More Reviews of Films in Theatrical Release
© by John Arkelian
“Hidden Figures” (USA, 2016) (B+/A-): What makes us root for the underdog? Why, it’s the strength of character and sheer determination that gets them to their destination. Based on a true story, “Hidden Figures” was a surprise hit – with critics and audiences alike – as it tells how three underdogs prevailed against twin obstacles: They are women and they are black, and in the Sixties, either of those facts was apt to be a handicap – a big one. Katherine Johnson (the inimitable Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) are talented mathematicians, all of them employed by NASA as ‘computers’ (that is, support staff entrusted with mathematical computations). Their rank and recognition are limited by the twin facts of gender and skin tone. They certainly aren’t insensible to that fact: “Every time we get a chance to get ahead, they move the finish line. Every time.” But they don’t let it stop them, not for a minute.
They make utterly winning heroines: They are smart, funny, self-confident, admirably tenacious, and, yes, beautiful, too. They win over doubters – including colleagues, a frosty HR manager (Kirsten Dunst), a husband in one case, and a new wooer (Mahershala Ali) in another. They earn the trust and respect of everyone from astronaut John Glenn to the program head played by Kevin Costner. And they do it all with irrepressible verve and good humor. The result is an upbeat story about overcoming obstacles: When Mary is asked, “If you were a white male, would you wish to be an engineer?” she replies without hesitation. “I wouldn’t have to. I’d already be one.” The secret of the story’s success lies primarily in the dauntless perseverance of its three heroines. And the film has another thing going for it. The Sixties indisputably had its share of troubles and strife, racial and otherwise; but, in the rearview mirror of history, it feels like a sunnier, more optimistic time than the one we inhabit now, a time when JFK’s stirring words set lofty goals for mankind.
The space race may have been born of superpower rivalry, but it came to embody a nobler struggle – man’s determination to overcome daunting odds, to do what seemed impossible. Setting the goal (of putting an American in orbit, followed a few years later by putting a man on the Moon) entailed a leap of faith: After that came the Herculean struggle to overcome overwhelming scientific and engineering challenges to make the dream a reality. And that’s what “Hidden Figures” is all about – making dreams a reality – be it the career aspirations of these three gifted women, or the symbolic weight their success had for others (women and African-Americans alike), or the space program’s immediate challenge of building hardware that would withstand the rigors of reentry into the atmosphere and cracking the mathematical code for the trajectory that would take the intrepid astronauts there and safely back again. Among its many nominations and awards, “Hidden Figures” was nominated for three Academy Awards, as Best Film, Supporting Actress (Spencer), and Adapted Screenplay.
“Hacksaw Ridge” (Australia/USA, 2016) (B/B+): “I don’t know how I’m going to live with myself if I don’t stay true to what I believe.” For the person of faith, staying true to what we believe is (or ought to be) a constant guidepost in our life, the compass whose needle we strive to keep pointed at True North. That guiding principal finds truly inspiring expression in the film “Hacksaw Ridge.” It is based on the astonishing true story of Desmond Doss, a young man from Virginia who took his faith so seriously that he refused to pick up a gun, even in self defense. Yet, at the same time, he voluntarily enlisted in the U.S. Army in World War Two. For Doss, there was no contradiction: “It isn’t right that other men should fight and die, that I would just be sitting at home safe. I need to serve. I got the energy and the passion to serve as a medic, right in the middle with the other guys. No less danger, just… while everybody else is taking life, I’m going to be saving it. With the world so set on tearing itself apart, it doesn’t seem like such a bad thing to me to want to put a little bit of it back together.”
It’s an elegant way to square the circle – to reconcile his religious conviction that Christians must not kill, with his equally deep-felt patriotic need to do his bit in what was one of the last wars widely viewed to be just. Staying true to what he believed attracted the scorn and violence of his peers and put his liberty at risk in a court-martial. (No country, not even the Western democracies, has been kind to conscientious objectors: Imprisonment has often been the fate of those whose convictions bar them from military duty in time of war.) But Doss reconciled his duty to God with his loyalty to his country: Far from shirking danger, he sought it out on the front lines in incredible acts of bravery to save his fellow servicemen. Indeed, he returned again and again to the thick of battle at Okinawa, unarmed, saving scores of lives – and earning the Medal of Honor for service above and beyond the call of duty. And, all the while, in the horrific inferno of battle (portrayed in the film with brutally violent realism), Doss prayed not for his own safety, but for that of others: “Help me get one more” was his noble plea.
Andrew Garfield is note-perfect in the role, as a man of humility, patient in the abuse he suffers so unjustly at the hands of others. He is ably supported by Teresa Palmer (his fiancé), Rachel Griffiths (his mother), Vince Vaughn (a no-nonsense sergeant), and, especially, Hugo Weaving, as his father, a man of quiet dignity. Directed by Mel Gibson, “Hacksaw Ridge” was nominated for six Academy Awards (including Best Film, Actor, and Director), winning for Best Film Editing and Sound Mixing. As an Australian/U.S. co-production, it also got thirteen nominations at Australia’s academy awards, winning nine of them, including Best Film, Actor, Supporting Actor, Director, Original Screenplay, and Cinematography.
“In Order of Disappearance” [“Kraftidioten”] (Norway/Sweden, 2014) (B+/A-): It opens with blue-lit snow at dusk and a distant rumbling – a juxtaposition that at once hints at its protagonist’s occupation (he’s a snow-plow operator) and the impending intrusion of disorder into this peaceful setting. Then we see a close-up of Nils (Stellan Skarsgård) shaving: He’s wearing a dark suit (the next time we see him it in, it’s for a funeral) and he asks his wife, “Do I have to give a speech?” He’s getting ready for a community ceremony to give him a “Citizen of the Year” award. Nils is humble by nature: “It feels odd to get an award for something you enjoy doing… I’m just a guy who keeps a strip of civilization open through the wilderness for people.” But this stalwart, laconic, fundamentally decent man will soon embark on a resolute mission to avenge his son. His son has been murdered by a crime syndicate, who made it look like the young man died of a self-induced drug overdose. Nils knows it’s a lie, and he is implacable in his determination to track down those responsible and make them pay – with their lives: He’s still keeping a strip of civilization open through the wilderness, but he’s using the tools of a vigilante now, instead of his plow. The result is a one-of-a-kind Scandinavian blend of drama, sly (and oft-dark) humor, and strong characterization. A wintry “Death Wish” with overtones of the Coen Brothers’ “Fargo,” but not at all derivative. On the contrary, this gem treads its own inimitable path through the snow.
Written by Kim Fupz Aakeson and directed by Hans Peter Moland, “In Order of Disappeareance” is getting its North American theatrical release in late August 2016, and there’s no doubt about it – it’s one of the best films of the year. Take the quirky characters: Every member of the crime gang has a nickname (for instance, Nils’ brother was known as “Wingman” in his gangland days); and a neighbor keeps trying to recruit Nils for a political party. “I’m best at minding my own business,” replies Nils. But when others intrude into his life, by killing his only son and ruining his marriage, Nils makes their eradication his business. He sets about the task calmly and methodically: Each fallen gangster is disposed of by night in a raging waterfall. The head of the drug syndicate is known as the Count. He’s wealthy and tough, but he tends to fold like a sheet every time he’s confronted with his iron-willed ex-wife. We see little of the local cops – inept bunglers who are completely out of their depth. Consider, too, the artful cinematography: Nils large plow creates a graceful arc of snow from its blowers as he clears the countryside roads, bringing to mind an avalanche or a waterfall, with all the relentlessness of a pseudo-Nature. The humor here is by turns wry, dry, and dark. When the Count’s wife chastises him for letting his son (they have alternating weeks of custody) eat ‘Froot Loops,’ he nearly blows a gasket, protesting that, “I’m a vegan, for eff’s sake! He hasn’t eaten additives in this house!” while their young son breakfasts on the offending product in the kitchen, unseen by them. And every time anyone dies, a small cross (a Jew gets a Star of David; we’re not sure what the substitute symbol is for one of the last to die) appears on a black screen with the deceased’s name, to the accompaniment of a burst of melancholy choral music. When a professional hit-man from abroad betrays his employer to his intended target (the Count), the Count, who has benefited from that betrayal, nevertheless denounces the turncoat’s failure to honor a contract “with a paying Norwegian citizen.” And, comedy of errors confusion leads all and sundry to ruin: The Norwegian gangsters think Serbian rivals are killing them off, a misapprehension that precipitates a deadly gang war.
The sly writing plays on ethnic stereotypes: A case in point is the ethnic confusion over the significance of the number 1389. It happens to simply be an elevation measurement, but the Serbs take it as a deliberate reference to their historic defeat and national humiliation in the Battle of Kosovo (that took place in the year 1389). Later, one Serb asks another: “Ever been in a Norwegian prison? You’re in for a treat. Good food. Served hot.” It’s small talk of “Pulp Fiction” quality. The cast is first-rate. Stellan Skarsgård can do no wrong in our eyes, and he’s convincing here as a rumpled everyman, country kin, perhaps, to the world-weary Swedish detective Kurt Wallander, save that Nils is not a policeman. Other notables include Hildegun Riise as his wife Morag, Pål Sverre Hagen as ‘the Count,’ Brigitte Hjort Sөrenson (from Danish television’s political drama “Borgen”) as the Count’s scathingly critical ex-wife, Peter Andersson as Nils’ brother, and Bruno Ganz (who memorably played Hitler in “Downfall”) as the Serbian crime boss. “In Order of Disappearance” offers first-rate performances all around, with a deft hand at characterization, and a blend of drama and dry humor that keeps you guessing. (Make no mistake, though, the presence of humor does not make this a comedy.) The film has received lots of nominations at film festivals. We said it before, and we’ll say it again: It’s one of the best films of the year. For ages 18+: Coarse language and violence.
“When the Ocean Met the Sky” (Canada/USA, 2014) (C+/B-): Three young men gather after the death of their parents. The youngest has some heartfelt recollections at a memorial dinner; the eldest has little to say (“I had a bit of a testing relationship with them”); and the middle sibling arrives late. Their free-spirited parents (aging hippies, it seems), whom we never meet, have been killed in a motorcycle accident. In their will, they stipulate that their sons must go on the same wilderness hike that brought the parents together many years ago. To qualify for their inheritance, the young men must complete that journey together. It’s really a journey of bonding, of course, a journey that traverses the beautiful temperate rainforest, waterways, and coast of British Columbia. There are old resentments and jealousies to get aired and resolved, and misunderstandings to clear-up. Most of all, it’s a forced march to fraternal reconciliation by siblings who time, distance, and personality differences have caused to drift apart. The oldest, Daniel (Phillip Thomas, who also co-wrote and co-produced the film) has always been the responsible one; he feels under-appreciated, even as his younger brothers perceive him as stuffy and conventional. He may be the least spontaneous of the brothers; but he’s the most affecting of the three characters, for all his lack of seeming flamboyance. The middle brother Tyler (Spencer Foley, who also co-wrote the film) is an aspiring musician who has never made good, personally or professionally: His seeming disdain for his older brother’s self-appointed role of always being the mature, responsible one may mask envy at the other’s stability and success. The youngest of the three, Jordan (Aren Buchholz) often finds himself in the middle of the others’ spats. Along for comic relief is their drugged-out wilderness tour guide Carter Cooper Jr. (nicely played by Terry Field). He is appealing (“Life is just the coolest thing,” he opines) and funny, if a bit broadly so for this story. Catherine Jack makes an impression in a small role as the oldest brother’s wife Jane.
The film opens and closes with a note-perfect song (alas, we can’t make out the name of the singer), with apt lyrics: “Oh brother, oh brother, where have you been? / You chose your path and I chose mine / I’ve been searching for you…” There’s excellent attention to detail in the opening credits’ production design, as the camera pans across the sort of bric-a-brac that feels authentically part of ordinary lives. We see, for instance, a glass jar full of coins and childhood photos of the siblings (two of which are standard-issue posed school portrait shots). There’s the likewise authentic squeamishness of the three semi-voluntary travelers at coming across intimate details in their parents’ journal (reading their parents’ account of that earlier trip is part of the prescribed agenda for the journey). Some of what’s written there gradually becomes the trip’s real objective, with the passwords “out of control, freedom, alive.” Recapturing those things, as well as reforming the tattered bonds between them, is what their now-gone parents want for them. There are some nice visual moments – a flashback to paper lanterns set adrift on water by night and a close-up of spring-green ferns (which seem to represent reawakening). There are some nice lessons to learn: The boys’ father writes of his wife, “No one in my life has ever been so accepting of me at my worst.” And B.C. delivers, as always, lots of natural beauty. Some of recurring flare-ups of conflict (especially between the oldest and middle brothers) feel a tad contrived (as in an overblown disagreement over a rest-break). Coming upon a long-ago crashed airplane is an awfully big coincidence; ditto for an abandoned school in the middle of nowhere. There are no roads in evidence around the school, yet it is covered in graffiti, which suggests a lot of through traffic. For that matter, the journey is supposed to be following an established path (it’s even marked on a map), but we see few, if any, signs of any actual path – ever.
Directed by Lukas Huffman, “When the Ocean Met the Sky” is a road-story combined with a divided family coming together story, all set in the forests of B.C. The scenario, performances, and screenplay are all competent. It doesn’t quite achieve its full potential, or ever deeply move us, but it does suggest even better things to come from its participants in future work. The result is a nice small film that’s worth a look: It’s likely to be confined to festival settings, which is a shame; it should be seen by a broader, general audience, not least in its native Canada. Note: It got a digital release in late July 2016. For ages 18+: Coarse language (including sexual talk).
