Screens: Feb. 26, 2014

Screens: Feb. 26, 2014

Opening This Week

 
Focus
Will Smith, Margot Robbie
In this R-rated crime-drama, an accomplished femme fatale (Robbie) throws a veteran con man’s (Smith) latest scheme for a loop.
The Plus: The players. Once one of the most bankable stars in the world, Will Smith boasts quite the CV: Bad Boys, Independence Day, Men in Black, Enemy of the State, Men in Black II, Ali, Bad Boys II, I, Robot, Hitch, Hancock and The Pursuit of Happyness. Together with hot property Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street, the forthcoming comic book adaptation Suicide Squad), the former Fresh Prince could certainly return to the top of the box office in this, the winter doldrums.
The Minus: Star power. Notice the word ‘once.’ Men in Black 3 reestablished Smith as a box office hero … but it was a sequel to a lucrative franchise. The relative failure of After Earth, pretty much universally hated by critics AND moviegoers (Smith himself even took swipes at it recently), puts the fate of Focus up in the air.
 

Mark Duplass and Olivia Wilde  star in Relativity Media's "The Lazarus Effect".

Mark Duplass and Olivia Wilde star in Relativity Media’s “The Lazarus Effect”.


The Lazarus Effect
Olivia Wilde, Evan Peters
Think: Flatliners for Dummies. In this PG-13-rated thriller, a group of medical students (Wilde, Peters, Donald Glover, Mark Duplass) discover a way to bring dead patients back to life.
The Plus: The genre. Some found footage thrillers have a knack for becoming surprise hits. Last year, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, Devil’s Due, The Purge: Anarchy, Into the Storm and Ouija scared up some great box office grosses.
The Minus: The odds. The Pyramid, The Quiet Ones and last month’s Project Almanac, however, did not do nearly as well, giving credence to the fact that audiences are fickle when it comes to beating this dead horse.
 
 

Now Playing

 
EC26SCREENS_4_WEBHot Tub Time Machine 2
Adam Scott, Rob Corddry
* — Hack to the Future
Quickly two-timing its way into obscurity, this horrid second trip in a certain Hot Tub takes the decent concept borne out in the first flick and immediately stops the clock on any funniness. In this R-rated comedy, Jacob and Nick (Clark Duke, Craig Robinson) fire up the time machine again when Lou (Corddry), who has become the “father of the Internet” via the stolen hot tub, gets shot by an unknown assailant. The original wasn’t a classic comedy by any stretch of the imagination, but that movie at least stuck to its premise (three middle-aged ne’er-do-wells quantum leaping to their glory days in the ’80s) and delivered enough quality jokes to qualify it as a decent laugh-getter. Rather than be witty and mine some period humor out of, say, the ’90s for another go-round, its deuce just abounds in penis, boob and gross-out jokes in a bland not-so-distant future. Yes, much in the same way that Back to the Future Part II went forward on the calendar, so too does Hot Tub Time Machine … only the latter times out on intelligence from the outset. Sequel-wise, Hot Tub Time Machine 2 proves more Horrible than Horrible Bosses 2 and leaves moviegoers more hungover than The Hangover Part 2. Oh, it’s bad — painfully unfunny bad. Without John Cusack to lead them, these meager supporting characters get elevated to marquee status and just gratuitously throw juvenile put-downs and sophomoric potty humor at the audience for 90 minutes that sadly can’t be gotten back with a time machine of their own. Saddest of all is the fact that Scott, Corddry, Robinson and Duke actually signed off on this craptastic insult of a so-called-comedy after reading the script. There is no mistaking the dialogue and ‘story’ for holding even one Giga-watt of potential. Just about every bit and line falls flat. Cusack ends up to be the smartest member of this troupe for sitting out this water-logged time-bomb.
 
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McFarland, USA
Kevin Costner, Maria Bello
***1/2 — Chariots of Fireproof
Firing up its Million Dollar Arm for another Rookie, Miracle story, Disney’s Invincible proven Game Plan works exceedingly well for the real events surrounding a winning cross country story that might have the legs of Secretariat if enough people run to theaters. In this PG-rated drama, Jim White (Costner), a new cross country coach in a small California town, transforms a team of athletes into championship contenders. Sure, it checks off all of the boxes that made such can-do sports endeavors as The Mighty Ducks and Cool Runnings such hits: the sporting life, an inspirational true story, a concentration on teamwork, a PG-rating and a good-looking cast led by a strong marketable (albeit not as marketable as he once was) male lead. But, is having your strings pulled so wrong when the end result ends up to be so enjoyable? It’s not like the studio keeps using the same script and just changes the sport in question with these projects. Every aspect — from location to script to performances to direction — works beautifully like a championship, well, team. Certainly, there are certain pit-falls that dog all of these family friendly flicks. For the most part, the women get relegated to unfortunate stereotypical roles (as Donna Reed, er, Jim White’s wife, Maria Bello cooks, cleans and organizes a bake sale). Also, any moments of violence (in this case, a knife fight), gets glossed over with quick editing. Of course, running 2 hours and 10 minutes, McFarland doesn’t allow much more room for add-ons. Still, with a PG rating comes safe choices that, for the most part, don’t seem to slow down all involved. Just as with Whale Rider and North Country, director Niki Caro imbues the landscape with so much character that the town of McFarland might as well apply for a SAG card. Rundown storefronts and over-worked families populate this area, but moviegoers mostly see beauty and pride. A veteran of many feel-good sports dramas (Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, Tin Cup, For the Love of the Game, Draft Day), Kevin Costner just about completely powers this feel-good machine. Loaded with charisma and drive, he motivates the players and the viewers by proxy to better themselves.
 
Fifty Shades of Grey
Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dorman
** — No Spank You, Ma’am
Trying to spice up soft core pulp by hard selling a limp romance, this oftentimes dull adaptation of E.L. James’ steamy novel ends up to be many shades shy of sexy or entertaining. In this R-rated adaptation of the erotic romance novel by E.L. James, literature student Anastasia Steele’s (Johnson) life changes forever when she meets handsome, yet tormented, billionaire Christian Grey (Dorman). At least, the movie tries classing up the joint. Despite coloring in the Grey areas by focusing on the courtship, backstories of the two leads and build-up to the S&M in the first act, the rest plays out like a whimper — not a bang. It’s amazing how a flick with so many supposedly scintillating acts actually ends up being boring. Even with all of the hard bodies and spanking, no sparks fly between what’s on screen and the audience. Worse, nothing, ahem, climaxes. It’s understood that Christian Grey isn’t a romantic but his masochistic acts should at least elicit more than yawns from moviegoers.
 
Kingsman: The Secret Service
Colin Firth, Taron Egerton
***1/2 — Tinker Tailor Soldier Spry
Dapper, dashing, debonair and sometimes degenerate, Matthew Vaughn’s A-Grade spy romp might seem like a send-up, but it’s Bourne and Bond-ed to its own imaginative secret service. In this PG-13-rated adaptation of the comic book created by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons, a spy organization recruits an unrefined, but promising street kid named Eggsy (Egerton) into the agency’s ultra-competitive training program just as a global threat emerges from a twisted tech genius (Samuel L. Jackson). Inventive and incendiary, the movie takes itself seriously enough to sell through the high-kicking action and high-flying pyrotechnics but somehow makes you laugh at the explosive amount of gray matter coating the screen. Although Kingsman might seem too bloodthirsty to make much of a point at times, the movie offers some ripe commentary on class (societal and otherwise). Plus, it apes the Ian Fleming and John Le Carre tropes quite well, presenting lairs and colorful villains in equal knowing measure.
 
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Small Screens

Broad City (2014)
Abbie Jacobson, Ilana Glazer
***1/2 — Women Behaving Badly
In this Comedy Central adult comedy available on DVD, the smallest and mundane events in the daily lives of two New York City women (Jacobson, Glazer) make for some hysterical and disturbing viewing all at the same time. Rather than compare away this duo’s amazing chemistry to past TV twosomes (Lucy and Ethel, Mary and Rhoda, Laverne and Shirley), the unique gleefully anarchic blending of these two tremendous talents deserves recognition all of its own. It’s not just that they’re two funny cogs running a wheel, however — the wheel’s on a hilariously designed track that spans enough of an arc to qualify as ‘episodic.’ The episodes — some of the titles of which don’t lend themselves to being printed in a family publication — are laugh-out-load standalone diamonds. Like Superman and his Fortress of Solitude, Jacobson and Glazer fire strongest on all cylinders when riffing on and in the 5 Boroughs of New York. They offer modern commentary without the pathos of HBO’s Girls and give frank dating observations without the safe sitcom trappings of Fox’s The Mindy Project. As unapologetically raunchy as an Apatow comedy, this Amy Poehler-produced laugh-riot just about boasts the funniest ladies on television today if you can get past the very blue humor.

Screens

Screens

NOW PLAYING

 
Fifty Shades of Grey
Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dorman
** — No Spank You, Ma’am
Trying to spice up soft core pulp by hard selling a limp romance, this oftentimes dull adaptation of E.L. James’ steamy novel ends up to be many shades shy of sexy or entertaining. In this R-rated adaptation of the erotic romance novel by E.L. James, literature student Anastasia Steele’s (Johnson) life changes forever when she meets handsome, yet tormented, billionaire Christian Grey (Dorman). At least, the movie tries classing up the joint. The novel’s one-note first person prose wants for creativity so bad that it might as well be presenting an emotionless MS-DOS conversation between a computer and user. But many readers submitted wholeheartedly to this rudimentary format, expectantly awaiting H’Wood to up the ante of their lurid fantasies with a full tilt boogie bells and whistles, er, whips and chains interpretation. Despite coloring in the Grey areas by focusing on the courtship, backstories of the two PYTsand build-up to the S&M in the first act, the rest plays out like a whimper — not a bang. It’s amazing how a flick with so many supposedly scintillating acts actually ends up to be boring. Even with all of the hard bodies and spanking, no sparks fly between what’s on screen and the audience. Worse, moments and whole scenes abruptly just end. Nothing, ahem, climaxes. It’s understood that Christian Grey isn’t a romantic, but his masochistic acts should at least elicit more than yawns from moviegoers. Director Sam Taylor-Wood attempts to bring some verve to their ‘dating’ portion, trying to get you invested in these rather colorless characters. Ultimately, however, she and screenwriter Kelly Marcel fail to make the goings-on go flush with liveliness. Dakota Johnson seems bound for bigger and better things despite this tourist trap stop in Dullsville. Jamie Dorman, meanwhile, sometimes looks the part, but sometimes looks like he doesn’t want to be there.
 
 
Kingsman: The Secret Service
Colin Firth, Taron Egerton
**** — Tinker Tailor Soldier Spry
Dapper, dashing, debonairand sometimes degenerate, Matthew Vaughn’s A-Grade spy romp might seem like a send-up, but its Bourne and Bond-ed to its own imaginative Secret Service. In this PG-13-rated adaptation of the comic book created by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons, a spy organization recruits an unrefined, but promising street kid named Eggsy (Egerton) into the agency’s ultra-competitive training program just as a global threat emerges from a twisted tech genius (Samuel L. Jackson). Inventive and incendiary, the movie takes itself seriously enough to sell through the high-kicking action and high-flying pyrotechnics but somehow makes you laugh at the explosive amount of gray matter coating the screen. In terms of gross-out deaths, some scenes prove downright jaw-dropping but the material nevertheless winks at the audience consistently enough to let all involved know that we’re all in on a funtastic — if subversive — voyage. We’ve seen elements from similar spy stories before but never mashed up in quite the same gleefully anarchic way. Kingsman loves old spy movies — at least enough to cast Harry (The Ipcress File) Palmer himself, Michael Caine, in a sizable role — but paves it’s own way with enough creative flourish to spare. Proving himself the master at twisting genres into something fresh and even perversive with his tongue always in his cheek, Matthew Vaughn put his own spin on gangster flicks (Layer Cake), fantasy realms (Stardust)and comic book movies (Kick-Ass) before turning his gaze on the spy genre … kinda sorta. The first act of X-Men: First Class plays out like a slick espionage flick, which perhaps helps to fuel this fire. Although Kingsman might seem too bloodthirsty to make much of a point at times, the movie offers some ripe commentary on class (societal and otherwise). Plus, it apes the Ian Fleming and John Le Carre tropes quite well, presenting lairs and colorful villains in equal knowing measure. Always spot on no matter how cheeky the material, Colin Firth throws himself bravely into Kingsman just as much as his Oscar-winning role in The King’s Speech while letting Egg-cellent newcomer Taron Egerton slowly take the pole position. Samuel L. Jackson, however, receives a huge holiday, crafting a hilarious and compelling arch nemesis instead of just playing, well, Samuel L. Jackson for the umpteenth time.
 
 
HTTM2_Teaser_Tagline

OPENING THIS WEEK

 
Hot Tub Time Machine 2
Adam Scott, Rob Corddry
In this R-rated comedy, Jacob and Nick (Clark Duke, Craig Robinson) fire up the time machine again when Lou (Corddry), who has become the “father of the Internet,” gets shot by an unknown assailant.
The Plus: The genre. When they connect, R-rated comedies ignite the box office (Neighbors, 22 Jump Street, Let’s Be Cops). Hot Tub Time Machine grossed more than $50 million in the U.S., making it a sizeable hit. Plus, let’s face it, not everybody has kids and is looking for clean family fun in the winter doldrums. Returning director Steve Pink (About Last Night) reunites cast members Corddry (Sex Tape), Robinson (This is the End), Duke (Kick-Ass 2), Chevy Chase (NBC’s Community) and Thomas Lennon (We’re the Millers) with newbies Adam Scott (NBC’s Parks & Recreation) and Gillian Jacobs (NBC’s Community).
The Minus: Sequelitis. John Cusack, the most marketable name and anchor in the first flick, is a no-show here. Also, Horrible Bosses 2 — another comedy sequel that nobody was clamoring for — got trounced by the critics and earned far less than its predecessor just months ago.
 
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Jupiter Ascending
Channing Tatum, Mila Kunis
*1/2 — Stupider Upending
Descending the sci-fi genre into a near-laughingstock, the Wachwoski siblings’ appalling latest flight of fantasy might boast some eye-popping visuals but only at the cost of sitting through some mind-numbing storytelling. In this PG-13-rated sci-fi fantasy set in a bright and colorful future, a young destitute caretaker (Kunis) gets targeted by a ruthless son (Eddie Redmayne) of a powerful family that live on a planet in need of a new heir, so she travels with a genetically engineered warrior (Tatum) to the planet in order to stop this evil tyrant. You would think that this talented team, the visionary twosome that brought audiences the groundbreaking actioner The Matrix (and some less revolutionary sequels), would’ve learned of the dangers of candy-colored excess from a style-over-substance pop culture car wreck called Speed Racer. Much in the same way that the 1980 reimagining of classic serial Flash Gordon, what with its ham-fisted hunk acting and camp-tastic trappings, became a cult hit for all the wrong reasons, this miscalculated raspberry proves operatically over-the-top and unintentionally laughable. Nevermind waiting for a Rifftrax, even the driest of moviegoers can make their own jokes this just fine from the get-go.
 
AMERICAN SNIPER
American Sniper
Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller
**** — American Bustle
Taking aim at realizing it’s real-life subject to a harrowingly true degree, Clint Eastwood’s straight-shooting bio-pic presents powerful storytelling and hero worship in equal measure thanks to a compelling central figure. In this R-rated true story, the legendary director recounts Navy SEAL Chris Kyle’s (Cooper) military career, which includes more than 150 confirmed kills. Sure, the film unapologetically waves a patriotic flag (in the hands of a more left-leaning director, American Sniper might have emerged as a tsk tsk cautionary tale), but Jason Hall’s script deftly puts forth the book’s War is Hell moments. Yes, there’s a sobering emotional toll and high body count, but the titular character sometimes comes across as selfish for signing up for more tours of duty while his family waits for him on the homefront. Ultimately, however, Eastwood’s film romanticizes nationalism as much as Kyle, which might divide some viewers. Whether or not you agree with this political bent, the film takes a stand rather than beat around an objective bush, which drives home the true story all the more. This happened; Kyle was a proud soldier; film reflects life.
 
