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Film Reviews

NEW OR RECENT

Rating: 0 to 5 stars

(Click on Title for Review)

THE GIVER

CALVARY

CODE BLACK

MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT

THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY

GET ON UP

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY

AND SO IT GOES

A MOST WANTED MAN

LUCY

I WISH I WAS HERE

SEX TAPE

DAWN OF THE
PLANET OF THE APES

THIRD PERSON

EARTH TO ECHO

BEGIN AGAIN

TRANSFORMERS:
AGE OF EXTINCTION

OBVIOUS CHILD

JERSEY BOYS

THE ROVER

22 JUMP STREET

HOW TO TRAIN
YOUR DRAGON 2

WORDS AND PICTURES

THE FAULT IN OUR STARS

EDGE OF TOMORROW

FOR NO GOOD REASON

MALEFICIENT

X-MEN: DAYS OF
FUTURE PAST

BLENDED

THE HORNET'S NEST

GODZILLA

BELLE

LOCKE

MILLION DOLLAR ARM

NEIGHBORS

ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE

THE AMAZING
SPIDER-MAN 2, 3D

JODOROWSKY'S DUNE

THE OTHER WOMAN

UNDER THE SKIN

DOM HEMINGWAY

DRAFT DAY

THE LUNCHBOX

CAPTAIN AMERICA:
THE WINTER SOLDIER

THE GRAND
BUDAPEST HOTEL

DIVERGENT

NEED FOR SPEED

TIM'S VERMEER

300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE 3D

NON-STOP

POMPEII

THE PAST

WINTER'S TALE

ROBOCOP

THE MONUMENTS MEN

LABOR DAY

THE INVISIBLE WOMAN

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS

LONE SURVIVOR

HER

AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY

THE WOLF
OF WALL STREET

GRUDGE MATCH

AMERICAN HUSTLE

SAVING MR. BANKS

ANCHORMAN 2;
THE LEGEND CONTINUES

THE HOBBIT:
THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG

NEBRASKA

FROZEN

BLACK NATIVITY

THE BOOK THIEF

THE HUNGER GAMES:
CATCHING FIRE

DALLAS BUYERS CLUB

DELIVERY MAN

THOR: THE DARK WORLD

ALL IS LOST

12 YEARS A SLAVE

ENDER'S GAME

ABOUT TIME

WADJDA

THE FIFTH ESTATE

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS

GRAVITY

THE PATIENCE STONE

RUSH

DON JON

ENOUGH SAID

CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS 2 3D

PRISONERS

THE FAMILY

AUSTENLAND

GETAWAY

THE SPECTACULAR NOW

BLUE JASMINE

YOU'RE NEXT

THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS:
CITY OF BONES

THE BUTLER

ELYSIUM

PLANES 3D

WE'RE THE MILLERS

2 GUNS

THE WOLVERINE 3D

THE TO-DO LIST

FRUITVALE STATION

THE WAY, WAY BACK

THE CONJURING

RED 2

R.I.P.D. 3D

TURBO

PACIFIC RIM

FILL THE VOID

GROWN UPS 2

THE LONE RANGER

DESPICABLE ME 2 3D

KEVIN HART: LET ME EXPLAIN

THE HEAT

WORLD WAR Z 3D

THE EAST

MONSTERS UNIVERSITY 3D

THE BLING RING

KINGS OF SUMMER

THIS IS THE END

MAN OF STEEL 3D

BEFORE MIDNIGHT

THE INTERNSHIP

LOVE IS ALL YOU NEED

AFTER EARTH

WHAT MAISIE KNEW

NOW YOU SEE ME

FAST & FURIOUS 6

AT ANY PRICE

STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS

THE GREAT GATSBY

IRON MAN 3

PAIN & GAIN

THE COMPANY YOU KEEP

OBLIVION

STARBUCK

42

TRANCE

EVIL DEAD

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THE GIVER

THE GIVER
Drama/Sci-Fi
Rated PG-13 for
a mature thematic image
& some sci-fi action/violence.
97 minutes
3½ stars


Have you had your fill of dystopian futures where the saviors are teenagers? Here comes another movie that was based on a book actually published in 1993, way before the current crop. It was only a matter of time before Lois Lowry's Newberry Medal award-winning novel, The Giver, would find its way onscreen given the financial success of other recent dystopian book series, though Jeff Bridges says he has been trying to accomplish that for a long time. The Giver is not as flashy or violent as the recently written crop of young adult novels, but then it was the first to take young people seriously as sci-fi heroes.

There is always a cataclysmic war that is so horrible that people vow never to unleash such forces again. Here it's call The Ruin. It seems our future elders, in all their wisdom, try to protect humanity from itself by essentially muting what makes us most human. Yes, it eliminates the pain and violence, but also the joy and passion from life.

In the world of The Giver, sameness and conformity are celebrated. The opening scenes are in black and white, and dull to be sure. Young life-long friends Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), Fiona (Odeya Rush), and Asher (Cameron Monaghan), are about to graduate and find out what their assigned life's work is going to be. (In a major change from the book the characters here are in their teens, not twelve.)

At the ceremony where The Chief Elder (the scary/wicked Meryl Streep) assigns young people to their tasks, Jonas is startled to find he is going to be the Receiver of Memory, an honored, but mysterious position. At the edge of their living space at the Communities where they reside, The Giver (Jeff Bridges) lives among books and memories. He begins to share them with Jonas, a sensitive soul who already can see some color. This transition from no color to color is handled well, and the cinematography of Ross Emery is striking.

As the memories, both good and bad, start taking over his life, Jonas chooses to not take the daily medicine that mutes his emotions. He begins to see that the elders have lied to everyone for the sake of peace. All sorts of feelings rise up in Jonas, and in a nice touch, even for a baby named Gabriel who lives with his family for a while. Jonas reaches out to Fiona to share those feelings, too, putting her in danger. Yet Asher, the once rebel joker, is now a drone flyer and turns against Jonas.

Director Phillip Noyce works well with his actors and gives the feel of being stifled within a peaceful and sterile setting. Stills and action scenes of the past are well chosen and effective. Unlike the drawn out runtimes we have been seeing of late, The Giver feels a bit rushed in some parts, for example, Jonas' conversion, and the logic is a bit convoluted at times, but the cast is uniformly good with special note to the three young actors, and veterans Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep.

Can anyone bring back the long lost emotions and memories? Is there any escape from paradise? If this movie does well at the box office, you will find out far past that immediate answer.              Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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CALVARY

CALVARY
Drama
Rated R for sexual references,
language, brief strong violence
and some drug use.
104 minutes
4 stars


What does a man do with his rage when no one is punished for an unforgivable sin against him? In this case, the man seeks revenge against a "good priest." In his confessional, Father James (Brendan Gleeson) listens to an anonymous man who says he was molested by a bad priest for five years. That man is now dead, but he has decided to get payback by killing Father James. In the man's perverse logic, the Church will pay more dearly in losing him than the pedophile. He tells him he will killed the following Sunday at the beach.

Writer/director John Michael McDonagh fills the film with religious symbols and ideology. Calvary is the place where Jesus was crucified. It is not much of a stretch, in this movie, to compare the innocent Father James to the martyred Jesus who took on the sins of his people to cleanse them of guilt. And there's more than enough sin to go around in this small village. In fact, if there is any criticism, it is the dark cynicism that wears down the viewer as well as the priest. Can so many horrible people live in one small town?

Each of the townspeople Father James comes in contact with is filled with a combination anger, distrust, contempt, and hate of the Church. He goes through the grueling exercises of speaking with people to try and make their lives better, but they all reject him, and disrespect another weak priest working with him. This is the thanks he gets, along with the murderous indictment against him. One wonders why anyone even bothers to keep a church there.

Father James' was previously married. When his wife died he became a priest. Is the point being made that he did not become a sexual predator because he had not been frustrated early on? His emotionally fragile daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly), comes to visit. They were close at one time, but even here, anguish exists between them. Fiona has already lost him twice before, once to drink, and then to the priesthood.

The unrelenting darkness of the script, and threat of death hanging over Father James, keeps the tension high. Any number of candidates are capable enough to be the proposed killer. Even the remote beautiful landscapes have an element of danger to them.

The ensemble cast is excellent, starting with Brendan Gleeson as a decent man sent among a group of people no one could turn around. Also notable are Chris O'Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Aidan Gillen, Dylan Moran, Isaach de Bankole, M. Emmet Walsh, Marie-Josée Croze, Domhnall Gleeson (Mr. Gleeson's son), David Wilmot, Pat Shortt, Killian Scott, Owen Sharp, and David McSavage.

