This page contains reviews of films seen during the months of April to June 2015


“Kingsman: The Secret Service” - Colin Firth is the well-dressed and articulate Harry Hart (aka “Galahad”), an agent of a special British spy organization called “Kingsman” led by “Arthur” (Michael Caine). But central to the plot is Mark Strong as “Merlin” whose job it is to test a group of young men and women to determine the best to replace the murdered “Lancelot” (Jack Davenport). One of those young men is Eggsy Unwin (Taron Egerton), a young man whose late father was once involved with Kingsman but who has developed some bad habits and some street enemies. Harry Hart sees his good qualities and proposes him as a candidate to become “Lancelot.” Initially, “Kingsman” is humorous and has just the right amount of violence, but then comes an incredibly silly and overblown scene in which one of the main characters kills at least a hundred people in a church meeting of a hate group, and that is followed by a James-Bond ripoff in which at least some of our heroes have to battle against the forces of Goldfinger, er, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, er…...Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), a tech billionaire who, together with his blade-legged assistant, Gazelle (Sofia Boutella), is attempting to kill as many people as possible to help save the world from the effects of climate change. In other words, whatever was good at the beginning of this film so deteriorates into repetitious and copy-cat violence that the film loses whatever impetus it had. C+ (6/23/15)


“Top Five”- With some similarities in style to Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise” film series in which a man and a woman walk through city streets and discuss philosophy and life experiences, here Chris Rock (who wrote and directed the film) stars as Andre Allen, a stand-up comedian and comic actor who wants to be taken more seriously by the public. Just days away from being married on a reality TV show to his somewhat vapid girlfriend, Erica (Gabrielle Union), Andre finds himself being interviewed and video-taped by a beautiful NY Times writer, Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) just as his latest film, a drama about revolutionaries in Haiti, is opening without much success. Andre and Chelsea begin a walking tour of NYC, covering social gatherings with friends and family (including Andre’s father played by Ben Vereen), an interview with Charlie Rose, a return to stand-up, and Andre’s mini-breakdown in a food market. “Top Five” is a good exploration of the mind of a comic in turmoil. And it doesn’t hurt that there is chemistry between Andre and Chelsea. The film also stars or has appearances by J. B. Smoove “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” Romany Malco (“Weeds”), Cedric the Entertainer, Jerry Seinfeld, Tracy Morgan, and Adam Sandler. B+ (6/20/15)


“Inherent Vice”- Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (“There Will Be Blood” and “Magnolia”), and based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon, author of “Gravity’s Rainbow,” “Inherent Vice” is about as confusing a story as I’ve come upon in a long time. Strangely, it’s not hard to watch. It’s just that when something happens or a new character appears, you wonder “what in the world was that all about?” Taking place in southern California around 1970, Joaquin Phoenix plays the low-key Doc Sportello, a stoner PI surrounded by a drug haze, who finds himself enmeshed in a series of strange events after his ex-girlfriend, Shasta (Katherine Waterston) visits his beach-house, tells him about a plot by her current lover’s wife and her boyfriend, and then disappears. And so does Shasta’s boyfriend (Eric Roberts). Among other things, Doc learns about a neo-Nazi group from a man (Michael Kenneth Williams) who asks him to find someone who owes him money, and then is found unconscious next to the man who is, unfortunately dead; is asked to find a musician (Owen Wilson) who is thought to be dead; and becomes mixed up with an overbearing police officer known as Bigfoot (Josh Brolin). Meanwhile, the receptionist at a kinky massage parlor warns him about the “Golden Fang” and Doc meets a dentist (an amusing appearance by Martin Short) who is found dead the next day. Somehow, most of this is connected but it’s not easy getting the story straight. I read a summary of the plot online and still couldn’t fathom the sense of the whole thing. Of note in the cast are Reese Witherspoon as an assistant DA who shacks up with Doc, Benicio Del Toro as Doc’s lawyer, and Jena Malone as the missing musician’s wife. C (6/8/15)


