This page contains reviews of films seen during the months of July to September 2015


“Far from the Madding Crowd” - Based on the classic novel by Thomas Hardy (and one of my favorite books read as a teenager), “Far from the Madding Crowd” does a respectable job of telling the story of Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan) and the men in her life. The story concerns Bathsheba, a lovely and unusually independent woman in the England of the 1870s, who inherits a large farm and decides initially that she needs no husband to help her. Of course, into her life come three men all desirous of marrying her: first, a handsome and rugged farmer, Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), who had his own farm but been ruined when his sheep ran off a cliff to their deaths; then an older wealthy and somewhat needy neighbor, William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), and, finally, Sgt. Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge), an empty wastrel of a soldier who is seen initially at a church waiting to marry a local girl, Fanny Robbin (Juno Temple), but who leaves when Fanny fails to appear. Beautifully filmed in various locations in England, “Far from the Madding Crowd,” explores Bathsheba’s independence but ultimately is about her inability to see what is right in front of her and her impetuous and disastrous decision-making when it comes to love and marriage. Although Hardy’s novel is more complex than the story presented here, the filmmakers (the director is Thomas Vinterberg, a native of Denmark) chose to eliminate portions of the story in order to fit within a satisfactory two-hour framework. While not a great film, the fine performances by Carey Mulligan and Matthias Schoenaerts especially, and the gorgeous cinematography, make “Far from the Madding Crowd” definitely worth viewing. B+ (9/24/15)


“Aloha” - This film has a terrific cast, including Bradley Cooper, Rachel McAdams, Emma Stone, Bill Murray, and John Krasinski, but what that proves once again is that without a good story and script, the best cast can’t make a film worthwhile. “Aloha” takes place in gorgeous Hawaii and yet for some reason the cinematography doesn’t have the kind of pizzazz that it should have. And then there’s the rather strange and weak story involving the arrival of Brian Gilcrest (Cooper) in Hawaii to provide support for the launch of a private satellite belonging to billionaire Carson Welch (Murray). In the process, Gilcrest runs into his former girlfriend, Tracy Woodside (McAdams) who is now married to Woody Woodside (Krasinski) and has two children. Woody, who is sort of a silent Cal, is obviously bothered by Gilcrest’s arrival and this leads to some concern that Gilcrest will attempt to restart his relationship with Tracy.. At the same time, an officer, Allison Ng (“25 percent Hawaiian”), played by Stone, is appointed to aid and advise Gilcrest in his dealings with native Hawaiians. Ng is initially a little overbearing but that soon changes. Somewhere in this situation is a somewhat uncomfortable romantic plot and a space story reminiscent of a James Bond film. It’s interesting that "Aloha" gained notoriety by casting a white actress (Stone) as a part Asian, but that’s hardly the weakest link in this film. No, unfortunately, a ho-hum romance and a silly space plot brings “Aloha” way down to earth. C+ (9/19/15)


“Tangerines” - This is a wonderfully simple movie about basic humanity in a time of a horrible ethnic war. It is the early 1990s and Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak) is an Estonian living in Georgia (the country, not the state). He makes wooden crates for his neighbor Margus’ tangerines growing in abundance down the road. Most of the Estonians who had been living near Ivo and Margus have already returned to their country, but Ivo and Margus have remained to deal with the tangerine crop. An ethnic war finally reaches them, and Ivo finds himself taking in to his modest home two injured soldiers, one from each side. One is Ahmed (Giorgi Nakashidze), a Chechen mercenary, and the other is Nika (Misha Meskhi), a Georgian. And both want to kill the other. “Tangerines” consists mostly of perceptive dialogue that ultimately brings out the absurdity of the war and the situation the two injured soldiers find themselves in. Is this an anti-war movie? Of course. But even more so, it’s a pro-human movie and deservedly nominated for the Best Foreign Language film Oscar. (In Estonian, Russian, and Georgian with English subtitles). A (9/13/15)