 
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SMALL SCREENS

 
The Guest (2014)
Dan Stevens, Sheila Kelley
***1/2 — Let the Aw Right One In
In this R-rated thriller, a soldier (Stevens) introduces himself to a family (Kelly, et. al.) as a friend of their son who died in action, only for a series of accidental deaths to get tied to his presence. A blunt force psycho-tale that’s smarter than most, this Guest invites itself into the horror genre, but earns its place thanks to some bloody good thrills and a scarily dead-on lead performance. Redundancy runs amuck in this genre. If this thriller wasn’t such an intelligent predator of other sociopathic killer flicks, it might’ve simply played out like The Hitcher — or its god-awful remake — without a car. But the premise imbeds this psychotic charmer into the victims’ and our own good graces before the body count starts to rise. Oh, the phoney baloney conspiracy backstory drops the overall IQ of this otherwise whipsmart thrill-ride with some over-the-top super soldier blarney but the villain at The Guest’s center keeps us all drawn into the violence. Stripping off any aristocratic airs left from his stint as Matthew Crawley on Downton Abbey (and at least 20 pounds besides), Dan Stevens looks like a lost puppy even with an unhinged thousand-yard stare. If it weren’t for the fresh skills of director Adam Wingard, however, we’d just be looking at another pretty face with blood on his hands. Having crafted one of the best horror flicks of 2013 (You’re Next), he takes a well-worn stalker story (think: Cape Fear in the desert) and whips it up into a cool albeit dark frenzy. Plus, perhaps borrowing a cue from Drive, the pulsating ’80s synth soundtrack adds another layer of eerie menace and suspense to this slick psychokiller.

Screens

Screens

Opening this Week

Fifty Shades of Grey
Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dorman
In this R-rated adaptation of the erotic romance novel by E.L. James, literature student Anastasia Steele’s (Johnson) life changes forever when she meets handsome, yet tormented, billionaire Christian Grey (Dorman). The Plus: The buzz. Though initially self-published and released as an e-book, this steamy page-turner — the first in a trilogy — got picked up by Vintage Books in 2012. Despite generating mostly negative reviews from critics for its prose and style (or lack thereof), the combined record-breaking series has sold more than 100 million copies worldwide. Working from a screenplay by Kelly Marcel (Saving Mr. Banks), Sam Taylor-Johnson (Nowhere Boy) directs a cast that includes Johnson (21 Jump Street), Dorman (BBC’s The Fall), Luke Grimes (American Sniper), Jennifer Ehle (RoboCop), Max Martini (Captain Phillips) and Marcia Gay Harden (Magic in the Moonlight). The Minus: The reviews. Let’s be honest. Just as with the book, Fifty Shades of Grey isn’t approaching cinemas giving a hang about critical reception. Someway somehow, even despite poor reviews, some sexy thrillers end up at the top of the box office. For proof, just look to 1992’s Basic Instinct, 1999’s Cruel Intentions, 2009’s Obsessed and 2014’s No Good Deed. Given that it’s bowing on Valentine’s Day, this slickly marketed Cupid should score a direct hit on its target and continue the record-setting box office for 2015.

 

Kingsman: The Secret Service
Colin Firth, Taron Egerton
In this PG-13-rated adaptation of the comic book created by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons, a spy organization recruits an unrefined, but promising street kid (Egerton) into the agency’s ultra-competitive training program just as a global threat emerges from a twisted tech genius (Samuel L. Jackson). The Plus: The players. Director Matthew Vaughn has amassed a critically approved CV (Layer Cake, Stardust), mostly for his comic book flicks (X-Men: First Class, Kick-Ass). Here, he directs a cast including Firth (The King’s Speech), Jackson (Captain America: The Winter Soldier), Michael Caine (Interstellar), Mark Strong (The Imitation Game), Mark Hamill (the forthcoming Star Wars: Episode VI — The Force Awakens) and newcomer Edgerton (Testament of Youth). The Minus: The odds. Not all comic book flicks — especially those NOT involving super powers or a cape (RED 2, R.I.P.D.) — make it out of the theater alive. Just look to Kick-Ass 2, which Vaughn produced.

 

Now Playing

Jupiter Ascending
Channing Tatum, Mila Kunis
*1/2 — Stupider Upending
Descending the sci-fi genre into a near-laughingstock, the Wachwoski siblings’ appalling latest flight of fantasy might boast some eye-popping visuals but only at the cost of sitting through some mind-numbing storytelling. In this PG-13-rated sci-fi fantasy set in a bright and colorful future, a young destitute caretaker (Kunis) gets targeted by a ruthless son (Eddie Redmayne) of a powerful family that live on a planet in need of a new heir, so she travels with a genetically engineered warrior (Tatum) to the planet in order to stop this evil tyrant. You would think that this talented team, the visionary twosome that brought audiences the groundbreaking actioner The Matrix (and some less revolutionary sequels), would’ve learned of the dangers of candy-colored excess from a style-over-substance pop culture car wreck called Speed Racer. At least THAT cinematic pitfall tried to be something — namely, a live action cartoon. The jury’s still out on what Jupiter Ascending tries to emulate. Much in the same way that the 1980 reimagining of classic serial Flash Gordon, what with its ham-fisted hunk acting and camp-tastic trappings, became a cult hit for all the wrong reasons, this miscalculated raspberry proves operatically over-the-top and unintentionally laughable. Also, much in the way that David Lynch’s well intentioned 1984 adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune, what with its muddled and hollow narrative, became a critical punching bag, this empty excursion to oblivion instantly earns your ire. Nevermind waiting for a Rifftrax, even the driest of moviegoers can make their own jokes this just fine from the get-go. So far as world-building (something about the planets in our solar system being part of an infinite dynasty and Mila Kunis being the reincarnation of this reign’s murdered queen) andy and Lana Wachowski more or less speed you along through their fantastical phooey — we’re not alone in the universe, here’s an abbreviated version of what’s what, yadda yadda yadda, so on and so forth. It’s almost as if they cave into the fact that we’ve seen similar overall stories before (ignorant humanoid bound for galactic greatness—hello, Star Wars!) and just expect us to drink the watered-down Kool-Aid and get with the program early … but this program involves a cat-like bodyguard who doesn’t sing Andrew Lloyd Webber songs and the guy who plays Stephen Hawking chewing the CGI-generated scenery while sounding like Dumbledore-era Richard Harris. Sure, a lot of the tech and SFX hold the potential to fascinate but you just can’t get over the fact that Channing Tatum, one of the biggest stars in the world right now, signed off on this love-turned-insult letter to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.

 

A Most Violent Year
Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain
**** — My Favorite Year
A carefully plodded thinking man’s morality tale, J.C. Chandor’s awe-striking and atmospheric latest easily ranks as one of the decade’s best crime stories. In this R-rated crime-thriller set in New York City during 1981, an ambitious immigrant (Isaac) fights to protect his business and family (Chastain, et al) during the most dangerous year in the city’s history. Many films have charted the less-than-successful attempt of social climbing criminals to go clean (The Long Good Friday, The Godfather Part III, Carlito’s Way). This film does the same with a scrupulous business unsuccessfully trying to STAY clean. It’s a sad and cynical parable reflecting American politics and commerce — not just today but for — as the story knowingly relays — through the ages. Through generous amounts of dialogue, the film plays out like a high-stakes white-knuckle chess match. You’d think that these sequences would feel too talky, but they only build the tension and suspense of this searing drama, which works excellently as both a character study and proto-gangster story. Like every word in a James Joyce novel, the lines of this film — just like the photography and shots — are meticulously chosen and controlled expressions of these powerfully drawn characters. Without the brilliant lead performance, itself meticulous and controlled, A Most Violent Year wouldn’t amount to such an auteurial tour-de-force. If Inside Llweyn Davis didn’t already compound this fact: Isaac is one of the best actors working today. With Chastain, who builds upon an already ridiculously great CV (The Help, Tree of Life, Zero Dark Thirty, Interstellar), he brings immense heft to a thought-provoking, weighty story and — yes — Violent story. What’s amazing is that this film bowed in 2014 and amassed zero Academy Award nominations. Someone should’ve yelled miss-deal.

 

American Sniper
Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller
**** — American Bustle
Taking aim at realizing it’s real-life subject to a harrowingly true degree, Clint Eastwood’s straight-shooting bio-pic presents powerful storytelling and hero worship in equal measure thanks to a compelling central figure. In this R-rated true story, the legendary director recounts Navy SEAL Chris Kyle’s (Cooper) military career, which includes more than 150 confirmed kills. Sure, the film unapologetically waves a patriotic flag (in the hands of a more left-leaning director, American Sniper might have emerged as a tsk tsk cautionary tale), but Jason Hall’s script deftly puts forth the book’s War is Hell moments. Yes, there’s a sobering emotional toll and high body count, but the titular character sometimes comes across as selfish for signing up for more tours of duty while his family waits for him on the homefront. Ultimately, however, Eastwood’s film romanticizes nationalism as much as Kyle, which might divide some viewers. Whether or not you agree with this political bent, the film takes a stand rather than beat around an objective bush, which drives home the true story all the more. This happened; Kyle was a proud soldier; film reflects life.

 

Being There (1979)
Peter Sellers, Shirley MacLaine
***** — There and Back Again
To mark this reviewer’s 1000th movie review, Small Screens revisits a classic on DVD and Blu-ray. In this PG-rated dramedy, a simple, sheltered gardener (Sellers) becomes an unlikely trusted adviser to a powerful businessman and an insider in Washington politics. Subtle and brilliant, Hal Ashby’s prescient comedy may’ve bowed during the Me Generation, but it packs more of an ironic punch and makes even more sense today. A film like Being There never happens by accident. The narrative and presentation prove so mannered that you begin to wonder if the writer-director himself shouldn’t be afforded the same godly status that sometimes gets ascribed to the main character. Even his name, Chance, holds a great deal of wink wink knowingness, as an accelerated and cynical culture accidentally turns this seemingly simplistic man into a pariah …or messiah. The film’s commentary on media addiction and political spin doctoring perhaps grabs latecomers the most, however, pre-dating our current society in which we largely communicate and gather information and opinions through multiple screens. Even though it arrived in cinemas at the end of the ’70s, the film earns a top spot during both the Easy Riders-Raging Bull generation AND still today. Without a brave and letter perfect lead performance, however, Being There wouldn’t work on any of these meta-levels. Having an actor known mostly for absurdist comedy take on this one-note yet endlessly complex figure is brash enough. Pulling through with the apathetic mimicry needed to sell through this right-place/right time stooge is another thing altogether. Peter Sellers was called many things but genius is the one that’s wholly agreed upon. His brash director, Hal Ashby, likewise earns this status — if not just for this, then for his entire CV (Harold and Maude, Shampoo, The Last Detail, Coming Home). Finding inquisitive angles to spy these goings-on while letting a lot of the action play out in long takes (with cinematographer Caleb Deschanel brilliantly helping to set the mood and tone), you get caught up in the hypnotic spin as much as the supporting characters. A good deal of credit also goes to screenwriter Jerzy Kozinski, working from his own novel.

 

 

Screens

Screens

Opening this week

Jupiter Ascending
Channing Tatum, Mila Kunis
In this PG-13-rated sci-fi fantasy set in a bright and colorful future, a young destitute caretaker (Kunis) gets targeted by a ruthless son (Eddie Redmayne) of a powerful family that lives on a planet in need of a new heir, so she travels with a genetically engineered warrior (Tatum) to the planet in order to stop his tyrant reign. The Plus: The comeback. After making an impressive debut with the 1996 crime thriller Bound Andy and Lana (then: Larry) Wachowski blew the minds of critics and moviegoers alike when The Matrix hit cinemas in 1999. The mind-bending sci-fi actioner proved revolutionary enough to spawn two lesser-regarded sequels, Reloaded and Revolutions. The trilogy’s follow-up, however, proved a lot less popular with audiences. Speed Racer ended up to be one of 2008’s biggest H’Wood flops. Though Cloud Atlas, their 2012 trippy, star-studded, multi-connected-story sci-fi epic, failed to bank huge box office in the U.S., it nonetheless proved popular with a number of critics, this one included. Plus, it did well overseas, which more than made back its budget. For their follow-up, they’ve recruited Tatum (Foxcatcher), Kunis (Oz the Great and Powerful), Redmayne (The Theory of Everything), James D’Arcy (ABC’s Agent Carter), Sean Bean (Silent Hill: Revelation), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Beyond the Lights) and legendary director Terry Gilliam (The Zero Theorem). The Minus: The reality. Jupiter Ascending reportedly received a frosty response at a recent Sundance Film Festival screening. With a rumored budget of $175 million, there’s a lot of financial ground to make up, even with box office champ Tatum (Magic Mike, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, 22 Jump Street) on the marquee.

 

Seventh Son
Jeff Bridges, Julianne Moore
In this PG-13-rated fantasy adventure, Young Thomas (Ben Barnes) gets apprenticed to the local Spook (Bridges) to learn to fight evil spirits, but his first real challenge comes when the powerful Mother Malkin (Moore) escapes her confinement. The Plus: The players. Despite a career that’s included The Last Picture Show, TRON, Starman, The Fabulous Baker Boys, Iron Man and cult hit The Big Lebowski, 2010 saw Jeff Bridges’ star burn brightest yet with the releases of TRON Legacy, True Grit and Crazy Heart, for which he won the Oscar for Best Actor. Also, his co-star Julianne Moore is the current front-runner to win Best Actress at THIS year’s Academy Awards for her role in Still Alice. The Minus: The odds. But this isn’t an award-type flick. Remember 2011’s Season of the Witch, which likewise boasted an Oscar winner (Nicolas Cage) and dealt with pretty much the same apprentice-fighting-a-witch theme? No? That’s because it flopped, just like this winter doldrums cast-off will.

 

 

Now Playing

Paddington
Nicole Kidman, Hugh Bonneville
****— Bear Necessity
A kindly and laugh-filled bear hug of fun family entertainment, this British production Pads a classic children’s book with a generous amount of mirth, merriment and — yes — marmalade — just not to excess. In this PG-rated family flick, a family befriends a talking bear (voice of Ben Whishaw) at a London train station. Oh, it assumes a lot of the same attributes that plague other half-animated kid flicks … only it doesn’t lose its stuffing as a result. In fact, the movie gets just about everything very right, serving the storied stories for all-ages exceedingly well. Notice the words “all-ages,” as this is something that the movie gets right as well. From script to cast to CGI execution, this bear boasts a bite that kids AND adults will enjoy. Perhaps, the production learned what NOT to do from three failed attempt at achieving the warm ‘n’ fuzzies. Like Alvin & the Chipmunks and The Smurfs, it uses some juvenile potty humor but — unlike them — not to the same overbearingly sickening degree (save for one scene involving toothbrushes and ear wax … ew). For the most part, Paddington keeps it classy. Like Beverly Hills Chihuahua and Marmaduke, it uses celebrity pipes and celebrity live action performances but — unlike them — not just as gratuitous sales-over-substance selling points. Rather, Paddington’s beautifully chosen talent roster services the characters letter perfectly (especially Nicole Kidman playing up the big bad to a delicious degree). Like Garfield and Yogi Bear, it keeps the action modern but — unlike them — never roots itself in disposable pop culture references. Instead, Paddington assumes a classic feel, successfully positioning itself for longevity (they even recast Ben Winshaw as Paddington after Colin Firth reportedly wasn’t working in the roll, which shows its dedication to quality — not marquee quantity). A lot of the credit goes to producer David Heyman, who likewise shepherded the Harry Potter series to a beloved status in moviegoers’ hearts.