At times, the symbolism is a bit heavy-handed. In reality, giving absolution doesn't automatically absolve sins of the accuser, no matter what the doctrine says. Priests who used and damaged children continue to have devastating effects on those left behind. The inability to admit, or convenience of denying those sins, and those devastated by their perversion, continue to haunt the modern Catholic Church. The question remains, what do victims do with their rage when there is no justice?              Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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CODE BLACK

CODE BLACK
Documentary/Drama
Rated: Not rated
82 minutes
3½ stars


If you have relatives in the medical profession who work in an emergency room, like I do, then you will be familiar with the issues presented in Code Black. Even so, it is a documentary worth viewing—if you have the stomach for it. The hardest bit of footage is at the beginning when a mortally wounded patient is brought into an inner city trauma center. The shots are graphic. Medical personnel are thoroughly engaged, and what looks like chaos is everyone giving their all to save a life.

After the outcome is resolved, the documentary turns to issues that complicate care. Director/Co-writer/Cinematographer Ryan McGarry, himself a physician, followed a group of young residents and colleagues in Los Angeles over several years. These admirable doctors carry on despite all that is broken in our health care system. What is so interesting is that they compartmentalize and separate their work from failures in the healthcare system, and function as well as they do. Code Black means the situation is the worst it can be.

Patients wait for hours in over-crowded waiting rooms for "emergency" care, while overworked doctors do what they can to help as many people as possible. The movie is achingly difficult to watch at times. In the older facility, we witness critical patients lying on stretchers right next to those dying. The move to a newer facility gives more privacy, but seems to move doctors further away from a connection with their patients.

The residents are interviewed several times to see what has changed for them. To their credit, patient care appears to come first, but the inadequacies of the system does seem to wear them down, and at times, discourage them, as it does to us.

The movie sometimes piles on and is repetitive, losing some of its power to shock and shame us, but it remains a reminder that rather than being cold-hearted professionals, the vast majority of those who work in the healthcare system are people, doing the best they can, who have devoted themselves to improving the odds for everyone, regardless of their circumstances. I would not hesitate to have any of these doctors treat my family members, but the system itself is in Code Black and desperately needs emergency resuscitation.
Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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MAGIC IN THE
MOONLIGHT

MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT
Drama/Comedy
Rated PG-13 for a brief
suggestive comment, and
smoking throughout.
97 minutes
2 stars


The best that can be said for Magic in the Moonlight is that the visuals by cinematographer Darius Khoonji are exquisite, but the mood is ruined by one of the worst casting missteps in recent memory. And this by the writer/director Woody Allen after a long career. That's not to say that the flimsy story itself will knock your socks off either, but the casting cements the failure of whatever hopes the movie had of rising to a successful level.

The premise involves Wei Ling Soo, actually a successful British illusionist named Stanley (Colin Firth), who makes an elephant disappear on stage in 1928 Berlin. Stanley has a fiancée who is his perfect match, but before they vacation he is asked to help investigate what is believed to be the fraud of a young clairvoyant named Sophie (Emma Stone) being perpetuated on a rich family living on Côte d'Azur (French Riviera). Though Stanley is a fraud himself, one wonders why he takes a particular interest in unveiling the misdeeds of others? Doesn't he take money on the pretense of fooling people? This is just one of the contradictions in the movie.

Sophie and her mother Mrs. Baker (the underused Marcia Gay Harden), are staying with the wealthy family of Grace (Jackie Weaver), who recently lost her husband, and is getting messages from him through Sophie. The movie moves along at a leisurely pace, wandering around with no intent, introducing a more age appropriate suitor for Sophie, but never making much headway with any of these side stories.

Stanley visits his aunt (Eileen Atkins) nearby, though this seems extraneous (like most of the plotting) and when he meets the young Sophie, no sparks fly, though Colin Firth, pro that he is, tries admirably. They duel verbally though politely, take walks, drive along scenic roads to various places, and get all dressed up to drink at parties. The real problem is with the casting of Ms. Stone, who is certainly pretty, and has been effective in other movies. Yet these two actors playing against each other is like trying to mix oil and water—no matter how much you shake it, they still separate. It just doesn't work. What was Allen thinking? I'll leave it at that.
Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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THE
HUNDRED-FOOT
JOURNEY

THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY
Drama
Rated PG for thematic
elements, some violence,
language & brief sensuality.
118 minutes
3½ stars


Conflict is not a focal point of this movie, despite the trailer. But that doesn't mean you can't sit back and enjoy the experience. Those who don't know about, or are not interested in chefs and high-end dining probably won't fully appreciate this film.

It begins in India, where a young Hassan Haji (a handsome and sincere Manish Dayal) is close to, and learns to cook from his mother. It seems food is the family business. Hassan's Papa (well-known actor Om Puri) is in control until a violent political clash causes a fire that kills his wife. Devastated, Papa decides to start over in Europe. As the family's car breaks down on the side of the road in France, a young woman named Marguerite (a striking Charlotte Le Bon), kindly takes them to town, feeds them with delicious fresh food, and makes a lasting impression on Hassan.

Papa takes this as a sign and buys a broken down former restaurant. It happens to be across from a well-respected French establishment run by the icy and imperial Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren, without one false move). She feels threatened by the newcomers, and there are some comic moments as she and Papa battle with their wits over the intruders' right to stay.

The situation turns ugly when fire again erupts out of hate, but not to fear, Madame Mallory is really a softie inside and soon makes such good friends with Papa that she hires Hassan to fulfill his calling, a genius at creating great original dishes, mixing French cuisine with unexpected elements. He immediatley garners the attention of foodies in Paris.

There is never any doubt how this all will end, and screenwriter Steven Knight makes the "journey" a delightful one, but the pace is too leisurely. The last third of the movie especially drags when Hassan goes off to Paris. There are no major roadblocks and the story resolves relatively easily. But director Lasse Hallström serves up some gorgeous visuals, and does put the point across to the audience that people who devote themselves to food, at this level, give their lives over to a way of life, not just a job.

The cast is uniformly good, and the chemistry between the characters elevates this simple but elegant tale of like-minded devotion. No explosions are necessary.              Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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GET ON UP

GET ON UP
Biography/Drama/Music
Rated PG-13 for sexual
content, drug use, some
strong language, and
violent situations.
139 minutes
4 stars


James Brown continues to grow in esteem in the years since he died on Christmas day 2006. He may have been a musical genius, but by the end of his life, he was a sad, tortured one. The strengths of the movie include the performances of the cast, specifically Chadwick Boseman as Mr. Brown, a title the singer insisted everyone call him, the music, and the depiction of his early years.

Saying little James Brown had a rough start is a huge understatement. Twins Jamarion and Jordan Scott do an excellent job conveying the pain and confusion of a little boy having a mostly absent, selfish father who beats his wife, and a mother (a moving Viola Davis) not strong enough to stay or take James with her when she leaves for good. His father (Lennie James) drops the boy off with Aunt Honey (an always excellent Octavia Spencer in a small role), where she runs a whore house. James is attracted to and attends the church nearby because he loves the gospel music, but he is basically a wild child, fighting and stealing.

The turning point comes when he is arrested and sentenced to years in jail because he has no one to speak up for him and nowhere to go if released. He becomes friends with another singer named Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis, wonderful), and lives with his family when freed. It becomes clear early on that James has definite ideas about the way to perform and sing, and becomes dominant among his group.

The movie follows his progress and successes, with a nice turn by Dan Aykroyd as his long term friend and manager, Ben Bart, helping to keep him as grounded as possible. James is daring, original, and outrageous, which is why his fan base grows quickly, but his personal demons follow him. He is a demanding control freak who can turn on even his most loyal friends and employees in an instant. He expects total compliance with his orders. His career, both the shows and songs are well chronicled here. The musical performances are energetic and entertaining.

James Brown's personal life is where the movie gets vague and murky. He has numerous women in his life, but it's difficult to tell who is a wife, a girlfriend, or just someone passing through. At one point when he is having a press conference and then boards his private plane, he has several children with him, but no explanation of who they are. He is married at times, and is physically abusive to at least one of his women. Then there are the drugs, which are touched upon, but not in depth.

One of the reasons the movie promotes uncertainty is that the flashbacks are not told in order, so one time he may be a young adult, and then later a child again. If the scenes are placed together by topic, or are trying to make a point by doing so, it moves too quickly to put it all together. It begins to have a frantic feel to it, which may, in fact, be like his life but can be confusing for the audience.

Still, in spite of the awkward structure, the subject of the movie is compelling enough to hold our attention. Mr. Brown's damaging childhood seems to weigh heavier as he gets older. One of the most affecting scenes of the movie is between a newly successful James Brown and the mother who abandoned him. Mr. Boseman and Ms. Davis convey that the deep pain of their separation never left either one.

Yet, James Brown, the "hardest working man in show business" was not able to outrun his shame and insecurities, and that may be the very reason he worked so hard. Sad for him that he could never quite accept that he had accomplished more than enough.              Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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GUARDIANS
OF THE GALAXY

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY
Action/Adventure/Sci-Fi
PG-13 for sequences
of sci-fi violence and
action, & for some language.
122 minutes
4 stars


Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy wastes no time in tugging at the old heartstrings by showing a young Peter Quill, who will become Star-lord (an affable and buffed up Chris Pratt), losing his mother, then being sucked up into an alien spacecraft. When next we see him twenty-six years later, he steals some kind of ball-like object and then everyone is after him.