“Selma” - This is an immensely powerful film that should have won the Oscar for Best Picture this year. Why? Because (1) it tells the extremely important story of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the civil rights movement in the United States in 1965, (2) it reveals a great deal about the all-too-common dark side of human nature, and (3) it has a wonderfully talented cast. Altogether, if you are human, this film should bring you to tears about what people can do to others, how easily justice and rights have been denied in a country that constantly brags about its exceptionalism, and how people who have been treated like dirt can rise up with tremendous courage and succeed. There is certainly no need to repeat the story of the denial of voting rights in Alabama, the vile nature of the Alabama government in the early to mid-1960s under Gov. George Wallace, and the ultimate success of the march from Selma to Montgomery in March 1965. Director Ava DuVernay brilliantly reveals the nature of the Southern racism that continued after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the amazing strength of Dr. King who convinced his people to fight back without violence. David Oyelowo is outstanding as Dr. King and Carmen Ojogo provides perfect support as Coretta Scott King. Others of significant note in the cast are Oprah Winfrey as Annie Lee Cooper, André Holland as Andrew Young, Colman Domingo as Ralph Abernathy, Lorraine Touissant as Amelia Boynton, and Stephan James as John Lewis. One observation: although this did not harm the picture in any way, I am always taken by the casting of British actors as significant Americans (I can’t quite picture American actors being cast as famed Brits in a British production). And that is certainly true of this film in which British actors David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo star, Tom Wilkinson appears as President Lyndon Johnson, and Tim Roth plays Gov. George Wallace. A (6/7/15)


“Wild”- In recent years, there have been several films about the experience of exploring the wilds of America. Such films as “Into the Wild” (2007) and “127 Hours” (2010) centered on people venturing into the wild with unfortunate disastrous results, in one case resulting in death and the other the loss of an arm. In “Wild,” based on the memoir by Cheryl Strayed, Reese Witherspoon plays Strayed who decided, after the death of her mother from cancer, and her divorce, that she would walk a large part of the Pacific Crest Trail with a gigantic backpack. In fact, the backpack was so large initially that it was jokingly referred to by observers as the “monster.” With flashbacks revealing the events in Strayed’s life which led to her desire to “find herself” on the trail, “Wild” does a fairly good job of portraying Strayed’s motivation and the experiences she had while engaging in her approximately 1,100 mile trek on foot. The biggest weakness of the film is that it really doesn’t show the evolution of Cheryl Strayed’s mind from the beginning of her very long walk (94 days) in California to the end at the Bridge of the Gods in the state of Oregon. Somehow, she seems like the same person, except that she has accomplished an astounding physical feat. However, the film does give us some insight into the courage (or is it lunacy?) of this woman to engage in this incredible feat. Just imagine a woman hiking alone through mountains, snow, and desert, caring for all of her own needs, and without knowing exactly what and who she was going to meet along the trail. Reese Witherspoon does a fine job of portraying the plucky and lucky Strayed. Also, other fine performances to note are those of Laura Dern as Strayed’s mother, Bobbi, and Thomas Sadoski (“The Newsroom”) as Cheryl Strayed’s first husband. Also appearing briefly are Gaby Hoffman ("Girls") and Michael Huisman ("Treme" and "Game of Thrones"). B+ (5/26/15)


“Mr. Turner”- I imagine that when we consider the nature of a great 19th century painter, we don’t imagine the character portrayed by Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s “Mr. Turner.” Leigh’s latest film is a character-study, an exploration of the last 25 years or so (1825 to 1851) of the life of the painter J. M. W. Turner, known for his astounding use of light in his mostly seascape paintings. Spall brilliantly portrays Turner as an extremely eccentric man whose life revolves around his work, almost to the point of excluding others. However, his father (Paul Jesson) serves him as an assistant for many years until his death, and Turner has a somewhat hobbled housekeeper, Hannah Danby (the wonderful Dorothy Atkinson), who appears to worship Turner even as he abuses her. Told in vignettes about Turner’s life, we see him making sketches in the Netherlands, interacting with other painters and admirers, giving a tedious lecture, and traveling to the British shore at Margate where he meets Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey) with whom he eventually starts a relationship after she becomes a widow for the second time. The cinematography, costumes and sets are magnificent and the acting, as in all Mike Leigh films, is extraordinary. My only complaint is the length of the film (2 1/2 hours) which gets off to a slow start but ultimately blossoms into a fascinating portrayal of a man who seemed quite ordinary and yet produced some of the greatest paintings of the 19th Century. A- (5/18/15)