 

American Sniper
Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller
**** — American Bustle
Taking aim at realizing it’s real-life subject to a harrowingly true degree, Clint Eastwood’s straight-shooting bio-pic presents powerful storytelling and hero worship in equal measure thanks to a compelling central figure. In this R-rated true story, the legendary director recounts Navy SEAL Chris Kyle’s (Cooper) military career, which includes more than 150 confirmed kills. Sure, the film unapologetically waves a patriotic flag (in the hands of a more left-leaning director, American Sniper might have emerged as a tsk tsk cautionary tale), but Jason Hall’s script deftly puts forth the book’s War is Hell moments. Yes, there’s a sobering emotional toll and high body count, but the titular character sometimes comes across as selfish for signing up for more tours of duty while his family waits for him on the homefront. Ultimately, however, Eastwood’s film romanticizes nationalism as much as Kyle, which might divide some viewers. Whether or not you agree with this political bent, the film takes a stand rather than beat around an objective bush, which drives home the true story all the more. This happened; Kyle was a proud soldier; film reflects life.

 

Into the Woods
Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp
*** — Pounce Upon a Time
Fulfilling a Grimm wish from Sondheim fans JUST enough, a certain 1987 musical gets an adequate big screen adaptation. For longtime devotees of the musical, Into the Woods brings the beloved songs and story from the stage version to the big screen with most of the wit and cynical punch intact. In this PG-rated adaptation of the Sondheim musical, a witch (Streep) tasks a childless baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) with procuring magical items from classic fairy tales to reverse the curse put on their family tree. For the uninitiated, however, Into the Woods boasts unexpected turns and twists on classic fairy tales with stars shoehorned into the action without detriment. The songbook never held an out-an-out sing-a-long hit so toe tapping gets kept to a minimum here. Also, doing utmost service to the source, the film tackles the themes of childhood and parenthood under the warning of “Be careful what you wish for” to a somewhat decent degree. While those familiar with the stage version know that it retains a pessimistic undertone throughout, those not are now warned: The film really goes dark in the final act with a change in tone and shift not unlike Full Metal Jacket’s second act. Indeed, it almost makes Gone Girl’s closer look happy and certainly makes the film’s PG rating a head scratcher. Director Rob Marshall smartly puts Sondheim over style, letting the celebrated material take center stage with actors who mostly do the original cast justice. Indeed, this isn’t a musical that lends itself specifically to an auteur’s specific vision as with Sweeney Todd and Tim Burton. Leading a superb cast, Meryl Streep relishes every craven moment and hits every note as a duplicitous spell-caster. Likewise, Anna Kendrick and James Corden simply astonish filmgoers although there’s no one true wrong note among the roll call of marquee talent.

 

 

Screens

Screens

Opening this week

Black or White
Kevin Costner, Octavia Spencer
In this PG-13-rated drama, a grieving widower (Costner) gets drawn into a custody battle over his granddaughter, whom he helped raise her entire life. The Plus: The comeback. Oscar winning director Kevin Costner (Dances with Wolves) was once the one of the most bankable starts in H’Wood (The Untouchables, Field of Dreams, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, JFK, The Bodyguard). After years of running cold at the box office (Mr. Brooks, Swing Vote, The Company Men), however, he again garnered decent reviews and grosses for both 2013’s Man of Steel and 2014’s Draft Day. In addition to Costner, Mike Binder (Reign Over Me) directs a cast that includes Octavia Spencer (Get on Up), Anthony Mackie (Captain America: The Winter Soldier), Jennifer Ehle (RoboCop) Andre Holland (Cinemax’s The Knick) and Gillian Jacobs (NBC’s Community). The Minus: The reality. It seems like it was just last year that this column raved about Kevin Costner being the best part of Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and deserving another shot at leading man status … and this comeback resulted in the god-awful 3 Days to Kill. Though Costner certainly deserves a Liam Neeson-style career rejuvenation (Taken, Non-Stop), 3 Days to Kill shows evidence that he’s not being too choosy script-wise.

 

Project Almanac
Amy Landecker, Sofia Black-D’Elia
In this PG-13-rated sci-fi thriller, a group of teens (Landecker, Black-D’Elia, etc.) discover secret plans of a time machine and construct one … only for things to spiral out of control. The Plus: The genre. Some found footage thrillers have a knack for becoming surprise hits. Last year, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, Devil’s Due, The Purge: Anarchy, Into the Storm and Ouija scared up some great box office grosses. The Minus: The odds. The Pyramid and The Quiet Ones, however, did not do nearly as well, giving credence to the fact that audiences are fickle when it comes to this sub-genre.

 

Now Playing

American Sniper
Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller
**** — American Bustle
Taking aim at realizing it’s real-life subject to a harrowingly true degree, Clint Eastwood’s straight-shooting bio-pic presents powerful storytelling and hero worship in equal measure thanks to a compelling central figure. In this R-rated true story, the legendary director recounts Navy S.E.A.L. Chris Kyle’s (Cooper) military career, which includes more than 150 confirmed kills. Sure, the film unapologetically waves a patriotic flag (in the hands of a more left-leaning director, American Sniper might have emerged as a tsk tsk cautionary tale), but Jason Hall’s script deftly puts forth the book’s War is Hell moments. Yes, there’s a sobering emotional toll and high body count, but the titular character sometimes comes across as selfish for signing up for more tours of duty while his family waits for him on the homefront. Ultimately, however, Eastwood’s film romanticizes nationalism as much as Kyle, which might divide some viewers. Whether or not you agree with this political bent, the film takes a stand rather than beat around an objective bush, which drives home the true story all the more. This happened; Kyle was a proud soldier; film reflects life.

 

Mortdecai
Johnny Depp, Gwenyth Paltrow
* ½ — The Stink Panther
A comedy that quickly elicits a lot of fear and loathing, Johnny Depp’s mortifying latest demonstrates his aptitude for gonzo character work and very little else. In this R-rated comedy, art dealer Charles Mortdecai (Depp) searches for a stolen painting that’s reportedly linked to a lost bank account filled with Nazi gold. Mortdecai tries to be a lot of things but funny certainly isn’t one of them. Is Mortdecai a man-out-of-time like Austin Powers? Well, he speaks with an almost Victorian vernacular while throwback swinging ’60s music plays in the background … but that’s not entirely it. Is Mortdecai aping Peter Sellers’ portrayal of putzing sleuth Inspector Cousteau? Well, he bumbles and pratfalls his way through a puzzler with similar results … but that’s not entirely it either. Is Mortdecai perpetuating British stereotypes in an almost pantomime atmosphere? Well, the events play out like a live action cartoon with lots of potty humor and two Americans laying a practiced English accent on thick … but that’s not entirely it at all. In fact, the movie ends up to be a miscalculated and sad attempt at incorporating all of these descriptions (think: Steve Martin’s godawful Pink Panther with Jackass-level dick and fart jokes) into a comedy that can’t pinpoint its audience. The buffoonish antics might appeal to kids if the R-rating didn’t keep them away. On the other hand, the adult material gets handled in a sophomoric manner better befitting a teenage sex comedy, so adults won’t warm to it either. The good news: Johnny Depp, the man who spun Captain Jack Sparrow the rascally pirate off of the page and onto the screen as a fey rock star and ardent fan favorite, still has it. The bad news: What ‘it’ is, however, is anybody’s guess. Oh, you can see how his characterization of dated, randy, dandy Charlie Mortdecai could be humorous … in a Blake Edwards film 40 years ago. Here, even the very few parts holding a smidgen of laugh potential lack the proper pacing. Quicker editing and faster action could’ve saved some of the physical comedy. The rest, however, is beyond redemption. Worse, the production wastes the prodigious talents of Gwyneth Paltrow, Paul Bettany, Ewan McGregor and Jeff Goldblum, who all must have lost a heinous bet.

 

Selma
David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo
****1/2 — Civil Righteous
An electrifying presentation of real events that never feels like a history lesson, Selma’s authenticity and timeliness make for a rousing spectacle that feels present and not unreachably epic. Ava DuVernay’s PG-13-rated drama chronicles Martin Luther King Jr.’s (Oyelowo) campaign to secure equal voting rights via an epic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965. The director puts you wholly in the moment, never letting style (and the film boasts a good deal) get in the way of passing down an imperative piece of our country’s narrative. As realized by David Oyelowo in a brilliantly layered performance wrongly denied an Oscar nomination, Martin Luther King Jr. has never been represented on screen so letter perfectly. In fact, everybody from Carmen Ejogo, who looks like news footage of Coretta Scott King come to life to Tim Roth’s on-the-racist-nose portrayal of George Wallace rings completely true … except for Tom Wilkinson as President Lyndon Johnson. Why DuVernay would go to extreme lengths to flawlessly present the events leading up to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and NOT have the actor nail down LBJ’s distinctive Texas drawl is beyond comprehension.

 

Small Screens

Pride
Bill Nighy, Imedla Staunton
**** — Heart O’ Mine
A custom-made crowd pleaser brimming with good intentions, this Pride-ful presentation of oftentimes harrowing real events nonetheless ends up to be moving, earnest and oftentimes fun in all the right places even when you feel your strings being pulled. In this R-rated dramedy available on DVD and download, U.K. gay activists work to help miners during their lengthy strike of the National Union of Mineworkers in the summer of 1984. An unlikely true story of an unlikely alliance that’s unlikely well done, Pride tells the plight of both striking Welsh miners and the beaten-down English homosexual community in equal and genuine measure. A heat-seeking crowd-pleaser, the film comes damn close to becoming mawkish without actually tipping over the edge. The climax, however, assumes a tone that feels a bit too cheeky. Regardless, the dynamite performances and rich storytelling always come across as truthful throughout this production, however manufactured it feels. Matthew Warchus deftly directs the goings-on with an almost nimble footed swagger, legitimately making your toes tap in a non-musical. It gets you to your feet, yes and a good deal of credit also goes to the screenwriter. Stephen Beresford’s script effortlessly hopscotches from bleak to hilarious moments and back again in a manner that somehow remains reverential to both.

Screens

Screens

Opening this week

The Boy Next Door
Jennier Lopez, Ryan Guzman
In this R-rated thriller, a divorcee (Lopez) falls for a younger man (Guzman) who just moved in across the street, though their torrid affair takes an obsessive, dangerous turn. The Plus: The genre. Someway somehow, even despite poor reviews, some sexy thrillers end up at the top of the box office. For proof, just look to 1992’s Basic Instinct, 1999’s Cruel Intentions, 2009’s Obsessed and 2014’s No Good Deed. Here, The Fast & the Furious and xXx director Rob Cohen wrangles Lopez (Parker), Guzman (Step Up All In), Kristen Chenoweth (Frozen) and John Corbett (NBC’s Parenthood). The Minus: The scheduling. There’s a reason why January consistently earns a reputation as H’Wood’s dumping grounds. Also, the Ice Age series aside, Lopez hasn’t had a hit since 2002’s Maid in Manhattan. For proof, just look to 2003’s Gigli, 2004’s Jersey Girl, 2004’s Shall We Dance, 2005’s Monster-In-Law, 2006’s Bordertown and 2010’s The Back-up Plan … or better yet, don’t.

 

Mortdecai
Johnny Depp, Gwenyth Paltrow
In this R-rated comedy, art dealer Charles Mortdecai (Depp) searches for a stolen painting that’s reportedly linked to a lost bank account filled with Nazi gold. The Plus: The players. After the back-to-back-to-back blockbuster success of the first three Pirates of Caribbean flicks, Johnny Depp became the biggest movie star in the world. Here, David Koepp (Premium Rush) directs a cast that includes him (Rum Diary), Paltrow (Iron Man 3), Ewan McGregor (August Osage County), Olivia Munn (HBO’s Newsroom), Paul Bettany (Transcendence) and Jeff Goldblum (The Grand Budapest Hotel), (screenwriter, The Break-Up). The Minus: The competition. One weekend, two new movies, an already crowded box office brimming with awards contenders. Even though this flick aims squarely for the adult demographic, it faces a lot of other contenders this weekend. Also, Depp has run hot (Dark Shadows) and cold (The Lone Ranger) at the box office since the last Pirates flick sailed, 2011’s On Stranger Tides.

 

Now Playing

Selma
David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo
****1/2 — Civil Righteous
An electrifying presentation of real events that never feels like a history lesson, Selma’s authenticity and timeliness make for a rousing spectacle that never feels like an epic. Ava DuVernay’s PG-13-rated drama chronicles Martin Luther King’s (Oyelowo) campaign to secure equal voting rights via an epic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965. The director puts you wholly in the moment, never letting style (and the film boasts a great deal) get in the way of passing down an imperative piece of our country’s narrative. Even with so much attention to period detail and historic figures, Selma speaks so truthfully in the present tense not just because current events eerily reflect the story to a startling degree but because screenwriter Paul Webb’s multidimensional characterization of all involved articulates the still-ongoing struggle for equality. As realized by David Oyelowo in a brilliantly layered performance wrongly denied an Oscar nomination, Martin Luther King has never been represented on screen so letter perfectly. In fact, everybody from Carmen Ejogo, who looks like news footage of Coretta Scott King come to life to Tim Roth’s on-the-racist-nose portrayal of George Wallace rings completely true … except for Tom Wilkinson as President Lyndon Johnson. Why DuVernay would go to extreme lengths to flawlessly present the events leading up to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and NOT have the actor nail down LBJ’s distinctive Texas drawl is beyond comprehension. Still, this mostly British contingent (DuVernay, Oyelowo and Wilkson hail from the UK) gets it damn right. Just like with the production team behind 12 Years a Slave (also mostly British), sometimes it takes an outsider to hold up a proper mirror to our society. Regardless, you don’t have to be American for this tale to resonate and echo in your heart and mind … and it does.

 

American Sniper
Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller
**** — American Bustle
Taking aim at realizing it’s real-life subject to a harrowingly true degree, Clint Eastwood’s straight-shooting bio-pic presents powerful storytelling and hero worship in equal measure thanks to a compelling central figure. In this R-rated true story, the legendary director recounts Navy S.E.A.L. Chris Kyle’s (Cooper) military career, which includes more than 150 confirmed kills. Sure, the film unapologetically waves a patriotic flag (in the hands of a more left-leaning director, American Sniper might have emerged as a “tsk tsk” cautionary tale), but Jason Hall’s script deftly puts forth the book’s War is Hell moments. Yes, there’s a sobering emotional toll and high body count, but the titular character sometimes comes across as selfish for signing up for more tours of duty while his family waits for him on the homefront. Ultimately, however, Eastwood’s film smartly romanticizes nationalism as much as Kyle, which might divide some viewers. Still, he takes a stand rather than beat around an objective bush. Since Bradley Cooper acquired the rights to Kyle’s autobiography in 2012, this real-life actioner proved a hot property around H’Wood, attracting interest from A-List directors David O. Russell (The Fighter) and Steven Spielberg (Lincoln) before thankfully landing in Eastwood’s (Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby) very capable hands. In terms of Oscar caliber quality, Eastwood’s recent CV doesn’t necessarily inspire confidence (Hereafter, J. Edgar, Jersey Boys), but American Sniper ends up to be one of his best projects to date. His films rarely indulge stylish bells and whistles, which serves the frank forward material exceedingly well. Then, there’s his lead actor. Not only did his star’s voice star in the biggest box office hit of last year (Guardians of the Galaxy), but he also helped to headline back-to-back Best Picture Oscar nominees (Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle). Here, however, he unquestionably deserves the award. Beefing up physically while maintaining Kyle’s straight-talking, humble, dyed-in-the-wool Texas manner, Cooper transforms fully into the troubled heart and soul of this gripping story.