“Love & Mercy” - This is a biopic about Brian Wilson, the member of The Beach Boys who wrote most of their songs and then developed a mental illness that threatened to destroy him. But the cause of his potential destruction was not so much the illness as his psychotherapist, Eugene Landy (played ruthlessly by Paul Giamatti) who misdiagnosed, mistreated, overmedicated, and ultimately dominated virtually every facet of Wilson’s life. The film drifts between the descent of the young Wilson (played realistically by Paul Dano) into mental illness in the 1960s when The Beach Boys were one of the top groups in America, and the docility of the befogged elder Wilson (played with intensity and empathy by John Cusack). But at the heart of the film is Melinda Ledbetter, a lovely former model and car saleswoman the older Wilson meets when he is looking to buy a Cadillac. Played with warmth and concern by Elizabeth Banks, Ledbetter is ultimately Wilson’s savior, but she must suffer Landy’s abuse before she can act. Dano, Cusack, Banks and Giamatti are extremely effective, but a more elaborate happy ending to the film might have been more satisfying after the scenes of Wilson’s growing illness and Landy’s cruelty. While there aren't a lot of song performances in the film, there are certainly enough to remind us of the magic The Beach Boys provided in the early to mid-1960s. The actors playing the members of the group provide skillful support, including especially Jake Abel as the pushy Mike Love who is shown demanding that Wilson rewrite the songs that ultimately became the classic album "Pet Sounds.” B+ (9/12/15)


“The Age of Adaline” - Although it has the feel of a time travel story, “The Age of Adaline” is instead a rather agreeable film about a woman who has accidentally discovered the secret of eternal youth. Adaline Bowman, played with great charm by Blake Lively, was born in 1908, but as the result of a motor vehicle accident at age 29, never ages. While we get to see some of the important events in Adaline’s past through flashbacks and an excellent narration (by Hugh Ross), the majority of the film takes place in the present in San Francisco where Adaline has taken on one of many new identities she feels she must use in order to protect herself. Ultimately, although she has resisted romance over the years due to the inability to “grow old together” with any romantic partner, Adaline meets and is attracted to Ellis Jones (Michiel Huisman), a relationship that results in an unlikely coincidence that could threaten her existence. It would be easy to criticize the film for a rather preposterous plot, but fantasy is hardly a new thing in the world of cinema. I was taken with Blake Lively’s performance which I found quite appealing and she is supported well by Michiel Huisman as her romantic interest of the present as well as by Harrison Ford and Kathy Baker as Ellis’ parents. Also notable in the cast are Ellen Burstyn as Adaline’s aging daughter, Flemming, and Amanda Crew as Ellis’ sister, Kikki. B+ (9/11/15)


“Two Days, One Night” - The Dardennes brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc, have made some rather classic films about working class people striving to earn a living and survive. But their films are not likely to satisfy the typical taste of American viewers. Their films are often simple, human stories about characters who aren’t necessarily attractive, and would likely be shown, if at all, in arthouse theaters. Dardennes films consist mostly of talk with little or no action. “Two Days, One Night” fits the bill, telling the story of Sandra (Marion Cotillard), a wife and mother of two who has just recovered from depression, who is about to lose her job at a solar panel factory because her co-workers have voted on a Friday to receive a bonus of 1,000 euros. As a result, she will be laid off and she and her husband might have to go on the dole. But the boss relents a little and decides to have a second secret ballot vote on the following Monday, allowing Sandra to try to convince her co-workers to give up the bonus and vote in her favor. What we see is Sandra taking on the unpleasant and difficult but necessary task of trying to convince her co-workers to care more about her interests than about their own. Marion Cotillard is an astonishing actress and rightfully received an Oscar nomination for best actress for her performance as a woman who faces this daunting task and, with some difficulty, rises to the occasion.. As Sandra, she travels, sometimes alone and sometimes with her husband, to the homes of many of the co-workers and other sites where she can find them. Probably the most interesting aspects of the film are the unsurprising reactions, ranging from utter hostility, to self-interest, to a tremendous generosity of spirit. “Two Days, One Night” takes place in Belgium and is primarily in French with English subtitles. B+ (9/8/15)


“I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story” - This documentary is rather charming, revealing the man behind “Big Bird” and "Oscar the Grouch” on the Muppets’ “Sesame Street.” To a great extent, “I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story” is a lovefest about a talented and charming man who loved puppets from childhood and lucked into a meeting with Jim Henson, founder of the Muppets. Although he got off to a rocky start, Caroll Spinney eventually became Big Bird (and Oscar the Grouch) and continues in the role to this day (at age 81). The film explores Spinney’s roots, his unsuccessful first marriage (with three children), his incredibly successful second marriage to Debra Spinney, and his growth into a superstar of the Muppet world. Through interviews with people like Frank Oz and a variety of other Muppet insiders, we learn about how close these people generally are to each other and to their Muppet characters. At one point, I was wondering if the film was ever going to go beyond Spinney and explain what it is actually like to play Big Bird, but the film finally came through showing in detail what it’s like to be inside that big yellow-feathered bird suit and operate the controls that turn Big Bird into a world-renowned and loved character. B+ (8/20/15)