You don't have to be a Marvel fan or know the characters because it's all so ludicrous anyway, but not difficult to follow. The visuals are up to the current high standards, even with 3D that makes only a marginal difference. The story is a variation on the same theme that most of these stories are about—universal domination. The evil character here that threatens everyone and everything is Ronan (Lee Pace), not doing a bad job being a badie, as all are terrified of him.

Several creatures are after Peter and include Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper), a so-called genetically engineered raccoon bounty hunter that is a Mr. Fix-it with an identity problem. His sidekick is Groot (voice of Vin Diesel), a fast-growing type tree being. Another character after the sphere is Gamora (Zoe Saldana), trying to redeem past behavior and one heck of a female warrior. The final individual of this little group is Drax (Dave Bautista), who swears revenge against Ronan.

A number of other actors add some flavor to the movie including a strangely coiffured Glenn Close, and the so-ordinary-he-almost-looks-out-of-place John C. Reilly, as two of the good guys. Benicio del Toro plays a nasty collector called Taneleer, and Djimon Hounsou is Korath, two more bad guys.

Humor helps the script not take itself too seriously, and there are many funny lines. The cast works well, and the animation and visuals are top notch, though the number of explosions adds up like a video game. If you are a Marvel fan, you won't be disappointed.              Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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AND SO IT GOES

AND SO IT GOES
Comedy/Drama/Romance
Rated PG-13 for some
sexual references and
drug elements.
94 minutes
2 stars


I would like to say I appreciated this sixty-something romantic comedy, but I can't. The likable stars Michael Douglas and Diane Keaton have no chemistry, including the so-called sex scene, which falls flat. But the main problem is a script that shamelessly tries to pull every heartstring. Here's a newsflash: audiences are getting too smart to fall for phony, contrived plots. Even giving the screenplay the benefit of the doubt, that it truly tries to speak to love for a certain generation, it fizzles.

Oren (Michael Douglas) is a wealthy, but cranky real estate agent. He snaps and barks at everyone, including his neighbors in a small apartment building. Come to find out, he owns the building he and they are living in because he is selling his house. The neighbors include the widow Leah (Diane Keaton, with many of her mannerisms intact), who spars with Oren when he is mean to the people around him. Leah has no children and is trying to find a new way of being in the world without her husband. One way she tries to do this is by singing in a small restaurant. But she usually can't make it through a sad song without crying.

Oren is estranged from his son for reasons that become evident later on, and since the son is going to prison he must leave his daughter with Oren since he has no other place for her. Oren initially rejects the little girl Sarah (Sterling Jerins, cute and natural), so Leah takes her in. This plot twist is not only not believable, it is insulting. I don't buy that a man wouldn't take in his grandchild, even under protest, but leave her with a stranger he hardly knows. Oren then learns to become a loving grandfather, quickly. Please.

Director Rob Reiner cast himself as Leah's piano accompanist with purposely bad hairpiece and all. Frances Sternhagen, as Oren's real estate partner, has the best lines in the movie. But why have her constantly smoking? It's unnecessary. Couldn't they find another way to convey that she's feisty? It's not especially funny. Neither is the movie. It is also not moving, but is predictable and doesnít have anything new to say about love for the older set.              Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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A MOST WANTED MAN

A MOST WANTED MAN
Thriller
Rated R for language.
121 minutes
4 stars


John le Carré novels are dense, meaning they are complicated and often difficult to follow. You have to pay attention, but there is always a payoff if you do. Luckily, the last one I saw turned into a movie, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy had a director who did pay attention, as does this director, Anton Corbijn.

The first thing that may hit you is that this was Philip Seymour Hoffman's last role. The German character he plays, GŁnther Bachmann, has a small anti-terrorist team in the tough port city of Hamburg. The audience is told at the beginning of the film that Hamburg is where terrorists planned 9/11, setting up tension immediately.

A mysterious person comes to Bachmann's attention. He is branded as a terrorist, but the half-Chechen, half-Russian young man has been tortured, so is he a terrorist? He seeks help from a Muslim woman (Derya Alabora). It is not quite clear how the man, Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) knows of the woman and her son (Tamer Yigit), but the son contacts a human-rights lawyer named Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams). She in turn contacts Tommy Brue (Willem Defoe), a banker with questionable ties, to help Karpov recover money his father has left for him.

Bachmann has a strained relationship with head of Hamburg intelligence Dieter Mohr (Rainer Bock), who is disdainful of Bachmann's wait and see approach fearing Karpov may act out before they can apprehend him. Into this mix, comes "the Americans" in the person of Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright) who knows Bachmann and challenges him since she believes Americans are the main targets of terrorists.

Karpov becomes a tool to get to Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi). He is a respected Muslim academic, but it is believed he is acting as a philanthropist using money to support terrorist activities.

The movie tends to be slow as all of this back story and set up takes place, but the tension remains high throughout. Mr. Hoffman's performance is difficult to watch at times because he is so realistic and knowing what happened afterwards. The role seems more than a good fit—a world-weary man, trying his best to follow his beliefs. He pays a price by drinking, smoking, eating too much, keeping long hours, and as a result looks unhealthy and depressed.

The movie is intelligent, frightening, nerve-racking, and believable.                      Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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LUCY

LUCY
Action/Sci-Fi
Rated R for strong violence,
disturbing images & sexuality.
89 minutes
3 stars


Lucy is not the first movie to explore the concept of using more of one's brain to become superhuman, except what really happens here is that Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) becomes more and more like a computer. In the beginning, Lucy meets a man who asks her to deliver a briefcase. She rightly doesn't trust him, but becomes involved anyway when he tricks her. She is forced to become a drug mule having a bag of drugs implanted in her body. This early part of the story provides tension with Lucy obviously frightened and out of her element.

In the meantime, Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman), is giving a lecture about how we only use ten percent of our brain, and what could be the possibilities if we were to increase that number? That figure has been discounted many times as being too low. And anyway, the theories of this movie are laughable, if you really stop to think about them.

Lucy is attacked and beaten, and some of the drug in her body enters her blood stream. This is the beginning of Lucy's transformation. Her eyes turn different colors, she learns in split seconds, and sheís a one-woman fighting machine. But Lucy decides to find the mob boss fiend that has done this to her and others and try to use her knowledge for good.

The premise is thin, but the visuals are striking and it's fun watching Ms. Johansson morph into a semi-robot, getting her revenge, and taking down the bad guys—as long as you don't take it too seriously.             Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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I WISH I WAS HERE

I WISH I WAS HERE
Comedy/Drama
Rated R for language
and some sexual content.
120 minutes
2 stars


This movie is the definition of self-indulgent. And it has nothing to do with the Kickstarter campaign controversy. If people chose to donate money to a project, they do so with full knowledge from the beginning that the end result is a question mark. No, this assessment has to do with a writer/director who is too close to his material. Zach Braff is supposed to have said he made the movie he wanted to make. Well then, if he's satisfied, good for him. I don't agree this movie is worth seeing.

Aidan Bloom (Braff), is an out of work actor whose wife Sarah (Kate Hudson) supports the family with a job she hates. Aidan is so out of touch he thinks she loves her job. Sure, that makes it easier to convince himself he can still go to auditions without guilt. He has no other part-time job to help support the family. I mean, not even as a bartender two days a week or something? His father Saul (Mandy Patinkin), comes to see him one day and tells him his cancer has returned so he can no longer pay for Aidan's children's private school.

Now Aidan tries to bargain with the private school to see if he can get emergency funds, but they deny him. Then he visits his brother Noah (Josh Gad), asking him to help. He is a supposed genius, who lives in a trailer park and as best it is explained, creates comic convention characters. But Noah turns him down, and more than that refuses to see his sick father. Aidan must pull his children out of school and teach them himself though heís even bad at that.

We see him on several auditions where the talks to another out to luck actor (Jim Parsons), who he gives some tips to despite being a rival. Is the fact that Aidan refuses to give up his dream of acting supposed to be noble, when he has a family that is hardly scraping by? Yes, there are stories about people holding tight to their dreams, but the movie fails to show that Aidan has any special talents, or is not just a big baby depending on his long-suffering wife to carry the major load of the family.

Kate Hudson does a serviceable job, but seems miscast, or at least, not a good match with Braff. Mandy Patinkin is a good actor and brings weight to his role of Saul, but seems trapped in this part. Aidan's children, a daughter played by Joey King, who seems too old to be his child, and Pierce Gagnan, who plays the son, try hard, but it feels inauthentic.

In short, this movie is a disappointment, at times like fingernails on a chalk board. It has a few comedic moments, and a few tender moments, but it's everything in-between those moments that sink the movie.              Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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SEX TAPE

SEX TAPE
Rated R for strong sexual
content, nudity, language
and some drug use.
90 minutes
2 stars


The good news about Sex Tape is that the actors Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel are in great shape, especially Mr. Segel who has recently lost weight and buffed up slightly. The bad news is that Sex Tape is not all that sexy or funny.