“Into the Woods”- Although I have always loved Stephen Sondheim’s music and have seen many of his shows, including “A Little Night Music,” “Company,” and “Sweeney Todd,” I have never seen the stage version of “Into the Woods.” From what I’ve read, Sondheim and James Lapine, who together wrote the stage play, modified the story to fit Disney’s needs for less violence and to avoid certain morality issues. Also, having seen the trailer for this film, which gives little if any hint that music is involved, I imagine that it is somewhat of a shock to many who see this film in a theater to discover that it is a musical and not really intended for children. As it turns out, it’s very well done, with a wonderful cast but I suspect that this film would appeal to a rather limited audience. “Into the Woods” is a morality play centered around several of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, including “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Rapunzel,” and “Cinderella.” The characters in these tales come together via the story of a baker (James Corden), his wife (Emily Blunt), and a witch (Meryl Streep) who has put a curse on the baker’s family. To rid themselves of her curse (against having children), the baker and his wife must produce a milky white cow, a red cloak, a golden slipper, and hair the color of corn by an appointed time. But while “Into The Woods,” is funny and charming at the start, it gets quite dark (literally and figuratively) towards the end, possibly to the point of becoming just a little too muddy both visually and with regard to theme. Everyone in the cast is excellent, including some with unexpectedly good voices. In addition to Corden, Blunt and Streep, the cast includes Anna Kendrick as Cinderella, Christine Baranski as the wicked stepmother, Chris Pine as Cinderella’s prince, Tracey Ullman as Jack’s mother, Lilla Crawford (who played “Annie” on Broadway) as Little Red Riding Hood, and Johnny Depp as Red Riding Hood’s wolf. B+ (5/9/15)


“A Most Violent Year”- I must admit that I only watched half of this film. Why? Because it was astoundingly dull. The film takes place during 1981 in New York City, said to be one of the most violent years in that city’s history. Oscar Isaac plays Abel Morales, the owner of a heating oil business which is being harassed by mysterious elements as he tries to buy a valuable waterside property to enhance his business. Meanwhile, Morales is being prodded by his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), to better protect the business. Unfortunately, viewing this film was like the proverbial act of watching paint dry. Virtually nothing of interest happens in the first half. In fact, I’d say the most exciting thing to happen occurs when Abel hits a deer while driving. His wife encourages him to put the beast out of its mystery. While Abel is standing over the deer with a tire iron, Anna comes up and shoots the animal, thus demonstrating that she is a lot tougher than her husband. That’s it. The performances seemed perfunctory and otherwise stilted. After one hour of watching this two hour film, I couldn’t imagine wasting my time on the rest. D (5/8/15)


“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1” - This third film in “The Hunger Games” series continues the tale of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), the surviving hero of two “hunger games” who now is called upon to the be the leader and symbol (Mockingjay) of a civil war against Panem’s Capitol and its evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland). In a relatively out-of-character performance for her, Julianne Moore plays District 13 President Alma Coin who, with the aid of Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Beetee (Jeffrey Wright), encourages Katniss to be the Mockingjay. Initially, it appears to be more of a PR role under the direction of Cressida (Natalie Dormer), but it becomes more than that after Katniss witnesses the evil violence of the Capitol against innocent people, especially hospitalized patients. Further, Katniss is aware that her friend Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) is being used by the Capitol for propagandistic purposes and desires to save him and other “Hunger Games” victors being held captive. This third film in the series is moderately entertaining, but only if you’ve seen the first two or read the books. Where it fails is that the producers decided that you will have to wait a year for the fourth film in the series to find out what happens as this film has an expected but still rather unsatisfying cliffhanger ending. B (4/29/15)


“Big Eyes”- This is the story, based on real events, of a sad moment in American cultural history when ultra-shlock art became all the rage, and a fraud as to the identity of the artist was perpetrated on the American public. The paintings were described as being created by someone named “Keane” and were images of young girls with extremely large eyes. Although actually painted by Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), her husband Walter (Christoph Waltz) claimed them as his own and it was this claim that ultimately destroyed their relationship. The Keane big-eyed girl paintings were tasteless, described by the New York Times art critic John Canaday (played by Terence Stamp) as involving “appalling sentimentality,” “formula pictures,” and as “esthetically unlegitimizable painting.” This is a story that really didn’t need to be made into a movie since there really isn't much drama, but apparently Tim Burton, the director, is a collector of the Keane paintings. So much for his taste. I'll give Burton one credit: when Walter Keane is shown opening a gallery in San Francisco to sell this “art,” it is shown to be across the street from a gallery run by a man played by Jason Schwartzman who obviously reflects good taste in art and is shown correctly having nothing good to say about the Keane paintings. There are things in the film about Margaret and Walter’s relationship, including the idea that Margaret could paint these “big eye” paintings for years in a studio within the house without her teenage daughter (who lived in the same house) knowing it, that seem rather far-fetched. As for the cast, Amy Adams is fine as Margaret, but Christoph Waltz is fast becoming something of a caricature of himself as each role he plays resembles the mannerisms of previous performances. Finally, the relationship between Margaret and Walter is fairly dull. No revelations are presented. Plus, the film misrepresents the timing of a lawsuit in federal district court wherein Margaret sued Walter for slander and won. The film gives the impression that it occurred shortly after the marriage broke up in 1965. In fact, it took place in 1986. C (4/21/15)