“Snowden” (B/B+): Director Oliver Stone charts the course of Edward Snowden from ex-military man to intelligence insider to one of the most important whistleblowers of our time. His revelation that the US government is spying on every man, woman, and child on earth blew the lid off the unconstitutional practice of universal surveillance that sprang to wretched life in the aftermath of 9/11. Snowden rightly saw such surveillance (of all our telephone, email, and text message conversations!) as a flagrant infringement of our core rights and a clear and present danger to our freedom. The film, like the real life Snowden, is low-key. It’s all about the stirring of conscience, and the moral decision to take action (by revealing governmental wrongdoing to the public) – and it’s set in the context of the man’s relationship with the woman he loves. There are no guns or explosions, no chase scenes. It’s a story about ordinary people prepared to do the extraordinary in defense of what we all profess to hold most dear – our liberty, our democracy, the rule of law, open, transparent, and accountable government, and the God-given rights of Man. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Rhys Ifans (who makes a strong impression here as a security-state true believer), Tom Wilkinson, Melissa Leo, Nicholas Cage, and Zachery Quinto lead the strong cast. [Note: As most readers will know, Snowden, like too many other whistleblowers under the supposedly “liberal” Obama Administration, faces charges under the Espionage Act for his actions; as a result, he remains in exile, in the unfortunate, and unintended, perch of Russia.] For ages 18+: Some coarse language.
“Blair Witch” (D+/C-): When you venture into the forest of perpetual night, you really ought to take an army of wizards, priests, and exorcists along. Failing that; refrain from taking every opportunity to wander off on your own in the dark. And, please, don’t seek refuge in a derelict building that’s the sinister poster child for haunted houses. The sextet of travelers here are likeable enough, but they’re lost in an incoherent, inchoate, and mostly incomprehensible script. This one-way trip is devoted to cheap scares: Things go (loudly) bump in the night (though who, how, or why is never addressed), and there are lots of figures leaping out the dark to startle us, as the chaotic camera flees frantically though the pitch dark. For ages 18+: Coarse language, and violence.
“When the Bough Breaks” (D+/C-): A well-off couple hire a young woman to act as the surrogate mother for their embryo. She seems shy and sweet, but appearances can be deceiving, as they learn to their imperilment. Morris Chestnut and Regina Hall are attractive and appealing as the endangered couple, but the story they inhabit is predictable and only marginally involving.
“Sully” (B): When 9/11 still fresh in the memories of New Yorkers, that city was faced with another aeronautical fright on January 15, 2009, when engine failure forced a passenger jet to make an emergency landing on the Hudson River. Flight 155’s pilot (Chesley Sullenberger a.k.a. ‘Sully’) and crew were credited with saving the lives of everyone on board. Director Clint Eastwood dramatizes those events here, with Tom Hanks doing another ace everyman job as the pilot, supported by Aaron Eckhart as his co-pilot. What works very well is the recreation of the emergency landing, and Sully’s post-traumatic reaction to it. Less compelling are all the interpersonal relations, like his telephone chats with his wife (Laura Linney) in another city, and the heavy-handed official investigation into the incident. Those elements feel forced, overblown, or contrived, despite the fact that the movie is based on Sullenberger’s book about the incident. We’re left feeling that everything apart from the crash itself (which is reenacted at least twice, from different points of view) is really just filler.
“Morgan” (C+/B-): A secret installation run by a powerful corporation has messed with the human genome (on purpose and for vaguely nefarious ends) to create a genetically modified human named Morgan. The scientists (among them Toby Jones) studying her have grown attached (perhaps a Stockholm Syndrome in reverse) to their charge (played by Anna Taylor-Joy who was so good in this year’s “The Witch”), though she has shown signs of sudden violent outbursts. In short, she is dangerous – though, refreshingly for this genre, she possesses no outlandish abilities or appendages. An agent arrives in this close-knit, isolated setting to investigate. Will she opt to “terminate” the project – and Morgan? Kate Mara is very convincing as the ice cold, all-business agent: We definitely buy that she is ruthless enough to kill the experimental human, if she deems the experiment a failure. Violence and killings inevitably ensue, but this better than expected film is actually at its best in its mostly more subdued opening half. For ages 18+.
“Equity”(C): Investment bankers, high-tech stock going public, ambition trumping loyalty, legal rules skirted – all this is the milieu for a character drama that falls short of its potential. Its screenplay and performances are a bit rough around the edges, with a story that doesn’t grip and characters that feel a tad shallow. The interesting thing here is the dominance of female faces behind (notably the director, writer, and both producers) and in front of the camera. There’s hardly a male in sight, aside from James Purefoy (and James Naughton, who makes an impression in a small role), in this distaff take on “Wall Street,” with Anna Gunn, Sarah Megan Thomas, Margaret Colin (who is always an asset), and “The Good Wife’s” Carrie Preston in key spots among the cast. For ages 18+.
“The Light Between Oceans” (B): A man (Michael Fassbender) returns to Australia from the killing fields of the First World War, seeking solitude on a remote island as the keeper of its lighthouse. But chance crosses his path with that of an impulsive young woman (Alicia Vikander). Love ensues, and she gladly joins him on his lonely isle. The ruggedly mountainous landscape, the crashing surf, and the sheer exhilaration of this setting create a gloriously old-fashioned romance. And, as Tom and Isabel, the leads make us envy their idylls there. But time passes. Miscarriages rob them of hoped-for children, and she falls into deep depression. When a rowboat is spotted offshore, with a dead man and a live infant, Isabel persuades a very reluctant Tom that they should keep the child, pretend that it is theirs, and not report its actual origin. That fateful choice opens the story’s door to the second half, when, after the passage of perhaps a couple of years, they encounter the child’s grieving mother (Rachel Weisz) on a visit to the mainland, and the ramifications of what they’ve done become impossible to ignore. The ensuing conflict and bitterness is far less engaging than the simple, romantic first half of a man and a woman in love and living in splendid solitude surrounded by the sea. Romance becomes tragedy, and we liked the romance better. Written and directed by Derek Cianfrance from the novel by M.L Stedman. For ages 16+.
“Hell or High Water” (B/B+): Two brothers in west Texas rob a succession of small banks, each of which is a branch of the very bank that seeks to dispossess them of their late mother’s home. One brother (Chris Pine) has led a law-abiding life; his older sibling (Ben Foster) is rougher and tougher, an ex-convict who enjoys raising hell, even if other people get hurt. There are two Texas Rangers on their trail: one (Jeff Bridges) is on the verge of retirement, the other (Gil Birmingham) is resigned to his partner’s constant politically-incorrect ribbing. The great strengths of the film are its strong characterization, its visceral sense of place, and its ability to create sympathy for both the lawbreakers and the lawman. Our loyalties are divided between the two opposing pairs. It’s excellent casting all-round, with very good work from the supporting players, like a calmly polite old bank manager, an aging harridan of a waitress, and Pine’s ex-wife. Best of all the supporting players, Katy Mixon makes an impression as forthright cafe waitress who is drawn to Pine’s character. For ages 18+: Coarse language and brief violence.
“Mechanic: Resurrection” (C-/C): Jason Statham is back as a retired assassin who is forced back to work. (At least his targets are all villains.) Statham brings a certain charisma to his action roles, but this outing feels lackluster, after a very promising start atop a mountain in Rio de Janeiro. Jessica Alba doesn’t have a lot to do. Michelle Yeoh makes a stronger impression in a small role, and Tommy Lee Jones makes an appearance in highly flamboyant mode. For ages 18+: Coarse language.
“The Infiltrator” (B): Based on a true story about a US Customs officer (Bryan Cranston) who goes deep undercover in 1985 to gather evidence against high-ranking members of the notorious Medellin drug cartel. His job means living two separate lives – family man and high-flying gangster – and Cranston sells both parts of the dual persona. He’s surrounded by a strong cast – with John Leguizamo as his colorful partner, a man whose drug of choice is danger. A couple of things don’t add up. For one, Cranston’s character gets a bloody warning in the mail at his actual home. How can that be? If the bad guys know his address, they’d know his real name and occupation as a law enforcement agent – yet, they don’t know those things: He’s deep undercover, after all. For another, the protagonist is inexplicably followed by a third party. Why? And why is the undercover agent with him when things hit the proverbial fan? And why does an informant switch sides abruptly? If he’s that unreliable, it seems mighty rash to have him present at all. A mishap with a briefcase feels contrived; and we miss Leguizamo’s character when he abruptly drops out of the story for a stretch.
“Don’t Breathe” (B-/B): Three young adults (Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette, and Daniel Zovatto) rob homes for money and kicks amidst the crumbling neighborhoods of Detroit (swathes of which come across as a ghost-town here). Despite their criminal behavior, two of the three are mostly sympathetic characters. But they get way more than they bargained for when they break into the isolated house (in an eerily deserted part of town) of a blind war vet (Stephen Lang). He’s a lethal, unstoppable force, despite his lack of sight, with uncanny survival skills, a vicious dog, and a horrible secret; and he’s deadly intent on not letting the intruders get away. (What he has in mind for one of them is a shudderingly repellant fate that’s worse than death.) There’s no denying that the result is highly suspenseful. It keeps us on the edge of our seats, despite its fairly simple premise. But, it is also grotesquely unpleasant, far too unpleasant to see. Warning: For ages 18+: Brutal violence, sexual violence, coarse language, and very disturbing content.
“War Dogs” (B-): Truth really is stranger than fiction in this fact-inspired story about two twenty-somethings (Miles Teller and Jonah Hill) who wrangle their way through the Pentagon’s bid-and-tender process to supply the US military with guns and ammunition deemed too low-scale for the big armament players. The pair become flamboyant gun-runners, addicted to money, sports cars, danger, and breaking the rules. It’s an armaments variation on “The Wolf of Wall Street” genre, and that’s the trouble: It seems over-familiar. It treads much the same terrain as 2005’s “Lord of War” without adding anything particularly new, let alone memorable. But its main problem is that its two reckless confidence-men aren’t very likeable: Jonah Hill, in particular, does another of his loud, brash, vulgar, and highly obnoxious characterizations that have begun to grate. It’s time for him to try a different sort of character on for size. For ages 18+: Very coarse language (and lots of it); and drug use.
“Ben-Hur”(B-/B): This redo of the novel by Lew Wallace can’t begin to touch the epic 1959 version (the one with Charlton Heston) for scope, emotional impact, memorable score, and performances; but, looked at simply on its own merits (rather than in comparison to its illustrious predecessor), it’s a serviceable enough drama. It focuses even more closely on the relationship between foster brothers Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and Messala (Toby Kebbell), giving more attention to the latter’s motivations. And it has a pretty convincing chariot race. It also has a different resolution than its cinematic big brother, an ending some might find mawkish, but which worked fine for us.
“Kubo and the Two Strings” (B/B+): A young boy on a quest is the heart of this stop-action animation film (from the people behind “Coraline” and “The Boxtrolls”), with a look inspired by traditional Japanese woodblock prints, set in medieval Japan. The boy has a troubled mother to care for, in their secluded sanctuary in a cavern that looks out to the rolling sea. When dangers put him on move, his companions are a sentient monkey and a hybrid samurai/beetle. There’s humor here, moments of sadness and loss, courage, adventure, and playfulness. Some of the visuals, especially early in the film (witness a storm at sea) are truly lovely, and the animation often (deliberately) looks like some kind of highly complex origami in motion. As the journey progresses some of the innocence and simplicity of the early scenes gives over to bigger action sequences and larger than life monsters (oversized disembodied eyeballs, a giant skeleton, and, finally, a floating dragon) and to a big (but underwhelming) fight near the end. All of that ‘big’ stuff feels like a misstep: It’s too conventional – visually, and especially in terms of storytelling. It’s serviceable, but it doesn’t hold the magic of the smaller, quieter moments. Said caveat notwithstanding, the result is a fine film that unfolds with layers of storytelling. Not suited for young children.
“Florence Foster Jenkins” (B): The trailer for this true tale of a wealthy socialite who is determined to sing in public, despite a dearth of talent, struck a really sour note for us, coming across as cartoonishly over-the-top. To our pleasant surprise, however, that’s not the note the movie struck. On the contrary, it turns out to be a sweet and more or less believable character-driven story about an engagingly innocent eccentric and those who love her. Meryl Steep plays the would-be operatic vocalist, Hugh Grant plays her protective husband, and Simon Helberg steals his scenes as the constantly bemused young piano accompanist (and very oddly named) Cosmé McMoon
“Pete’s Dragon” (B-/B): A young boy, who is lost in a forest after an automobile accident kills his parents, is raised by a dragon in a much better than expected remake of Disney’s 1977 movie. Oakes Fegley is a sympathetic wild child, though the green furriness of his (non-talking) dragon companion (which sometimes seems more canine than dragonish in both appearance and behavior) takes some getting used to. The rest of the cast (including Bryce Dallas Howard and Robert Redford) help the young lead and his CGI friend deliver a couple of solidly emotional moments.
“Anthropoid” (B/B+): Taking its name from the allied operation to assassinate SS General Reinhard Heydrich, the film follows the two Czechoslovakian partisans (Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan) who are sent from London to lead the operation in Prague. Once there, they are aided by local resistance members on the dangerous mission that was to prompt savage reprisals by the Nazis. Two young women (Canada’s Charlotte Le Bon and the Czech actress Anna Geislerová) who assist (and love) them deserve special mention for their nuanced performances. One suspects that dramatic license has been taken with the historical story, here and there, but the result is an effective combination of wartime drama, suspense, and solid characterization. For ages 18+: Brutal violence.