 

The Gambler (2014)
Mark Wahlberg, Jessica Lange
**1/2 — Booger Nights
Slickly directed, well acted, but ultimately lacking the dramatic punch it needs to sell through the story, The Gambler just about breaks even instead of completely going bust. In this R-rated remake from director Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes), lit professor and gambler Jim Bennett’s debt causes him to borrow money from his mother and a loan shark while a relationship with one of his students (Brie Larson) further complicates his situation. It tries operating as a cautionary tale on two fronts — gambling away one’s money and gambling away one’s soul — but succeeds more in dealing with the former. Though Mark Wahlberg proves utterly convincing as a charming, albeit degenerate, gambler, he doesn’t make tenure as a troubled associate professor. Oh, he lectures on Shakespeare and Camus to a believable degree but the existential crisis plaguing his character never gets fully explained. The characterization (add troubled rich heir to one of California’s largest fortunes into the confusing mix) comes up short. Even when some gangbuster action and intrigue keep the story moving at an even clip, the pace grinds to a halt thanks to long rambling suicidal bents that ultimately go nowhere. The blame falls on The Departed scribe William Monahan, who creates an interesting character he doesn’t fully know what to do with. Overwritten and overly complex, his character study needs Cliff’s Notes. Yes, he stakes his own life as collateral … but why? Filmgoers don’t need to know the full story — just enough to stay invested. The Gambler boasts some beautiful photography and some very quotable dialogue but ultimately doesn’t come close to earning a spot at the 1974 originals table.

 

Small Screens
The Gambler (1974)
James Caan, Paul Sorvino
**** — Time Enough for Counting
Instead of slogging through Rupert Wyatt’s flawed remake, stick to the much better 1974 original. In this R-rated drama available for download, literature professor Alex Freed (Caan) borrows from his girlfriend, his mother and some bad men to quench his gambling addition. James Caan’s ace performance gets credit for carrying this often forgotten ’70s gem but James Toback’s sharply written script ultimately deserves the true credit. Tense beyond belief, the film ratchets up the drama to a fever pitch and provides a much more nuanced and textured character study than what follows 40 years later.

 

 

Screens: Jan. 15, 2015

Screens: Jan. 15, 2015

OPENING THIS WEEK

 
Blackhat
Chris Hemsworth, Viola Davis
In this R-rated techno-thriller, a furloughed convict (Hemsworth) and his American (Davis) and Chinese (Wei Tang) partners hunt a high-level cybercrime network from Chicago to Los Angeles to Hong Kong to Jakarta.
The Plus: The players. Given that his touts more than a few commercial and critical triumphs (Manhunter, The Last of the Mohicans, Heat, The Insider, Ali, Collateral), writer/director Michael Mann deserved a short respite. For his first film since 2009’s Public Enemies, he chose a white-hot star in Chris Hemsworth to headline the action. After establishing himself as Thor in three Marvel properties (Thor, Thor: The Dark World, The Avengers) plus a few well-received side ventures (Snow White & the Huntsmen, Rush), this young actor booked an impressive 2015. Next up is Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea (March 13) and May’s Avengers: Age of Ultron (May 1) … after the legendary Mann’s latest, that is.
The Minus: The odds. Mann’s last two films, Miami Vice and Public Enemies, divided critics and filmgoers alike. Even his interim project, the HBO series Luck, got mercifully cancelled.

 
SHOWBIZ Paddington 143077
Paddington
Nicole Kidman, Hugh Bonneville
In this PG-rated family flick, a family befriends a talking bear (voice of Ben Whishaw) at a London train station.
The Plus: The players. In an age when many H’Wood insiders believe that star power is on the wane, this flick boasts more mega-watt British actors than at a BAFTA open bar. Here, Harry Potter producer David Heyman presents Kidman (Before I Go to Sleep), Bonneville (The Monuments Men), Julie Walters (One Chance), Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine), Peter Capaldi (BBC’s Doctor Who) and Jim Broadbent (Closed Circuit), plus the voices of Whishaw (Skyfall), Michael Gambon (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2) and Imedla Staunton (Maleficent).
The Minus: The scheduling. If this movie was worth a damn, it would have taken its chances during the holiday season when good family flicks soar (Penguins of Madagascar) and bad family films scour (Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb).
 
 
The Wedding Ringer
Kevin Hart, Josh Gad
In this R-rated comedy, a shy young groom (Gad) needs to impress his in-laws, so he turns to a best-man-for-hire (Hart) to help him out.
The Plus: The player. Having busted out in back-to-back-to-back smash hits Think Like a Man, Ride Along and his stand-up concert film Let Me Explain, Kevin Hart is the marquee selling point of this comedy. Here, he headlines a cast that includes Gad (Frozen), Kaley Cuoco (ABC’s The Big Bang Theory), Cloris Leachman (The Croods), Olivia Thirlby (Dredd), Mimi Rogers (Almost Human), Whitney Cummings (NBC’s Whitney), Josh Peck (Fox’s The Mindy Project) and Jorge Garcia (CBS’s Person of Interest) in the feature-length directorial debut of Jeremy Garelick (screenwriter, The Break-Up).
The Minus: The competition. One weekend, three new movies, an already crowded box office with awards contenders. Even though this flick aims for the adult, it faces a lot of other contenders this weekend.
 
Kevin Hart;Josh Gad
 

NOW PLAYING

 
Inherent Vice
Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin
*** — Bogie Nights
Inherent-ly muddled, Paul Thomas Anderson’s roll of the Vice satisfies Thomas Pynchon fans and few others. In this 1970s-set R-rated dramedy based on the novel by the author of V and Gravity’s Rainbow, detective Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) investigates the disappearance of a former girlfriend through a drug-fueled Los Angeles. Of course, this was the point. On the Penguin Press website, the publisher teases a work that’s “Part-noir, part-psychedelic romp, all Thomas Pynchon … private eye Doc Sportello comes, occasionally, out of a marijuana haze to watch the end of an era as free love slips away and paranoia creeps in with the L.A. fog.” So far as realizing this vision, one of this generation’s most gifted auteurs succeeds to a startlingly perfect five-star degree. For filmgoers in general though, especially those who qualified as “square” in the ’60s or weren’t even born yet, Inherent Vice proves only mildly entertaining. In fact, the film tends to get downright boring at points. If Raymond Chandler helped to hard-boil detective fiction through his character Phillip Marlowe in the ’40s and Robert Altman somehow satirized and elevated the genre at the same time with the idiosyncratic Me Generation film classic The Long Goodbye in the ’70s, then Inherent Vice continues this tradition and takes the detective story to the next level … we just don’t know what or where that is. Purposely meandering and muddied with sudden Spartan moments of crystal-clear clarity, much like a drug trip and/or a lost soul trying to find their place in a changing culture and society, the story proudly sports a Byzantine plot navigated by a stoner. We get it. Most of us just don’t enjoy it. Oh, like all of Anderson’s films, it’s always interesting. The director’s telltale stylistic touches pop up to mostly great effect. Working against type, an amazing cast brings some wild characters to life. His long takes, however, actually feel long for a change. Even after weaving toward the solution, only one thing remains certain about Inherent Vice: It assumes the title of “Most Divisive” film on Anderson’s resume from Punch-Drunk Love.
 
Taken 3
Liam Neeson, Forest Whitaker
** — Taken Asunder
Going back to the Mills for another fisticuff-filled man-against-the-clock mystery, Liam Neeson unwittingly remakes The Fugitive in his unfortunate three-quel. In this PG-13-rated actioner, ex-government operative Bryan Mills gets accused of a ruthless murder of his beloved ex-wife, so he brings out his particular set of skills to evade police, find the true killer and clear his name. Taken 3 takes awhile to really get its blood pumping but, once it does … well, the movie only boasts a few real thrills because it mostly rips off a certain 1992 who-done-it. Part three clumsily tries weaving its DNA into the proven man-on-the-run formula that made The Fugitive such a smash success, injecting the lead’s hard-hitting detective skills into the mix with middling success. It must get stated, however: Brian Mills, you are no Richard Kimble. Hell, Taken 3 isn’t even on an entertainment par with U.S. Marshals, the unnecessary Fugitive follow-up that Harrison Ford smartly skipped. Most of the repetitive goings-on of this flick offer standard issue action with very little intrigue. Sure, it easily one-ups the painfully redundant sequel that precedes it, but moviegoers have seen more fist-pumping action in some wedding videos than in Taken 2. All in all, this is not to say that Liam Neeson is a poor man’s Harrison Ford. He believably doles out clenched fist revenge just like in Taken … and Unknown …and Taken 2 … and Non-Stop. Truthfully, this very likeable actor has gone to the mills one too many times. Meanwhile, Forest Whitaker makes the most of a supporting role that’s largely beneath his certain set of skills, assuming Tommy Lee Jones’s Fugitive role as a duty-driven cop who kinda sorta believes that the protagonist is innocent. Also, here’s a final word of advice: No villain comes off as menacing when he sports the page boy bowl haircut of Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber.
 
EC15SCREENS_6_WEBBig Eyes
Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz
**** — Big Fishing Deal
Big on colorful vision and colorful storytelling, Tim Burton’s somewhat uncharacteristic latest Eyes up an exquisitely painted portrait of an artist cheated of self-expression. Tim Burton’s (Dark Shadows) PG-13-rated drama centers on the awakening of painter Margaret Keane (Adams), her phenomenal success in the 1950s and the subsequent legal difficulties she had with her husband (Waltz), who claimed credit for her works in the 1960s. The framing proves masterful, 1950s San Francisco dyed with a vibrant palette of eye-popping hues matched brilliantly with complimentary set design and period detail. Not unlike the vintage crayon-colored neighborhood featured in Edward Scissorhands, this location pulls you into the fabric even moreseo because it’s an actual place. Sure, the reality gets heightened — just not to surrealistic lengths like Ed Wood. In fact, this stylish telling of fascinating real events here resembles that Burton picture most of all, presenting history dappled with this auteur’s unique verve and wit. Of course, these films share the same screenwriters: Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. Quirky but fact-filled, their bio-pic scripts (The People Vs. Larry Flynt, Man on the Moon) never fail to gleefully entertain while serving their subjects respectfully. Indeed, Keane emerges as much more than a rough sketch and her fight resonates as social commentary without becoming too heavy-handed. Aside from a few arch moments (a trial verging on cartoonish chief among them), laughing comes to crying comes to understanding. The same goes for Burton. Usually purveying a sort of Gothic hyper-reality as picture postcard America (Beetlejuice, Batman, Sleepy Hollow), he instead channels this dark undercurrent just below the surface with Big Eyes. Controlled but still characteristic, the sun-dappled Northern California suburbs (not unlike those in Frankenweenie) hold a lot of stylized beauty, but there’s a sense of real world dread pouring through the cracks in the sidewalks. It speaks the truth, as do the brilliantly layered performances by Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz.

Screens

Screens

Opening this week

Taken 3
Liam Neeson, Forest Whitaker
In this PG-13-rated actioner, ex-government operative Bryan Mills gets accused of a ruthless murder he never committed or witnessed, so he brings out his particular set of skills to evade police, find the true killer and clear his name. The Plus: The player. After years of supporting gigs in blockbusting franchises (Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, The Chronicles of Narnia, Batman Begins), Neeson emerged as a one-man Expendables, doling out some fisticuff and box office ass-whoopings in Taken ($145 million), The Grey ($51 million) and Taken 2 ($139 million) before landing a reported $20 million payday for this third go-round of the tired action franchise. Oh and starring gigs in The Clash of the Titans, The A-Team and Non-Stop certainly didn’t hurt either. Here, Oliver Megatron (Columbiana) returns from part two to direct Neeson (The LEGO Movie) Whitaker (The Butler), Maggie Grace (The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2), Famke Janssen (X-Men: Days of Future Past) and Dougray Scott (Netflix’s Hemlock Grove). The Minus: The burnout. Compared with the first chapter, an actioner whose success came out of left field, chapter two got savaged by the critics … wait, where are you going? To line up already?!

 

Inherent Vice
Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin
In this 1970s-set R-rated dramedy based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon (V, Gravity’s Rainbow), detective Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) investigates the disappearance of a former girlfriend through a drug-fueled Los Angeles. The Plus: The auteur. You know that saying that goes, “I’d watch so-and-so actor read the phone book?” Yeah, well, this critic would watch Paul Thomas Anderson direct the Yellow Pages. For proof, just consider three of his films: Boogie Nights, Magnolia and There Will Be Blood. Hell, even when he’s not at the peak of his game (The Master), the story still provokes your mind, the camerawork still astonishes your eyes and the performances still dazzle both. Here, he directs Phoenix (Her), Jena Malone (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1), Reese Witherspoon (Wild), Josh Brolin (Oldboy) and Owen Wilson (Midnight in Paris). The Minus: The genre. The jokey tone of the trailer brings to mind Anderson’s last out-and-out comedy (and least respected film), Punch-Drunk Love. Again, his worst stands light years above some other writer-directors best, but he needs to improve upon The Master, which divided critics and audiences.

 

 

Now Playing

The Imitation Game
Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley
****1/2 – Don’t Hate the Game
In attempting to solve the near-impossible puzzle behind the life of one of WWII’s most compelling unsung heroes, The Imitation Game puts forth a fascinating history lesson and intriguing character study. In this PG-13-rated historical drama, English mathematician and logician Alan Turing (Cumberbatch) helps to crack the Nazis’ nearly unbreakable Enigma code during World War II. Though it outwardly seems like the success of this film comes down to it being a great performance piece, the genius-level script and precise direction in form deserve equal credit. Unlike the somewhat similar mathematician bio-pic A Beautiful Mind, The Imitation Game fears no corner of its intriguing and complex figure’s life. His homosexuality — then a crime of indecency in England — comes to the forefront nearly as much as his game of attrition against a computer. Benedict Cumberbatch’s irascible megamind shtick almost seems like just an effortless extension of his take on Sherlock Holmes in the brilliant detective drama currently produced by the BBC. There’s a deep emotional well mined by this amazing actor, however, and he boldly jumps into Graham Moore’s loose but absolutely ace adaptation of Alan Turing: An Enigma by Andrew Hodges without abandon, exposing the live wires behind this machine-like riddle-of-a-man. Oh, there’s no buying into the fact that every scene brims with absolute historic accuracy, but the layers get peeled back on a perplexing soul. It never attempts to fully solve the riddle, just make you ponder the inner workings of the man while you just happen to be learning about an engrossing moment that changed the course of WWII. Steeping the production in a winning amount of period detail, director Morten Tyldum (Headhunters) keeps the suspense gripping and action flowing even during the headiest of moments.

 

Unbroken
Jack O’Connell, Domhnall Gleeson
***1/2 — War and Appease
Imperfect but far from broken, Angelina Jolie’s sophomore directing effort soars more than scours thanks to a compelling subject and his powerful life story. This R-rated drama based on Laura Hillenbrand’s (Seabiscuit) bestselling nonfiction book by the same name chronicles the life of Louis Zamperini (O’Connell), an Olympic runner who was taken prisoner by Japanese forces during World War II. The rich and authentic trappings provided by the director, however, flesh out the story to almost epic lengths … for better and worse. Just reading the bullet points of this amazing man’s life alone raises you to your feet and screams ‘cinematic.’ It didn’t need to ape so many of the audience-pleasing Oscar dramas of the past to lay the awe-striking resonance of this real American hero on thicker. While Jolie’s gorgeous use of photography and period detail roots you in an often inhuman and superhuman experience, but it also frames a fluffed-up script that hits too many rousing crowd-pleasing beats to feel completely true. Also, Unbroken boasts an adaptation partly written by Joel and Ethan Cohen (Fargo, No Country for Old Men). Notice the words ‘party written.’ Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson also get credited with screenwriting. The old saying “Too many cooks spoil the broth” applies to many industries but it often proves true in regards to film and, specifically, screenplays with more than two writers. Whether Zamperini’s brother actually said “A moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory” to his departing brother on a train platform is besides the point. It needs to feel honest, not smarmy. Thankfully, Jack O’Connell’s brave Grade-A performance elevates the overwrought pages at his feet.