“Timbuktu” - When I was growing up, “Timbuktu” was thought of as a mysterious city in a mysterious part of the world (northern Africa). In this film, “Timbuktu,” a relatively small city in Mali, is more symbolic than subject, as the film tells the sad tale of nearby desert dwellers suffering at the hands of Jihadists. “Timbuktu” is beautifully filmed, low key, and contains some very effective performances by several previously non-professional actors. Directed by Abderrahmane Sissako, it concentrates on Kidane, his wife Satima, and daughter Toya, living in a tent in the desert. Kidane has a herd of cattle cared for by a young boy named Issan. Early in the film, the Jihadists appear almost benign. Although demanding that women cover their heads or wear gloves and that no one dance or listen to music, they seem to accept when some protest. But as the film progresses, things turn more violent until tragedy finally ensues when Kidane is arrested after killing a man who killed one of his cows (interestingly named “GPS”). “Timbuktu” rather subtly documents the far too common tendency of humans to dominate and overwhelm others through mental and physical violence. It's also worth noting the seemingly out-of-place proliferation of cell phones in this desert setting. (In a variety of languages with English subtitles, including French, Arabic, Bambara, and Songhay) B+ (8/18/15)


“The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”- The first film in this series, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” told a somewhat fantastical but lovely story about a group of aging Brits (played by a group of wonderful British actors) moving to Jaipur, India, and settling in at a struggling hotel run by Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel). In the sequel, unfortunately, the filmmakers were trying hard to capture the original spirit of the first film, but failed due to a silly plot. The first sign that something is wrong occurs in the opening scene in which Sonny and Muriel Donnelly (Maggie Smith) are seen driving through the Southwestern United States on their way to San Diego for a meeting. Why in the world would people from India be traveling to San Diego in that direction? Sonny is trying to sell his hotel idea to a company run by Ty Burley (David Straitharn) who promises that his “guy” will check things out. When two strangers (Lavinia Beech, played by Tamsin Grieg, and Guy Chambers, played by Richard Gere), arrive at the hotel without reservations, Sonny assumes Guy is the hotel inspector and manages to make a fool of himself in the process. Despite its awesome cast, including Celia Imrie, Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Ronald Pickup, and Diana Hardcastle, “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” takes us through a series of annoying circumstances, including Sonny threatening his upcoming marriage to the beautiful Sunaina (Tina Desai) by virtually ignoring her at their engagement party while falling all over Guy and showing jealousy for another man; Norman (Pickup) tailing his own girlfriend Carol (Hardcastle) due to his suspicions; and Madge (Imrie) trying hard to pick between two local men who are obviously interested in her while she doesn’t seem to really care for them. The film, at the end, resolves most of these sub-plots and turns them into happy conclusions, but the ending is spoiled by a strangely maudlin voiceover commentary by one of the main characters. Despite a wonderful cast and scenery, and some fun Bollywood dancing, “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” is a disappointment. C (8/14/15)


“Clouds of Sils Maria” - This is a classic European style film starring Juliette Binoche, but also with two young first-rate American actresses, Kristen Stewart and Chloe Grace Moretz. Binoche plays Maria Enders, an established but aging and slightly frustrated actress, with her usual grace and style. Stewart is natural and effective as Val, Maria's assistant, who accompanies her to a beautiful location in Switzerland where Maria is to accept an award on behalf of a director friend, only to discover that he has just died. Years before, Maria, as a teenager, had played the ingenue to an aging and ultimately suicidal star in a play directed by this man. Now, she is offered the role of the aging star in a new production. “Clouds of Sils Maria” is a psychological examination of the effect of aging on a woman who doesn’t seem quite ready to accept that she is no longer the ingenue. This is reflected in the intelligent dialogue between Maria and Val, as well as rehearsals in which Val speaks the role of the ingenue. And Maria’s concerns become even more poignant when the young actress (a very talented Chloe Grace Moretz) set to play the role Maria once performed, enters the scene. I’ve always enjoyed Juliette Binoche’s performances, but had only seen Kristen Stewart before in “The Runaways,” a film that didn’t truly reveal her talents. Needless to say, I was impressed with Stewart’s low key and serious performance as the helpful personal assistant who ultimately reacts in a passive-aggressive manner to Maria’s somewhat self-centered and wavering view of life. B+ (8/8/15)