The movie begins as these two, Jay and Annie, meet in college and have an active, make that extremely active, sex life. But with the birth of children and making a living, they've slipped in their attentiveness to each other. The full complement of characters are here: the cute kids, a boy and girl, the annoying best friends, the strange, straight-laced possible boss (Rob Lowe), and the obnoxious kid of the best friend.

Since Jay and Annie don't have much time together, they decide to go all out and make a sex tape when the kids are staying overnight at the in-laws' house. They take down an old copy of an instructive book, The Joy of Sex, and mimic the positions. Jay is supposed to delete the video they made from his iPad, but guess what? He ends up sending it out by mistake to numerous people. What to do? A night of hilarity does not ensue as they try to track down and get rid of the sex tape. Jack Black has a cameo role. He's no funnier than anyone else in the movie.

This may have been one of those, it-seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time screenplays, and maybe even been humorous when writing it, but there are problems with the story. The most glaring is that the couple bring their children along on one of their quests to get rid of the sex tape. Yes, people make sex tapes and then regret it. Then they make stupid decisions out of desperation, but this seems particularly bad form, as one day you can imagine when the kids grow up, they might say—"remember the night when we were kids and went with our parents to..." When is it ever a good idea to have sex tapes and kids in close proximity?

This movie tries to have it two ways. It wants to be provocative using the physical charms of Ms. Diaz and Mr. Segel, but it also wants us to see them as a loving couple with kids who, oops, just happen to make a bad decision. It's disingenuous. Someone said, "People who make sex tapes deserve what they get." The same can be said about people who go to this movie.              Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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DAWN OF THE
PLANET OF THE APES

DAWN OF THE
PLANET OF THE APES
Action/Drama/Sci-Fi
Rated PG-13 for intense
sequences of sci-fi
violence and action, &
brief strong language.
130 minutes
4½ stars


How troubling we humans are, outsmarting and destroying ourselves. The problem is, the genetically intelligent apes in this movie mirror our own self-destructiveness. So who will dominant the planet? If evolution continues on the path suggested at the beginning of the movie, evidence points to—the apes. Why? They are less vulnerable, but also learned the worst human traits from us.

Ten years after a deadly virus, created by humans, only one out of five hundred people is still alive. Society as we know it is gone forever. The apes, led by Caesar (Andy Serkus, phenomenal), who escaped to the forest, have thrived. Believing humans are all dead, they live in relative harmony. But their idyll is broken by a small colony of humans who survived and want to repair the hydroelectric plant nearby to get power to their enclave and communicate again to see if there are other human survivors out there.

After several tense encounters, Caesar finally allows a small contingent of humans to work on the plant. They include Malcolm (Jason Clarke, a realistic hero), Ellie (Keri Russell, well done), a doctor who is his love interest, Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Malcolmís son, and several helpers, including one prejudiced jerk. Back at the human community, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), has no sympathy or understanding of the capabilities of the apes, and badly miscalculates human supremacy.

Although the apes follow Caesar as their undisputed leader, he is blinded to their faults by his loyalty to them. Koba (Toby Kobbell, sinister), who was brutally experimented on by humans, hates them, and through a series of events eventually causes a war between the two groups. We know power corrupts humans, and the supposition of this movie is that unchecked power could corrupt other intelligent beings, given the chance and the guns. The movie does take its time getting to the action, but it's hardly noticeable with the superior visuals. The 3D doesnít appear to add much, but doesnít detract either.

Compliments to director Matt Reeves, who brought together all the elements without exaggerating the process. The motion-capture is outstanding. So much is communicated, as in all good acting, not by presentational theatrics, but by gestures, expressions, and even eye movements. The apes here are easy to tell apart, a major strength of the movie. Mr. Serkus is able to convey the tremendous weight of leadership, and the personal toll it takes. This is easily one of the best movies of the summer.             Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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THIRD PERSON

THIRD PERSON
Drama/Romance
Rated R for language &
some sexuality/nudity.
137 minutes
2½ stars


Liam Neeson plays the central character, a blocked writer named Michael, in Third Person. It's always tricky when a screenwriter/director, in this case, Paul Haggis, is the author of a story about someone in his own profession. Mr. Haggis, best known for the movie Crash, gave us multiple story lines in that film as he does here. The difference is, that movie brought all the plots together in an understandable finale.

Though one can appreciate the impulse to create ever more complex stories, it is essential that a writer give the audience clarity—at some earlier point, which is not the same thing as giving the puzzle away. And I donít mean right up to the end, at which juncture you may have lost them because they havenít been able to make a true investment in the characters. In Third Person, the three intertwining narratives never seem to belong together.

Michael, the writer, has recently left his wife Elaine, Kim Basinger. Their phone conversations are heavy with sorrow and tension. He is in Paris writing and having a tryst with his unstable, younger girlfriend Anna (Olivia Wilde). In another thread, an unscrupulous fashion counterfeiter named Sean (Adrien Brody) meets a gypsy woman in a bar in Rome. Monika (Moran Atias), loses the money she needs to pay to get her kidnapped daughter back. Sean feels compelled to help her. A former soap opera actress named Julia (Mila Kunis) is down on her luck in New York City and is being kept from seeing her young son by ex-husband James Franco.

No complaints about the acting here. Each actor does as much with his or her character as reasonably possible, though some are more thinly drawn than others. There is no doubt Mr. Haggis has much creative energy to offer, but in this movie, it gets lost in a maze of false leads and purposely incomprehensible ambiguousness.

As the stories go back and forth between them, it is difficult to discern exactly how or why they make sense as a cohesive whole. You have to wait until the movie is almost over before it all makes sense. By that time, if youíre anything like me, you have lost patience with the movie, and feel let down.             Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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EARTH TO ECHO

EARTH TO ECHO
Adventure/Family/Sci-Fi
Rated PG for some
action and peril,
and mild language.
89 minutes
3 stars


Earth to Echo is truly a movie for the pre-teen set. The challenge for parents today is that it's not easy to find movies for that in-between category as most are either for younger children, or teens, which nowadays means an R rating. The movie does tend to have the feel of what used to be called, After School Specials, but the young people in the audience laughed in the right places and applauded at the end.

The story is of three friends who are spending their last night together as their neighborhood in Nevada is being taken over and closed down. The friends: Alex (Teo Halm), Tuck (Brian "Astro" Bradley) and Munch (Reese C. Hartwig), are getting strange messages on their phones. They devise a plan to spend their last hours together trying to find the source of the messages, and take off for the desert on their bikes.

Through a series of events they rescue a small alien they name Echo who has been injured on landing in his spacecraft on Earth, and try to get him back home in the sky. Along the way they acquire another friend named Emma (Ella Wahlestedt), who tags along with the boys. As Echo is able to draw metal parts to his small enclosed transport vehicle, some sinister adults (of course), are after them, trying to find Echo and his spaceship, preventing him from going home.

Though the young actors are older than the age group they are portraying, the casting is believable. At least they are not thirty-year-olds pretending to be teenagers, and they are a good mix of likeable "types" for pre-teens to identify with and root for.

Though the story is derivative (there's a bit of ET, and other familiar fictions), it moves along quickly, but there are too many scenes with hand held cameras that sometimes cause the visuals to be disorienting. Several noteworthy special effects have a ďwowĒ factor. And it is a movie for the whole family. It does tend to be superficial as far as the characters, but it is not aiming for deep, but fun.             Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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BEGIN AGAIN

BEGIN AGAIN
Comedy/Drama/Music
Rated R for language.
105 minutes
3 stars


I so much wanted to like this movie as much as John Carney's Once, but it wasn't to be. Where that movie, set in Dublin, Ireland, felt authentically gritty, this one feels manufactured. To begin with, though there is no doubt that Kiera Knightly is a talented actress, her musicianship is limited. Not that she has to be the greatest singer in the world, but some charisma in her musical performances would help. But the main problem with the movie is that the music is mediocre. I canít remember one of the songs.

Ms. Knightly plays Gretta, a songwriter who is basically the musical partner of Dave Kohl (Adam Levine, low key), who has just hit it big with a music contract. Though Gretta is capable in her own right, she is not only ignored but gets dumped soon enough by Dave, who succumbs to the trappings of fame. Gretta mopes around, pushing herself to accommodate a friend and sing at an open mic night, where a down-and-almost-out music producer named Dan (Mark Ruffalo, a pro) spots her. This is the one original scene in the movie, where Dan imagines an arrangement of other instruments accompanying her performance. It reinforces that music arrangers often don't get enough credit.

Dan drinks, lives a chaotic life, and has issues with his estranged wife (Catherine Keener), and especially his teenage daughter (Hailey Steinfeld), but he comes up with a unique idea to record Gretta with accompaniment using various locations in New York City. Again, this exercise feels contrived and artificial, though these locations do exist.

