Australia/USA) (B/B+): This beautiful-looking animated fantasy film is reminiscent of “Watership Down,” with birds in place of rabbits. The avians in question are sentient owls (of which, there are 200 different species in the real world). It starts with a pair of adolescent barn owls who are just learning to fly. They’re siblings, but the differences between them are already apparent. The more naturally talented of the two is the pure-of-heart Soren (Jim Sturgess). “There’s nothing wrong with dreaming,” he insists. But his brother Kludd (Ryan Kwanten) has a more cynical view of the world, replying that, “That’s the difference between us. I have mine while I’m asleep.” Those differences suddenly sharpen when the brothers are abducted by a militaristic order of owls who preach dominance by the strong and practice that ideology in a merciless fascist society ruled by a Darth Vaderish Metalbeak (Joel Edgerton) and his equally ruthless mate Nyra (Helen Mirren). One brother succumbs to his dark side; the other flees with a fellow captive, a small elf owl named Gylfie. Aided by a rebel boreal owl, Grimble (Hugo Weaving, who also voices Soren’s ‘Pa,’ and who did standout voice work as the masked protagonist in the superlative “V for Vendetta”), Soren and his new friend go in search of the distant home of the fabled “Guardians,” noble owls who’d fit in very well as avian versions of Arthurian Knights of the Round Table. They find new companions along the way, in a story that celebrates friendship, self-sacrifice, and belief in one’s dreams. And it’s not afraid of such darker subjects as betrayal, cruelty, and mortality, either. A battle-scarred old veteran warrior named Ezylryb (Geoffrey Rush) is one of the story’s most memorable characters. Gruff, grizzled, and plainspoken, he becomes Soren’s mentor, urging the young bird to “trust your gizzard” and pointing out that, “I fancy it must be hard to meet your hero and find he’s real.” It’s a refreshing move to present a real hero in such a plain, unpretentious fashion. The film is utterly gorgeous to look at; you can practically feel the soft down on these owls. And, while this reviewer remains adamant that the much ballyhooed new (and increasingly ubiquitous) cinematic trick of showing films in 3-D is nine-tenths commercial gimmickry; one must admit that 3-D does enhance the visuals here. Best of all, though, this is a film that isn’t dependent only on how it looks. It has engaging characters, convincingly unpleasant villains, a strong voice cast (among whom, Sam Neill, David Wenham, Miriam Margolyes, and Adrienne deFaria also deserve individual mention), some real inventiveness, and a story about the age-old conflict between good and evil that holds the viewer’s interest. Based on the first three books from the 15-book “Guardians of Ga’Hoole” series by American writer Kathryn Lasky, the film even (mostly) eschews juvenile comedics and silliness for a more grown-up tone. All in all, it’s one of the best films of the year so far, a distinction it shares with another animated fantasy — “How to Train Your Dragon” — from some months back.
“Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” (B-/B): Director Oliver Stone returns to the story he began 23 years ago in 1987’s “Wall Street.” The film opens in 2001, with the release from prison of Gordon Gekko, the shamelessly unscrupulous stock market speculator who preached the virtues of greed in the original film, before it jumps ahead seven years. Michael Douglas’ Gekko remains a galvanizing figure here — as charismatic and untrustworthy as ever. But the key players are the young investment banker played by Shia LeBeouf and his fiancee (Carey Mulligan), who happens to be Gekko’s estranged daughter. It’s 2008 — the eve of the financial meltdown, that global financial catastrophe inflicted upon us by the criminal greed, reckless irresponsibility, and sometimes just plain criminality of so many stock market speculators and investment bankers — and by an abject failure of governments to adequately regulate the self-styled financial movers and shakers before, during, or even after the dire havoc they wrecked upon an unsuspecting (and undeserving) public. The two young leads are very good, but it’s impossible to compete with the award-caliber work of Michael Douglas, Frank Langella, and Josh Brolin, who, among them, get the flashiest roles and all of the best lines: “You stop telling lies about me, and I’ll stop telling the truth about you.” There’s a nice segue from a fundraising ball at which the theme song from “Carousel” is playing to visuals of a carousel of Wall Street office towers as the crash begins. If the point weren’t clear enough, we get a glimpse of dominoes falling in fast succession. Therein lies the film’s Achilles Heel: Its didacticism gets in the way of its storytelling. Yes, it is instructive to get behind the scenes instruction in the greed and unscrupulousness that nearly brought down our society like a house of cards. And yes, we urgently need a wake-up call about the unrepaired systemic ills that may very well send us irretrievably over the brink and into the abyss of a great depression and (one fears) an attendant unravelling of social cohesion next time. But, those admonitions, as worthy (and timely) as they undoubtedly are, sometimes obstruct the drama here, and they might better have been left for a documentary film. Notwithstanding the strong performances, the filmmakers’ need to preach impedes our developing a strong visceral connection with these characters.