“Indignation” (A-): In 1951, a working class boy from New Jersey enrolls in a conservative college in Ohio where his relationship with a more experienced girl deflects his life into an unexpected trajectory – in one of the best films of 2016. Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman, who plays the title role in the Percy Jackson movies) is a (non-observant) Jew. That sets him somewhat apart in this Protestant bastion. But what really makes him different is his character: Sober, serious, responsible, rational, and yet stubbornly disinclined to accept perceived injustice or slights, he comes into verbal conflict with the college’s paternalistic Dean Cauldwell (very nicely portrayed by Tracy Letts). Their meetings are fraught with tension as civility masks growing impatience and, for Marcus, a certain tendency toward righteous indignation whenever he believes that his rights, his dignity, or simple fairness are being infringed. But his pivotal relationship is with the coolly blonde Olivia Hutton. Poised and self-possessed, she’s far more experienced with the world (and with sex) than Marcus; but beneath that calm, cool, graceful demeanor, we sense great vulnerability and pain. (There are subtle intimations that something very dark in her family life is responsible for her veiled distress.) As portrayed by Canada’s Sarah Gadon (2015’s “A Royal Night Out” and 2016’s “The 9th Life of Louis Drax”) Olivia is both femme fatale and lady in distress; in short, she’s a woman whom we, like Marcus fall for – and fall for hard! She’s a mesmerizing character – a woman with whom to fall in love. (Marcus doesn’t know what to make of her sexual precociousness.) But, truth be told, there are award-caliber performances all-round, with very fine work by Tony Award nominee Linda Emond as Marcus’ mother, and nice work by Danny Burstein in a smaller role as his father. “Indignation” is written and directed by James Schamus (who is best known as a writer and producer) from the novel by Philip Roth. The result is a quietly involving character drama that connects with us from its first moment till its last. What a pleasure to become so absorbed in its low-key, admirably mature story about growing-up and contending with intimacy, pride, and the uncertain needs, vulnerabilities, and expectations of other people. We say again: It’s one of the best films of the year. Highly recommended! For ages 18+: Sexual content, some coarse language, and very brief violence.
“Suicide Squad” (D): It is possible to make a very good, very funny movie about comic book characters. But this isn’t one of them. Three recent examples show the way: (1) “Guardians of the Galaxy,” (2) “Ant-Man,” and (3) “Deadpool.” Indeed, the third of those films is one of 2016’s best movies, despite its foul mouth. “Suicide Squad” is fatally hobbled before it begins, by a dumb premise. It posits a group of villains who are recruited by the government to face off against an even bigger threat. Trouble is: They aren’t loveable scoundrels, rogues, or rebels without a cause. No, they’re killers – neither qualitatively nor quantitatively better than the villains they’re set against. It’s hard to root for supposed reluctant “heroes” of that ilk. They are also cardboard caricatures, with only Will Smith’s hit-man (he comes closest to being a three-dimensional human being) and Joel Kinnaman’s hard-boiled military man making much of an impression; but even they get lost in the noise of gunfights, explosions, and would-be CGI spectacle. The ‘even-worse’ villains are over-the-top and uninteresting, and Jared Leto’s Joker is kind of repellent. For ages 16+: Not suitable for children.
“Café Society” (B-): The latest film from Woody Allen divides its time between Hollywood and New York, and has Jesse Eisenberg as the director’s latest surrogate. There’s nothing new here, and the filmmaker’s mock-serious, plaintive tone makes it hard to care about these characters.
“Star Trek Beyond” (B-): The third movie in the ‘reboot’ of the original, now 50-year old, science fiction/adventure series has some good character moments, with Karl Urban again proving to be a standout among the reboot-crew as Doctor McCoy. We love seeing the USS Enterprise in space: That sleek starship has always embodied Star Trek’s optimism about humanity’s potential and the idealistic notion of wielding ‘might for right’ (in stark contrast to the prevailing practice in human history that ‘might is right’). Story-wise, it’s nice to get away from Earth and further out in space. But, the villain’s sneers notwithstanding, they’re hardly at ‘the frontier,’ since the story is set close to hand to a huge Federation Starbase. That base is imagined here as a humongous transparent sphere that contains a metropolis, complete with skyscrapers, a river, and a terrestrial cityscape, all free-floating in space. It’s the size of a small moon, and it’s sheer overkill. It’s simply too big. Surveying its vast girth is a distraction: It’s too big to be affordable or practical or (therefore) realistic; it’s only as immense as it is for visual impact in a movie. And there’s more excess to come. Our heroes are threatened by small swarm ships – lots of them. We see them at rest on a hidden planet, and, at most, there are docking places for a couple of dozen. But when they attack in space, there are suddenly hundreds of thousands of them – courtesy of computer-generated graphics’ ability to replicate objects ad infinitum. Where did they come from? Sure, they might have been docked out of sight beneath the planet’s surface. But there’s no sign of the army of pilots who fly them. And who does fly them, anyway? The drone pilots are humanoid in shape and size, though their heads are always conveniently hidden beneath helmets. Are they organic beings? Mechanical? Sentient? Who knows; who cares. They eventually perish in their multitudes and no one pays them a second thought.
A new alien character (Algerian actress Sofia Boutella’s Jaylah) is quirky and engaging – especially in her idiosyncratic turn of phrase: She steals all of her scenes. Idris Elba plays the chief villain. But why must he look like a snarling villain, with a villainous name (Krall) to match? It’s way beyond unsubtle: Worse still, given his origin story, why does he look reptilian? Just because somebody thought it would look cool in a movie, we guess. Worst of all, the screenplay offers only a terribly flimsy, trivial, and unconvincing motivation for his destructive course. Elsewhere, won’t they please quit blowing up the Enterprise? It’s already been done to death in the franchise’s earlier iterations. And it sticks in the craw: The ship exemplifies hope, and it gets trashed. Where’s the hope in that? And, sad to say, the same screechingly horrible punk-rock song (courtesy of the aptly named ‘Beastie Boys’) that ruined the trailer is also used in the film at a critical juncture, as an ever so far-fetched deus ex musica. It’s an all-out assault on our eardrums (and upon our musical sensibilities), not to mention a pretty silly supposed cure-all at a climactic moment in the plot.
Although it’s done in a low-key way, reversing franchise history by suddenly reorienting Lt. Sulu to have a same sex partner is heavy-handed didacticism, a nod to contemporary political correctness run amok. About the reboots generally, the hand-held phasers are loud and appear to be projectile weapons of some sort, rather than the more sophisticated energy beam weapons depicted in all past iterations. Likewise, the reboots’ depiction of warp speed is inferior to what has gone before. Maybe it’s meant to look retro; but it is underwhelming compared to the aural whoosh and visual conversion of stars into elongated rays of light. And, my, do we miss the inspiring and emotion-filled music of the greatest composers of the franchise’s pre-reboot movie outings – Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner. The reboot music (other than a nod to the original television series’ theme) doesn’t come close to those greats.
“Star Trek Beyond” is passably entertaining. But, for Trek, it is way too preoccupied with action, including a pointless daredevil motorcycle ride, despite Kirk’s assertion that it is, “Better to die saving lives than to live taking them. That’s what I was born into.” In the process, it neglects the very things that make Star Trek special – ideas, exploration, mystery, discovery, and humanity making first contact with alien species. It’s pretty good despite its flaws, but this is meant to be Star Trek, so it needs to be smarter, much smarter.
“Ice Age: Collision Course” (C-/C): We’ve lost track of how many installments there have been in the Ice Age film series. They started off well, but they are in decline. Even Scrat, the solitary and hapless prehistoric squirrel (unlike the other sentient animals characters here, he never talks) who is perennially obsessed with an acorn that’s nearly as big as he is, is wearing out his welcome. Normally his disaster-prone pursuit of acorns constitutes the best scenes in these movies (and in their trailers). But, here, he’s stuck on an alien spaceship, inadvertently sending whole planets out of their orbits. It’s a bigger and louder escapade than before, but it’s no longer funny. And the obliviously boisterous antics of the loudly inane and self-preoccupied Sid the Sloth now positively grate. Things briefly perk up, quite markedly, when the story pays a visit to the underground world of dinosaurs and the fearless adventurer (Buck the weasel, voiced by Simon Pegg) who delights in outsmarting them (while singing opera). But, then, it’s back to the surface, with a not very urgent feeling threat, and tritely domestic preoccupations with a daughter’s impending marriage, an annoying prospective son-in-law, and an overlooked anniversary. A detour to an odd commune of New Age yoga devotees adds nothing of interest to the mix. There’s just not much here: It’s neither very funny nor very interesting.
“Genius” (U.K./USA, 2016) (B): Two types of art – that practiced by the writer and that by the editor – can collaborate creatively or collide. Based on a true story, this fascinating character drama chronicles the complex relationship between a leading book editor (Colin Firth as Max Perkins) and one of his most brilliant, but temperamentally difficult, authors (Jude Law as Thomas Wolfe). During his career at the New York publishing house of Charles Scribner’s Sons, Perkins also worked with acclaimed authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. Friend, father-figure, and comrade-in-arms in the hard labor of readying a book for publication, a talented editor could also be an adversary: In the case of Wolfe’s voluminous manuscripts, that meant paring them down by hundreds of pages to what (in the editor’s estimation) was essential. It’s all about character here, and relationships, and this fine film is anchored in a fine cast – those named above, together with Laura Linney, Nicole Kidman, Guy Pearce, Dominic West, and others. The result is original and absorbing and quite unlike traditional summer fare at the movies.
“Nerve” (D): Characters in their late teens get seduced (and then threatened) into playing an online game of incrementally more dangerous dares. The cast here (Emma Roberts, Dave Franco, Emily Meade, and Miles Heizer) is fine; the premise is not. Any movie that revolves around people’s pathetic addiction to their ‘hand-held self-affirmation devices’ (or ‘HH-SADs’), if we may pause to coin a phrase, better known as so-called ‘smart-phones,’ isn’t worth the celluloid it’s printed on (or, nowadays, the digital space it occupies). This film consists of boring electronic toys in the hands of fools, nothing more, with plenty of fruit-themed product placement. Skip it, and, for heaven’s sake, put your confounded idiot box away!
Editor’s Note: See Artsforum’s comment on the bane that is these “Hand-Held Self-Affirmation Devices” on our front page at: http://artsforum.ca
“Lights Out” (B-/B): It’s a very simple premise – a family is haunted by a malevolent specter that cannot abide the light – but it is effectively creepy. And it’s aided by a good cast, among them: Teresa Palmer and Gabriel Bateman as siblings, Maria Bello as their troubled mother, Alexander DiPersia as Palmer’s boyfriend, and Billy Burke as a cautionary tale about working too late. On the contrived side, it’s mighty convenient that a specter that can’t stand lights also has the magical ability to make them go out.
“Jason Bourne” (C/C+): After a nine year hiatus, Matt Damon is back as Jason Bourne, the once amnesiac human weapon forged by ruthless masters at the CIA into a killing machine. Previous installments followed his history as a rogue agent, intent on finding the truth. He may have his memory back, but there’s still more truth to uncover, as a fresh cohort of compatriot bad guys step up to eliminate the nearly unstoppable Bourne before he can expose (or otherwise interfere with) their dirty work. Julia Stiles makes a far too brief reappearance from earlier films; it’s a shame she didn’t get more time on screen. Instead, the normally captivating Alicia Vikander (who was so good in “Ex Machina” and “The Danish Girl”) plays a dour (but ambitious) CIA middle-management type, and it’s a role without much fire. Tommy Lee Jones and Vincent Cassel fill out the deadly rogues’ gallery. Damon makes an appealing (and handily proficient) protagonist as Jason Bourne. But the story needs an infusion of new plot material: It’s just more of what’s gone on before. A side-plot involving collusion between security agencies and the IT tech sector never amounts to anything; it’s just a cursory nod to the scandalous real-world fact of our fundamental right to privacy disintegrating before our very eyes. A couple of motor vehicle chases go on too long – especially the one in Las Vegas. And they neither wow nor truly engage us: They are empty ‘spectacle,’ the forlorn curse of most would-be blockbusters for lo these many years. And the filmmakers’ over-fondness for frequent fast cuts shot by handheld cameras draws too much attention to itself and only distances us from these characters. The result is mildly entertaining, but instantly forgettable – like most contemporary movies, sadly.
“Swiss Army Man” (B-/B): This one gets marks for audacious originality. A morose young man (Paul Dano) marooned on an island somewhere is moments from putting himself out of his own misery when he sees a body in the surf. The newcomer (Daniel Radcliffe) is dead, or at least, as some wag once said, ‘mostly dead.’ We liked the wild wackiness of the unique friendship that ensues. Who knew that a dead man could prove so resourceful? His ample supply of flatulence, for instance, turns him into an impromptu jet-ski that propels his living counterpart back to the mainland and possible salvation. Characters suddenly start singing the song we hear playing on the movie’s soundtrack. The film is simultaneously crudely scatological and kind of sweet and innocent. It’s a conundrum how it manages to be both at the same time. But it loses us with long stretches of cross-dressing, a very unpleasant attack by a wild bear, and everything that occurs once this oddest of couples reaches civilization. The early promise is squandered on a self-indulgent surfeit of ultimately off-putting weirdness. For ages 18+ only: Coarse language, sexual content, violence, adult subject matter, and very vulgar content.
“Ghostbusters”: What’s the point of remaking this film, with the variant of replacing the four male characters with four females? We walked out after 15 or 20 minutes: Dumb (as in real stupid), dull, and unfunny being this one-man jury’s unanimous verdict.
“The Secret Life of Pets” (C/C+): The title says it all in this animated kids’ movie. Two canines vie for top dog status, a not so friendly competition that spills over into the streets of New York. They run afoul of an under-the-street gang of lost or abandoned pets (everything from a bunny with serious attitude to a crocodile), and their old friends from the apartment building where they live need to mount a rescue. A bit juvenile and more than a bit boisterous (the semi-psychotic bunny begins to grate), grown-ups will find it merely tolerable, rather than enchanting. From the studio that brought us the much more appealing “Despicable Me” films and the memorably engaging minion characters (even if their solo film was a dud), this one lacks that film’s power to engage and amuse, or the sheer inventiveness and panache of this summer’s animated surprise “Zootopia.”
“The Purge: Election Year” (France/USA. 2016) (C+/B-): Let’s face it: The concept here is a truly ugly one. Once a year (in the very near future) all crimes (up to and including premeditated murder) are permitted in the good old USA for one 12-hour stretch. Roving gangs with violence to burn (and some just plain folks) take to the nighttime streets to indulge in some guilt-free murder and mayhem. Most of the participants dress up in nightmarish variants of Halloween garb, as an axe-wielding, blood-stained Uncle Sam for example. It’s creepy, all right, but also pretty far-fetched. Does the ‘anything goes night’ suddenly turn ordinary people into blood-crazed psychopaths? Seemingly so. But the why’s and how’s of it are never addressed. Do people really want to become murderous beasts just because they can? Is savagery and/or sadism so ubiquitous under our thin veneer of civilized behavior? There’s probably a satirical point in here somewhere (and there’s definitely a political one), about violence in our society, and man’s propensity to drop the mask and become bestial at the drop of a hat. But, it’s too heavy-handed and deliberately orchestrated to feel real.