Writer/director John Carney certainly knows the music business. Yet the characters are uninspiring. Each is fine in his/her own right, but there is a lack of tension and urgency. Passion for the music seems an afterthought. Maybe in an effort to present people more realistically, no one is an actual villain, even Dave feels really, really bad about dumping Gretta. But it doesn't make for particularly exciting scenes when the chemistry is lacking. There is no build up and release. Just like a hit song, itís difficult to articulate what exact combination of elements make a movie good.              Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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TRANSFORMERS:
AGE OF EXTINCTION

TRANSFORMERS:
AGE OF EXTINCTION
Action/Adventure/Sci-Fi
Rated PG-13 for intense
sequences of sci-fi
violence and action,
language & brief innuendo.
157 minutes
1½ stars


The scariest moments in the latest version of Transformers comes at the end in the deep voiced hints from Optimus Prime of possible future sequels. Although it's hard to believe anyone who sat through the almost three hours of confusion and incoherence of this movie would be, even remotely, willing to inflict even one more minute upon themselves.

To be sure, some of the acting is entertaining. Mark Wahlberg, as Cade Yeager, a poor inventor with a technical bent, projects (via bulging t-shirts and tough dialogue) a single father determined to protect the innocence of his teenage daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz, pretty even when displaying fear, which is a great deal of her screen time) and his displeasure when her boyfriend Shane (Jack Raynor, standard issue supportive) appears (without any prelude by the way). Cade also promises that he will make discoveries that will insure the funds to save his sprawling spread in Texas and pay for Tessa's college tuition. One day, out gathering whatnots with his associate Lucas (T.J. Miller, adding some humor, not a lot and, SPOILER, when he became an early victim, it only elicits a shrug from the bored viewer) at an abandoned movie theater (nice bit of irony as this movie could surely be a precursor of the demise of Hollywood), he discovers an old, weather beaten truck that he purchases for 150 dollars and takes home to his workplace. In the meantime, an evil government employee, Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer), a suitably scowling and morally bankrupt character, has partnered with an evil Transformer in a joint search for Optimus Prime (the heroic and pure leader of the Bots). This unholy alliance is a result of some sort of a previous robotic attack on Chicago, which follows the film's opening in which it is revealed that Earth's dinosaurs were wiped out by a fleet of extraterrestrial vehicles. Inane? Yes, and it doesn't get better.

In fact, the plot is a mess. Seemingly midway through, an impatient, egotistical corporate leader and scientist by the name of Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci, who manages a few genuine laughs, in what is basically a stereotypical role). There is much talk, and displays, of Joshua having created robots from some newly found robot metal as well as his having plotted the genetic basics of the Transformers. In addition, he is in league through bribery with Harold and associated with Su Yueming (Bingbing Li, tougher than he is by far), who seems to be the head of his company's Chinese affiliate.

But wait, it gets worse. There is mention of the Transformers unknown and unidentified "creators," a huge space ship, and a metallic pod-shaped "seed" with the power of a nuclear bomb. Since there's no rhyme or reason to the plot, what's left are the endless (and it truly feels endless) series of battles, entailing many explosions, plenty of random destruction, loss of innocent life, and an enormous number of unrelieved and ceaseless near misses and escapes amid continuing chases. If there is a dot of originality it's that the city chosen for destruction and havoc is here (after an interlude in Chicago) Hong Kong.

The special effects, it must be acknowledge, are first rate and the movie has all the hallmarks of a picture directed by Michael Bay, meaning teenage boy mayhem and relentless blowing up of people and things. But hours on end of action becomes not exciting but tedious even as the script by Ehren Kruger tries unsuccessfully, to combine emotions, family drama, government, corporate, and scientific corruption and manipulation, sexual innuendo and tension, and heartfelt words of wisdom. The Transformers movie series had a good run. Let them now rest in peace.

Transformers: Age of Extinction - Gone, probably for good, is the fun.              Review by Charles Zio


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OBVIOUS CHILD

OBVIOUS CHILD
Comedy/Romance
Rated R for language
and sexual content.
85 minutes
4 stars


The humor of Obvious Child is not everyone's taste. If you have an issue with abortion, be forewarned. This movie will not be for you, (though looking at all sides of a subject can enlarge one's thinking). The main character of the movie, a comic named Donna Stern (Jenny Slate), is the child of the title. Like many in her age group, late twenties, she still hasn't grown up. Donna's irresponsibility leads directly to her problems. She is the princess, only child of two loving and indulgent but concerned parents as she seems to drift along working in a small new-agey book store with a sign that says, "Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books," and performing in a comedy club at night. And not just any kind of comedy. Donnaís is feminist bathroom humor, though most of it's not that funny. Prolonged adolescence and toilet jokes are apparently not just for the boys anymore.

But Donna's adolescent interlude is interrupted one evening after her comedy set when her boyfriend, embarrassed by her too frank jokes about their sex life, tells her he has been sleeping with her friend and is leaving her. As many before her, Donna drinks to forget her agony. She meets a good-looking straight arrow named Max (Jake Lacy), and both having drunk themselves into oblivion, have sex. Donna's boyfriend has dumped her, the book store is closing and she's losing her job, so what could be worse, you ask? Donna finds herself pregnant.

Max pursues Donna, but she is conflicted. She wants to tell him, but goes instead to other sources of comfort—friends and family. Her chronically angry feminist friend Nellie (Gaby Hoffman), and gay fellow comedian Joey (Gabe Liedman), give what support they can. Her parents also provide comfort, though she has been afraid of her successful mother's judgments of her lifestyle and failure to mature.

Jenny Slate is a likable fitting lead. The character is a bit wacky and all over the place, but the progression of her maturity is well-paced. Ms. Slate makes us care about Donna. Jake Lacy's Max has his own aw-shucks charm that is endearing.

Some audience members may have an issue with the fact that Donna has no intention, from the beginning, of having the baby. She wants an abortion and is steadfast on that decision. She knows she is not equipped for motherhood. But, the issue isn't presented, except once with black humor to hide considerable pain, in a callous manner. There is genuine sadness.

This film presents a new reality about abortions for this generation. They certainly donít remember, and most don't understand, the shame and degradation of back alley abortions that their grandparents, and parents, had to deal with when they were young. Writer/director Gillian Robespierre presents a story that is thoughtful and believable.                    Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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JERSEY BOYS

JERSEY BOYS
Biography/Drama/Musical
Rated R for language
throughout.
134 minutes
3 stars


There is something compelling about the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons—part epic saga, part quaint Jersey tale. But the movie is disappointing—a matter of tone and balance. I admit upfront to a bias for the stage play. There is nothing like live music—though no one sings quite like Frankie Valli—and the story of fame, wreckage and redemption that comes across. It may be unfair to compare them, but it's relevant because what works so well for the Tony-winning stage musical gets diluted.

There's certainly enough time—the movie is well over two hours. The songs carrying the movie. The music, and Mr. Young's falsetto voice, close to Mr. Valli's, is unique and sounds as good today as it must have to audiences then. We get to hear full versions of some, and at least part of each of their big hits. John Lloyd Young does about as well as anyone could with the part. But Tommy DeVito's (Vincent Piazza) character is given too much screen time at the expense of Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), since he wrote the songs that made the group famous. And a highlight of the story is his and Frankie's handshake deal (that stands to this day) to share credit and money for the songs.

Tommy is the founder of the Four Seasons, Frankie's champion, small-time hood, wheeler-dealer and big mouth gambler. Frankie's incredible loyalty to Tommy almost brings him down. This would probably never happen today, another fact that makes the group exceptional, but too much of Tommy, his illegal connections and his money problems throws the story off-balance. When Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) explodes over Tommy's failings, I share his frustration.

One problem is that too many issues are given equal weight. It's not that the acting is bad, but the overall tone feels flat, as though there is no immediacy to what is happening. Even Christopher Walken, by now playing a familiar role as a criminal boss, doesn't bring much energy, though Renée Marino, as Frankie's first wife Mary, brings some spice to her role.

The film does follow the musical closely, but what works on stage doesn't always translate to film. Written by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, it may follow too closely. For instance, speaking directly to the camera may give each character his say, but doesn't work as well as in the play. It's questionable choice, along with too many extreme close-ups, and a dull, uninspired look to the movie.

A scene where Frankie sings, "My Eyes Adored You", with the lyrics, "though I never laid a hand on you," to his young daughter seems a strange song selection. Another scene, where Frankie tries to deal with his rebellious teenage daughter in a diner, has Frankie looking more like her brother than her father. But later on, when Mr. Young is aged, he looks unconvincingly older than the real Frankie Valli in an awful make up job. Oh, man.

Clint Eastwood seemed an unlikely choice to direct this movie, and I'm afraid that my misapprehension turned out to be real.          Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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THE ROVER

THE ROVER
Crime/Drama
Rated R for language and
some bloody violence.
102 minutes
3 stars


There is no getting around it, Guy Pearce is a masterful actor. He's impressive in every performance I've seen him in so far. The revelation here is Robert Pattinson, who many wrote off after the Twilight series. His accomplishment in this film is to show he's serious about doing good work and growing as an actor. One quibble may be with his American accent that goes in and out, but the quality of his acting is notable. For actors, acting with someone more accomplished, often makes them better. That may be the case here since if anything makes the movie worth seeing, it is the dynamics of the onscreen relationship.