 

Wild
Reese Witherspoon, Gaby Hoffman
**** — The Mostly Great Outdoors
When given an intelligent adaptation of a somewhat familiar tale that’s played out by an amazing performance and framed with stellar direction, filmgoers can’t help but get Wild about Reese Witherspoon’s latest. In this R-rated drama based on Cheryl Strayed’s memoir by the same name, director Jean-Marc Valee chronicles a recovering addict’s (Witherspoon) 1,100-mile solo hike undertaken as a way to recover from the death of her mother (Laura Dern). Unless it’s Into the Wild, which falls far from being merely Wild with less estrogen, films about redemption borne out of rugged journeys usually head down one particularly formulaic road. Everything from Harry and Tonto to Eat Pray Love pretty much has somewhat of a pick-me-up bouquet waiting for audiences at the end. Oh, this doesn’t intend to take anything away from Strayed’s real-life personal struggles, which comprise the true story framed here so beautifully in digital. Sure, Wild’s redemption tale doesn’t present the most original two hours on-screen, but therein lies the “A-Ha” moment: the film proves more about maintaining some semblance of order in a world of chaos. Plus, the powerful lead performance and non-linear storytelling present enough of a twist to keep viewers riveted. Stripping herself bare in more ways than one, Reese Witherspoon anchors the film with a ridiculously emotional performance that never feels anything but full-tilt authentic. Also, Nick Hornby’s wonderfully glib and devilishly detailed reordering of Strayed’s memoir moves the story forward even though it’s hop-scotching around her life. Without Valee at the helm, however, these brilliant spokes wouldn’t turn as smoothly. Giving all involved a very worthy follow-up to The Dallas Buyers Club, he invests the sadness and joy with a verve that keeps us on track to a satisfying end.

 

Small Screens

The Interview
James Franco, Seth Rogen
*** — Creaks and Geeks
In this R-rated comedy available for download, tabloid talk show host Dave Skylark (Franco) and his producer (Rogen) find their interview with a surprise fan, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, turning into an assassination mission after they get recruited by the CIA. In trying to make a connection between Pineapple Express and Midnight Express, the team behind This is the End presents an occasionally funny movie that’s more of third world than superpower comedy. Please understand that, even if they found that this comedy’s laughs were found to cure cancer, The Interview would never live up to the epic hullabaloo that it’s created on the international scene. For a flick that puts forth such a high-minded premise, the comedy proves too juvenile. Some of the jokes, bits and gags hit the target, albeit never a direct bullseye. Most of the script simply gets mired and muddied in too much schoolyard potty humor. Sure, This is the End and its writers/directors earned raves with much the same tone and standard, but their latest already tries to be offensive in so many ways other than dick and fart jokes — politically and culturally chiefly among them. Notice the word “tries.” Though it never attempts to act as outwardly smart as war-minded comedies like 1,2,3, Dr. Strangelove and Don’t Drink the Water, The Interview’s premise asks that you at least know what’s going on in the headlines and cable news scroll, which strangely asks a lot of our accelerated culture. Ultimately, it lacks the moxie to deliver a ‘smart’ bomb on moviegoers

 

 

Screens

Screens

Opening This Week

Unbroken
Jack O’Connell, Garrett Hedlund
Angelina Jolie’s R-rated drama chronicles of the life of Louis Zamperini (O’Connell), an Olympic runner who was taken prisoner by Japanese forces during World War II. The Plus: The players. Based on Laura Hillenbrand’s (Seabiscuit) nonfiction book by the same name, Unbroken boasts an adaptation partly written by Joel and Ethan Cohen (Fargo, No Country for Old Men). The Minus: The material. Notice the words “party written.” Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson also had a hand in the script. The old saying “too many cooks spoil the broth” applies to many industries, but it often proves true in regards to film and, specifically, screenwriting. Also, Jolie, who recently announced that she would be spending more time helming films than starring in them, got mixed reviews for her directing debut, In the Land of Blood and Honey.

 

Into the Woods
Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp
In this PG-13-rated adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical, a witch (Streep) conspires to teach important lessons to various characters of popular children’s stories including Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Jack and the Beanstalk (James Corden) and Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy). The Plus: The players. Have you seen the players headed Into the Woods? Chicago director Rob Marshall helms an A-List cast including Streep (August: Osage County), Depp (Transcendence), Kendrik (Pitch Perfect), Chris Pine (Star Trek Into Darkness), Corden (One Chance), Emily Blunt (Edge of Tomorrow), Christine Baranski (Mamma Mia!) and Tracey Ullman (Corpse Bride). The Minus: The odds. Marshall’s last star-studded sure thing musical … well, it wasn’t (Nine).

 

The Gambler
Mark Wahlberg, Jessica Lange
In this R-rated crime-thriller, debt-ridden lit professor and gambler Jim Bennett (Wahlberg) borrows money from a loan shark (John Goodman) and begins a relationship with one of his students (Brie Larson) in vying for a second chance. The Plus: The players. Here, Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) directs Wahlberg (Transformers: Age of Extinction), Lange (FX’s American Horror Story), Goodman (The Monuments Men), Larson (Don Jon) and Michael Kenneth Williams (HBO’s Boardwalk Empire). The Minus: The glut. Released amid a sea of Oscar hopefuls (Wild, Big Eyes) and H’Wood holiday fluff (Annie, Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb), The Gambler is risking a lot by opening this particular weekend.

 

Now Playing

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan
***1/2 — Here and Flak Again
Battling its way not quite to the top spot of either Peter Jackson’s Tolkien series in general or even The Hobbit series freestanding on its own hairy feet, Five Armies nonetheless entertains a ready-made audience with technical magic and over-fluffed storytelling. In this PG-13-rated conclusion to the fantasy saga, Bilbo (Freeman) and company (McKellan, Richard Armitage, Luke Evans, Orlando Bloom, et al) become embroiled in a war against an armed flock of combatants and the terrifying dragon Smaug (voice of Benedict Cumberbatch) from acquiring a kingdom of treasure and obliterating all of Middle-Earth. It’s a tough patch to pull through, serving as the concluding chapter to one series and the jumping off point for another more highly regarded series. Star Wars pulled it off with Revenge of the Sith, albeit only because the preceding chapters (Episodes I and II) proved to be such letdowns. Here, Jackson and his co-conspirators/writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens continue to color outside the lines of source material held in an almost religious devotion by fans, forwarding the story of one invented character (Evangeline Lilly’s Tauriel) and embellishing the involvement of Lord of the Rings fan favorites (Orlando Bloom’s Legolas and Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel). By this go-round, we’re already over the fact that this prequel series never came close to equaling the first trilogy in terms of character development, powerful storytelling and pure dramatic punch. How could it? One slim book got ballooned into three epic movies as opposed to three epic books getting slimmed down into three movies. On the minus side, this go-round’s more about action than words. On the plus side, the battle scenes and heroic derring-do never disappoint. This goes double for the special effects, which somehow impossibly immerses you in the front line skirmishes of Middle Earth. Smartly, the action starts from the get-go and never lets up until the sentimental ending. More stream-lined and rousing than An Unexpected Journey but less entertaining and cerebral overall than The Desolation of Smaug, Battle of the Five Armies provides a fine enough keystone for bridging Peter Jackson’s Wonderful World of Tolkien.

 

The Pyramid
Ashley Hinshaw, James Buckley
* — Dumb of the Dragon Emperor
A found footage thriller that should’ve stayed lost during the development stage of production, The Pyramid schemes moviegoers into more paranormal inactivity. In this R-rated horror flick, an archaeological team (Hinshaw, Buckley) attempts to unlock the secrets of a lost pyramid only to find themselves hunted by an insidious creature. In regards to it being a faux documentary, they don’t even try. In one scene, all of the cameraman stand on a floor and suddenly there’s a POV from the ceiling. Funny, it doesn’t look like recently discovered footage from a documentary crew. It just looks like the cameramen have the shakes. Then, the camera turns on them … the only ones WITH bloody cameras. Yes, continuity ends up to be the scariest aggregate of The Pyramid. If only it happened faster. Even at a trim 90 minutes, the end of this horror-bull can’t come fast enough.

 

Exodus: Gods and Kings
Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton
*** — Cecil B. De Meh
Though it doesn’t necessarily inspire an Exodus of angry moviegoers from theaters, director Ridley Scott’s impressive and grandiose staging of the story of Moses ultimately feels neither entirely Biblical nor epic. In this PG-13-rated historical epic from director Ridley Scott (Prometheus), defiant leader Moses (Bale) rises up against the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses (Edgerton), setting 600,000 slaves on a monumental journey of escape from Egypt and its terrifying cycle of deadly plagues. It’s not for lack of trying. Audiences haven’t seen specially constructed sets this big and sprawling and costumed extras this numerous since the last days of Studio System H’Wood, when seven companies pretty much ran the industry from soup to nuts in an almost factory setting. It’s this expertly mounted grandeur echoing the classic H’Wood scale — along with some decent acting — that keeps Gods and Kings in our good graces. The story, however, lumbers around like it’s lost amid the immensity of the buildings and sea of faces. Sure, it’s based on books of The Bible, but some creative liberties reduce the historic events to pure stock. Between sniveling villains and climatic showdowns, this overcooked script wants for more truthfulness.

 

Top Five
Chris Rock, Rosario Dawson
**** — Top Dawg
After years of failing to find a project that wasn’t beneath his prodigious talent or concocting a vehicle worthy of his razor sharp wit with his own hands, one of the greatest funnymen ever gives audiences a hilariously and heart breakingly true piece of the Rock. In this R-rated comedy from writer/director/star Chris Rock, a comedian (Rock) tries to make it as a serious actor when his reality-TV star fiancée (Gabrielle Union) talks him into broadcasting their wedding on her TV show. Despite a brilliant stand up career that ranks among the Top Five best in comedy today, Rock hasn’t seen this success translate to screen whether he’s producing (Death at a Funeral), starring (Bad Company), writing (Head of State) or performing all-of-the-above (Down to Earth). Finally, Rock channels his amazingly funny stream of consciousness into the perfect outlet — a thinly veiled take on his own life. Taking laser-sited aim at everything from celebrity to the film business to reality TV the valleys of his own career to modern love in one tightly rolled joint, Top Five — in a comedian’s terminology – kills it. Oh, not every joke split your gut and there is a formulaic nature to the proceedings, but the characters speak with such refreshing honesty that all is forgiven. Plus, there’s a great twist and every true-working-blue comedian in a supporting role (Adam Sandler, Kevin Hart, Whoopi Goldberg, Brian Regan, Tracy Morgan, Cedric the Entertainer, J.B. Smoove) delivers the goods pitch perfectly–the furthest thing from stunt casting. Also, Rock has never performed better in an acting role. Alongside the ridiculously great Dawson, however, how could he not? Lastly, Freddie Jackson’s silky smooth ’80s R&B ballad “You Are My Lady” gets used to brilliant comic effect, soundtracking one of the film’s many very real and very funny laugh-out-loud moments.

Screens: Dec. 18, 2014

Screens: Dec. 18, 2014

OPENING THIS WEEK


 
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan
In this PG-13-rated conclusion to Peter Jackson’s fantasy saga, Bilbo (Freeman) and company (McKellan, Richard Armitage, Luke Evans, Orlando Bloom, et al) become embroiled in a war against an armed flock of combatants and the terrifying dragon Smaug (voice of Benedict Cumberbatch) from acquiring a kingdom of treasure and obliterating all of Middle-Earth.
The Plus: The franchise. Okay, you’re over it. Quality-wise, The Hobbit trilogy can’t compare to the Lord of the Rings three-fer. Box office-wise, however, the series definitely proves a winner. Plus, Desolation of Smaug proved more entertaining than An Unexpected Journey. In wrapping up the franchise, producer/director/co-writer Peter Jackson welcomes a returning cast that includes Freeman (FX’s Fargo), McKellan (X-Men: Days of Future Past) Andy Serkis (the forthcoming Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens), Richard Armitage (Into the Storm), Evans (Dracula Untold), Bloom (The Three Musketeers), Evangeline Lily (Real Steel), Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine), Christopher Lee (Dark Shadows), Hugo Weaving (Cloud Atlas) and Stephen Fry (Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows).
The Minus: The truth. Uh, quality-wise, The Hobbit … hey, wait, where are you all going in record droves with money in hand?
 
EC18SCREENS_1_WEBAnnie
Jamie Foxx, Quvenzhane Wallis
In this hip hop-infused PG-rated update of the Broadway musical, a hard-nosed tycoon and New York mayoral candidate Will Stacks (Foxx) makes a thinly-veiled campaign move and takes in young, happy foster kid (Wallis) enduring a hard knock life with her foster mom, Miss Hannigan (Cameron Diaz).
The Plus: The material. Already a hit many times over on Broadway and on big screen (1982) and small (Made-for-TV, 1999), this musical and its songbook (“Tomorrow,” “It’s a Hard-Knock Life”) have long proven to be hits with audiences. Here, Will Gluck (Friends with Benefits) directs Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild), Foxx (The Amazing Spider-Man 2), Diaz (Sex Tape), Rose Byrne (Neighbors) and Bobby Cannavale (Chef).
The Minus: The material. Audiences fell in love with Charles Strouse (composer), Martin Charnin (lyricist) and Thomas Meehan’s (writer) 1977 version, not this contemporary version produced by Will Smith featuring with new songs from Jay-Z. Nothing against Hova, but what gives?
 
EC18SCREENS_3_WEBNight at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb
Ben Stiller, Robin Williams
In this PG-rated comedy adventure, nightwatchman Larry (Stiller) spans the globe while uniting favorite (Williams) and new characters (Stevens) while embarking on an epic quest to save the museum magic before it disappears forever.
The Plus: The series. Thus far, these movies proved very popular with moviegoing families, banking nearly a billion dollars worldwide. This third installment stars Stiller (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty), Dan Stevens (A Walk Among the Tombstones), Owen Wilson (Grand Budapest Hotel), Rebel Wilson (Pitch Perfect), Ben Kingsley (Hugo), Dick Van Dyke (Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day), Steve Coogan (Philomena), Ricky Gervais (Muppets Most Wanted) and the late great Williams (Old Dogs).
The Minus: The standard. The unfunny trailer features a monkey peeing on Owen Wilson and Steve Coogan … to the delight of no one. Does potty humor really equal successful family holiday film?
 
 

NOW PLAYING

 
EC18SCREENS_4_WEBExodus: Gods and Kings
Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton
*** — Cecil B. De Meh
Though it doesn’t necessarily inspire an Exodus of angry moviegoers from theaters, director Ridley Scott’s impressive and grandiose staging of the story of Moses ultimately feels neither entirely Biblical nor epic. In this PG-13-rated historical epic from director Ridley Scott (Prometheus), defiant leader Moses (Bale) rises up against the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses (Edgerton), setting 600,000 slaves on a monumental journey of escape from Egypt and its terrifying cycle of deadly plagues. It’s not for lack of trying. Audiences haven’t seen specially constructed sets this big and sprawling and costumed extras this numerous since the last days of Studio System H’Wood, when seven companies pretty much ran the industry from soup to nuts in an almost factory setting. It’s this expertly mounted grandeur echoing the classic H’Wood scale — along with some decent acting — that keeps Gods and Kings in our good graces. The story, however, lumbers around like it’s lost amid the immensity of the buildings and sea of faces. Sure, it’s based on books of The Bible, but some creative liberties reduce the historic events to pure stock. Between sniveling villains and climatic showdowns, this overcooked script wants for more truthfulness. Granted, some might scoff over the historical accuracy of The Bible, but there’s no discounting the lure of the narrative as it stands. Right in his wheelhouse, Ridley Scott delivers jaw-dropping recreations of ancient vistas. He’s done slave rebellion before (Gladiator) and religious persecution as well (Kingdom of Heaven), but Exodus takes the grandiosity up to whole other eye-popping level that we’ll probably never see again. His choice of actors proves impressive as well, even if their roles leave something to be desired. Joel Edgerton’s Pharaoh, for instance, seems to have crawled out of a children’s illustrated Bible story and not the pages of The Old Testament. Between missteps like this along with poor pacing, the dramatic punch never fully connects or comes close to channeling the powerful storytelling of the source material.
 