“Time Lapse” - This is a somewhat strange indie sci-fi film about three young people, Finn (Matt O’Leary), his girlfriend Callie (Danielle Panabaker), and their roommate Jasper (George Finn). When Finn, who is the caretaker of the apartment complex, realizes that he has not seen a neighbor for a time, Callie goes to check and finds the neighbor missing and the apartment walls lined with photos of the three of them in their apartment. She also finds a very large camera aimed directly at their window which produces Polaroid photos into their apartment. They soon discover that these Polaroids are of events which occur 24 hours after the photos are ejected from the camera. When the three find the apartment owner’s body (in a storage area) and his journal indicating that he believed he would die if he modified the events reflected in the futuristic photos, Finn, Callie and Jasper decide that to survive they have to assure that they are in the exact positions, 24 hours later, for each futuristic photo they find. But things start to go downhill when Jasper decides to use this situation for gambling purposes and a gangster finds out what’s going on and gets dangerously involved. “Time Lapse” is based on a premise which I have yet to find convincing: that the characters could somehow place signs (e.g., dog racing results) or objects in the window so that they could use that information to their advantage. The entire plot is based on this questionable premise, but despite reading several attempts on the Internet to explain the niceties of the film, I have yet to hear a satisfactory explanation. Since the characters are afraid of making changes, it would seem that any signs they put in the window would, at least initially, be a change from the Polaroid image coming from the camera. Instead of recreating the image the camera produces, they are creating their own image of what each photo should show. If this all sounds convoluted, it is, and that is at the heart of the problem with this film. I should also note that the entire obviously low budget film takes place in the apartment complex and that the performances and script are not particularly overwhelming. C (7/23/15)


“Woman in Gold” - Based on a true story, “Woman in Gold” is about an elderly Jewish woman named Maria Altmann (the always outstanding Helen Mirren), who had escaped from Vienna during the Nazi era. When the film begins, in the late 1990s, Maria Altmann is living in California and is content to forget the horrors of the Nazi era which cost many of her family members their lives and possessions, including great and valuable paintings stolen by the Nazis. One of those is the “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer,” a renowned painting by Gustav Klimt of Altmann’s aunt Adele, who died in 1925. With the encouragement of a young attorney, Randy Schoenberg (nephew of the classical composer Arnold Schoenberg) (Ryan Reynolds), Maria Altmann begins the process of seeking to reclaim ownership of the painting of her aunt from Austrian where it was considered a national treasure. “Woman in Gold” proceeds to reveal the various steps involved in fighting the Austrian government in its efforts to hold onto this object of Nazi theft, including Altmann’s reluctant return to Vienna and having to deal with arrogant government officials unwilling to part with even the title to the stolen picture (when Altmann offered to let the painting stay in Austria if that country would simply acknowledge her as the owner), and a legal battle within the US which goes all the way to the Supreme Court. Although Ryan Reynolds would not be my ideal choice for the role he plays, he does an adequate job as the enthusiastic young lawyer willing to bet his career on the return of the painting to Altmann. In telling the story of the efforts to restore the painting to its rightful owner, “Woman in Gold” also reveals the dramatic events concerning the efforts of the young Maria Altmann (Tatiana Maslany) to escape from the Nazis with her young husband (Max Irons). In addition to Reynolds, there are some other questionable casting choices, especially Katie Holmes as Schoenberg’s wife. However, of note in the cast are Daniel Brühl ("Rush") as an Austrian who provides help to Maria and Randy; and Allan Corduner (“Topsy-Turvy”) as Maria Altmann’s loving father. B+ (7/21/15)


“Ex Machina” - Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson) is a coder for a Google-like search engine, when he is informed that he has been picked to spend a week at the very remote mountain home of his billionaire boss, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Upon arrival, Nathan is friendly but there is always a hint of malevolence about him. Caleb is informed, after signing a non-disclosure agreement, that he is there to test artificial intelligence created by Nathan. But Caleb is somewhat shocked to learn that the AI, Ava, is in the form of a young attractive woman (Alicia Vikander), who quickly proves adept at the art of conversation and flirtation. It doesn’t take long for Caleb to discover that he is in the middle of a mind battle between the mysterious Nathan and the even more mysterious Ava. Domnhall Gleeson does a fine job as a young man who is trying to figure out just why he has been brought to this remote home in the wilderness and Alicia Vikander is impressive as Ava. This is the third film in which I’ve seen Oscar Isaac (previously “Inside Llewyn Davis” and “A Most Violent Year”) and I am still unconvinced. While he looks like he should be a dynamic presence, that dynamism seems lacking in his performances. In the end “Ex Machina” has the usual twists and turns and a somewhat unusual ending. “Ex Machina” is beautifully filmed with cool futuristic sets. B (7/15/15)