On Sept. 21.10
“The Town” (B-/B): Set in Boston’s Charlestown district, a place whose occupation of choice seems to be criminal enterprise, the film opens with a quartet of men in death-masks robbing a bank. Making their get-away, one of them impulsively takes a temporary hostage, in the form of a bank manager (Rebecca Hall). The hostage-taker (Jeremy Renner of “The Hurt Locker”) is prone is impulsiveness, much of of the violent variety, and he later wants to ‘take care’ of the former hostage, whom he regards as a potential threat. But cooler heads prevail in the person of the brains of the operation (Ben Affleck, who also directed and co-wrote the film), who ends up falling for the woman they let go. He runs the risk of his new lady-love discovered what he does for a living, while fending off the objections of his hotheaded partner, the ruthless pressure of a local crime boss (Pete Postlewaite) to do another big job, and the relentless investigation of a smart FBI agent (Jon Hamm of “Mad Men” fame). There’s nothing astonishingly new here; and there’s certainly nothing appealing about the stereotypically brutish Irish-American thuggishness that sets its tone. But, we do get good performances and direction. The two lead robbers have some nuances, with Affleck being mostly decent (leaving aside the bank robbing, of course) and Renner being redeemed (a bit) by his fraternal loyalty to his partner in crime. Blake Lively (“The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants”) appears as Renner’s cheaply sexy sister and Chris Cooper has a cameo as Affleck’s convict father.
“Easy A” (C+): Flame-haired Emma Stone made a impression in “Zombieland,” and she shows comedic charisma here, too, as Olive Penderghast, a high school girl who gains notoriety by inventing a sexually promiscuous alter ego for herself and affixing a scarlet letter to her clothing like the heroine in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel. Her colorful little white lie about loosing her virginity (it never happened) told in confidence to a gal-pal who insists ion hearing salacious details – whether any exist or not – soon catapults Olive from anonymity to infamy. The concept isn’t quite as engaging (or funny) as it thinks it is; but the cast certainly is worth a look. Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson are delightful as Olive’s parents, stealing every scene either of them is in; Thomas Haden Church is likewise very good as Olive’s eccentric (but perceptive) teacher; Lisa Kudrow plays his unfaithful wife (the school guidance councillor); Alyson Michalka plays more experienced friend Rhi (who’s prone to jealousy); Penn Badgley plays the decent guy Olive secretly likes; and Amanda Bynes plays a teenage religious fanatic: (A) “I hope for your sake, God has a sense of humor.” (B) “Oh, I have 17 years of anecdotal evidence to prove that he does.”