The Pyramid
Ashley Hinshaw, James Buckley
* — Dumb of the Dragon Emperor
A found footage thriller that should’ve stayed lost during the development stage of production, The Pyramid schemes moviegoers into more paranormal inactivity. In this R-rated horror flick, an archaeological team (Hinshaw, Buckley) attempts to unlock the secrets of a lost pyramid only to find themselves hunted by an insidious creature. In regards to it being a faux documentary, they don’t even try. In one scene, all of the cameraman stand on a floor and suddenly there’s a POV from the ceiling. Funny, it doesn’t look like recently discovered footage from a documentary crew. It just looks like the cameramen have the shakes. Then, the camera turns on them … the only ones WITH bloody cameras. Yes, continuity ends up to be the scariest aggregate of The Pyramid. If only it happened faster. Even at a trim 90 minutes, the end of this horror-bull can’t come fast enough.
 
 
EC18SCREENS_2_WEB

SMALL SCREENS


 
The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)
Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill
* — The Farce Awakens
In the film industry, the word ‘miscalculation’ gets thrown around a lot when a production flops over questions ranging from tone, release date, casting, direction of the story, or target demographic. In the case of the horribly miscalculated Star Wars Holiday Special from 1978, all of the above apply. In interviews, Star Wars creator George Lucas expressed a firm desire to destroy every remaining copy (and this from the man who gave us Jar Jar Binks in the interim). For one of countless reasons why, just look at the synopses: On their way to the Wookie’s home world of Kashyyyk for Life Day, Han Solo and Chewbacca face Imperial forces searching for members of the Rebel Alliance among Chewie’s family including father Itchy, wife Malia and son Lumpy. And this is just the flimsy wire holding the bizarre goings-on together. Bea Arthur runs a Tatooine nightclub, Art Carney plays a Rebel-friendly trader, Harvey Korman pops up in a series of thankless comic roles and Jefferson Starship deliver a rock performance via hologram. Nothing, however, prepares you for an elderly Wookie getting heated while watching a virtual Diahann Carroll. The only portion of true Star Wars importance remains the special’s animated adventure featuring Boba Fett. This marked the character’s actual introduction to pop culture until The Empire Strikes Back thankfully erased the history books two years later. Only broadcast once and never released on home video, the special is regardless readily available on the Internet and worth a glance if only to cement its place as one of TV’s Worst Moments. Here’s a warning, however: It’s so poorly designed and executed that it’s rarely even funny — just baffling and odd.

Screens

Screens

Opening this weekend

Exodus: Gods and Kings
Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton
In this PG-13-rated historical epic from director Ridley Scott (Prometheus), defiant leader Moses (Bale) rises up against the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses (Edgerton), setting 600,000 slaves on a monumental journey of escape from Egypt and its terrifying cycle of deadly plagues. The Plus: The players. The legendary Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator) directs Bale (American Hustle), Edgerton (Zero Dark Thirty), Ben Kingsley (Enders Game), Sigourney Weaver (Avatar), Aaron Paul (Need for Speed) and John Turturro (Transformers: Dark of the Moon) in a Biblical epic on the scale of a D.W. Griffith or Cecil B. DeMille motion picture. The Minus: The flotsam. Reportedly, Gods and Kings isn’t aiming for Biblical accuracy. The production also drew ire for casting white actors in non-white roles. Noah, another Biblical epic likewise checking off these boxes banked some healthy numbers, but ultimately underwhelmed both critics and filmgoers. Fox won’t release the Exodus budget figures, but just based on the star salaries, huge sets built and costuming 500-600 extras, the amount must be kingly or ungodly. Plus, a number of Scott’s recent flicks divided both critics and audiences (Robin Hood, Prometheus, The Counselor).

 

Top Five
Chris Rock, Rosario Dawson
In this R-rated comedy from writer/director/star Chris Rock, a comedian (Rock) tries to make it as a serious actor when his reality-TV star fiancée (Gabrielle Union) talks him into broadcasting their wedding on her TV show. The Plus: The sale. Financed for $8 million, Top Five started a bidding war at the Toronto Film Festival and went on to sell for $12 million. Also, it’s chocked full of stars including Rock (Grown Ups 2), Dawson (Sin City: A Dame to Kill For), Union (Think Like a Man Too), Adam Sandler (Blended), Kevin Hart (Ride Along), Whoopi Goldberg (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), Jerry Seinfeld (the web series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee), Tracy Morgan (Rio 2), Cedric the Entertainer (Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted), J.B. Smoove (A Haunted House) and Romany Malco (Last Vegas). The Minus: The odds. Despite a brilliant stand up career that ranks among the Top Five best in comedy today, Rock hasn’t seen this success translate to screen whether he’s producing (Death at a Funeral), starring (Bad Company), writing (Head of State) or performing all-of-the-above (Down to Earth).

 

Now playing

The Pyramid
Ashley Hinshaw, James Buckley
* — Dumb of the Dragon Emperor
A found footage thriller that should’ve stayed lost during the development stage of production, The Pyramid schemes moviegoers into more paranormal inactivity. In this R-rated horror flick, an archaeological team (Hinshaw, Buckley) attempts to unlock the secrets of a lost pyramid only to find themselves hunted by an insidious creature. It’s not even scary, dammit. Worse, audiences just saw similar — and, sadly, more frightening — goings-on in As Above, So Below, a trashy scarer that suddenly seems as A-Level as The Exorcist following a viewing of this creaky feature. In regards to it being a faux documentary, they don’t even try. In one scene, all of the cameraman stand on a floor and suddenly there’s a POV from the ceiling. Funny, it doesn’t look like recently discovered footage from a documentary crew. It just looks like the cameramen have the shakes. Then, the camera turns on them … the only ones WITH bloody cameras. Yes, continuity ends up to be the scariest aggregate of The Pyramid … until CGI sphinxes get thrown into the mix, that is. These NES-quality pixelations convince no one that terror lurks in these cinematic catacombs. In fact, they invite many rounds of laughs instead. It truly becomes a pleasure watching these uninteresting characters get picked apart one by one. If only it happened faster. Even at a trim 90 minutes, the end of this horror-bull can’t come fast enough. In what’s perhaps the dumbest misstep of the movie, the producers cast a recognizable face in Denis O’Hare. Even though he doesn’t equal the familiarity of, say, George Clooney, you definitely know the face which takes you light years away from suspending any disbelief for this cheap piece of Barnum.

 

Beyond the Lights
Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Nate Parker
***1/2 — XO Factor
American idling just short of excellence, the sometimes predicable but oftentimes impressive Beyond the Lights gives a Voice to an Idol truly worth hearing. In this PG-13-rated romantic drama, the pressures of fame push superstar singer Noni (Mbatha-Raw) on the edge, until she meets Kaz (Parker), a young cop who works to help her find the courage to develop her own voice and break free to become the artist she was meant to be. Oh, you’ve kinda sorta heard this tune before … albeit, like a tune stuck in your head that you just can’t quite place, by much different artists. Yes, moviegoers know where this mix-tape consisting of everything from The Bodyguard to Glitter is heading. The unique spin on the formula and performances prove so engaging, however, that you just don’t care. Everything, from the faux music videos to procedural police work to strong supporting players, feels so legitimate that we’re perfectly happy to get lulled into a trance by this hip hop-infused ballad. In making Gugu Mbatha-Raw the marquee player of Beyond the Lights, a star is born. Granted, she gives just as compelling and authentic a turn as an uncharacteristically black member of British aristocracy in Belle. Here, however, this hypnotically beautiful actress sings and talks such a brilliant game that you wonder how to possibly quantify such a ridiculously high level of talent into a quotient. Devious and alluring in the same breath, Minnie Driver earns the right to demand a supporting part in ANY flick she wants for the foreseeable future. Hats off to writer/director Gina Prince-Bythewood for crafting such delicious roles for her and all involved.

 

Horrible Bosses 2
Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis
** — 9 to Low 5
In serving the same Bosses with material that’s not nearly as strong, Horrible is the word for this redundant deuce. In this R-rated follow-up to the 2011 hit comedy, Nick (Bateman), Kurt (Sudeikis) and Dale (Charlie Day) pull off an inept kidnapping scheme on the son (Chris Pine) of a slick investor (Christoph Waltz) who steals their business idea. Business gets conducted in relatively the same manner with three bickering, potty mouthed friends seeking vengeance on some double dealing executives … only this time, they zero in on the same executive … oh and they downgrade from murder to kidnapping. You see, Horrible Bosses succeeds because of its moxie. Put upon, low level wage slaves who turn to murder? It takes balls to pull off an unapologetically offensive comedy like that with raunchy laughs to spare. The only offensive aspect of Part 2 is its lack of originality and chutzpah.

 

Small Screens

Kids for Cash
Directed by Robert May
***1/2 – Children of a Lesser Judge
New to DVD, Blu Ray and downloading, this R-rated documentary looks behind the notorious judicial scandal that rocked the nation, exposing a shocking American secret where millions got paid and the justice system got waylaid. Ripped from the national headlines, this locally bred American Horror Story makes for a ridiculously engrossing documentary even though it leaves an ill feeling in the pit of your stomach by proxy. Sadly, the true events prove too unbelievable to be mistaken for a narrative film — despicably stranger than fiction. The fact that Pennsylvania’s justice system became a Draconian super villain to children would almost be deemed too melodramatic if sold as a drama. The staggering facts play out almost like a Dickensian tragedy, which makes this subject and its subjects well worth documenting. And aside from some stylistic gaffes, the documentation gets expertly presented. Robert May produced amazing films from both the narrative (The Station Agent) and documentary realm (The Fog of War). These experiences obviously provided a brilliant training ground for shooting hundreds of hours of interview footage, securing actual news coverage and compiling them both into an informational but digestible piece of pop culture. Of course, there are the missteps. To offset the monotonousness of watching endless interview footage, some devices start to lay this editorial voice on too thick. Also, the film leaves audiences with multiple codas, statistics well worth knowing … at first. Then, the information overload continues … ad nauseum. This statistical glut almost derails the whole experience.

Screens

Screens

Coming Soon

Wild
Reese Witherspoon, Gaby Hoffman
Think: Into the Wild with more estrogen. In this R-rated drama based on Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, director Jean Valee (The Dallas Buyers Club) chronicles a recovering addict’s (Witherspoon) 1,100-mile solo hike undertaken as a way to recover from the recent death of her mother (Laura Dern). The Plus: The players. Reese Witherspoon already has a Best Actress Oscar for playing a real-life person in Walk the Line, but Valee just directed Matthew McConaughey AND Jared Leto to Oscar wins in Dallas Buyers Club. So far, her latest performance is garnering a June Carter Cash-level of awards buzz. Also, filmgoers will be hot to see Valee’s follow-up, which boasts an adaptation by novelist Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About a Boy). The Minus: The contention. Lump this flick in with such other early contenders as Foxcatcher, The Imitation Game, Birdman, The Theory of Everything, Selma, American Sniper, Big Eyes and Unbroken and you have yourself a not-so-exclusive club.

 

The Imitation Game
Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley
Think: Sherlock with decoder rings. In this PG-13-rated historical drama, English mathematician and logician Alan Turing (Cumberbatch) helps to crack the Nazis nearly unbreakable Enigma code during World War II. The Plus: The accolades. Between playing the world’s greatest detective in the ridiculously well-written Sherlock on the BBC to voicing villainous dragon Smaug in The Hobbit trilogy, Benedict Cumberbatch is a hot property. Since launching at the 41st Telluride Film Festival in August, this British-American co-production keeps receiving reviews lauding its Oscar worthiness, especially for Cumberbatch (12 Years a Slave), who leads an amazing cast that also includes Keira Knightley (Begin Again), Matthew Goode (Belle), Mark Strong (Before I Go to Sleep) and Charles Dance (HBOs Game of Thrones). The Minus: The contention. Lump this flick in with such other early contenders as Foxcatcher … oh, you get the point.

 

Now Playing

Horrible Bosses 2
Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis
**— 9 to Low 5
In serving the same Bosses with material that’s not nearly as strong, Horrible is the word for this redundant deuce. In this R-rated follow-up to the 2011 hit comedy, Nick (Bateman), Kurt (Sudeikis) and Dale (Charlie Day) pull off an inept kidnapping scheme on the son (Chris Pine) of a slick investor (Christoph Waltz) who steals their business idea. Business gets conducted in relatively the same manner with three bickering, potty mouthed friends seeking vengeance on some double dealing executives … only this time, they zero in on the same executive … oh and they downgrade from murder to kidnapping. You see, Horrible Bosses succeeds because of its moxie. Put upon low level wage slaves who turn to murder? It takes balls to pull off an unapologetically offensive comedy like that with raunchy laughs to spare. The only offensive aspect of Part 2 is its lack of originality and chutzpah. Unfortunately, this sequel sports the same basic premise and an R-rating, but the sophomoric humor just isn’t that funny. Like the painfully bad The Hangover Part II, the stars simply dial up their character’s comic traits for comic effect to cover for the lack of uniqueness. In other words, dry terminally sarcastic Bateman, goodtime doofus Sudeikis and explosively irascible and childlike Day turn their usual shtick up to an 11, which gets old really fast. Also, Kevin Spacey has no business being in this movie save for checking off a box called “gratuitous cameo.” His screen time moves the story forward in no way. Jaimie Foxx and Jennifer Aniston at least color in some sort of plot point. Colin Farrell proves the smartest Bosses alum, sitting out this unnecessary and oftentimes unfunny sequel. The captain must go down with this sinking ship, however. In replacing original director Seth Gordon and, along with his writing partner John Morris (the equally unfunny Sex Drive, She’s Out of My League, Dumb and Dumber To), replacing the original Bosses screenwriters, director/co-writer Sean Anders flubs this recycling job.

 

The Theory of Everything
Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones
****1/2 – A More Beautiful Mind
In trying to solve the remarkable equation behind the life and loves of Stephen Hawking, director James Marsh’s remarkable drama burns bright with a star-like intensity and brilliance not unlike the subject himself. In approaching such a monumental figure who’s still very much alive and active in his field, all involved thankfully focused on a particular bent: his marriage. Smartly, this PG-13-rated bio-pic looks at the relationship between the famous ALS-stricken physicist (Redmayne) and his first wife, Jane (Jones). Rather than present some fuzzy math in a whimsical manner like the flight of fanciful bio-pic A Beautiful Mind, Theory of Everything mostly grounds filmgoers in a home setting that points up the true wit and wisdom of this genius. Like that same Oscar winner, the direction proves polished but the story’s less mawkishly sentimental. Of course, some science works itself in but this film mainly tries figuring out the man’s human element. Marsh’s time traveling drama doesn’t always present smooth sailing, which is what makes it such a profound human viewing experience. In overcoming adversity and disability, he suffers, his wife suffers and his family suffers. The audience is just along for the ride, but the magnificently constructed trappings evoke some strong emotions be it laughing, crying or thinking. In adapting Jane Hawking’s memoir Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, screenwriter Anthony McCarten beautifully presents a well-rounded and tight digest of a life and mind truly worth celebrating. Without believable performances to root viewers, however, all of this would be for naught. Eddie Redmayne’s turn as Hawking defines “transformative.” To paraphrase Spencer Tracy, you never catch him acting, which makes his brilliant performance a lock for an Oscar nod and — hopefully — the prize itself. Likewise, Felicity Jones’s awe-striking turn pulls you into Jane’s world and holds you captive for a brief but altogether rewarding history of their romance.