If we haven’t lost count, this is the third film in the franchise. This time out, some nasty girls in the hood are keen to vent their spleen on a shop-owner who caught them stealing during the daylight hours. They’re back now with a disco-lit car, attired as punk-ballerinas, positively pirouetting in the street as prelude to their violent attack: But the film shows us their pre-rampage ‘dance’ in slow motion, with close-ups of hideous masks, weapons, and crazed, hateful eyes: It’s just too manipulatively over the top to take seriously. They goes double for the conspiratorial one-percenters who are behind Purge Night (it’s their way to cull the underclass and control everybody else). Their chosen candidate for president doubles as some sort of ‘priest’ in an unholy church devoted to unleashing all that’s ugly in the human psyche. He and his serial killer minion are the polar opposite of subtle. But what does work well here are the ‘good guys’ – a female Senator intent on ending the barbarity, her able head of security, and the black folks who befriend and help them. All of those characters are well-acted (by Elizabeth Mitchell, Frank Grillo, Mykelti Williamson, Joseph Julian Soria, Betty Gabriel, et al.), and we get invested in their fates. And, truth be told, these films do work as action/suspense thrillers, with decent people on the run from very indecent ones. Still, with instances of racially-tinged violence boiling away in the US these days, something about this film feels troublingly familiar – as though it were a look at the extreme end of a continuum we’re already on. For ages 18+ only: Extremely coarse language; severe violence; frightening scenes; and very disturbing content.
“The Neon Demon” (France/Denmark/USA, 2016) (F): Danish writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn (he directed 2011’s very good, if very violent, “Drive”) has spawned an inchoate, incoherent thing about an underage aspiring model (Elle Fanning) trying to break into an apparently heartless profession in Los Angeles. The result is a misbegotten thing, highly unpleasant to watch (the sensible choice would be to flee the theater and never look back), populated by one dumb bunny, a trio of predatory harpies (Jena Malone et al.), and miscellaneous other creeps. With its grotesque repertoire of rape, necrophilia, and cannibalism, this would-be deep dive into metaphor is kin to some of the worst garish excesses of David Lynch, Paul (“Showgirls”)Verhoeven, Brian De Palma, and Lars von Trier (the vile “Antichrist” springs to mind). It is not just an addled, pretentious, and self-indulgent mess, it is also reprehensible. It may be about narcissists, but, my goodness, it is itself made of nothing but narcissism – narcissism and very bad taste. Avoid this ugly thing at all costs! Warning: For ages 18+ only: Explicit nudity, strong sexual content, sexual violence, gruesome images, very coarse language, and extremely disturbing content.
“The Legend of Tarzan” (USA, 2016) (C+): Edgar Rice Burroughs’ perennial character, a man raised in the jungle who becomes Lord of the Apes, is back in a lush looking, but only moderately involving, new story. When it opens (in the late 19th century), Tarzan is back in civilization (Great Britain, specifically), restored to his inherited status as Lord Greystoke. Circumstances and schemers contrive to take him back to Africa, where he’s to be a sacrificial pawn in the efforts of the criminally brutal colonial regime of the Belgian Congo to wrest power and wealth from the jungle. Opening the story with a civilized Tarzan is a different approach; but the downside is that the man’s origin story has to be told in a series of flashbacks. Different actors play younger versions of our hero, so we never get as invested in him in those sequences, or in his life-changing meeting with Jane, as we might have if the story had followed a linear temporal path. And the sinister plot in the film’s present day seems at once overblown and simplistic. The over-all result is moderately entertaining, but we wish it had been more gripping, more involving, and more memorable. The best scene is given away by the trailer (a common misstep nowadays): It has Tarzan and gorilla allies facing down a throng of hostile natives. Alexander Skarsgård (the vampire Eric Northman from “True Blood”) has an aptly low-key imperiousness of bearing, as he combines external quietness with an understated inner restlessness (as though he hears the call of the wild even in his reclaimed home in England), and he looks good in the (oft-shirtless) role. Christoph Waltz is always effective as a silky, well-mannered, but deadly villain-in-chief. Australian Margot Robbie feels a tad miscast: True, her character is not meant to be mistaken for a ‘damsel in distress.’ On the contrary, Jane is a real partner for her mate. But Robbie has a sexy (and too modern) vibe that’s distracting in this character: She doesn’t come across as genteel as we’d expect Jane to be. Samuel L. Jackson is always fun to watch: Here he plays an American adventurer with a conscience. Story-wise, his presence as a back-up hero conveniently inserts a black man into a strong supporting role, thus avoiding the incongruity (to modern eyes) of a white über-hero saving the day in a place mostly populated by blacks. But, the interesting thing is that Jackson’s character, George Washington Williams, is apparently based on a real historical person. For ages 14+.
“The BFG” (U.K./Canada/USA, 2016) (B-/B): An engaging adaptation of the children’s book by Roald Dahl from director Steven Spielberg has a spunky 10-year old girl named Sophia (Ruby Barnhill) plucked from her English orphanage by the eponymous ‘Big Friendly Giant.’ He whisks her away, by giant-sized leaps and bounds, to a northerly ‘Giants’ Country’ that doesn’t appear on any maps. It turns out he’s kind, gentle, and caring; but as the runt of his home’s oversized litter, he’s the only giant who doesn’t want to eat humans! ‘BFG,’ as Sophie dubs him (he has no name), lives in a cavern filled with quixotic souvenirs from his visits to human realms, as well as his paraphernalia for capturing and distilling dreams – a benevolent pursuit that is his lifelong avocation.. A nocturnal visit to the magical birthplace of dreams is enchanting – but not nearly so much as the BFG himself: Voiced by Mark Rylance (who transformed an accused Soviet spy into an endearing figure in “Bridge of Spies,” a feat that won him an Oscar last year), the BFG is a sweetly humane figure – and a marvel of performance-capture animation. Audience hearts will melt helplessly at one glance of his kind, sweet, and remarkably lifelike face. That’s the real magic here – that and the friendship that develops between him and young Sophie. The other giants are an uneasy combination of bungling and lethal menace. Might it have been better to leave them at one or the other? Sometimes the comedy gets a bit broad (with flatulence-inducing brew, for instance), when hewing to the central tone of tenderness might have been preferred. But we liked Sophie from the moment we saw her perambulations at the orphanage in the wee hours, trailed by the resident cat. She and her friendly giant will linger fondly in our memories.
“Our Kind of Traitor” (U.K./France, 2016) (B-/B): An English couple (Ewan McGregor and Naomie Harris), whose relationship is under severe strain, is in Morocco, trying to reconnect, when they cross paths with a brash, loud Russian. He takes them under his wing, brooking no demurral, and it’s not long before the Brit realizes that his insistent new host is very rough company indeed. Indeed, Dima (Stellan Skarsgård) is the chief keeper of the financial books for the Russian mafia: He foresees that a change in mafia leadership means that he and his family are in line for elimination, despite his years of capable and loyal service. Desperate to save his family (for all his rough edges and coarseness, Dima is a man of honor and a man deeply devoted to his wife and children), he befriends the English couple in the hope that they can get a message to British intelligence: He’ll give MI-6 the goods on the Russian mob’s highly placed British collaborators in exchange for his family’s safety. Trouble is that the British spies (one branch is headed by Damian Lewis) are too divided by their own internecine rivalries to make for reliable partners. It falls to the two British civilians (he’s a professor of poetry, she’s a barrister) to fill the gap – by directly imposing themselves (the story moves to the Swiss Alps) into these very dangerous proceedings. It takes a good deal of suspension of disbelief to accept that two civilians would (or could) suddenly become key players in such clandestine operations and gunplay, but this cast helps us to put that skepticism to the side. Among the solid supporting players are Mark Gatiss (Moorcroft Holmes from BBC’s “Sherlock” series), Jeremy Northam, and Saskia Reeves, though none of that trio are given as much to do here as their talents merit. But the key player here is undoubtedly Stellan Skarsgård: That actor brings considerable nuance and charisma to every role he plays. He is always a pleasure to watch. The screenplay is by spy novelist John le Carré, here adapting someone else’s novel. For ages 18+: Coarse language, nudity, sexual content, and violence.
“The Shallows” (USA, 2016) (B-/B): A young American woman (Blake Lively’s Nancy) finds the isolated (and anonymous) beach of her dreams way off the beaten track somewhere (even she doesn’t know where) in Mexico. Her late mother had surfed there before Nancy was born; now Nancy wants to follow suit. An otherwise solid suspense film gets started with some howlingly improbable circumstances: Nancy’s friend is stuck back at a hotel with Montezuma’s revenge, but Nancy has hitched a ride with a complete stranger. Does taking a ride with an unknown male into the boondocks in a foreign country sound like a sensible idea? But he takes her where she wants to go, without incident, dropping her at what at first seems to be a deserted beach and playfully declining to reveal the name of the place. That means she can’t tell anywhere where she is, assuming there’d be a cell-phone signal at all in such a remote place. In reality, there wouldn’t be, and she’d be crazy to expect otherwise. But, in another flight from credibility, when the man who gave her a lift sensibly asks how she’ll get back to town, Nancy blithely replies “Uber.” Uber? Come on! How many amateur taxi rides are on call in the middle of nowhere in a Third World country? As it turns out, Nancy isn’t the only surfer at the beach in question: Two young Mexican men are riding the surf. So, here’s our protagonist, in a very isolated place, with two strange males. Fortunately for her, they don’t pose a danger – but they so easily might have, and it rankles that this young woman is so absurdly oblivious to sensible precautions for her own security. And, even if Nancy faced no potential human dangers, it feels utterly reckless to be alone in such an isolated location, without any means of transportation. (Improbably, her cell-phone works like a charm – all the way back home to Texas – from the middle of nowhere. ‘Can you hear me now?’ indeed.) All that introductory stuff shakes our credulity to the core. But things improve handily when the story gets to its real business: The other surfers leave, and Nancy stays behind for one last wave. And that’s when things get ‘gnarly’ – she is attacked by a relentless great white shark (which is odd insofar as it already has a large repast close to hand) and she is stranded atop a rocky shoal a mere 200 yards from shore, badly wounded and in danger of losing her small sanctuary at high tide. But Nancy is smart, resourceful, and determined. And, luckily, she’s a medical student, so she improvises some temporary sutures (a scene that’s not for the squeamish). She also devises a desperate plan. Her plight is suspenseful and engaging: We don’t know if she’ll make it or not – and the movie keeps us guessing. For ages 18+: Very brief coarse language, some gory content, and frightening scenes.
“Independence Day: Resurgence” (USA, 2016) (D+/C-): 20 years after the events of 1996’s “Independence Day,” a menace from outer space has returned, in the form of malevolent aliens intent on destroying humanity and harvesting the Earth. Although most of the original cast (except lead Will Smith) has been reunited for this round, the focus is mainly in the next (younger) generation. And they add nothing interesting to the mix. Characters take second place in these would-be blockbusters to action and explosions. It’s the same old, same old. Big explosions and innumerable objects hurtling through space became exceedingly tiresome a long while ago. Bigger is not better: Witness the new, improved, ‘next-gen’ alien ship: Thousands of miles across, it’s as wide as the Atlantic Ocean (atop which it lands) – an instance of visual overkill that strikes us as ridiculous, rather than believably threatening. There’s no investment (at all) in these characters, therefore nothing here we cared one whit about: Boring. A couple of overtly Chinese actors seem to be here for the exclusive purpose of marketing the film in China – a transparently clumsy bit of marketing (and may we say pandering?) if ever there was one.
“Maggie’s Plan” (USA, 2016) (C+): Maggie (Greta Gerwig of 2012’s“Frances Ha”) falls for an older married man (Ethan Hawke’s John) and ends up married to him. But when their relationship starts to wan, she decides to try to reunite him with his embittered ex, the aloofly cerebral Georgette (Julianne Moore with a distractingly odd accent). Bill Hader and Maya Rudolf make the strongest impressions here as Maggie’s married friends. Wallace Shawn (the man is funny even without saying anything) pops up briefly, and Australian Travis Fimmel plays a very odd pickle-maker. It’s an offbeat comedy of a Woody Allenesque kind, and the emphasis here is on quirkiness. Normally, we like quirky. But, with the exception of the aforementioned Hader & Rudolf, we didn’t really warm to (or like) any of these characters. Directed and co-written by Rebecca Miller (who also did the honors for 2009’s “The Private Lives of Pippa Lee”).
“Free State of Jones” (USA, 2016) (B/B+): Based on a true story, Matthew McConaughey plays Newton Knight, a poor southerner who serves as a medic in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. He has no illusions about the purported ‘glory and honor’ of war – it’s a brutal business that mangles those it doesn’t kill. The film doesn’t flinch from gory depictions of injuries and battlefield surgeries. Newton Knight is a man of conscience, and it is his conscience that leads him to leave the war and go home to Jones County, Mississippi. But what he encounters there is brutish injustice: In the name of supplying the troops, the local garrison is pillaging food, livestock, and other goods from the hard-working (but poor) farmers in the county. Aptly named, Knight resists such depredations, gradually gathering a following of deserters, runaway slaves, and the wives of absent farmers. Their resistance becomes guerilla warfare, as they secede from the Confederacy. Knight harbors no animus towards blacks, embracing instead an egalitarian creed that is surprising in a white man of this time and place. And there’s a large dose of socio-economic rebel in the man: He’s convinced that the war really only serves the interests of ‘the powers that be’ – the wealthy slave-owning one-percenters, while everybody else (white and black alike) has to bear the onerous burdens of the prevailing inequity, injustice, and war. Matthew McConaughey brings his usual laconic affability to the role of a man who becomes a rebel in the land of the Rebels and a leader whose authority crosses racial and gender lines.