“Devil” (C+): A movie that opens with the Biblical admonition, “Be vigilant. Your enemy, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour,” certainly gets our attention. Imagine, if you will (as the late Rod Serling might have said), five strangers who find themselves trapped in an elevator in a high-rise office building. Imagine, too, that one of them is something inhuman and implacably malevolent, something that’s intent on their torment and destruction, something that happens to be the Devil cloaked in a human form. That’s the premise, and it’s a good one. The cast acquit themselves well. But the film would have been better if it embraced more subtlety and relied less on gruesome deaths occurring each time the lights go out in that little box (the aforementioned immobilized elevator) as it hangs motionless over a man-made abyss. A much more gradual escalation of the terror would have improved the film. And the sporadic narration is misplaced — forewarning us of what’s about to happen only undermines the suspense. Produced and written (but not directed) by M. Night Shyamalan, the film has a solid cast of mostly unfamiliar faces, led by Chris Messina, as the police detective watching bad things unfold on a closed circuit elevator camera.
“Resident Evil: Afterlife” (B-/B): This is the fourth installment in a series (that began in 2002) that’s two parts action, one part sci-fi, and one part horror, as our heroine battles legions of zombies and the ruthless “Umbrella Corporation” that infected most of the human race with the deadly “T-virus” it was developing as a bioweapon. Just how (let alone why) the big bad corporation continues to carry on functioning (albeit in underground strongholds) when most of the planet has senselessly been laid waste (and all of its clients eradicated in the process) is mighty hard to fathom. But, this reviewer came late to the party, as it were, having first been introduced to the series with the third film, 2007’s “Resident Evil: Extinction.” In any event, checking a certain amount of credulity comes with the territory when your subject is zombies. What matters is the presence of a kick-ass heroine, Alice (played in all four films by Milla Jovovich) whose fierce resolve, deadly aptitude for combat, and take-no-prisoners attitude get the job done. Alice is a hardboiled loner who champions the cause of the underdog, much like Clint Eastwood’s ‘Man with No Name,’ ‘Mad Max,’ and other unlikely and reluctant heroes of a post-apocalyptic world. Jovovich invests the character with a degree of gruff charisma, and is she ably supported in this installment by Ali Later, Boris Kodjoe, and Wentworth Miller. Not for all tastes, it is nevertheless an entertaining outing for those who enjoy its hybrid genre.
On Sept. 14.10
“Machete” (C): Mexican director Robert Rodiguez revisits violent exploitation flicks of the 1970’s with a hyper-violent story of a wronged man out for revenge. Danny Trejo (“Sherrybaby”) plays a hulking man of few words who is named after his favorite weapon. Arrayed against him are a sordid collection of drug kingpins (Steven Seagal and an oddly nuanced Jeff Fahey), corrupt politicians (Robert De Niro of all people!), and murderous racists (Don Johnson). Among the antihero’s allies are Jessica Alba, Michelle Rodriguez, and Cheech Marin. Lindsay Lohan makes a convincingly troubled appearance in a supporting role. The odds are against the protagonist, but he doesn’t let that (or anything else) stop him: (A) “We don’t have to do this.” (B) “If not us, then who?” The gruesome violence has all the subtlety of a sledge-hammer. Ditto for the film’s message about making scapegoats out of illegal immigrants from south of the Rio Grande. Definitely not for all tastes, the film is a very darkly funny ode to full-throttle violent mayhem.
“Going the Distance” (F): This reviewer could endure no more than nine minutes of this crude, lame, unfunny, and foul-mouthed dreck. Drew Barrymore and Justin Long usually have appealing on-screen personas; but here they sink, with everyone else, straight to the bottom of the bad-movie abyss, equal part victims and perpetrators of an opening bombardment of gratuitous vulgarity. Monumentally stupid — and not in an endearing way, either — this is a strong argument for shredding some scripts before they can befoul the silver screen. It is sheer unadulterated crap.