 

The Penguins of Madagascar
***1/2 – Tux for All Occasions
Lean, loud and laugh-filled, this intentionally silly flightless water fowl-up fires at a fast, funny and unfuzzy clip. In this PG-rated animated spin-off of Madagascar, Skipper (McGrath), Kowalski (Miller), Rico (Conrad Vernon) and Private (Christopher Knights) join forces with undercover organization The North Wind to stop a villainous doctor from destroying the world. In taking these Madagascar fan favorite supporting players and giving them a solo adventure, DreamWorks Animation gambles big with a popular cash cow franchise — and wins. Smartly forsaking sentimental syrupiness for wiseacre comedy team antics, this movie moves at a breakneck pace that keeps it from getting bogged down in a cartoon-killer called seriousness. Most flicks of this ilk wear their hearts on their sleeves, teaching the importance of family, friends and working together. Oh, Penguins doles out these One-to-Grow-Ons by proxy but never affects a professorial lecturing tone. Mostly, it just serves to zing and zip gags and one-liners at the audience. Granted, not all of the jokes hit a bullseye, but this spin-off surges ahead at such an accelerated pace that you don’t have time to notice. From writing to celebrity voices, DreamWorks Animation always assembles an impressive roster of talent and harmless madcap vehicle is no exception. This flick boasts the A-List pipes of Benedict Cumberbatch (BBC’s Sherlock), John Malkovich (RED 2), Ken Jeong (The Hangover Part III) and Peter Stormare (NBC’s The Blacklist). More than just stunt casting, these actors legitimately bring the funny.

 

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1
Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson
*** — Hungry Ayes
Mostly satisfying the Hunger of moviegoers despite keeping its head in the Games too long, Mockingjay, Part 1 nonetheless keeps the fires of excitement and contemplation burning toward the conclusion. In this PG-13-rated sci-fi adventure, Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) works to save Peeta (Hutcherson) and a nation moved by her courage under the leadership of President Coin (Julianne Moore) and the advice of her trusted friends. Without question, many scenes in this third chapter thrill and engage to an amazing degree. These scenes also drag on too long, nearly losing their dramatic punch. The Hunger Games, however, had a good thing going, offering up a rare sequel that improved upon its forebear. The suspense as well as societal commentary and political intrigue continue to rouse, but the narrative had no business (beyond cashing in, at least) padding what should’ve been a taut driven storyline like the last go-round. There are long points where we just stare at Katniss for an uncomfortably long period.

 

 

Small Screens

Doctor Who — Series 8 (2014)
Peter Capaldi, Jenna-Louise Coleman
***1/2 – Time Heist
As a longtime viewer of the longest-running science fiction program in TV history, this critic has hitched many rides on the Tardis. The latest season equals something more Timey Wobbly than Timey Wimey to paraphrase an expression coined by the fans’ favorite take on the doctor, David Tennant. In this latest run of the legendary BBC series, however, Peter Capaldi makes his debut as the latest incarnation of the quirky Time Lord, who must embrace his latest form in order to conquer a sinister threat lurking in the background of events. If Series 8 doesn’t come close to attaining the rarefied quality previous doctor Matt Smith’s brilliant opening season (Series 5), it’s not due to the lead actor’s performance. Indeed, Capaldi’s bold, eccentric and often hilarious embrace of the ‘new’ character proves to be Series 8’s biggest selling point. Likewise, Jenna Coleman’s Clara Oswald — once a greatly underused and seemingly listless companion — finally gets her due with an arc that’s nearly as fascinating as the Doctor’s. The lack of quality comes down to writing. The gems (“Deep Breath,” “Listen”) and decent standalones (“Mummy on the Orient Express,” “Kill the Moon”) can’t outshine the absolute crud (“Robots of Sherwood”) in a season that’s mostly middle-of-the-road. Even the two-part finale (“Dark Water,” “Death in Heaven”), which is usually a crowd-pleaser, fails to arouse many cheers despite some rabble-rousing tweaks to the canon. As executive-producer and head writer Steven Moffat (Sherlock) heads into Series 9, his new direction for the program needs a course correction. There’s still a millennia of potential left for television’s greatest time traveler. We’ll keep the faith. After all, he also began this tenure with the wonderful Series 5.

 

 

 

Screens

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Screens

Opening this week

Horrible Bosses 2
Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis
Former child actor Jason Bateman knows horrible bosses. He cut his teeth in the H’Wood trenches (Little House: A New Beginning, Silver Spoons, The Hogan Family), but recaptured the industry’s attention and reignited his career by playing Michael Bluth on Fox’s irreverent sitcom Arrested Development (Season 5 of which has recently been confirmed by Netflix). After earning his stripes in raunchy comedies (Couples Retreat, Bad Words), Oscar-baiting fare (Juno, Up in the Air) and summer blockbusters alike (Hancock, The Kingdom), he’s earned himself a sequel. In this R-rated follow-up to the 2011 hit comedy, Nick (Bateman), Kurt (Sudeikis) and Dale (Charlie Day) pull off an inept kidnapping scheme after a slick investor (Christoph Waltz) steals their business idea. The Plus: The genre. When they connect, R-rated comedies ignite the box office (Neighbors, 22 Jump Street, Let’s Be Cops). Horrible Bosses grossed just less than $120 million in the U.S., making it a bona fide smash. Let’s face it, not everybody has kids and is looking for clean family fun come Thanksgiving, the one holiday when most people return home because of the long weekend. Here, writer-director Sean Anders (That’s My Boy) reunites cast members Bateman (This is Where I Leave You), Sudeikis (Fury), Day (FXX’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia), Jennifer Aniston (We’re the Millers), Kevin Spacey (Netflix’s House of Cards) and Jamie Foxx (The Amazing Spider-Man 2) with newbies Waltz (Django Unchained), Chris Pine (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit), Keegan Michael Key (Comedy Central’s Key and Peele) and Jonathan Banks (AMC’s Breaking Bad). The Minus: The material. For the most part, critics didn’t hate Horrible Bosses. Sequels, however, rarely come close to equaling the quality of their forebear. Here Anders replaces original director Seth Gordon (the forthcoming video game adaptation Uncharted) and, with his writing partner John Morris (Sex Drive, She’s Out of My League, Dumb and Dumber To), replaces Bosses’ original screenwriters.

The Penguins of Madagascar
Voices of Tom McGrath, Chris Miller
In this PG-rated animated spin-off of Madagascar, Skipper (McGrath), Kowalski (Miller), Rico (Conrad Vernon) and Private (Christopher Knights) join forces with undercover organization The North Wind to stop a villainous doctor from destroying the world. The Plus: The franchise. Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted banked nearly $150 million in the U.S. From writing to celebrity voices, Dreamworks Animation always assembles an impressive roster of talent. This flick boasts the A-List pipes of Benedict Cumberbatch (BBC’s Sherlock), John Malkovich (RED 2), Ken Jeong (The Hangover Part III) and Peter Stormare (NBC’s The Blacklist). The Minus: The odds. Dreamworks Animation isn’t exactly exempt from critical and audience rejection. In 2013, the title of Turbo proved rather appropriate at the box office when compared with expectations.

 

Now Playing

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1
Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson
*** — Hungry Ayes
Mostly satisfying the Hunger of moviegoers despite keeping its head in the Games too long, Mockingjay Part 1 nonetheless keeps the fires of excitement and contemplation burning toward the conclusion. In this PG-13-rated sci-fi adventure, Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) works to save Peeta (Hutcherson) and a nation moved by her courage under the leadership of President Coin (Julianne Moore) and the advice of her trusted friends. Without question, many scenes in this third chapter thrill and engage to an amazing degree. These scenes also drag on too long, nearly losing their dramatic punch. After Harry Potter successfully extended its ending chapter into two parts, it suddenly seemed en vogue to split your finale like aces. For that franchise, an impressive six above average episodes into the action by that time, the extension of Deathly Hallows paid off in spades, story wise and box office wise (plus, when you’re already capping it at seven chapters, is the audience really going to mind an eighth?). In regards to The Twilight Saga, the series’ material never proved very entertaining or thought-provoking so prolonging the brand hurt nothing in regards to quality because very little existed. The Hunger Games, however, had a good thing going, offering up a rare sequel that improved upon its forebear. Also, a trilogy provides a solid round three-act structure that’s perfect for storytelling. Instead, Mockingjay could’ve provided a last hurrah full of awe-striking bite and might … but it gets stretched to an almost uninteresting level like a once-edgy tattoo on a person quickly becoming obese. The suspense as well as societal commentary and political intrigue continue to rouse but the narrative had no business (beyond cashing in, at least) padding what should’ve been a taut driven storyline like the last go-round. There are long points where we just stare at Katniss for an uncomfortably long period. At least, Jennifer Lawrence shows up for a good fight, leading a charged cast all on their A-game. Their Part 1 is good but could’ve been great.

Whiplash
Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons
**** — Ringo of Fire
Drumming up an exhilarating and emotional rollercoaster of a drama, writer-director Damien Chazelle’s blistering music-story plays so fast and furiously with the audience’s sympathies that whiplash nearly occurs. In this R-rated musical drama, a promising young drummer (Teller) enrolls at a cutthroat music conservatory where a driven instructor (Simmons) stops at nothing to realize the student’s potential. If the Great Santini taught at Fame, it might look a lot like this. What price, greatness? That’s a question that Whiplash nails down violently and profanely. On one hand, the teacher goes too far. On the other hand, the student gives a better performance. Anybody pushed by a mentor or who strives under their own worst critic — themselves — surely relates. It’s the authenticity of the acting and, by proxy, to the performance, instrument playing that really makes you consider this price, however. In an intentionally polarizing role that makes Sgt. Hartman from Full Metal Jacket come off like Pooh Bear, J.K. Simmons gives the greatest performance of his already great career and one of the best dramatic turns of the year. As a filmgoer, you bristle at his maniacal slave-driving. When hot-headed, blister-handed Miles Teller drums himself into a seemingly possessed absolute frenzy at the climax, however, you practically sweat and bleed along with him. Due every bit of recognition surely coming his way this awards season, this actor plays every note of Tim Simonec’s amazing, original jazz songbook. Yes, what results from their hard work truly makes you think … but you’ll be tapping your knee to keep time while the brain toils all the same. With such frenetic performances and an improvisational jazz influence, filmgoers might suspect that writer-director Damien Chazelle would mostly take a handheld approach. They’d be wrong. Using stead-cam to capture the on-screen madness only keeps the explosive goings-on that much MORE in focus.

Birdman
Michael Keaton, Edward Norton
****1/2 – Birdman Forever
Daringly taking filmgoers on an ambitious flight of fancy, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s brilliantly layered, acted and staged bit of fuss and feathers surges the boundaries of filmmaking and filmgoing forward. In this R-rated absurdist comedy, a washed-up actor known for playing an iconic superhero (Keaton) must overcome his ego and family trouble as he mounts a Broadway play in a bid to reclaim his past glory. Birdman might serve up the existential crisis of a man who may or may not be suffering a breakdown, but the film fails to provoke an ounce of sadness. Pity’s another thing entirely. As funny as it is dazzling, the film keeps the audience amused as they unwittingly get whipped up into the director’s imaginative frenzy. Birdman effortlessly whisks you into its intoxicating insanity because the story feels so real, the performances so true and our own delicate bruised egos so exposed, just like characters themselves.

Dumb and Dumber To
Jim Carrey, Jeff Daniels
** — Dumbed Thumbs Down
Gagging moviegoers as it goes, second place sequel Dumb and Dumber To proves chock full o’ bits … for fans’ betterment and everybody else’s worsening. In this PG-13-rated comedy set 20 years after the dimwits bungled their way through their first adventure, simpletons Lloyd (Carrey) and Harry (Daniels) head out in search of the latter’s long lost daughter in the hopes of gaining a new kidney. This deuce impressively follows up its forebear with near-perfection, seamlessly cut from the same poo-stained cloth. If you like Dumb and Dumber, however, you’ll like this follow-up a lot … because it’s practically the same movie. For the rest of moviegoers, however, it’s the exact same yawn and dance recycled two decades later. Frustratingly, the Farrelly Brothers already floundered at making a Dumb and Dumber sequel with The Three Stooges. Think about it: through several connected comedy bits, some knockabout best friend lamebrains make a mockery out of the upper class and anything qualifying as “the establishment.” Harry and Lloyd are one Howard Brother short of being a classic comedy team … minus the classic comedy, of course.

 

 

Small screens

The Merv Griffin Show (1962-1986)
Merv Griffin, Jay Leno
***1/2 — Bain Glorious
Clocking in at 2520 minutes and 12 discs, this new super-deluxe Merv Griffin Show release can’t inspire a complete review … yet. Still, just perusing the highlights of these programs — some complete and some segments — shows off a wealth of nostalgic retro-cool glee. For the older set, this way-back machine offers conversational gems from some late greats (Salvador Dali, Bette Davis, Dr. Timothy Leary, Sammy Davis Jr., Andy Warhol, Richard Pryor, Ingrid Bergman, Whitney Houston, George Carlin and Orson Welles, who died hours after his interview). For the younger set, however, this open time capsule offers an opportunity to hear the voice and watch the mannerisms of icons rarely seen or heard outside of history books (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Pres. Ronald Reagan and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy) as well as stars just getting their start (Leno, Jerry Seinfeld and George Clooney). Griffin may not have been as quick as Johnny Carson, as witty as Dick Cavett, as smart-alecky as Tom Snyder or as polished as Mike Douglas (indeed, his sometimes fumbling manner of interviewing can make you feel uncomfortable), but his couch boasted a lot of wisdom, talent and bon mots nonetheless.

Screens

Screens

Opening this week

 

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1
Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson
In this PG-13-rated sci-fi adventure, Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) works to save Peeta (Hutcherson) and a nation moved by her courage under the leadership of President Coin (Julianne Moore) and the advice of her trusted friends. The Plus: The franchise. Here, Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) directs returning stars like Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle), Hutchinson (Red Dawn), Liam Hemsworth (Rush), Woody Harrelson (HBO’s True Detective), Donald Sutherland (The Mechanic), Elizabeth Banks (Walk of Shame), Stanley Tucci (Transformers: Age of Extinction), Philip Seymour Hoffman (A Most Wanted Man), Jeffrey Wright (HBO’s Boardwalk Empire), Sam Clafin (The Quiet Ones) and Jena Malone (Sucker Punch) as well as such new additions as Julianne Moore (Non-Stop) and Natalie Dormer (HBO’s Game of Thrones). The Minus: The split. Lionsgate decided to break the final Hunger Games book, Suzanne Collins’ Mockingjay, into two separate flicks. Tinkering with the formula that made the first two go-rounds so successful (the last chapter, Catching Fire, banked over $864 million worldwide) is a gamble, especially considering the total budget for both parts reportedly tops $250 million. Granted, splitting the finale didn’t hurt Harry Potter (The Deathly Hallows) or Twilight (Breaking Dawn), so expect some record-breaking numbers for this hotly anticipated sequel.