“Leviathan” - Nominated for a 2015 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, “Leviathan” is a Russian film about governmental corruption, passion, and the hypocrisy and evils of religious organizations. Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov) is an auto repairman, living with his wife, Lilya (Elena Lyadova), and his young son from a prior marriage, near the Barents sea in or near Murmansk, Russia. With the help of Dmitry, a lawyer friend from Moscow (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), Kolya is fighting the efforts of the town’s corrupt mayor to take his property, including his house and repairshop, without giving adequate compensation. But the power of the mayor and his henchmen, plus sexual passions that disrupt Kolya’s household, ultimately interfere with Kolya’s chances and result in Job-like misfortunes which are especially ironic when we reach the end of the film and see the result of the mayor’s efforts to destroy Kolya and take his property. The cast is excellent and the story is chock full of discouragement and despair in fighting an unscrupulous political official and a cold, Kafkaesque government bureaucracy. If you’re interested in this film, be prepared. It’s not a happy, upbeat film. But the main characters are appealing and it is an intelligent exploration of one of the many dark sides of human existence. (In Russian with English subtitles). B+ (7/11/2015)


“Wild Tales” (“Relatos Selvajes”) - This is without a doubt one of the funniest and most satisfying sardonic movies I have ever seen. From Argentina, it was deservedly nominated for Best Foreign Language film at the 2015 Oscars. The film is divided into six tales, including one aboard an airplane which happens before the titles. Each story is a revenge tale of sorts, concerning people who are pushed to the edge. From the airplane we find ourselves in a restaurant where a young waitress is being insulted by the sole patron. Then we go on a ride on a back country road in which we see road rage like never before. From there the film eviscerates bureaucracy and corruption through the experiences of an explosives expert, then on to a family’s reaction to a horrifying hit and run accident, and finally to what could possibly be the funniest and most disastrous wedding of all time. Written and directed by Damián Szifrón, “Wild Tales” is brilliant and unforgettable. It seems the real movie-making talent of today is coming from countries like Argentina, Poland, and Russia (it certainly isn't coming much from American filmmakers). The winner of the Best Foreign Language Oscar went to the Polish film “Ida” which was sublime. Unfortunately, there are very few American writers and directors creating exceptional original films like these. (In Spanish with English subtitles). A (7/10/15)


“American Sniper” - In many ways, “American Sniper” is a standard modern war movie. The war scenes, filmed in Morocco, are effective. We see a great deal of rifle-fire, bombs, and patriotic gusto. The film is about a real-life Texan named Chris Kyle (based on his book) played by Bradley Cooper, who feels patriotic and a desire to fight for his country after 9/11 and the Iraq War begins. He meets and marries the lovely Taya (Sienna Miller) and then heads off to Iraq where he becomes a “legend” because he shoots and kills as a sniper with amazing accuracy. He keeps returning to his wife and kids in Texas only to go back to Iraq (for four tours) despite his wife’s pleas. In the ultimate irony, he survives the four tours in Iraq only to be killed back home in February 2013 by a disturbed former soldier at a shooting range (although the murder is not actually shown in the film). As best as I could tell “American Sniper” is not particularly pro-Iraq war, and could certainly, based on the violence level (including a scene in which Kyle kills a young boy and a woman who are attempting to toss a grenade at Americans), be considered an anti-war film. However, it does a good job of demonstrating how one man could become obsessed with hatred for an enemy that we created by starting a war based on lies (he refers to the enemy as “savages,” an understandable euphemism in such a nightmarish war situation). Although Kyle repeatedly claims that he fought to protect his fellow soldiers, the film contains one very telling scene in which Kyle, back home between tours, is confronted at an auto shop by a man whose life he had saved, and is seen to be uncomfortable and uncommunicative in this man’s presence. Bradley Cooper is certainly effective as the upright and uptight Kyle, and Sienna Miller does a fine job as the poor wife repeatedly left behind. B (7/1/15)

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