On Sept. 7.10
“The American” (B/B+): Although it is an American film — with a Dutch director and an international cast — this story of a professional assassin is more of a character drama than a conventional thriller: Indeed, it feels for all the world like an interior drama of European vintage. And Europe is where it’s set. After a prologue in Sweden, the story moves to the drop-dead gorgeous vistas of mountains and mountainside towns (Castelvecchio and Castel del Monte) in the Abruzzi region of Italy. (You’ll be rearing to pack your bags and go there after you see this movie!) Despite the ever so misleading trailers, which give the impression of a fast-paced action film, this is a deliberately slow-moving and startlingly quiet film. George Clooney plays Jack, a professional hitman who goes to small-town Italy to lay low after he narrowly survives an attempt on his own life in Sweden. In the opening moments of the film, we see him lethally shoot his lover Ingrid (played by Swedish actress Ingrid Bjorklund) — solely (and inexplicably) because she’s a witness to him killing a sniper in self-defense! That jarring act, which, besides being murderously vile, seems utterly unnecessary in context, renders Jack instantly detestable; but, he makes some amends (for whatever they’re worth) by feeling bad about it later. Once in Italy, Jack spends most of his time in solitude, wandering the mostly deserted winding passages of the two picturesque towns where he whiles away the days. He is enlisted by his boss to assist a fellow assassin (played by the Dutch actress Thekla Reuten) with a hit on an unnamed target. His job, this time, is not to pull the trigger, but instead to assemble the sniper’s rifle, a task that is followed in methodical detail, as Jack carries out the assignment with a craftsman’s care and skill. In his off-time, Jack espies, meets, and beds a local prostitute — a leggy, blue-eyed brunette who happens to be improbably beautiful (she’s a cinematic fantasy version of a lady of the night, rather than the genuine article, one ventures to suppose) and sweetly unspoiled by her rather degrading line of work. She’s played by the astonishingly lovely Violante Placido, and she makes as strong impression on the viewer as she does on Jack. Jack also dances around the possibility of confession and repentance with a wily, aging priest played by Paolo Benedetto, who befriends Jack, sensing in him a gravely damaged soul. As improbable as those various plot elements and characters sound, they gel into a film whose bewitching setting and gentle gradually-paced rhythms are quite engaging. The performances and cinematography are very good, and the aforementioned quietness of the film is strangely refreshing. One thing jars, however, and that’s an utterly inexplicable turn of events late in the film. Let’s just say that when A tries to kill B at the presumed behest of C, C instead kills A moments before the job is done and then tries to kill B him/herself. That business (rendered into cryptic code here to avoid giving away the ending entirely) makes absolutely no sense in the film! It is a huge, grating, inexplicable flaw — spoiling the ending, but without spoiling all that preceded it. Based on the novel “A Very Private Gentleman” by Martin Booth, who co-wrote the screenplay, the film was directed by Anton Corbijn.
“The Last Exorcism” (B-/B): A horror story with an effectively slow build in tension is presented as a faux-documentary. Its subject is a successful fundamentalist preacher in Louisiana who has long sense stopped believing in the exorcisms he performs. Having long rationalized them as a “service,” on the theory that if someone believes they are possessed by a demonic spirit, an exorcism may have the salutary placebo effect of helping the person, whose distress is more likely to be psychological than supernatural in origin, even if the person performing the ritual regards the whole thing as a sham. But now, even that bit of self-justification has worm thin for Rev. Cotton Marcus (sympathetically played by Patrick Fabian). A self-styled conman who has grown a conscience, Marcus is keen to call it quits on the exorcism business: “I’m gonna miss this. Maybe I’ll sell real estate.” But, first, he picks a name out of a hat to take the documentary film crew on one last house-call. Imagine his surprise where he finds a smart, personable teenage farmer’s daughter named Nell (a strong performance by Ashley Bell) with no memory of the nocturnal wanderings and animal mutilations she’s suspected of committing by her distraught fundamentalist father (Louis Herthum). Turns out something very real, very bad, and very supernatural, is going on at this isolated farm. And the no-longer-born-again preacher never dreamed he’d come face to face with an actual case of demonic possession. The film uses hand-held cameras for a natural feel, without indulging in the motion sickness-inducing shake-fest of films like “The Blair Witch Project.” And, it gets high marks for getting us invested in the lead characters. It is remarkably subdued throughout (well, until the final few minutes, anyway), and it is adept at developing its sense of dread and menace very gradually, hinting at bad things more often than showing them outright. The result is quite creepy, and, to its credit, it eschews the genre’s usual reliance on gore. Things only go overboard right at the end; till then, it’s an admirably low-key chiller with strong character development.