Thematically, “Free State of Jones” is kin to such movies as “Shenandoah,” “The Outlaw Josie Wales,” and even “The Grapes of Wrath,” as it follows the story of those who fight against seemingly impossible odds. There’s even a bit of “Robin Hood” in the doings of the rag-tag band who strike out from the impassable swamps to harry organized army units. There are moments of violence, including deadly ambushes, and, later, some disturbing lynching crimes, when the losing side in the war takes their racist views into their communities. But, much of the story is quietly reflective. It is gently paced – more character study and social commentary than action oriented. The inclusion of flash-forward scenes, set some 80-odd years after the struggles of Newt Knight, dealing with a mixed marriage trial of one of his descendants, seems an unnecessary distraction. The lovely Gugu Mbatha-Raw (2013’s “Belle”) makes an impression as Rachel (Knight’s second wife, a black woman), as does Mahershala Ali, as Knight’s friend and fellow man of deep conviction, Moses. Keri Russell plays Knight’s first wife, Serena, but she doesn’t get a lot to do. For ages 18+: Violence and gory scenes.
“Warcraft” (China/Canada/USA, 2016) (C-/C): The fact that a movie is based on a videogame never inspires much confidence. The story here is sword and sorcery fantasy that pitches a world of knights, castles, and wizards against hordes of invading orcs from another dimension. It’s watchable ‘Low Fantasy’ for genre buffs, and the cast is actually pretty good, investing some interest in these characters. But the story itself hasn’t got anything new or interesting to say. There are heavy-handed plot twists involving an inexplicable betrayal by someone responsible for safe-guarding the human world. The make-up design for the CGI-generated (performance-capture) orcs is distracting over-kill. It looks like they had a steroid bath and then got inflated with a truck-tire pump. And their massive tusks are just ridiculous. Are they sentient creatures or warthogs? Even a hybrid character’s (played by Paula Patton) much smaller tusks severely impede her facial mobility, leaving her with a repertoire of only a couple grimacing expressions. Leading man Travis Fimmel (who also appears in “Maggie’s Plan”) has prominently ‘wild-looking’ eyes, which is a facial distraction of another kind. Some of the characters and relationships showed promise, as people (or orcs) in whose fate we take an interest. But, that promise is diminished by a weak story, a to-be-continued ending, and the predictable CGI over-kill that is the bane of so many mass appeal movies these days.
“Finding Dory” (USA, 2016) (B-/B): The sequel to 2003’s “Finding Nemo” has a memory-impaired blue tang fish (voiced by Ellen DeGeneres) on a journey to find her long lost parents. The trip takes her (remarkably quickly) straight across the Pacific, from the Australian reef to a California marine facility. Old friends (clownfish father and son Marlin and Nemo) are in tow, and new friends are met along the way – chief among them: Hank (Ed O’Neill), an octopus (Dory points out that his disability makes him a ‘septipus’) whose ingenuity is not hampered in the least by a missing arm, and a childhood chum in the form of a whale shark named Destiny (Kaitlin Olson) who has a faulty inner sonar system. It’s cute and fun, with some mild laughs and visual appeal in its under-the-sea setting. But, frankly, Dory’s ongoing problems with her short-term memory begin to grate after awhile: There’s something a tad squawking and strident sounding about her permanently hyped-up state and her frenetic speech. Still, the theme of friendship and perseverance (‘just keep swimming’) are appealing ones. A strong highlight is the rousing migration song of a school of sting-rays.
Best of all is the accompanying six-minute short film “Piper,” the story of a young sandpiper on a beach, which gets an “A” for inventiveness, beauty, and perfect charm. It’s a delight from start to finish.
“The Conjuring 2” (USA, 2016) (C+): This sequel to 2013’s very well done “The Conjuring” doesn’t quite live up to its predecessor, but it’s nevertheless an effectively creepy story of demonic possession and a family in peril. Set in 1977, it has Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson & Vera Farmiga), a husband and wife team of deadly serious ghostbusters, cross the ocean to London to investigate a young girl (Madison Wolfe as Janet) who appears to be possessed. The hapless child, along with her siblings (played by Lauen Esposito and Benjamin Haigh) and her mother (Frances O’Connor, who was so good as the lead in “Mansfield Park”) are terrified. Supporting players include Simon McBurney as a sympathetic ally. Supposedly based on a true story (the Warrens really took on paranormal cases), it’s a reasonably entertaining addition to the horror subgenre of possession and exorcism. Putting a family in danger heightens the suspense; and the close bond between the couple who resolutely strive to help them also connects us more strongly to these characters. The film is directed by Australian James Wan, who also helmed the original.
“Love & Friendship” (Ireland/Netherlands/France/USA/U.K., 2016) (B-/B): Based on Jane Austen’s novella “Lady Susan,” this comedic tale is atypical of Austen’s better known works, insofar as it casts its ‘villain’ as its leading lady. For that reason, it is harder to like than classic Austen tales like “Pride and Prejudice,” Sense and Sensibility,” “Mansfield Park,” and “Persuasion.” For its chief player, Lady Susan (Kate Beckingsale) is a shamelessly self-interested schemer, quite prepared to subordinate even her own daughter’s happiness to her own. Her schemes may be intended to amuse, but she’s not one to warm to. We can better appreciate her as the story gathers momentum, and we are introduced to the other characters, almost all of whom are nobler in motivation than Lady Susan. Set in the 1790s, much of the story unfolds at the county home of Churchill, where the widowed Lady Susan has sought sanctuary from gossip occasioned by her ‘flirting’ (not to mention her apparent dalliance with a married man). Now she develops designs on Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel), much to the dismay of his married sister Catherine (Emma Greenwall) and his parents (James Fleet and Jemma Redgrave). Meanwhile, Lady Susan has plans to marry her obedient daughter (Morfydd Clark’s Frederica) off to an obnoxious fool with money (Tom Bennett’s Sir James Martin). We learn her plans because she confides them all to her American friend (Chloe Sevigny, who feels miscast as the passive Alicia), whose older husband (an amusing Stephen Fry) keeps threatening to send her back across the Atlantic if she will not quit the company and confidences of Lady Susan. Elsewhere in the cast are Justin Edwards (as the master of Churchill) and Jenn Murray as a woman acutely distressed by her husband’s infidelity with Lady Susan. Directed by Whit Stillman (1994’s “Barcelona” and 1990’s “Metropolitan”) “Love & Friendship” has all the elegantly stylized conversations and formality of discourse that we’d expect from Jane Austen, but the story feels different in tone. It doesn’t instantly draw us in or capture our affections the way other Austen stories do. Somehow, it feels less like the genuine article we’re accustomed to. Frankly, it feels more caustic, more acidly satirical, more like a variation on the story of Becky Sharp from Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair” than it does like vintage Austen. But, it grew on us as it unfolded.
“Me Before You” (U.K., 2016) (C+/B-): A plucky young woman with an upbeat attitude and a sense of style all her own gets a job as a caregiver for a paralyzed young man. He’s rich (he lives in his parents’ castle), handsome, and determined to seek an assisted death when the cooling-off period he promised his parents has passed. He misses the life he had; he misses the person he used to be. Will his zany, endlessly optimistic new companion change his course? A love match, Cinderella style, seems to be in the offing. But things don’t necessarily take the expected course here, a fact which has created some controversy about the story and the choices it depicts. There’s a very engaging cast. Emilia Clarke (from “Game of Thrones”) as ‘Lou’ Clark, Sam Claflin as Will Traynor, Brendan Coyle (from “Downton Abbey” – the man positively radiates integrity), and Samantha Spiro as Lou’s parents, with the irresistible Jenna Coleman (from “Doctor Who”) as her sister Treena, Charles Dance (also from “Game of Thrones”) and Janet McTeer as Will’s parents. Clarke is very engaging here (the story swims or sinks on her shoulders – and it swims), and even lovelier with her natural brown hair color than with her bleached blonde tresses as a warrior-princess; she also happens to have an astonishingly expressive (and appealingly sincere) face! The screenplay is by Jojo Moyes from her novel. The result is an old-fashioned romance that goes in unexpected (and not entirely welcome) directions.
“X-Men: Apocalypse” (D): A monumental bore that’s as noisy as it is bloated. Lamentably typical of its ilk, it swims in oversized cataclysms, as a whole city dissolves, large objects hurl through the air, lightning and fire bolts ignite everything in sight, and its hapless viewers are “treated” to a wanton surfeit of explosions and noise. It is typical of so-called super-hero moves, full sound and fury and signifying nothing at all. The super-sized action hasn’t a whit of believability; nor are we ever invested in its outcome. It’s just more of Hollywood’s pitiful addiction to hollow CGI effects. So boring! And the film fares no better with the quiet moments involving its over-large ensemble cast. Nothing they say or do engages us. The film has only two entertaining sequences: The first involves a super-speedster rescuing people from an exploding building, a race that’s done with style and wit. The second is a cameo sequence with a mute Hugh Jackman as Wolverine: His section is simple action, but he exudes more charisma in the role than all of the film’s mutants combined. The film’s new ‘big-bad’ (an uber-mutant) is ridiculous looking – neither frightening nor charismatic, he’s just absurd. There are unconvincing changes in allegiances. And, we never have ‘got’ the appeal of this franchise’s outlandish bunch of characters and their oddball ‘powers.’ Is it just this reviewer, or is anyone else sick of movies that rely on overblown displays of brawn and city-crushing aerial fistfights (see also “Batman vs. Superman”) from the “Transformers” school of inane filmmaking? All they offer is loud, empty, so-called spectacle – a hollow, worthless thing.
“The Man Who Knew Infinity” (U.K., 2015) (B): A young man in southern India has a new bride, no money, and little education. But, he is a remarkable prodigy at advanced math, a talent that takes him to Cambridge in 1914 to work with leading scholars on theorems that will dramatically change man’s understanding of mathematics. Dev Patel has struck us as somewhat callow and somewhat glib elsewhere; but he delivers a nicely understated performance here as Srinivasa Ramanujan, a sincere young man who is a veritable wunderkind in his discipline, a visionary for whom mathematical formulae are a form of high art, the very words of God. His primary counterpart at Trinity College, Cambridge is the gruff, no-nonsense (and not very nurturing) Jeremy Irons as G.H. Hardy who strives to get his brilliant young protégé’s head out of the clouds long enough to focus on the mundane, but necessary, work of developing formal ‘proofs’ for the unprecedented conclusions the prodigy pulls out of the very air. Toby Jones is very appealing as a fellow academic, Stephen Fry, Jeremy Northam, and Devika Bhise (as the prodigy’s lonely wife) all do good work among the strong supporting cast. Ramanujan has to contend with culture shock, protracted separation from a wife he loves, emotional isolation, the genius’ frustration (and impatience) with the limited vision of those around him, health troubles, and even a smattering of anti-Indian racism. It’s a simple story, simply told: The academic discipline at its heart may be an esoteric one to most people, but the film wisely concentrates on character development, for an effective result.
“Alice Through the Looking Glass: (C-/C): Mia Wasikowska reprises her role from 2010’s “Alice in Wonderland” as the independent-minded young adult version of Lewis Carroll’s juvenile heroine. Her return to the fantastical alternate world finds her in a race through time to save a friend (Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter) and to right assorted wrongs. The most amusing character here, by far, is a newcomer – the self-important personification of Time played by Sacha Baron Cohen. The result is marginally watchable, though never truly involving and certainly not memorable.
“A Bigger Splash” (Italy/France, 2015) (B-): We are too gobsmacked to know what to make of this oddest of fish. It combines good performances, utterly unlikable characters, and a rather tedious, self-indulgent story. A rock singer (a somewhat androgynous Tilda Swinton) and her beau (Matthias Schoenaerts) are vacationing in Sicily (under the glare of a relentless sun) while she recovers from throat surgery that has left her practically mute. Unwelcome guests arrive in the form of her former producer/lover, a boisterous force of nature played by Ralph Fiennes. His presence is a constant irritant to his hosts: He’s a creepy satyr: He’s hedonist, yes, but must he be so loud and overbearing? He has in tow a sexy young thing (Dakota Johnson) who is ostensibly his long-lost daughter, and who may (or may not) be intended as a secret weapon of seduction. The pieces are set for attractions, repulsions, and uncertain allegiances that are somewhat reminiscent of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” There’s acting talent on display here, but it’s all in aid of a story (and characters) that are at once abrasive and obscure. One critical bit of dialogue between Swinton and Fiennes (in which she definitively states her feelings toward him) is all but inaudible thanks to her raspy post-operative voice, and that’s a flaw. We kind of need to know what she said. That we don’t feels like a cheat. Who does what and why remains mostly unclear, unclear to the point of being off-putting. Directed by Italy’s Luca Guadagnino (2009’s “I Am Love”), the film gets points for acting; but we nevertheless cannot recommend it to a general audience. For ages 18+: Very coarse language, sexual content, nudity, drug use, and brief violence.
“Sing Street” (Ireland/U.K./USA, 2016) (A-): A lovely surprise from Ireland, care of writer/director by John Carney (2007’s “Once”), “Sing Street” is easily one of the best films of 2016 thus far – as entertaining on a second viewing as it was the first time round. It’s a charming, funny, endearing, musically infectious coming of age story set in 1980’s Ireland. Its protagonist Connor’s (Fedia Walsh-Peelo) middle class family is having a hard time of it financially and his parents (nicely played by Aidan Gillen of “Game of Thrones” and Maria Doyle Kennedy) are on the verge of splitting up. But it’s a close family, and it feels like a very believably real one. Connor has two siblings: Though we don’t see a great deal of Kelly Thornton as his sister, we get a solid and appealing sense of her. But Connor is closest to his older brother. Brendan (Jack Reynor) is a smart, talented young man who has allowed opportunities to pass him by: A college drop-out, he’s stuck in a rut at home, with only a sense of irony, his love of music, and his big brother’s bond with Connor to console him He’s an engaging fellow, who could become a lost soul if he’s not careful. And his brotherly relationship with Connor is one of the best things about this movie. But it’s not the only great thing! There’s also the girl Connor encounters near his new school in the poor part of town: She may be a year older than Connor, but the lovely Raphina (a fetching Lucy Boynton, who left us as smitten as she did Connor) dreams of becoming a model and escaping the parochial confines of her homeland.