 

Foxcatcher
Steve Carell, Channing Tatum
Blame Step Up. Since hoofing it in that star-crossed dancers-in-love flick, Channing Tatums star has been on the rise mostly thanks to sitting out Step Up 2 through 5 (All In). Since banking two of the biggest hits of 2012 (The Vow, 21 Jump Street), however, Tatum’s star has continued to burn white hot (Magic Mike, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, White House Down, 22 Jump Street). In 2015, he’ll put another notch on his H’Wood belt with the sequel Magic Mike XXL before going on to play mutant hero Gambit in 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse … after THIS much buzzed about drama, that is. In this R-rated drama based on the true story of Mark Schultz, an Olympic wrestler sponsored by millionaire John du Pont finds his life leading to unlikely circumstances. The Plus: The players. Here, director Bennett Miller (Capote, Moneyball) directs a cast that includes Carell (Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues), Tatum (22 Jump Street), and Mark Ruffalo (Begin Again). The Minus: The odds. Lump this flick in with such other early contenders as Interstellar, Wild, Birdman, The Imitation Game, Selma, American Sniper, Big Eyes and Unbroken and you have yourself a not-so-exclusive club.

 

Now Playing

Dumb and Dumber To
Jim Carrey, Jeff Daniels
** — Dumbed Thumbs Down
Gagging moviegoers as it goes, second place sequel Dumb and Dumber To proves chock full o’ bits … for fans’ betterment and everybody else’s worsening. In this PG-13-rated comedy set 20 years after the dimwits bungled their way through their first adventure, simpletons Lloyd (Carrey) and Harry (Daniels) head out in search of the latter’s long lost daughter in the hopes of gaining a new kidney. Not surprisingly, this flick brings the dumbness. Surprisingly, it amounts to a few decent chuckles. Granted, it’s very few, but why split Harrys? This deuce impressively follows up its forebear with near-perfection, seamlessly cut from the same poo-stained cloth, which is its blessing and curse. The broken mold, 1994’s Dumb and Dumber, never induces the out and out hysterics of the writers’/directors’ masterpiece, There’s Something About Mary or even the knee-slapping gem in-between that and Dumb and Dumber, Kingpin. If you like Dumb and Dumber, however, you’ll like this follow-up a lot … because it’s practically the same movie. For the rest of moviegoers, however, it’s the exact same yawn and dance recycled two decades later. To cement the do-over status of the flick even more, the story even works in some favorite moments from the original (unsurprising spoilers: the dog car rolls again and Lloyd utters some choice catchphrases). Rinse. Repeat. Castaway prequel aside (Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd), the Farrelly Brothers frustratingly already floundered at making a Dumb and Dumber sequel with The Three Stooges. Think about it: through several connected comedy bits, some knockabout best friend lamebrains make a mockery out of the upper class and anything qualifying as “the establishment.” Harry and Lloyd are one Howard Brother short of being a classic comedy team … minus the classic comedy, of course. Appearances aside (Carrey looks 20 years dumber, er, younger while Daniels looks like an aging vaudevillian in need of hanging it up), the stars channel their inner stooge brilliantly. Still, what results ranks among the brothers’ other sophomoric, second rate, comedies as Stuck on You, Osmosis Jones, and even another ill-fated Jim Carrey-starring vehicle, Me, Myself, and Irene.

 

Birdman
Michael Keaton, Edward Norton
****1/2 — Birdman Forever
Daringly taking filmgoers on an ambitious flight of fancy, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s brilliantly layered, acted and staged bit of fuss and feathers surges the boundaries of filmmaking and filmgoing forward. In this R-rated absurdist comedy, a washed-up actor known for playing an iconic superhero (Keaton) must overcome his ego and family trouble as he mounts a Broadway play in a bid to reclaim his past glory. As subtitles go, The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance offers up a mouthful and mindful that’s definitely less playful than Dr. Strangelove’s How We Learned to Worrying and Love the Bomb. What results, however, proves nearly as ridiculous and engaging as Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 comic masterpiece. Birdman might serve up the existential crisis of a man who may or may not be suffering a breakdown, but the film fails to provoke an ounce of sadness. Pity’s another thing entirely. As funny as it is dazzling, the film keeps the audience amused as they unwittingly get whipped up into the director’s imaginative frenzy. Birdman effortlessly whisks you into its intoxicating insanity because the story feels so real, the performances so true, and our own delicate bruised egos so exposed, just like characters themselves. Stretching his creative wings after the mosaic patchwork dramas 21 Grams and Babel, Inarritu keeps the action flowing seemingly as one long take. The camera follows the characters walking and talking before turning to catch the next scene already in progress. In what must have taken a mind-boggling amount of preparation, the technical aspects of Inarritu’s latest manner of filmmaking simply astound the viewer. Of course, it’s hard to gauge how remarkable this feat is when you’re marveling at the acting. Michael Keaton always demonstrates an innate gift for pulling off oft-kilter comedy, but his transformation here is absolutely hypnotic. He leads a brilliant cast likewise swept up into its exhilarating and bizarre ether.

 

Rosewater
Gael Garcia Bernal, Kim Bodnia
***1/2 – Captive Audience Favorite
A timely tale of bravery bravely told, Rosewater’s stylish tics and unbreakable sense of humor smell sweet even while charting some familiar waters. In this R-rated true story, journalist Maziar Bahari (Bernal) gets detained by Iranian forces who brutally interrogate him under suspicion that he is a spy. The film presents a very modern story that needs to be told. Though it ultimately (and thankfully) sides with the western world perspective, Rosewater gives a liberal view of Iranian life, painting a broader sympathetic portrait of Middle Eastern life than such other modern Arabia-set takes as Argo. Still, if you’ve seen any wronged detainee film, be it anything from Papillon to Hurricane, the story starts to feel like déjà viewing during the second act. This is not meant to slight the perilous unique ordeal of Barhari. Keeping this jailed journalist story within the context of modern media victim (a jokey segment Bahari does for The Daily Show, for instance, cements his dubious guilt in the minds of his captors) keeps things fresh, as does the style. Still, the overall story rings reminiscent of many other films, intentionally or not. Like the daunted but positive hero at the story’s center, first time writer/director Jon Stewart flies in the face of authority. Oh, it’s not like we haven’t seen Twitter Tweets overlayed on buildings and over people in scenes of workaday life, imagined figures conversing with the main characters, and real news footage juxtaposed with our narrative, but he holds these tricks back until just the right moment, when they move the story forward and/or underlie a plot point that transitions to the next scene. Gael Garcia Bernal gives an achingly true performance, leading a magnificent cast reading from an ace adaptation of Bahari’s memoir, Then They Came for Me.

 

Small Screens

Locke
Tom Hardy
**** — Bain Glorious
If last week’s painful-to-watch Hollywood Film Awards ceremony taught us anything, it’s that awards season is nearly upon us. It’s time to check out a contender that you may have missed: Locke. In this R-rated drama, a dedicated family man and successful construction manager (Tom Hardy) receives a phone call on the eve of the biggest challenge of his career that sets in motion a series of events that threaten his careful cultivated existence. Locked down in a simple premise that’s entrancingly driven home, Tom Hardy’s compelling latest pits a troubled family man, his BMW, his phone and a historic construction job as the most invigoratingly complex drama of the year. Admittedly, it’s a tough sell: One principled man drives and talks his way through personal and professional crises for a little under an hour and a half. What transpires, however, is a ridiculously suspenseful one-man show. There’s that cliché that claims you’d watch such-and-such actor read the phone book. Interestingly enough, we more or less get that scenario presented here. Hard sell, amazing payoff. Moving through his smart phone Rolodex in a high stakes game of attrition, Tom Hardy develops a character pretty much from a crouch. Writer/director Steven Wright pulls off an amazing hat trick, single handedly making fools out of anybody who adapts a play and makes it look stagey. This risk-taker sets every nail-biting moment of his drama in a car and the intensity never lets up.

Screens

Screens

Opening this week

Dumb and Dumber To
Jim Carrey, Jeff Daniels
Blame In Living Color. After breaking out on the Fox sketch comedy series with such roles as “Fire Marshall Bill” and “Vera de Milo,” seemingly rubber-faced comedian Jim Carrey launched a film career with back-to-back-to-back hits with Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Mask and Dumb and Dumber. Since then, he’s courted Oscar (The Truman Show, Man on the Moon, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) while keeping his comedy freak flag flying (Bruce Almighty, Liar Liar, Yes Man). Lately, however, it’s been tough going for Carrey at the box office (Fun with Dick and Jane, The Number 23, Mr. Popper’s Penguin) prompting a return to one of his earliest successes, Dumb and Dumber. In this PG-13-rated comedy set 20 years after the dimwits bungled their way through their first adventure, simpletons Lloyd (Carrey) and Harry (Daniels) head out in search of one of their long lost children in the hope of gaining a new kidney. The Plus: The dumbness. Certainly Carrey (Burt Wonderstone, Kick Ass 2) and Daniels (Looper, HBO’s Newsroom) defined themselves away from these characters, but the box office success and fan devotion to this kept bringing a follow-up back into production many times over since 1994. Even the critically despised prequel Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd, which didn’t star Carrey or Daniels, made a modest profit. The Minus: The odds. Writers/directors Peter and Bobby Farrelly boasted a few successes (Fever Pitch, Hall Pass) since their heyday (Kingpin, There’s Something About Mary), but their recent record remains spottier than a spotted owl (Me, Myself, & Irene, Osmosis Jones, Stuck on You). Getting the band back together after 20 years brings a great risk.

 

The Theory of Everything
Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones
This PG-13-rated bio-pic looks at the relationship between famous physicist Stephen Hawking (Redmayne) and his wife, Jane (Jones). The Plus: The material. Since premiering at the 2014 Toronto Film Festival, this adaptation of Jane Hawking’s memoir Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen has generated a lot of critical praise, mostly for the acting. Here, director James Marsh (Man on Wire) directs a cast that includes Redmayne (Les Miserables), Jones (The Amazing Spider-Man 2), Charlie Cox (Netflix’s forthcoming Daredevil), Emily Watson (The Book Thief) and David Thewlis (War Horse). Already, the film has been bandied about as an Oscar contender. The Minus: The odds. Lump this flick in with such other early contenders as Foxcatcher, Interstellar, Wild, Birdman, The Imitation Game, Selma, American Sniper, Big Eyes and Unbroken and you have yourself a not-so-exclusive club.

 

 

Now Playing

Interstellar
Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway
*** 1/2 — Almost Stellar
Putting forth pop science as pop science fiction, Christopher Nolan’s awe striking latest always fascinates and entertains even while it grows too big for its britches. In this PG-13-rated sci-fi adventure, a group of explorers (McConaughey, Hathaway, Wes Bentley) make use of a newly discovered wormhole to surpass the limitations on human space travel and find a new home for the human race. Like 2001 and Contact before it, this space adventure chooses metaphysics and the human factor over Buck Rogers in spinning its tale of mankind looking to the stars. Indeed, to stay timely, the film presents a global-warmed-over Earth that has descended into a worldwide dust bowl where 90 percent of the population farms to survive … only the crops are dying. Not only does an ex-astronaut race to the stars, the story races along with him. Sometimes, Interstellar feels like a full season of a pay cable TV series boiled down into one ultra expensive three-hour episode. The journey proves to be an extremely rousing and surprisingly cohesive trip, but the narrative rushes filmgoers along. Even with the long running time, a lot of story passes the audience by and, for better or worse, the science behind it gets compressed into an MRE (Meal Ready to Eat). Still, with characters so intriguing and performances so engaging, Interstellar still rockets to near greatness. Ambitious, but strangely not sprawling, Nolan’s star trek serves up a big pill to swallow at a full sprint. As with every film on his CV, he streamlines this film to be realistic, thought-provoking and enjoyable. In the case of Interstellar, this process ends up to be a blessing and curse. It makes you think, yes. It also strives to be popcorn entertainment, which is why we get hurled along at seemingly infinite speeds toward a satisfying ending. This is not to say it’s a crowd pleaser — just pleasing. Following up his Oscar-winning turn in Dallas Buyers Club, Matthew McConaughey astonishes in a role that’s nearly as complex as the material. As a father driven to explore even while eaten by heartbreak for his children, the actor grounds this perpetual motion machine. What comes out of his mouth might sound like Wormholes for Dummies, but his heart — and that of the film — remains intact. Hans Zimmer’s powerful, haunting pipe organ-driven score likewise deserves notice. Also, an uncredited star in a supporting role nearly steals the show.

 

Big Hero 6
Voices of Ryan Potter, Scott Adsit
***1/2 — Fox Force High Five
Enjoyable and imaginative beyond simple computation, Big Hero 6 powers up an original story and unique characters for moviegoers young and bold. In this PG-rated animated offering from Disney, plus-sized inflatable robot Baymax (Adsit) and robotics prodigy Hiro Hamada (Potter) team up with a group of friends to form a band of high-tech heroes. In the face of princess burnout and A-Grade competition from Pixar, Dreamworks and Fox Animation, Disney needs a Plan B. Here, we get a solid Plan B+ but with stipulations. While Big Hero 6 fails to birth the franchise potential of, say, the impossible-to-follow-up Frozen, this delightful flick emerges as a funtastic standalone experience. This doesn’t mean that the Mouse House won’t squeeze out sequels, just that Big Hero 6 neither deserves a series, nor does it deserve a tarnishing at the hands of increasingly poor codas. Each character comes across as fully formed and original but never achieves the standout megastar marketability of Disney’s fairy tales. True, following in the successful footsteps of The Incredibles and Megamind, the story seems all-too-familiar even with its own stylish tics. Also, the tech and technical jargon flies way above most children. Still, the movie offers a highly enjoyable, fast moving, witty ride that only needs to be boarded once.

 

Nightcrawler
Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo
**** — Fit to Print
Making his living on the evening news and giving us something we can definitely use, Jake Gyllenhaal gives his already edgy, thought-provoking, latest drama an extra lift thanks to a cagily can’t-miss performance. In this R-rated crime-thriller, a driven young man (Gyllenhaal) stumbles upon the dangerous underground world of Los Angeles freelance crime journalism. In 1976, Network examined yellow journalism as a biting satire. Just over 10 years later, Broadcast News did the same, albeit more in the vein of a thinly-veiled romantic comedy. Nightcrawler follows this same cynical chestnut, the moral responsibility incumbent upon people operating under the auspice of freedom of the press, down the rabbit hole. What results is an at-times fascinating adrenaline-fueled take powered by a brilliant performance. His eyes bulging from analmost skeletal frame, Gyllenhaal gives a brilliantly manic turn as the titular graveyard shift sociopath with laser-sited focus. He’s still somehow exudes a charm and handsomeness which keep your eyes peeled to the screen. Of course, that’s the point. Like being an active voyeur to murders and war from the comfort of your easy chair, you can’t turn away.

 

Small screens

Batman: The Complete TV Series Blu Ray (1966-1969)
Adam West, Burt Ward
**** — Pow! Bam!
Any resemblance between this series and a punchline is purely intentional. Unlike the franchise-killing Batman Forever and Batman and Robin, which derailed Tim Burton’s stylish, dark, groundbreaking vision, all involved in the camptastic 60s network TV itineration of the Caped Crusader set out to produce something entirely tongue-in-cheeky. Any TV show that casts this iconic a shadow — one that Christopher Nolan’s legacy co-exists with but does NOT erase from the zeitgeist — deserves a watch if not just for nostalgia’s sake. Hell, even DC Comics recently began a series based solely on this bastion of high-camp, Batman 66. For the younger set, watching Adam West and Burt Ward deliver Airplane!-worthy dialogue completely straight-faced failed to trigger any trace of a sense of humor. Instead, the heroics got taken literally. It’s doubtful that today’s kids, growing up in the post 9/11, irony-filled, accelerated culture that they are, could do the same. In an age when the trippy, wit-infused derring-do of Adventure Time captivates their time, however, the all-ages humor of vintage pre-Dark Knight Batman should remain intact. Plus, the villains, each realized by a B-Level H’Wood star from that are, still emerge as the highlight. Indeed, film fans can gleefully spot cameos throughout the entire run of the program like an ornithology expert checks off birds while walking in the woods. Watching all 120 episodes on this new long overdue Blu Ray set flirts with tedium, but the extras bear some tasty low-hanging fruit.