On August 29.10
“Nanny McPhee Returns” (B-): The beautiful Emma Thompson produced and co-wrote this follow-up to 2005’s “Nanny McPhee.” She also portrays the eponymous English nanny (warts, unsightly visage, and all) who appears unbidden to help a family in trouble. The character is a variation on the magical nanny in “Mary Poppins,” applying tough love, life lessons, and moments of magical realism (some swimming piglets are especially enchanting) to win over the errant children and their hard-pressed mother. The humor and acting seem a tad overly broad and raucous at first: A bird is fond of burping, the kids quarrel very loudly, Maggie Smith’s absent-minded storekeeper is perhaps too disaster prone, and a Rube Goldbergesque machine employed for scratching those mischievous piglets introduces whimsy that might have more convincingly awaited the magical visitor. And, it’s a bit distracting to hear Maggie Gyllenhaal’s English accent, when we know that’s it’s not real. But things soon become quite engaging, with some touching moments that will even bring a few tears to the eye. All in all, it’s a pleasant film experience for all ages.
“Vampires Suck” (C-): The “Twilight” movies are made for spoofing, since that teen vampire romantic angst series treads mighty close to the laughable even when played straight. This spoof retells the plot from the first two films in the ongoing series, “Twilight” (2008) and “New Moon” (2009) pretty closely — pointing out the intrinsic absurdities in those films — like the wolfboy’s constant shirtlessness, and the heroine’s insufferable pouting, sulking, and mumbling. Indeed, Jenn Proske nails the mannerisms, lack of emoting, and general sulkiness of the series’ Bella. Her love interest gets a new surname here, as ‘Cullen’ is tweaked to a more apt ‘Sullen.’ And “Team Jacob” (the tween girl fans who favor the lycanthropic side of the aisle) won’t be disappointed either. The result is admittedly dumb but still intermittently (and mildly) amusing, despite a few gross-out sequences. Strictly for fans of the “Twilight” series who can take a joke, and, perhaps, for any aficionados of the vampire genre who are ‘completists’ by nature.
On August 17.10
“Eat Pray Love” (D+/C-): A magazine writer (Julia Roberts) on assignment in Bali has her future foretold by a sweet old man (the appealing Hadi Subiyanto) – a forecast of things to come that prompts her to end her marriage to a man (Billy Crudup) who clearly loves her, pack her bags, and embark on protracted three-country journey of self-discovery. Based on a memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert, that all sounds fine in principle. But it’s unconvincing and unengaging in practice. Problems here are manifold. For one thing, we always see the glamorous actress rather than the character she’s playing. No wonder she effortlessly finds an attractive man in every port: She is Julia Roberts, after all. Worse still, the entire story is based on some ill-defined, all-purpose angst. Why does Liz leave her marriage, and then a relationship with a younger man (James Franco), who is a “yogi from Yonkers” when he’s not acting on stage? The intrusive voice-over narration by Roberts offers no real insights; nor do her tearful prayers. Is she just bored? There’s no foundation for her unhappiness. Consequently, there’s no investment by the viewer in this character. Frankly, she seems more fickle than sympathetic. When she embarks on a journey to “find herself” — in Italy, at an ashram in India, and in the countryside of Bali – her cross-cultural odyssey offers nothing but a succession of clichés and stereotypes. The stop-over in Italy celebrates food, but its close-ups of pasta don’t work any better than the inner quest. It just doesn’t earn its credentials as an ode to culinary delights. Some self-reflection in the ruined tomb of Augustus is a tad more substantive; but is it really the film’s Liz that we hear, or the screenwriters? Truth be told, much of the story’s