That's because the story is reed thin. Ten years after "the collapse" in Australia, the barren, lawless wasteland never looked so noxious. An unnamed character (Mr. Pearce) stops by a desolate outpost and almost immediately has his car stolen. He gives chase, attempting to take back his car from the thieves, but wakes to find he has been left in the brush with a lump on his head. I did wonder, given the nature of the chaos why he isn't killed, but then there would be no story. He finds the wounded brother of one of the thieves, named Rey (Mr. Pattinson).

The unnamed man takes Rey to a doctor only so he can lead him to his brother. Rey is mentally challenged, but the man offers no sympathy or solace trying to convince Rey that he was purposely left behind.

That's it. The rest is a road movie. The audience does find out eventually what the man's story is, and why he seems so robotic. The pace is deliberately slow, but also menacing and violent. Writer/director David Michôd, so impressive with 2010's Animal Kingdom slips a bit here. These dystopian landscapes have become too familiar. And the final payoff may not satisfy all viewers. But if anyone can make something out of a scant, though atmospheric story, it is Guy Pearce.          Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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22 JUMP STREET

22 JUMP STREET
Action/Comedy/Crime
Rated R for language throughout,
sexual content, drug material,
brief nudity and some violence.
105 minutes
4 stars


Okay, so it's not Shakespeare, it's just a fun-filled summer movie that doesn't pretend to be anything other than what it is, and lets the audience in on the joke. It shamelessly ingratiates itself for appeal, but so what? You know what you're getting after 21 Jump Street. If you don't want a good time laughing out loud at farcical humor, then you can certainly skip it.

After previously going undercover at a high school, the two police mess-ups, Jenko (Channing Tatum) and Schmidt (Jonah Hill), try but fail to catch drug dealer Ghost (Peter Stomare). They are sent by Deputy Police Chief Hardy (Nick Offerman) back to their former perpetually angry boss Capt. Dickson (Ice Cube) who sends them to college to repeat their assignment, finding drug dealers.

Jokes are made to emphasize the points, as if we don't get it, that they are doing exactly the same type of mission as last time, that they look thirty instead of college age, and that they are struggling to find balance in their police and personal relationship.

They think a certain tattoo will lead them to the drug dealer selling WHYPHY, but first Jenko finds a fellow athlete in Zook (Wyatt Russell), and becomes involved in football and a fraternity, while Schmidt sleeps with a beautiful art student named Maya (Amber Stevens). They find their interests in different directions are causing issues in their partnership, and despite a "couples session" they decide to break up the team, but not before Jenko says he will help Schmidt over spring break at the beach to catch the people they have been after.

Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill have an easy yin-yang rapport that works. But, two of the best sequences in the movie are the hilarious Ice Cube food scene, and a fight between Schmidt and Maya's roommate, Mercedes (Jillian Bell).

The silliness and absurdity of the screenplay keep the audience from thinking too much about the logic of the script. The cast is having great fun, and along with multiple cameos by well-known actors, the sophomoric humor is infectious. Stay for the credits that present multiple entertaining sequel possibilities.          Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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HOW TO TRAIN
YOUR DRAGON 2

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2
Animation/Action/Adventure
Rated PG for adventure
action and some mild
rude humor.
105 minutes
4 stars


It would have been hard to top How To Train Your Dragon. This sequel tries hard, almost too hard, but ultimately succeeds as a follow-up effort. You can never create the first blush of originality with a second movie—the element of surprise is gone. But this sequel does have popular recurrent characters of Hiccup (voice of Jay Baruchel), the teenage Viking, Toothless the dragon Hiccup has trained, Astrid (voice of America Ferrara), Hiccups girl, and Stoick the Vast (voice of Gerard Butler), Hiccups father.

Now that the Viking village accepts dragons, the next crisis is that a dragon hunter, Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou), wants to capture all of them for his dragon army. Hiccup decides he must save them. In his quest, he finds his long lost mother Valka (voice of Cate Blanchett), who has been saving dragons all along. Her separation from Stoick is handled well, and they are a loving couple again, at least for a while.

The battle scenes become somewhat frenetic, but all the more to show off the 3D, which is unusually impressive in these movies. The movie is too long as there are many twists and reversals. Parents will need to decide if the movie is too dark for the youngest movie-goers as a death is involved. Contributions by the voices of Craig Ferguson, Kit Harington, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T.J. Miller and Kristen Wiig are amusing.

The animation is well done, the characters are likable, and the soaring dragons take audiences on an exciting adventure.          Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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WORDS AND PICTURES

WORDS AND PICTURES
Comedy/Drama/Romance
Rated PG-13 for sexual
material including nude
sketches, language and some
mature thematic material.
120 minutes
3½ stars


It's not easy for even the best actors to transcend a less than perfect script, but the top-notch acting of Juliette Binoche and Clive Owen elevate this old-fashioned, cloying screenplay. The best scenes in the movie are when the characters are alone on screen fighting their demons, or together playing off each other. The two actors create a spark that ignites, and is the main reason to see this movie.

It's not clear who the audience is for this movie. But my guess is it would be people who like the academic atmosphere. If you can get past the obvious over-intellectualizing and sentimentality, the movie does have something to say. The problem is the way the film says it is not original.

Jack Marcus (Clive Owen) is an alcoholic honors English teacher at a private school. He is irresponsible, bitter at his loss of celebrity, has a poor relationship with his son, and plays annoying word games with his colleagues. Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche) is more sympathetic. She is a well-known painter struggling with rheumatoid arthritis, unable to paint as she did before. She is cranky and uncompromising with her students, but at least she has standards, which Jack pretends to have, but only when convenient for him.

Because Dina seems to deny that words have less power than visual art, students who are in both their classes inform Jack that Dina says, "Words are lies." Jack takes this as a challenge and a contrived contest is created where each side "proves" its contention. The students will decide if words or pictures "say" more.

Both characters are flawed, but despite Jack's charm and gallantry to Dina, he commits an unforgivable act for a writer that shows how low he has sunk due to his alcoholism. Will Jack find redemption? The movie seems to indicate that no one is a totally lost cause if art can save them.          Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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THE FAULT
IN OUR STARS

THE FAULT IN OUR STARS
Drama/Romance
Rated PG-13 for
thematic elements,
some sexuality and
brief strong language.
125 minutes
4 stars


Warning: bring extra tissues. The subject of childhood cancer is a difficult one to navigate—it can come off too maudlin, or too falsely cheery. Author John Green manages the correct tone in his young adult novel, The Fault in Our Stars, as do screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber who adapted his book for this film. The movie does have one especially cringe-worthy moment, and it can be a tad too sentimental at times, but for the most part is well-balanced. Director Josh Boone keeps it simple, working well with the cast and not unnecessarily complicating the visuals.

What both the book, and movie, have in common is respect for the young audience. They want to be told the truth in a way they can understand. The sixteen-year-old main character Hazel (a remarkable Shailene Woodley), has been dealing with thyroid cancer since she was thirteen. Because the cancer has spread to her lungs, Hazel knows the score. She has an oxygen supply with her at all times. Even though she is on a trial drug that is sustaining her, it is only a matter of time.

Hazel's parents worry because she is depressed and isolated. Another truth: of course she is. But Hazel is still a teenager who longs for a boyfriend and all the normal experiences of adolescence. She just doesn't think she'll ever have it. When she agrees to go to a cancer support group she meets Augustus Waters (a well-cast Ansel Elgort), who lost a leg to cancer, but is seemingly recovered and there to support his friend Isaac (Michael Wolfe, also well-cast). Yet Augustus keeps staring at Hazel, and she stares back. The actors have a good chemistry.

Two elements help the film succeed. One is the humor, sometimes black, that gives the characters an outlet for controlling their thoughts in constructive way, rather than to constantly be at the mercy of the illness. Another strength is the portrayal of the parents. Sometimes fathers and mothers are ignored in young adult literature, but are wisely added here because they live with the illness in a real way. The Lancasters (Laura Dern and Sam Trammell) are loving parents losing their only child. The audience gets to experience their heartbreak, too.

There is a trip to Amsterdam that helps to open up the movie and moves it along, as Hazel and Augustus try to find meaning in their lives, and in their random bad luck. But along the way they are more normal then you would imagine they could be, and we are grateful for the depth of their happiness, if not the length.          Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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EDGE OF TOMORROW

EDGE OF TOMORROW
Action/Sci-Fi
Rated PG-13 for intense
sequences of sci-fi action
and violence, language and
brief suggestive material.
113 minutes
4 stars


Who would have guessed that another dystopian sci-fi movie would stand out this summer? But Edge of Tomorrow is non-stop action, and though the future still looks bad for us humans, I'm encouraged by this movie. It has a touch of Groundhog Day in that the same day is repeated over and over, but is certainly not a comedy.