To impress her, Connor suggests that she appear in a music video for his band. Trouble is he doesn’t have a band. But where there’s a will, there’s a way, and Connor (soon redubbed ‘Cosmo’ by the girl of his dreams) creates a band with several other boys in his new school (Mark McKenna plays his chief musical collaborator Eamon). And, big brother Brendan coaches them on musical style. Surprise, surprise: They are actually darn good. The film’s music is sparkling and irresistible. Its upbeat story of underdogs making good is a junior high variant on the great film “The Commitments.” There’s poignancy here, wry understated humor, energy, just the right amount of rebelliousness, and lovely musicality. It’s even got some laudable life lessons, like, “You’re never going to go, if you don’t go now.” Best of all, we like these characters, we like them very much indeed. And what a fine supporting cast! For instance, Lydia McGuinness makes an impression as a sympathetic teacher, as does Marcella Plunkett as Eamon’s mum. Even the small roles feel just right. “Sing Street” is a winner – a sure bet for Artsforum Magazine’s short-list of the year’s best films. Don’t miss it! “Sing Street” was nominated for seven awards at the Irish Film and Television Awards, winning one of them, as Best Supporting Actor (Jack Reynor). For ages 18+: Brief coarse language.
“The Nice Guys” (F): This one’s bad, walk-out bad. Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling play an odd couple in 1977 Los Angeles: One’s a thug for hire, the other’s an inept private investigator. They’re on the trail of a missing person in this woeful attempt to resurrect the buddy genre. We did not believe one second of it. And it’s in extremely bad taste to have a 13 year old girl (Angourie Rice) present while pornography is being screened and people are being killed. It’s nice to see Kim Basinger, but she has almost nothing to do in her brief time on screen. Gosling seems to be channeling all three stooges, while Crowe plays straight-man. Not even the latter’s charisma can save the inane and annoying result. It’s an ordeal to sit through. An unhappy marriage of comedy and action, it is neither funny nor exciting – it is just dumb. Skip it! For ages 18+: Very coarse language, violence, and nudity.
“Miracles from Heaven” (A): Here’s that rarest of things – a faith-based movie in which religious didacticism does not swamp the storytelling. Normally the message overpowers the medium, rather like an elephant in a canoe – but not here. This is an eminently moving story about a mother’s love for her daughter. Its cast, led by Jennifer Garner, is note-perfect – right down to the supporting players. It gets points for its strong emotive power. Good movies (including this film’s director Patricia Riggen’s 2015 film “The 33”), even very good movies, too often fail to connect with us on a truly emotional basis. That’s emphatically not the case here. It has been a long while since this reviewer was so powerfully moved, emotionally, by any movie.
“10 Cloverfield Lane” (B+): Two men and one woman are locked in a bomb shelter. And she’s not there of her own accord. The man in charge is volatility masked by a thin veneer of joviality. He claims that the world outside has been rendered uninhabitable by an unknown catastrophe. The ensuing pas de trois by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman, and John Gallagher Jr. is a taut, suspenseful psychological drama about intentions and motivations. It turns into a different movie altogether in its closing few minutes. But before that, it is riveting drama. And it is a feature film directorial debut by Dan Trachtenberg.
“Where to Invade Next” (B): Not the best Michael Moore documentary ever made, but still good enough to bring to mind (for this reviewer) Robert Kennedy’s noble words: “There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not? We have fallen far short of our own ideals; but there are practical, living examples of how to do things (like feeding school kids, rewarding ordinary people for their labor, and treating prisoners humanely) so much better.
“The Little Prince” (B-/B): A story within a story, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s poignantly whimsical fable of a little boy who visits Earth and learns about love is book-ended by a new story about a little girl who is pressured to conform, to excel to her single mother’s wildly excessive (if well-meaning) standards, and, in effect, to become an adult when she’s still a child. The result celebrates individuality and dreamers, using two completely different styles of animation for each of its stories. The sculpted paper stop-motion animation used for the story of the visitor from a small asteroid is as charming as it is beautiful.
“Allegiant” (C): The third film in the “Divergent” series is about a dystopian world, with humanity divided into five separate ‘factions’ that represent their dominant personality characteristic. The series has been buoyed by a good cast (led by Shailene Woodley, Theo James, and Ashley Judd) and an interesting post-apocalyptic setting (a walled-off, half crumbling city of Chicago). This new installment still has solid characters going for it; but it is weaker in plotting – kind of a diluted version of what was done better in the earlier chapters. Worthwhile, if unmemorable, for those who like the genre, or have read the young adult novels, or who have seen the first two films.
“The Witch” (A): It’s still very early in the year; but this film has already earned a secure place as one of the best movies of 2016.
But be warned, it is not for all tastes. It’s the grim story of a family of Puritan settlers exiled from their 17th century North American colony for failing to conform. A man, his wife, and their four children set out to create a new home for themselves in the wilderness. Then, bad things, seemingly inexplicable things, start to happen to them. Is some malevolent supernatural force preying upon them? That’s what their rigid and dogmatic religious views cause them to wonder. The story focuses on the eldest daughter, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, as she contends with fear, suspicion, and mounting dread. The result is a foreboding fable – beautifully acted, relentlessly dark in tone, and highly original. The cast is first-rate, with Anya Taylor-Joy as Thomasin, Harvey Scrimshaw as her
brother Caleb, Ralph Ineson as the father (William), Kate Dickey as the mother (Katherine), and Ellie Grainger & Lucas Dawson as the twins, boisterous children who have the ever more abrasive habit of reciting unpleasant rhymes about the family’s black goat and its supposed whisperings. The film, from writer/director Robert Eggers, has northern Ontario filling-in for New England. “The Witch” is a truly creepy film, and a memorable one, despite a significant misstep: It shows (or seems to show) us, though not its hapless family under siege, a physical cause for their troubles – a cause that cannot logically be there. Or, do our eyes deceive us? Is what we seem to see just an externalization of their fears – a representation of superstition as the dark side of dogmatic religiosity? Better to have left the actual agent of their misfortune to our imagination: Is it mass hysteria? Is it superstition born of extreme misfortune and unbearable tragedy? Or is it something supernaturally wicked that this way comes? A word of warning: Some of the film’s content is disturbing. But this film is mesmerizing, if you can withstand the darkness. Warning! For ages 18+ only: Disturbing content and violence.
Editor’s Note: An expanded version of this review appears in Artsforum Magazine’s Featured Film Reviews section at: http://artsforum.ca/film/featured-film-reviews
“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” (C+): See Artsforum’s review — “Nothing New Under the Suns: ‘Star Wars’ Redux in ‘The Force Awakens’” by John Arkelian at: http://artsforum.ca/film/featured-film-reviews
“Spotlight” (USA/Canada, 2015) (B/B+): In 1761, the poet Charles Churchill penned these words: “Keep up appearances; there lies the test; / The world will give thee credit for the rest. / Outward be fair, however foul within; / Sin if thou wilt, but then in secret sin.” The present day has no shortage of such ‘secret sin’ – and among the worst is the shocking betrayal of trust (and criminality) that sees ministers of God prey upon innocent children. Based on a true story, “Spotlight” takes its name from an investigative journalism unit within “The Boston Globe” newspaper, which, in early 2002, revealed pervasive sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests in the archdiocese of Boston. The investigative reporters who start looking into allegations of such abuse can scarcely believe their ears: the truth is too appalling to credit, until it becomes impossible to dismiss. It’s bad enough that any priest sexually abused any child, but the predators who have done so have done so repeatedly – these are serial sexual predators. And there are many of them. An estimate given in the film that six percent of Catholic priests have “acted out sexually against children” proves to be dead-on: The journalists uncover 87 predatory priests in Boston alone. And that predation consists of the sexual molestation and rape of children – the most vulnerable (and trusting) among us.
Can things get any worse? Alas, yes they can: senior church officials (up to and including the archdiocese’s cardinal, the film suggests) were actively involved in covering-up the heinous crimes committed against their flock of believers. Pedophile priests are simply shifted from one parish to another, and while they’re waiting for their new parish they’re designated as being on “sick leave” or “unassigned” – code words used to disguise their status as criminally deviant offenders. But admission of wrongdoing, let alone criminal prosecution, is conspicuous by its absence. Instead, the church successfully silences complainants, quietly settling their claims for a pittance or simply discrediting them (victims often came from poor or broken families, precisely because it was easier to impugn the credibility of such victims). Other elements of society, among them some lawyers and police officers, also play a part in this systemic corruption and cover-up – usually in the cause of protecting ‘the good name’ of the church. Secret sins indeed! Misguided loyalty to an institution, self-interest, and simple complacency all play their role in perpetuating an appalling, longstanding, and covert epidemic of child abuse by persons in positions of trust.
As one character says, “If it takes a village to raise them, it takes a village to abuse them. That’s the truth of it.” And this is very much a story about truth – and the quest for justice for those so badly betrayed. Indeed, the title “Spotlight” does double duty here, for it also signifies the light of truth that finally uncovers secret sins of shocking proportions. A well-acted ensemble drama (featuring Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Stanley Tucci, Liev Schrieber, John Slattery, Billy Crudup, and Jamey Sheridan), “Spotlight” is the second strong movie about investigative journalism (along with “Truth”) of the year.
“Legend” (B): Real-life twin brothers Reginald and Ronald Kray made their names in the London underworld in the 1960’s. Both siblings are played here by Tom Hardy – one as a psychopathic brute, given to mumbling, the other as a sometimes charming thug. The double-performance is good enough to overcome the mere gimmick factor, giving enough depth (not to mention larger than life color) to the twin characterizations to keep us interested in what are, frankly, pretty unpleasant blokes. And Australian actress Emily Browning is always interesting to watch, first making an impression in her teens in 2004’s “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.” Often appearing in sultry roles (with an transgressively adolescent sexuality, as, for example, ‘Babydoll’ in 2011’s “Sucker Punch”), she plays a young woman who clearly can see what’s going on around her, but who nevertheless falls in love with Reggie, hoping, against reason, that the remnants of his better side will win the day over his gangster inclinations. The solid supporting cast benefits from the likes of David Thewlis and Chazz Palminteri. For ages 18+ only: Abundant very coarse language and violence.
“In the Heart of the Sea” (C+/B-): Competently made, but what’s a story of high seas adventure, complete with a great white whale of a nemesis and a shipwrecked 19th century crew, without emotional wallop? This tale has none. And much of what lead Chris Hemsworth says in a heavily-accented mumble is well-nigh unintelligible without subtitles. We sympathized more with the whales – intelligent marine mammals being stalked and ruthlessly slaughtered as a mere resource by mankind – than with their unlucky human antagonists. Brendan Gleeson lends things some gravitas as a man reluctantly revisiting an ordeal that marked him for life.
“Creed” (B): Some 39 years after “Rocky,” the unlikely hero of that first film in a durable series, Rocky Balboa, is back, this time as mentor to the illegitimate son of his one time boxing rival and friend. The new guy (played by Michael B. Jordan) is okay, but the series’ real champ is still Sylvester Stallone, who brings both wisdom and wistfulness to the role of a one-time working class hero who has outlived those closest to him. He’s an elder statesman this time out, but he remains an appealing character. Tessa Thompson and Phyllis Rashad both make an impression of the new contender’s girlfriend and step-mother.
“A Royal Night Out” (U.K., 2015) (B-): On V-E Day, princesses Elizabeth and Margaret joined the ‘common people’ celebrating (incognito) in the streets, a fact that is spun into an all-night escapade in this film. It combines a good cast and a good idea, but it is undermined by tonal problems. Too often it plays as mere farce – a case in point being the pair of very proper British officers who are assigned chaperone duty only to turn out to be Keystone Kops in disguise. Things really go overboard when they neglect their duty to sexually cavort with some floosies. And things get a tad ugly when another officer plies the giddy Margaret with drink, surreptitiously drugs her, and then starts to get rough with her. That off-putting detour into would-be sexual assault is as distracting as the semi-slapstick farce. Things work much better when the script hews to a “Roman Holiday” tone. Both princesses are appealingly played, but Canada’s Sarah Gadon is especially fetching as the responsible but wistful sister ‘Lisbet.’ Roger Allam (a convincingly despicable fascist propagandist in “V for Vendetta”) makes an impression in the supporting role of a helpful, amusingly paternal, gangster. For ages 16+: One scene of moderate sexuality.
“Trumbo” (B+/A-): The bête noir of the middle twentieth century was communism, a dogma that was too transparently malign to pose any real allure for a free people (like those of us lucky enough to call North America home). But that didn’t stop ideologues and, especially, would-be demagogues, from whipping up a ‘Red Scare’ – a veritable frenzy of hostility and irrational suspicion promulgated to root out real (and mostly imagined) ‘subversives’ within. (Sound familiar? We have a handy stand-in for the communist menace today, in the form of Muslims.) The U.S. House of Representatives struck up a “House Un-American Activities Committee,” which, in the late 1940s, devised its own noxious litmus test for patriotism. Those with personal or political associations deemed questionable were expected to come clean and name names: “Are you now, or have you ever been…” goes the inquisitor’s refrain. That impertinent (not to mention unconstitutional) question and the concomitant demand for collaboration with the witch-hunt bullies was (and remains) an affront to, nay, an outright assault upon, the inalienable rights of free men and women. One who had the courage to say so was Dalton Trumbo, a leading Hollywood screenwriter, who was jailed for refusing to “cooperate” with the Committee and subsequently blacklisted, with several others, by a mostly collaborationist Hollywood. But Trumbo managed to find work under pseudonyms (winning two Oscars in the process), until the blacklist finally collapsed in 1960. Here, Bryan Cranston, delivers a memorable performance of a wry, witty, worldly, yet principled, man who gradually triumphs over a the purveyors of fear and mistrust, those who attacked the tenets of freedom in the spurious name of protecting the country founded on the self-same tenets. His wry good humor, charm, and the irrepressible twinkle in his eye make for a character who is as engaging as he is admirable. Supporting players like Michael Stuhbarg (as Edward G. Robinson), Diane Lane (as Trumbo’s loyal wife), as well as Louis C.K., Alan Tudyk, David James Elliott (as conservative blacklist advocate John Wayne), and Helen Mirren, among others, do good work here. But this is Cranston’s show, and he runs with it: It is easily one of the best performances of the year. For ages 18+: Coarse language.