failure to engage can be laid at the feet of the screenplay. It presents us with much self-absorbed navel-gazing, without ever being sure of what tone it wants to adopt. Is it meant to be moving, funny, or bittersweet? In the end, it’s mostly just superficial, soulless, and hollow. Things improve a little in the last half-hour when Mr. Right appears out of the jungle in the form of Javier Bardem. A number of the supporting players make more of an impression on our sympathies than the usually engaging Roberts, among them the aforementioned Balinese medicine man (who opines, “Sometimes, to lose balance for love is part of living a balanced life.”), a healer in that same tropical land played by Christine Hakim, a fellow traveler named Armenia (Arlene Tur), and friends in Rome played by Tuva Novotny (Sofi) and Luca Argentero (Giovanni). Elsewhere, the estimable Richard Jenkins (“The Visitors”) has a nice emotional moment, but only after he annoyingly spouts bumper-sticker truisms for most of his time on screen. The India section is also marred by Sanskrit chanting (of which a little goes a very long way) and the celebration of a marriage of a young Indian girl. The actress playing that role does a nice job, but what on earth is there to “celebrate” about an arranged (and involuntary) marriage of an too-young girl who wants instead to get an education?
“Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” (B+): A graphic novel leaps off the printed page in a remarkable, full-tilt celebration of originality and zaniness in a story about a wimp who rises to the challenge of battling his new girl’s “Seven Evil Exes” in order to win her heart. He’s Canada’s own Michael Cera, who was amusing in the recent “Youth in Revolt.” She’s Ramona Flowers, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, a taciturn gal who’s quite fetching in hair that’s dyed first bright magenta, then royal blue, then green. The rest of cast – Ellen Wong, Kieran Culkin, and Canadian Alison Pill, to name just three – are equally good in a comedic fantasy-adventure that delights in short scenes, hyper-fast cuts, zoom close-ups, and sound-effect captions on screen (ka-boom!) à la the campy old “Batman” television series. The result is irreverent, self-aware, and zany to the max: (Q) “Is this you legitimately moving on – or just going insane?’ (A) “Can I get back to you?” There’s a lovely bit of cinematography, too, in a scene filmed from above, and at an odd angle (reminiscent of what you’d see in a graphic novel), of two characters in black silhouette walking across a snow-covered park lawn by night. This may, technically, be an American film; but it’s positively awash in Canadiana, and it is openly, unapologetically set in Toronto, not just filmed here. This film is decidedly not for all tastes, but if the mischievous wild young thing within you still yearns for some rambunctious, fast-paced, highly original fun, this movie is for you! You may well see this reviewer back for second helpings!
“The Expendables” (C-/C): A bunch of middle-aged action movie veterans, like Sylvester Stallone (who also directed and co-wrote this film), Jason Statham, and Jet Li play aging (but still mighty deadly) mercenaries who take a job for personal reasons rather than pecuniary ones. But the story is just an excuse for blazing gunfights, brutal fistfights, and explosions galore. (Be warned: The violence is graphic.) As with action movies of yesterday, our rough-hewn antiheroes are well-nigh indestructible, as a handful of them take on the entire military force of a small Caribbean island state to save the girl (Gisele Itie), overthrow the local tyrant, and dispatch the rogue-CIA puppet-master (Eric Roberts) who’s calling all the shots. Mickey Rourke is along for the ride, and there are cameos by Bruce Willis and even the Terminator himself (Arnold Schwarzenegger). The result is mildly entertaining as mindless action; and it’s nice to see a reunion of so many action stars from years gone by.