"John Wick” - This is an awful movie for several reasons but primarily because it is made up of one thing and one thing only: violence. John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is a former hit man whose wife has just died and he has gained a cute puppy as a gift left by his wife before her death. Soon after, Wick is attacked and beaten, his vintage car is stolen, and predictably the puppy is killed. Turns out the thieves are led by the son of a former employer of Wick’s, a Russian gangster (Michael Nyqvist). Not surprisingly, Wick, who is described not as the boogeyman but the man who kills the boogeyman, seeks revenge. The rest of the movie consists of nothing more than death after death after death after death and so on and so forth. Some decent actors appear in short roles and should be sorry that they ever agreed to be in this film. D- (4/16/15)


“Foxcatcher” - I never expected to see such a dull and otherwise shockingly weak movie. “Foxcatcher” manages to make a potentially very interesting story as lackluster and tedious as possible. Based on true events, the story can be summarized as follows: two brothers, Mark and David Schultz, who won gold medals in wrestling at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, were later wooed by one of the super-rich, John E. du Pont (of the famed chemical company family), to come to his Foxcatcher estate in Pennsylvania to train with a team of wrestlers. Mark initially takes the bait while David remains with his family. He goes along with du Pont but ultimately sours on the man around the time du Pont manages to convince Mark’s brother David to join the team. David remained at Foxcatcher until he was murdered by du Pont several years later. So what’s the problem with the film? First of all, the script is a lesson in dullness. There is little or no character development and virtually nothing in the script that would help to keep the audience awake. The events and dialogue are plodding. Second, Steve Carell, who plays du Pont with a gigantic false nose, seems more like a statue than a character. I got the distinct impression that every expression, and there weren’t many, was based on Carell’s awareness of the fake proboscis. Incidentally, take a look at photos of the real John du Pont and you will see that the makeup artists overdid the nose. Third, Mark Schultz, as played by Channing Tatum, is portrayed as an uncommunicative dullard who acts more like du Pont’s servant than the athlete he was. In real life, Schultz managed to write a book about the murder of his brother. The character in tlm seems highly unlikely to have accomplished such a feat. Fourth, Mark Ruffalo, who is a fine actor, shockingly received a best supporting actor Oscar nomination for portraying David Schultz. Why is this shocking? Because he hardly has anything to do in the film and there isn’t one scene in which he gets to emote. Fifth, and most important, I am quite certain that this story was made into a film for no reason other than the fact of David Schultz’s murder by John du Pont. And yet the film presents it almost as an afterthought with little or no development. “Foxcatcher” takes the wrestling story up to about the 1988 Olympics. In the next scene, the murder takes place. And yet in the real story, approximately 7 1/2 years passed between the Olympics and the murder which took place in January 1996. Much of what I have read about the events indicate that du Pont was diagnosed as severely mentally ill and that family and friends were concerned about his condition during the 1990s. And yet the film presents none of this, making it appear that the murder took place shortly after the 1988 Olympics. Although du Pont never gave an explanation for the murder, he was ultimately found guilty but mentally ill by a Pennsylvania jury. The film presents absolutely no explanation for the murder or even a description of the results of the trial. The only information it provides is that du Pont died in prison in 2010. One of the few things positive I can say about this film is that it manages to portray the special status of the ultra-rich in American society. C- (4/10/15)