In this alien story the hardy Mimics have invaded Earth, and though militaries around the world are working together they are having little effect against them. Into this mess comes Major William Cage (Tom Cruise), who is ordered to the front by General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson). When Cage resists because he has no combat experience, he is arrested and wakes to find himself in a repetitive nightmare mission, reliving the same day again because he has been killed and covered in the blood of an Alpha alien. On the beach where Cage and others are dying, he meets a special forces warrior named Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt) who realizes he is in a time loop and tells him to find her when he wakes.

Though he is not battle-hardened, each time Cage wakes he is smarter because he knows what's going to happen, so he trains and becomes more effective. He and Vrataski become a team and get closer to crushing the aliens.

Both Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt are impressive, especially Ms. Blunt who is buff and solid as a soldier who puts duty before self-interest, a good valid model of what it may mean for a woman to be in combat. They have a good rapport. Director Doug Liman does an impressive job moving the action along and capturing the warfare with help from editors James Herbert and Laura Jennings, and cinematographer Dion Beebe.

Good job in an overcrowded genre.          Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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FOR NO GOOD REASON

FOR NO GOOD REASON
Documentary/Biography/History
Rated R for language,
some drug content and
brief sexual images.
89 minutes
3½ stars


Johnny Depp was drawn to Hunter S. Thompson, Gonzo journalist, prolific drug user, and at times, exasperating nudge. So it wasn't too a far ride to be intrigued by artist Richard Steadman. Mr. Depp visits and documents Steadman's artistic techniques and talks to him about his life working with Thompson, among other experiences.

Steadman shows Depp his process, like a minimal Jackson Pollack, where he has a flat canvas on a table, glops some paint, then let's his imagination take over. When he does this one time, almost as soon as the paint hits the canvas he says something like, "Oh, there's a horse."

The development of the pictures is interesting to watch, especially if you like his brand of freaky images. He became quite famous for them through articles and illustrations, none more notable than the artwork for Hunter S. Thompson's book Fear and Loathing in Vas Vegas. He also was Thompson's life-long friend. Thompson committed suicide in 2005, but Steadman has worked with others and he is revered for his career output, which is considerable.

Steadman was politically active. The cartoons and pictures are not eye-candy, but rather discordant, even unpleasant, to make the viewer think about what the images actually mean.

During the process of filming the documentary, other well-known people show up including Thompson himself in home videos, Terry Gilliam, and Jann Wenner, among others. Dedicated to living what he believes and becoming part of the work itself, the portrait of Mr. Steadman as a vanishing breed is bittersweet.          Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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MALEFICIENT

MALEFICIENT
Action/Adventure/Fantasy
Rated PG for sequences of
fantasy, action and violence
incuding frightening images.
97 minutes
3 stars


Maleficient is a fairy tale for those who qualify as part of the narcissistic generation. Meaning, the innocent princess is so sweet, so compelling, that even the evil Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) has no choice but to love her. If only. Fairy tales have succeeded for centuries because they teach children a moral or a lesson in a fantastic way. In fairy tales the message can be subtle, but they learn the truth—there are evil people in the world, and nothing you are or can do will change them. The way to overcome them is to be smarter, kinder, truer, and know their weaknesses.

It's one thing to want to give a character a backstory, but here the conflicted Maleficient wavers and is not true to her most evil self. She is the one, by the way, that we loved to hate in Disney's animated 1959 Sleeping Beauty. Ms. Jolie is magnificent, especially as the evil fairy. She commands the screen, and is wickedly beautiful even with horns. But when her innocence is lost early on, she is so lacking in resilience that she morphs into the bad fairy, who is really a good fairy underneath it all. Excuse me? What message does this send to young girls? The character is not deep enough as is the witch in Wicked to gain sympathy honestly. It is not earned and doesn't feel genuine.

The visuals are stunning, though dark, and the 3D actually makes a difference here. When the movie opens, the sweet Maleficient has a charmed life among the magical creatures of the forest where she lives. She meets a young human boy named Stefan who talks her into love's first kiss, then brutally betrays her by taking her wings (literally and metaphorically). Her bitterness consumes her, as one might say in a fairy tale, and she vows revenge for the man (Sharlto Copley, especially unlikable) who becomes king at her expense.

King Stefan sends his infant daughter, Aurore, away to the forest with three buffoonish fairies who know nothing about babies to the point that Maleficient's shapeshifter/servant Diaval (Sam Riley, doing the best he can with a vague character) must feed her so she doesn't starve. As she grows, Aurore (Elle Fanning, a good match for the role) wanders freely in and out of Maleficient's kingdom and develops a type of mother/daughter relationship with her.

The movie may be too dark for the youngest set, but parents can decide what their children can tolerate. The rating is PG. It is meant to appeal to girls, and they may find it less ambiguous than adults. The essential story is still there—though Aurore doesn't sleep very long—including a handsome prince, and an unexpected reverse towards the end. If I had a magic wish for the movie, I'd make it better.          Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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X-MEN: DAYS OF
FUTURE PAST

X-MEN: DAYS OF
FUTURE PAST
Action/Adventure/Fantasy
Rated PG-13 for sequences
of intense sci-fi violence
and action, some suggestive
material, nudity & language.
130 minutes
4½ stars


The ensemble nature of this X-Men series creates one of the most entertaining Marvel comic superhero movies. To have the popular characters of the past and future is a big benefit. Subjectively, I like watching every one of these actors. Objectively, as a cast, it doubles the fun and effect. Anchored by Hugh Jackman's Wolverine, who is sent back to the past on an assignment by the older Professor X (Patrick Stewart), and older Magneto (Ian McKellen), he is supposed to convince their younger selves to cooperate with him to save mutants, and the world, from robots. What else?

The movie opening shows the colossal power of the robots, called Sentinels, in a sequence where they find and destroy a number of mutants. But Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), who can send people time--traveling manages to save enough mutants to give Professor X and Magneto time to make a plan. They convince Wolverine to enlist the help of their younger selves, Charles Xavier (James McAlvoy), and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender). Charles has become a bitter shell of his former self, and can walk through the use of drugs, but loses his powers when he does so. He is helped by Hank McCoy, AKA The Beast (Nicholas Hoult).

Wolverine, Charles and Erik must stop Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from murdering the Sentinels' creator Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) because she gets captured and they use her DNA to create even more unstoppable robots. She decides to kill Trask when she learns he is using mutants for experimentation. But Erik decides that in order to save them all, Mystique must die, and in trying to kill her exposes mutants to the world.

A number of subplots, especially one about Richard Nixon (Mark Camacho, looking more Nixon-like than most who have tried) all lead to the finale where the question is whether Mystique can be stopped and mutants and humanity are saved.

Director Bryan singer has assembled an outstanding cast. The action is easy to follow even though it moves back and forth in time, thanks to screenwriter Simon Kinberg. All of the characters are true to their various mutant powers, though we see much more of some, like Mystique, at the expense of others like Storm (Halle Berry). The 3D is effective here as the special effects, CGI, and stunts are stars of the movie, too. Also notable is the cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel, and music by John Ottman.

X-Men Days of Future Past rewards its audience.          Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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BLENDED

BLENDED
Comedy
Rated PG-13 for crude
and sexual content & language.
117 minutes
2 stars


Drew Barrymore makes Adam Sandler look better, which is saying quite a bit. The first of their three collaborations, The Wedding Singer, was the best. Blended sinks to third place. Shamelessly sentimental, silly beyond belief, full of strange short scenes, the kids will probably like it. Drew Barrymore can do better.

The hokey premise is that Lauren (Ms. Barrymore), and Jim (Adam Sandler) meet on a disastrous blind date. They know people in common and end up on a vacation in Africa (don't ask). She has two sons and an uninvolved, selfish ex-husband (Joel McHale, appropriately unlikable). Jim has three daughters he's raising, ignorant of the way girls think and feel. Each set of children needs the sensibility of the parent they're missing. You know how this is going to end. It's just a matter of the way the writers will get them there.

One bright spot is young actor Bella Thorne. She plays Jim's oldest daughter Hillary, AKA Larry. She stands out because she doesn't look like most other female teenage actors. She's striking. She also has acting potential and is one to keep an eye on. The other child actors here are cute and feisty.

There are several stunning shots of Africa, but it feels like they are thrown in for added measure rather than allowing the audience to experience the wild beauty for ourselves. The parents do love their children, and the movie does try to emphasize positive family values.
Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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THE HORNET'S NEST

THE HORNET'S NEST
Documentary/Action/History
Rated R for some
war violence.
97 minutes
4 stars


Afghanistan is the longest war in history, this documentary tells us, and though U.S. Forces are due to return in December 2014 the film reminds us how much we have lost during these years of fighting. Combat photographer Matt Boettcher and his estranged son Carlos go there together to try to photograph the war, and to heal their broken relationship. An outward sign of their success is the Emmy they receive as the first father/son team to do so for the same story. But it goes deeper. Once the son understands why the father has been away so long and missed birthdays and other events, he forgives.