“The Good Dinosaur” (B/B+): This new animated tale has gotten less attention than this year’s other release from Pixar/Disney, “Inside Out,” but it’s the better of the pair. It imagines that the asteroid whose impact is thought to have extinguished dinosaurs instead missed the Earth. Dinosaurs have survived and had time to become sentient and capable of speech, while the newly arrived humans are still wild things. A young dinosaur is separated from his family farm and befriends a feral human child on an eventful road trip. There are lessons here about friendship, family, loyalty, and ‘making one’s mark.’ The result is touching at times. The film has an unusual look: The characters are all very obviously animated (no attempt is made to pass them off as anything else); but they wander through a photo-realistic world that seems to be just that – motion images of our real world, onto which the animated characters have been superimposed. It’s an odd combination of two disparate ‘looks.’
“Victor Frankenstein”(C+): Mary Shelley’s classic story about human hubris and the horror it spawns is re-imagined here in a form that bears only slight resemblance to its source. It plays as a story of two unlikely friends – the obsessed young scientist Victor Frankenstein (James McAvoy) and the deformed young circus clown (Daniel Radcliffe) who he rechristens Igor. There are some very good elements here, among them the surprising poignancy of Radcliffe in sad clown makeup as a kind of “Elephant Man” precursor. That poignancy is promptly spoiled by an action sequence with murderous circus folk on the rampage to prevent Radcliffe from being freed from involuntary servitude. Radcliffe’s liberation and transformation to a normal life is quite affecting. His liberator, Victor, is decisive, driven, and irrepressible – an equally engaging character, except when he gets drunk, or otherwise excitable, and starts chewing the scenery. Elsewhere, Andrew Scott (who was so good as a half-mad Moriarty in the modern day “Sherlock” series from BBC) makes a strong impression as a principled, devout, and humorless Scotland Yard detective, but they spoil him by gratuitously disfiguring him (he loses some fingers, and an eye-patch inexplicably comes and goes). Charles Dance (the Lannister pater familias in “Game of Thrones”) is very good in his short role as Victor’s stern, imperious father. And “Downton Abbey’s” late Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Finley) is good as Igor’s love interest. But there are flaws, too, like an evil young lord with improbable designs of conquest with the inhuman help of Frankenstein’s intended creation. The result has the sporadic makings of a tragic drama arising from a good-natured ‘buddy story,’ but it is hobbled by the cardinal sin of excess – in action, effects, and pyrotechnics. A case in point: the rotting monkey which is the two friends’ first experiment in reanimation. Had it been quieter and subtler, leaving more of the mad science to the imagination and sticking with what it does quite well (solid characterization), it could have been a much better film.
“The Diary of a Teenage Girl” (B): In 1976 San Francisco, a precocious 15 year-old has an affair with her mother’s boyfriend in a story that’s meant to be a daring look at budding pubescent sexuality – from the viewpoint of a girl on the verge of becoming a woman. It is unusual for its sexual frankness (in words and actions); doubly so because it champions female sexuality; triply so because its female lead is underage. Minnie (winningly played by the unconventionally-looking British actress Bel Powley) is not only sexually active at an early age – she is sexually active with an older, indisputably adult man (played by “True Blood’s” Alexander Skarsgård). Their unabashedly sexual relationship is transgressive for a host of reasons: First, it’s illegal (given her age); second, it’s unseemly (given her age); third, it’s improper (given the disparity between her age and his); and four, it’s an immoral betrayal of her own mother (Kristen Wiig). But, speaking of her mother, does drinking and taking drugs with wild abandon constitute somebody’s idea of responsible parenting, let-alone grown-up behavior? Things are given an artistic gloss, insofar as Minnie is presented as a quirky and independent-minded aspiring artist. Her (sometimes overtly sexual) cartoons whimsically come to life throughout the movie. And, for the most part, Minnie seems improbably apt at keeping her head despite her relative tender years in the midst of these wildly inappropriate goings-on. There’s a female liberation theme going on here (none too subtly), with the film’s frank and open exploration of female sexuality. (It could just as readily have tackled the same subject with more restrained use of sexual talk and sexual actions. But self-restraint is a lost art nowadays.) But it goes way beyond the pale, and anybody’s notion of normalcy, with its plunges into drug use and Minnie’s near-miss with involuntary prostitution. Still, those excesses aside, it has some very good performances, led by Powley (in near award-caliber work) and Skarsgård. Based on the novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” was written and directed by Marielle Heller. For ages 18+: Very coarse language; nudity; drug use; and strong sexual content.
“No Escape” (B-): What you see is what you get here: An American family has just arrived at an unnamed southeast Asian country (it was filmed in Thailand), where he’s to start work as an engineer, when the whole place erupts in lethal violence. Something like a bloody revolution gets underway moments after the unlucky family arrives at their hotel. And the victorious rebels (there’s very little sign of the forces of law and order: where’s the country’s army, not to mention outside intervention, while all the violent massacres are going on?) are ruthless about killing anyone they deem to be opposed to them. That most definitely includes foreigners – all foreigners. The family has to dodge bullets, bombs, helicopter gun-ships, men with machetes, and rapists in a desperate struggle to hide, flee, and survive. It’s like we said: what you see is what you get. It’s simple, unsophisticated, but successfully suspenseful. There’s no time for character-development, but we sympathize with this family under severe stress. They’re in imminent danger of violent death from one scene to the next. Owen Wilson and Lake Bell play Jack & Annie Dwyer. Their young daughters, Lucy and Beeze, are ably played by Sterling Jerins (from 2013’s very good “The Conjuring”) and Claire Geare, respectively. Luckily for that quartet, there’s an experienced, able, and quite handy with firearms old Asian-hand on hand in the reliably charismatic presence of Pierce Brosnan. He brings a combination of derring-do, geo-political commentary, and dark humor to bear. Sahajak Boonthanakit plays his Nashville-loving sidekick ‘Kenny Rogers.’ The family in jeopardy theme (with its members being called upon to undertake things well outside their comfort zone) is efficiently executed, keeping us in suspense about their fate as they encounter one threat after another. For ages 18+: Violence, coarse language, and sexual violence.
Editor’s note: Spoiler alert! Our review of “Backcountry” (below) discloses some important plot points. Proceed at your own risk.
“Backcountry” (Canada, 2014) [first half (B-/B); second half (F)]: An almost engaged couple head to an unnamed provincial park for a weekend. She’s a novice at such things – and unenthusiastic about being so isolated in the wilderness; he’s eager to show her his favorite places from his youthful visits to the same wilderness. She’s hesitant; he’s over-confident. It’s late in the season (fall), so they’re unlikely to encounter other backpackers. But it’s that very sense of isolation that makes her so uneasy. Jeff Roop (who has had recurring guest spots on the Canadian television series “Heartland”) and Missy Peregrym (from the Canadian television series “Rookie Blue”) are very well cast. They are an appealing, very believable young couple, with nicely delineated characters. Indeed, what’s best about the film is its first half, with its interplay of affection and twinges of unease as the couple wanders deeper and deeper in to the (literal and proverbial) woods. Their unsettling encounter with a lone stranger (Eric Balfour’s Brad), however, is a tad heavy-handed. On the one hand, it plausibly drives home the message that people alone in the woods are inherently vulnerable, should they happen to encounter someone dangerous. But, why is this particular stranger so coarse and so vaguely intimidating? He abruptly turns his back to his hosts and urinates in their presence without any heed to the dictates of acceptable behavior, like an animal marking its territory. It’s a way for the filmmakers to signal that he is an intrusion into (and possible threat against) their civilized ways – but it’s a crude storytelling device. And why on earth does he suddenly drop the thin (and too transparent) veil of amicability and take an openly aggressive, intimidating tone with his uncomfortable hosts? No rationale is offered for his unsettling behavior: It may not be wholly implausible, but it is rather contrived and therefore gratuitous.
But our main objection to the encounter is that it openly posits the stranger as an abiding threat, when, in fact, he’s just a red-herring. Perhaps the idea is simply to ratchet up the sense of unease for the main event: The couple becomes lost, in the middle of an expansive nowhere, only to be trailed, then aggressively hunted, by a large bear. The predator is unrelenting in dogging them. By the time it makes a ferocious, unprovoked, all-out assault on them, things get ugly. In fact, things get so ugly, that it is impossible to recommend this otherwise good film. A section with brutal, horrific violence is so gruesome, so stomach-churningly nauseating, so deeply disturbing, that it’s something no sensible person wants to see – not even vicariously, in a movie. (In us, it prompted a barely-constrained impulse to flee the theater.) All the careful pacing, the incremental building of unease, is squandered and undone by a revolting, repulsive plunge into brutal, horrific violence. And improbabilities start to multiply: How could a badly injured, utterly terrified, victim traverse rough country, let alone miraculously end up (without path, compass, or map) exactly where they stowed their canoe? The ‘coincidence’ factor is (monumentally) too hard to accept. And it’s compounded by another reunion at water’s edge that’s as unlikely as it is unwelcome (insofar as it implicitly transmogrifies a gratuitously creepy character into the savior of the day).
“Backcountry” was written and directed by Adam MacDonald, who most often works as an actor (“Rookie Blue” and “Being Erica”). What’s good about the movie leads us to look forward to his future efforts. Nicholas Campbell appears in a small role; and the movie was shot in North Bay, Restoule Provincial Park in Ontario, and in Squamish, B.C. For ages 18+ only: Brutal horrific violence; revoltingly gruesome content; and coarse language!
“American Ultra” (C): A dope-smoking, long-haired slacker (Jesse Eisenberg ‘s Mike) and his girlfriend (the naturally dopey Kristen Stewart, of the annoying “Twilight” franchise, as Phoebe) live low-key lives in a small town (where he works in a variety store) till all hell breaks loose. A cohort of assassins and soldiers arrive – all intent on eliminating Mike at the best of a ruthless CIA officer played by Topher Grace. Turns out Mike is a sleeper-agent, trained in the lethal arts by the CIA, but put out to pasture by them as a failed experiment in psychological conditioning, with his memory erased. Now, with his ticket about to be cancelled, permanently, the perpetually stoned-out young man is reactivated by a rival CIA operative (Connie Britton) intent on saving his life by switching back on the skills that will instinctively enable him to defend himself. (The whole joke here is a hapless druggie slacker who has no idea how or why he suddenly has the skill-set of a highly trained killer.) Battles with guns, explosives, and a spoon ensue. It’s mindless entertainment, we suppose; though we don’t see the entertainment value in all the drug references – which, frankly, are quite off-putting. For ages 18+: Strong violence; drug use; and very coarse language.
“Ricki and the Flash” (C+/B-): The trailer grated: Something about Meryl Streep as an aging rocker in braided fright wig and a heavy-handed story about trying to reconnect with the family she left to their own devices long ago. But the movie worked better than its trailer. The singing is adequate; but the movie swims or sinks on its characterizations. So, which is it? Well, let’s just say that it treads water and stays afloat. It’s not particularly believable, but then, it seems to aim for amiability, tinged with a hint of the bittersweet. Kevin Kline makes an impression as Streep’s affable ex, and her real-life daughter Mamie Gummer, plays her over-wrought offspring in the story. It’s all meant to be kind of sassy, kind of endearing, kind of wry. It’s okay entertainment but makes no enduring impression.
“The Man from UNCLE” (C): The trailers for this semi-comedic remake (from director Guy Ritchie) of the 1960’s television series were smugly insufferable – very nearly to the point of keeping us away from this movie altogether. Happily, it’s better than expected, with its only half serious spin on the spy genre. Still, we never bought the faux accents, affectations, and phony mannerisms of its two male leads. Besides, both Henry Cavill (as Napoleon Solo) and Armie Hammer (as his Russian nemesis turned ally Ilya Kuryakin) are both too big (that is, physically big) for the roles: Their sheer hulking body sizes made them look like bodybuilders more than spies. It detracted from their believability. Female leads Alicia Vikander (who was so outstanding in “Ex Machina”) and the Australian-raised Elizabeth Debicki (as a villainess worthy of Bond himself) fare better, as does the too briefly seen Hugh Grant (as wry spymaster Mr. Waverly).
“Beyond the Mask” (C-/C): Here’s an unusual blend of historical drama, swashbuckling adventure, romance, and Christian-themed redemptive story. Set in 1775-76, it concerns a mercenary Andrew Cheney (as William Reynolds) who has been employed by Britain’s East India Company. Recently back from India, he has been a successful agent for them, engaging in whatever dirty deeds (like assassination and theft) they command. He wants out now; but, he is betrayed by his employer (John Rhys-Davies). He barely evades a violent death, and his name has been publicly blackened. So, he takes on the identity of a vicar who died saving him, meeting the gentle, swan-like beauty Charlotte (Kara Kilmer) in the process. Events conspire to take these characters to the Americas. Reynolds’ scheming former employer seeks to derail (by mass murder, if need be) the gathering momentum for independence in the Thirteen Colonies, while Reynolds works in a printing shop by day and rides the streets of Philadelphia as a Zorro-like masker avenger by night, in an effort to thwart the nasty schemes of his former employer. (That’s all well and good, but it would have been nice if the filmmakers recognized that not all Loyalists were villains! There was an honest difference of opinion on the issue of independence from the mother-county.) There is an interesting (and timely, for modern audiences) subtext here – about too close a connection between governmental and corporate interests, and also about the wrong way to respond to terror: “He that would give up liberty for security deserves neither and loses both.” (It would behoove us to remember that in the post 9/11 world: Yet, far too many of us, in the West, seem to have forgotten it – at our peril.) The cast is capable: Besides those named already, Annie Kitral makes an impression as Charlotte’s mother and Alan Madlane steals his scenes as a mischievous Ben Franklin. And the redemptive theme (“I am not a good man; but I desire to be.”) is appealing. Its musical score emulates the main theme from “Pirates of the Caribbean” every time it goes into swashbuckling mode. And its didactic Christian message is surprisingly restrained. That message could have been subtler still: Why not develop a role model character (like the bishop in “Les Misérables,” for instance) to befriend and inspire Reynolds in his transition from mercenary to good man, rather than overtly cite tenets of Christian faith? True, the religious message is far more restrained here than in other faith-based movies, but it still feels shoe-horned into the action. The result is a good try that falls a tad short of its potential. Its many distinct ingredients don’t quite cohere into a fully satisfying finished work. And, the story itself sometimes feels truncated, as though editing left too many transition scenes on the cutting room floor. However, as it is, it is (mildly) worth a look.