“Whiplash”- I’ve known a few overbearing egotistical borderline sadists in my time. In this film, J. K. Simmons plays a perfect example. Andrew Niemann (Miles Teller) dreams of being a great drummer and arrives at the top music school in America only to be singled out by Fletcher (Simmons), a fanatical teacher who leads the award-winning school band. Within minutes, Fletcher has charmed Niemann into revealing details of his family history only to use this information to viciously abuse Niemann and his efforts to perform. Fletcher controls, yells, and throws insults and physical objects at Niemann. The looks on the faces of the other members of the band indicates that this isn't the first time they’ve witnessed such behavior. At the heart of the story is Niemann’s own obsessiveness: an overwhelming urge to be the best. So much so that he willfully destroys a relationship with his girlfriend (Melissa Benoist). One would think that a film that centers on music and a desire to succeed would be a pleasant experience. But unfortunately watching the wiry Fletcher viciously manipulate Niemann and his colleagues for two hours is not my ideal of entertainment. “Whiplash” (the name of one of the music pieces played in the film) does have something of a twist at the end, but only after it deteriorates to the point of absurdity. Simmons won an Oscar for this portrayal of a monster and deservedly so, but Teller should have received equal recognition for playing the part of a young man who refuses to give up. B (4/9/15)


“Interstellar”- Directed by Christopher Nolan (“Memento” and “The Dark Knight Rises”), “Interstellar” is a much too long (almost three hours) fantasy concerning an earth that is experiencing severe weather conditions, including dust storms that are limiting the ability of farmers to produce food, and the secret plans of Professor Brand (Michael Caine), a NASA scientist to either (A) move all surviving humans to a distant earth-like planet, or (B) create a situation in which human embryos can be moved to those planets to continue the human race. It stars Matthew McConaughey as Cooper, a former astronaut who is now a farmer. Leaving his loving and smart daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy as the young Murph, Jessica Chastain as the adult Murph, and Ellyn Burstyn as the elderly Murph), with whom he has a very close attachment, Cooper agrees to lead Professor Brand’s proposed exploration of three planets in another galaxy by traveling through a wormhole near Saturn supposedly created by a group of beings known as "They." Each of these planets has already been visited by human astronauts, but none of them has returned. Since this is fiction there’s no real point in discussing the science involved, although the film is said to be based on theories of Kip Thorne, an American theoretical physicist, and does make one think a great deal about the concept of relativity (in that a person traveling in space ages at a much slower rate than someone on earth). Looking at the film as entertainment, I can’t deny that it is fascinating to watch, at least up to a point (and in a few ways resembles Stanley Kubrick’s “2001, A Space Odyssey”), but ultimately it fails in at least two ways: (1) too much of the important dialogue is drowned out by music and noise, and (2), as a result, the motivations for the characters and their actions are so complex and so difficult to follow, that the story ultimately deteriorates into a rather dull and silly sci-fi flick. As an example of its complexity, there’s an entire multiple page website discussion set up to explain just what is going on in this film. One shouldn’t have to read multiple pages of web comment to find out details about what one just saw on the screen. Anne Hathaway is miscast as Brand, Professor Brand’s daughter and Cooper’s fellow astronaut. Also of note in the cast are John Lithgow as Cooper’s father, and Matt Damon as an astronaut who preceded Cooper and Brand to one of the planets under investigation. B- (4/4/15)


“The Imitation Game”- Years ago, I saw Derek Jacobi portray Alan Turing in the play “Breaking the Code” on Broadway. “The Imitation Game” concerns the same events but provides a deeper and more graphic exploration of Turing’s accomplishments, the story of his youth at a British public (private) school, and his ultimate downfall due to Britain’s archaic laws against homosexuality which were still in effect after World War II. So who was Alan Turing? A brilliant and eccentric Cambridge mathematician who led a team which broke the seemingly unbreakable German Enigma code and likely saved millions of lives as a result. In doing so, Turing also effectively invented the computer. The film should not be taken literally, however. It is in many senses, a typical biopic that changes historical characters and events for dramatic purposes. Benedict Cumberbatch is brilliant as Turing, a difficult genius but one who stuck to his guns despite the early efforts of his superiors and his colleagues to bring him down. Keira Knightley is also outstanding as Joan Clarke, a mathematician Turing hired who played a major role in working with him and others at Bletchley Park, England, to decode the German military messages. “The Imitation Game” is a touching film, especially when one considers how this brilliant hero was treated after the war due to his homosexuality. Plaudits also go to Matthew Goode and Alan Leech as decoders at Bletchley, Charles Dance as the pompous Commander who initially hired Turing and then seemed to do everything in his power to stop him, and Mark Strong as Stewart Menzies, the MI6 agent responsible for Bletchley. A (4/2/15)

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