On August 13.10
“The Other Guys” (F): An odd couple pairing of a disgraced street cop (Mark Wahlberg) and a desk-jockey (Will Ferrell) who’s more accountant than police detective is a painfully stupid movie to endure. For the most part, it is also astoundingly unfunny! Ferrell really grates here; the scrumptious Eva Mendez is wasted in an inane cartoon-character, and that goes double for the too rarely seen nowadays Michael Keaton. The sheer inanity does generate a few short-lived chuckles, but they are too few and too mild to outweigh the many moments when you’ll feel impelled to flee the theater. Even by the paltry standards of mainstream cinematic comedy, this is a loud, graceless, and unrelentingly obnoxious dud.
On August 3.10
“Charlie St. Cloud” (USA/Canada) (C-/C): “You can’t put life on hold… it doesn’t wait for you.” That’s something the film’s hero (played by Zac Efron) has to learn after a car accident claims the life of his beloved kid-brother Sam (Charlie Tahan). Turns out that golden-boy Charlie, who was about to leave on a sailing scholarship at Stanford University when tragedy struck, made a deal with his eleven-year old sibling: They’ll meet every day before dusk to play catch. And they keep on doing so even after the younger brother’s death. Unwilling to let his brother go, Charlie throws away a promising future and stays put, making a living as the cemetery’s caretaker. Against his will, his attention is divided by the return to town of his comely fellow sailor Tess (Amanda Crew): “The more I’m in your world, the less I can be in his.” Without giving any more away about the plot, let’s just say that Charlie is a kind of ghost whisperer: His own close call with death has left him with an ability to see and talk to the departed. Set on the Pacific Northwest coast of the United States, the film was actually shot north of the border, in Canada, at places like Eagle Harbor and Gibson. Its gorgeous coastlines, quaint townscapes, and forested cliffs are picture-perfect. As to the story (and acting), they are unsubtle and manipulative (and the music is sometimes overbearing), occasionally veering toward the hokey; but, they do grow on you – and may even elicit a mild emotional response by the end. It’s a shame that Kim Bassinger barely makes an appearance as the boys’ mother. For his part, an over-acting Ray Liotta is unsuited to his brief role as a paramedic.
“Dinner for Schmucks (C): An ambitious Wall Street investment analyst (Barry, played by Paul Rudd) eager for promotion is invited to the monthly dinner-party put on by his cruel senior colleagues. The catch is that he has to bring an eccentric or fool to serve as an unwitting object of their ridicule. That’s a pretty unpleasant premise for a comedy. But, the film ends up chronicling Rudd’s odd-couple bonding with Tim, the kooky amateur taxidermist cum incessant chatterbox whom he literally bumps into. Steve Carrell walks a very thin line between the oddly endearing and the gratingly overbearing as the goodhearted man who creates fantastical dioramas with stuffed mice. Incidentally, whomever (one Chris Alexander, it seems) actually dreamed up and prepared those engaging “mouseterpieces” did a first rate job: They’re sweet, fanciful, and enchanting. At times, we share Barry’s desire to be rid of his troublesome new companion: Tim is a one man disaster area waiting to happen. At times, he almost qualifies for the crazed stalker role that’s personified here by Lucy Punch. There’s also a crazed-artist (Jemaine Clement) and a crazed-mind-controller (Zach Galifianakis) along for the ride, with Stephanie Szostak making a strong impression as Rudd’s sensibly uncrazed French girlfriend. Rudd plays the straight man to Carell’s kook: The fact that his sensible character holds our sympathies more than his somewhat over-zany sidekick may suggest that said zaniness comes too close too often to obnoxiousness. Still, the result is warmer and more amusing than one would ever expect from the harsh premise (and title). At its best, it’s a buddy picture, and not the exercise in mocking the odd that it purports to be.
On July 27.10
“The Kids are All Right” (B/B+): A family consisting of two partnered women (Annette Bening & Julianne Moore) and their two teenage kids (Mia Wasikowska & Josh Hutcherson) comes under strain when the kids decide to contact their sperm-donor father (Mark Ruffalo). He makes a connection not only with them, but with one of their two moms, creating stress-fractures that threaten to split-up the family. It’s a relationship film that’s built on nicely understated performances, and moments of humor (“We are so not telling Moms! – using the plural form of that word), domestic authenticity, and even some poignancy. This family may be unconventional but the human affection they share certainly is not. Warning: Sexual content, nudity, and coarse language.