“Dark Places” (C+): Charlize Theron is very effective as Libby Day, the hardened, embittered, and joyless survivor of a domestic multiple murder that took place when she was a child. Her older brother (played as a teen by “Mud’s” Tye Sheridan and later in life by Corey Stoll) was convicted of killing her mother (nicely portrayed by Christina Hendricks). Libby has always believed he committed the murders. Now, she reluctantly looks into the case, in order to make some money by helping an unlikely crew of people (led by Nicholas Hoult, who also appeared with Theron in this year’s “Mad Max: Fury Road”) who make a perverse hobby of looking into notorious crime cases. Her inquiries prompt cascading questions about the lethal events in question. The scenes in the present alternate with flashbacks from the past, which, bit by bit reveal what really happened. Trouble is: The events leading up to (and culminating in) the murders just don’t engage us. And the flashbacks themselves, presented in B&W video, draw entirely too much attention to themselves. There are some odd characters (like Libby’s brother) and some unpleasant Satanist wannabes (like Chloë Grace Moretz’s Diondra). Nor is the whole murder-investigators hobby club credible in the slightest. The one thing that works here is Theron’s portrayal of a damaged soul. It makes the movie worth seeing.
“The Gift” (B-): An effectively suspenseful drama that has an upwardly mobile couple (Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall as Simon and Robyn) move into a nifty new house, only to find themselves the increasingly reluctant recipients of visits and unsolicited friendship by Gordo, an awkward and vaguely odd man (played by Joel Edgerton, who also wrote and directed this film). It seems that Gordo knew Simon in high school – and we gradually learn that their acquaintance was not a happy one. Is he out for revenge? Is Simon hiding something? We start to suspect that the unhappy combination of past secrets and ongoing cover-up is not going to end well. Before long, Simon and Robyn are under psychological siege, giving new meaning, both figuratively and literally, to the old caution about ‘people who live in glass houses.’ The screenplay is marred by improbabilities. For starters: Don’t reward incipient stalker-like behavior by inviting your persistent visitor in for coffee. Second, don’t pop stolen pills. Third, don’t leave your wife alone and vulnerable on a regular basis when a creep is hanging about. The film makes a good point about our never wholly knowing what those closest to us may be capable of. But it squanders the good performances, the gradually ratcheting-up suspense, and the sense of mystery, by – spoiler alert – leaving us with not one but two villains. Among its male leads, there is ultimately no one to root for. That fact obliterates our sympathies and leaches the unduly distasteful ending of both its import and its impact.
“Fantastic Four” (D+/C-): The latest superhero flick spawned from comic books is mildly interesting in first half, but pointlessly conventional in the last half. It’s mighty hard to take these particular “powers” seriously. They’re just too ridiculous to exist off the newsprint pages of a comic book – one character can stretch his limbs like Gumby on steroids, another is permanently transformed to a walking, talking pile of rocks, a third can ignite in flames (and fly) at will, and the lone distaff member of the quartet can turn invisible and project force fields. Their varied transformations come courtesy of a reckless (and sublimely pointless) excursion to another dimension – a journey undertaken for no conceivable reason whatsoever. It leaves them stricken with conditions that are more to be pitied than envied; and they are obliged to battle a fifth member of their team, who is belatedly reunited with them and inexplicably intent on global extinction. Maybe if the whole thing had been played with a wink and a nudge? Nah, not even then.
“Irrational Man” (B-): Inappropriate relationships (one adulterous, the other transgressively between a professor and his student) and a murder provide the grist for this straight-faced comedy of manners from Woody Allen. It’s set in a university town, but we never for an instant believe that Joachim Phoenix and Emma Stone are teacher and student. This reviewer must confess that he is not sure why he liked this film: It was neither funny nor believable… In fact, its arch tone defies credibility. But, it is inexplicably likeable for characters. They, and especially the lovely, personable Emma Stone, exude charm. (Parker Posey also makes an impression as non-too-faithful married woman.) And that, somehow, was enough.
“Southpaw” (C/C+): Jake Gyllenhaal plays Billy Hope, a boxing champ who came up from the wrong side of the tracks. The tragic loss of his beloved wife and partner (Canada’s Rachel McAdams) throws Billy into a steep spiral. He loses his income, his mansion, custody of his daughter (Oona Laurence), and his will to live. He loses it all, until he hits rock bottom and rekindles the will to fight – not just in the boxing ring, but in life’s contests. Along the way, he is aided by the world-weary veteran played by Forest Whitaker, as the new trainer he enlists to his cause: Whitaker is the best thing in the movie. As good as actress as she is, McAdams, whose tenure in the film is very brief, seems too sweet for the role. For ages 18: Coarse language – lots of it!
“Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation” (C+): Breaking into supposedly impregnable places, engaging in wild pursuits by car and motorcycle, navigating the duplicitous byways of governmental intelligence agencies, diverse stunts galore, and outwitting your adversary – all these are the stuff of the “Mission Impossible” film franchise. But, the best thing by far in this installment is Swedish-born, British-raised Rebecca Ferguson as the improbably named ‘Ilsa Faust,’ an agent of ambiguous agendas who’s more than a match for every man in the movie combined. Tom Cruise, Simon Pegg & Company are serviceable as the continuing protagonists. But, aside from Ferguson, who gets all of our attention here, Sean Harris is a stand-out as the smart, highly capable villain-in-chief. And, we still like the title theme music lifted from the old television series – a drama that relied on brains far more than the movies’ fondness for brawn. The screenplay has one howler of a ridiculous line: “Hunt is the living manifestation of destiny!”
“Ant-Man” (B-): Here’s an amusing comic book character, with an unusual superpower: He can switch back and forth from human size to the size of an ant! He acquires the impressive relative strength of those tiny critters and leads an army of them into battle against a mad-scientist intent on using the same shrink-ray as a weapon of war. What’s good here is the sense of humor and buoyant mood. There’s enough invested in characterization to make this action adventure worthwhile, thanks to a good script and good performances by the cast, led by Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Canada’s Evangeline Lilly (who was the standout in the last two installments of “The Hobbit”), and Michael Peña. The result is entertaining and good summer fun.
“Paper Towns” (C/C+): A boy is secretly smitten with the girl across the street for years, though their paths diverge early on, until they are briefly reunited at the end of high school. She’s a self-styled enigmatic free-spirit, an adventuress who marches to the tune of her own drum: “Maggie loved mystery; maybe so much that she became one herself.” Her offbeat ways are cute and precocious when she’s a child, less so when she’s vaguely bratty teen. More femme fatale than girl next door, she disappears (of her own accord) after enlisting her adoring admirer for an evening of pranks. That sets him and an extended circle of acquaintances on a road-trip to find her. Based on the popular novel by John Green, the movie is a mixed result. It opens with an engaging prologue showing Maggie and Quentin as kids – very appealingly played by Hannah Alligood and Josiah Cerio. If only we saw more of young Maggie. Her older self is played by British model Cara Delevinge, and she’s just too blank-faced (in that model way) to be the face that launched even one ship. And is she a free-spirit, as advertised, or just plain troubled (“Everything is ugly close up,” she opines)? She seems more pouting poseur than urban philosopher: “We bring the rain and not the scattered showers.” On the other hand, she’s soon out of sight – and the road trip by Quentin (Nat Wolff) and his ragtag collection of fellow travelers (Austin Abrams, Justice Smith, Halston Sage, and Jaz Sinclair) is mostly kind of cute. The result is an intermittently successful coming of age story.
“Mr. Holmes” (B): The estimable Ian McKellen (who was note-perfect as Gandalf in “The Lord of the Rings”) plays an aging Sherlock Holmes in a movie that has more to do with aging, mortality, and cascading losses than it does with the usual tropes of a Sherlockian mystery story. Here, the detective is in his nineties, long since retired, and long parted from his friend John Watson. His memories are fading, but he is haunted by his imperfect recollections of his last case – a case that he’s sure was a failure. The detecting is fine; but the heart of this story is the old man’s relationship with a young boy, his housekeeper’s earnest son (Milo Parker as Roger). His mother (Laura Linney) lacks the boy’s earnest admiration for (and emulation of) Holmes; instead, her primary emotion is sourness. “Mr. Holmes” shines as a relationship-driven character-study.
“Terminator Genisys” (C): A somewhat revisionary return to the Terminator franchise uses paradoxes created by time travel to inventively play with what has gone before in previous movies. Its best feature, the one that makes it worth seeing, is its affectionate partnership between an aging benevolent Terminator (a gently humorous turn by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who steals the show and single-handedly recreates fond memories of the first two movies) and the human woman he has raised to be a self-confident, capable warrior. Emilia Clarke is appealing in the role of Sarah Connor, taking over from the fine work done by her fellow “Game of Thrones” alumna Lena Headley, who did a first rate job in the role in the late, lamented 2008-09 television series “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.” (Clarke is unrecognizable here, without the unnaturally bleached white-blonde hair she sports as Daenerys Targaryen.) The relationship between Schwarzenegger and Clarke’s characters is almost that of surrogate father and daughter – and it lends interest to an otherwise so-so story. The good guys still insist on blasting merrily away with guns at androids that are clearly impervious to bullets – futile behavior that is inexplicably common to all movies in the franchise – but at least they figure out some more effective ways of dispatching a relentless foe made of molten metal. Happily, Schwarzenegger is a vital, integral player in this outing, not just a cameo bit.
“Self/less” (C+): A dying real estate mogul (Ben Kingsley) is introduced to a secret outfit that offers to transfer his consciousness to a new body – in exchange for a king’s ransom. It means leaving his old identity and life behind. What he doesn’t know, but comes to suspect later, is that his host body was not grown in a laboratory as his benefactors claimed: Rather, it belonged to a young man (Ryan Reynolds) who was desperate enough to get expensive medical care for his grievously ill daughter that he agreed to give up his own life in exchange. The original occupant’s consciousness has been chemically suppressed; a regular course of drugs will eventually obliterate it completely. But the old rich man, in his shiny new body, gets enough glimpses into its original owner’s life to feel responsible for him. He also picks up the (muscle-memory?) skill-set of the suppressed consciousness. The young man was a soldier – and his combat skills come in handy as the conscience-stricken recipient of the donor-body strives: to undercover the truth from the ruthless mastermind of ‘Phoenix Biogenics’ (Matthew Goode), to overpower the thugs (led by Derek Luke) who are meant to keep him from asking too many questions, and to protect the donor’s grieving wife (Natalie Martinez) and daughter. The whole thing ends up in pedestrian chases, gun-battles, and hand-to-hand fights. What’s good about the movie is actually is the quieter, character-driven stuff, its premise of cutting edge medical breakthroughs available only to the super-rich, and the moral questions that drive one beneficiary of a new lease on life to risk it all for the sake of others. Canada’s Victor Garber has an important supporting role. “Self/less” was directed by Tarsem Singh, who is noted for his visually flamboyant flair; this outing lacks such outlandish visuals – but it does offer some fairly intriguing ideas. For ages 18+: Coarse language.
“Dope” (B-): A trio of good teens in a rough-around-the-edges California suburb known as ‘The Bottoms’ unwittingly come into possession of a drug dealer’s illegal stash and have to rely on their wits and improvised entrepreneurial skills to offload it without getting killed or arrested. The three friends (led by Shameik Moore as Malcolm) describe themselves as “geeks,” but they’re hip enough to have their own band. They aren’t saints, but they are good kids. Indeed, Malcolm aims to try for admission to Harvard. There are gangs to outwit or evade, sirens to lust after, and a crook in high places who puts the lie to the self-acclaimed respectability of ‘the Establishment.’ The prevailing tone here is sly, somewhat dark, humor, though there are serious moments, too. It’s a coming of age story told mostly in an offbeat comedic note. The drug references are not appealing; nor are the crude and vulgar verbal exchanges. But this coming of age story, written and directed by Rick Famuyiwa (of 2002’s “Brown Sugar”) gets points for originality and verve. Tony Revolori and Kiersey Clemons (as Malcolm’s chums Jib & Diggy), Zoe Kravits (as the ‘head screwed on straight’ good girl, Nakia), and Chanel Iman (as the seductively bad girl, Lily) appear in key roles. For ages 18+ only: Frequent very coarse language; sexual content; nudity; and drug use.
“Minions” (C/C+): The funny little yellow guys from 2010’s “Despicable Me” and its sequel get top-billing in a film of their own. These pint-sized, capsule-shaped characters are as funny as ever. Their (benignly) mischievous antics and hapless propensity for getting into trouble amuses us as much as it does them. They chatter away in a rapid patter decipherable only to themselves (though we always manage to get the gist of it). In that and other respects, they conjure our inner-child. But, as cute as they are, there isn’t enough of a story (it revolves around a ho-hum villainess and a heist of some of the British crown jewels) here to sustain a movie. The brief appearance of a younger version of the other films’ super-villain, ‘Gru,’ late in the film (this film is, in effect, a prequel to “Despicable Me”) is a highlight – as is a longer prologue, showing the unfortunate fates of the minions’ diverse adopted leaders (everything from a Tyrannosaurus rex to an Egyptian pharaoh) down through history. Once again, though, sidekicks (like “Madagascar’s” quartet of over-confident penguins) work better as sidekicks than as leading characters.