“Salt” (C-/C): A CIA intelligence officer (Angelina Jolie) is on the verge of giving up field work for a desk job when a Russian captive fingers her as a deep-cover “sleeper agent” with a knack for espionage, sabotage, and assassination (as opposed to the rather more mundane duties that fell to the cabal of real-life Russian sleeper-agents recently apprehended in the United States). She flees her suddenly suspicious colleagues (whose clichéd objective is to “bring her in or bring her down”) and much mayhem ensues – in the form of frantic highway chases, daring escapes, and recurring hand-to-hand combat. There are disguises, explosions, and double identities galore. None of it is very believable in the real world; but it’s mildly entertaining as escapist action fare, despite an unsatisfying “to be continued” ending. As to the cast, you’ll either like Jolie or not. For this reviewer, she comes across as too undifferentiatedly intense. It’s a cardboard cutout of a character. Meanwhile, we keep expecting co-star Liev Schreiber to turn villainous, simply because he almost always does in his other roles. And the usually interesting Chiwetel Ejiofor has next to nothing to do here; it’s a sheer waste of his acting skills.
“Ramona and Beezus” (C+): A precocious nine-year old who likes to daydream and overlook rules contends with a world that doesn’t always reward imagination or a free-spirit. She feels unappreciated — the perennial complaint of middle-children everywhere. Based on the books by Beverly Cleary, this lightweight but likable family fare was shot in Canada. It’s cute (at times a tad overly so), and it is buoyed by a pleasant cast, with young Joey King as Ramona and Selena Gomez (who sings the upbeat end credits song “Live Like There’s No Tomorrow”) as her older sister. Ginnifer Goodwin is particularly appealing as their young aunt, while John Corbett, Bridget Moynahan, Josh Duhamel, Jason Spevack, Hutch Dano, and Canada’s Sandra Oh round out the cast.
On July 20.10
“Inception” (B+/A-): “You taught me to navigate people’s minds.” That’s a notion that finds literal expression in this techo-thriller about ultra high-tech industrial espionage, in which it is possible to enter the dreams of other people in order to steal information right out of their minds. Written and directed by Christopher Nolan, the man behind “Memento” and “The Dark Knight,” the result is an unusual pas de trois between spy thriller, Matrix-like science fiction, and solid character drama. It works very well on all three counts, thanks to sustained dramatic suspense, a really good ensemble cast (among them: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Canada’s Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe, Marion Cotillard, Cillian Murphy, and Michael Caine), and a hard to pin down (but still indisputably present) sense of gravitas. It’s easily one of the best movies of the year so far, offering ideas as well as visual panache, a seriousness of tone that few summer films even aspire to, and, most important of all, convincing characterization.
“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” (C): This live-action fantasy from Disney concerns a 20-year old physics nerd (Canada’s Jay Baruchel) who is drafted by an only slightly crazy sorcerer (Nicholas Cage) to assume the long vacant role as his apprentice. The cast is better than the material, though, frankly, Baruchel played a similar (and much better) role in “How to Train Your Dragon.” Alfred Molina is wasted as the cardboard villain, Teresa Palmer makes an impression as the love interest, Monica Bellucci has little to do but look beautiful, and Toby Kebbell (who was so good in “RocknRolla” and in a riveting episode of the British anthology drama “The Street”) steals the show as a punk-rock celebrity wizard. There’s an amusing scene here that mimics Mickey Mouse’s magical apprenticeship in the far superior classic animated film “Fantasia;” but, otherwise, this is pretty thin gruel. There are some hollow effects, some dull banter, and some unconvincing coming of age. It’s all too predictable and too lightweight to amount to much. Typical summer multiplex fare aimed at younger viewers, it ought to have been a bit more grown-up and a lot more ambitious.