The photography is impressive, needless to say, as the crystal clear shots of the rocky, sandy landscape, and mist on the mountains brings the panorama to the audience. Afghanistan is not lush, often way over 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer, with desolate countryside and sparse trees. No wonder it's so difficult to fight the Taliban on their own turf when soldiers can't see them hiding in the mountains, and they are carrying weapons and 80-pound backpacks.

The camera follows the soldiers on several missions: delivering supplies, searching and clearing a compound, searching for IEDs (improvised explosive devices). This last assignment is especially treacherous as the statistic is that 90% of all US casualties are caused by IEDs. Children are often victims.

The documentary feels as if it has two parts. The story of Mike and Carlos, as affecting as it is, is essentially over when Carlos leaves. Mike stayed on to record Operation Strong Eagle III where the 101st Airborne fought a fierce battle with the Taliban. The film is most effective when there is no narration or comment on the action and the camera rolls, letting the soldiers speak for themselves, and the audience sees the horror close up. In deference to the men, no one is shown dying or bleeding, but it is the reactions of their fellow soldiers during and after a ceremony honoring them that is most gut-wrenching.

The documentary is reminiscent of last year's film Lone Survivor based on actual events, showing how much those filmmakers got right.

Directors David Salzberg and Christian Tureaud, with editing by Sean Mathew and Jason Mergott, and music by Mike Trella, have given the audience a record of war that audiences should not overlook. Why we have been fighting there so long is not the point of this film, politics doesn't enter into it. An officer tells his soldiers that time on earth is not measured by how long you live, but what you do with that time. The human cost of young men and women with so much to live for, who give it all up for each other and for us, as we see here, is what has always made war so sad and so unspeakable.          Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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GODZILLA

GODZILLA
Action/Adventure/Sci-Fi
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences
destruction, mayhem and creature violence.
123 minutes
4 stars


If you ever had fun watching those old Godzilla movies on television, you will appreciate the new Godzilla this summer. But there should have been more scenes with the big guy. It's close to an hour before there is a sighting of the monster. Before that we get flashbacks of husband/wife scientists, Joe and Sandra Brody, (Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche, what's with the hair?), in Japan dealing with nuclear fallout (the original reason for these movie).

Their son, Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), is traumatized by a tragic event and now living in the United States as a Navy lieutenant with his wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) and young son. Ford just happens to be an explosive ordnance disposal technician, which will come in handy later in the movie. He wants nothing to do with his father's obsession with their previous life, but he does return there, just in time for a seismic event that affects the world. He spends the rest of the film trying to get home to his nurse wife and their son. This is the "human interest" part of the story, as if we couldn't get it.

In the meantime, scientists Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Wantanabe), and Dr. Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) are on a Naval ship advising Admiral William Stenz (David Strathairn) in tracking and containing the problem. But all three of these characters are given little to do, especially Mr. Wantanabe who spends much of the movie with an alarmed look on his face yet not much dialogue.

Director Gareth Edwards does an admirable job weaving 3D CGI and special effects in between the story. There are nods to the previous Godzilla movies that credited screenwriter Max Borenstein makes sure to use. The acting does what it needs to do. The actors here are more vehicles for the fight to the death between Godzilla and his monster enemies.

The middle part of the movie is too long and repetitive, but the visuals are spectacular, and while the human interest story is not entirely engaging, if the movie is done right we root for and want to see Godzilla, and the final result is that we do.          Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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BELLE

BELLE
Drama
Rated PG for thematic
elements, some language
and brief smoking imaged.
105 minutes
4 stars


This period drama is based on the life of a real person named Dido Elizabeth Belle, a mixed race young woman, in 1769 England. Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), as she's called here, is the daughter of a British admiral named Sir John Lindsay. When her mother dies, John brings Dido as a child to his uncle, the Earl of Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), to raise. He and his wife, Emily Watson, are childless and raising another niece named Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon). Also helping to raise them is an unmarried aunt (Penelope Wilton).

The twist to the story is that though Dido has restrictions on her in society because she is black, she is rich once her father dies leaving her money so she doesn't have to marry. While Elizabeth, who is afforded privileges because she is white, is penniless and therefore limited in who she can marry because she has no dowry. The social norms of the day may be repellant to us now, but were ironclad, and Dido accepts them for a time since she grew up loved in her limited world.

But Lord Mansfield also happens to be lord chief justice deciding a case on appeal that involves the killing of slaves. It is not a murder case, but one of fraud as the owners of the ship decided that since provisions were few, they had to dispose of the slaves to save the rest of the crew. Were slaves merely goods or were they people, not to be disposed of as chattel? The decision is monumental since it will decide the fate of slavery in England. There is pressure on Lord Mansfield to not be swayed by having Dido live with him since it will cost the slave owners much of their wealth.

John Davinier (Sam Reid), briefly studies law with Lord Mansfield, but is dismissed as he and Dido have an agreement about the anti-slavery movement, along with a strong physical attraction, though ironically, he's considered beneath Dido's social station.

The screenplay by Misan Sagay takes a complicated story and makes it understandable. Whether the events have been changed, and how much, to suit the movie is an unanswered question. Director Amma Asante has full command of the story, not overwhelming the audience with melodrama for the sake of emphasis, but rather telling it in a straightforward manner.

The acting is top notch with the beautiful young actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw giving an excellent performance and a fine rapport with Tom Wilkinson, along with Emily Watson, Penelope Wilton, Matthew Goode, and especially Sam Reid. Miranda Richardson, James Norton, and Tom Felton (the nasty Draco Malfoy from Harry Potter, equally nasty here) provide good supporting performances as well.

Belle is a rare look at the morality of slavery from a dispassionate, though more engrossing point of view, from another century. It is moving and enlightening.                          Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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LOCKE

LOCKE
LOCKE
Drama/Thriller
Rated R for language throughout.
85 minutes
4 stars


Only an actor with the ability of Tom Hardy could pull off this one-actor movie. The entire film takes place in a car on a highway at night as his character Ivan Locke is going to London. Even if you are more than slightly claustrophobic, there are numerous shots of the open road. Ivan has continuous interactions with various characters by using the hands-free phone in his car.

The premise is that Ivan, a construction foreman, has made a decision to follow up on a choice he made months before the night in question. It is the eve of the enormously complex job of laying down cement for the foundation of an expensive multi-million dollar building project. The owners of the project are furious that Ivan, who has always been efficient and honorable in his dealings, has chosen to leave at such a sensitive time.

Written and directed by Steven Knight, the storytelling is unexpectedly well done. To say any more about the unraveling of Ivan's life would be unfair to viewers who would probably find it more intriguing to learn the plot as it moves along. But in the well'paced give and take Ivan has with his callers, or recipients of his calls, is all the information the audience needs to know.

Acting with every visible part of his body from the chest up, especially his face, and his voice, Mr. Hardy is able to convey the emotional turmoil of his character. This is no easy undertaking. Good job.                  Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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MILLION DOLLAR
ARM

MILLION DOLLAR ARM
Biogrpahy/Drama/Sport
Rated PG for mild language
and some suggestive content.
124 minutes
3½ stars


Audiences know by now that sports agents can be aggressive, abrupt and insensitive people. Disney softens this true life story of agent J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm), as only Disney can. He and his business partner Ash (Aasif Mandvi) were down and almost out after going into business for themselves, but not signing any new clients.

On day, Bernstein is watching cricket on television, observing an Indian man wind up to throw the ball and gets an idea. Why not bring Indian pitchers to the U.S. to play baseball? The idea is not well received since the throwing motion is different, but J.B. talks his way into it with their big investor. He promises to be able to do it in one year, unheard of, and not recommended by baseball coach Tom House (Bill Paxton).

A contest is set up to find the million dollar arms of two young Indian men who will win money and a trip to America to have free accommodations and learn to pitch, with a shot at the major leagues. The scenes in India, with Bernstein's full frustration, are the most affecting of the movie. Swarms of poor young men line up to try and throw the ball. Bernstein has a crusty baseball scout with him named Ray Poitevint (Alan Arkin), who seems to be little help. The contest starts badly when no one can even throw over 40 or 50 miles an hour. But eventually two young men emerge who have potential, Dinesh Patel (Madhur Mittal from Slumdog Millionaire), and Rinku Singh (Suraj Sharma from Life of Pi). They are both touching, especially Mr. Sharma, who has an innocence about him.

Again, it's not going well as Bernstein ignores the boys as he's out wheeling and dealing. His tenant, a resident doctor named Brenda (Lake Bell) has been supporting his idea since before he left for India. The ball players tease Bernstein about her, though the movie makes the point that up until now, with his high powered life style, he has only dated models.

Time comes when he has to show the baseball community what the boys can do. He manages to get a good number of scouts to watch them, but the exhibition proves a disappointment. Can Bernstein somehow turn things around? What do you think? This is Disney. Jon Hamm is skilled and appealing in the role, even when the character is unlikable. Lake Bell is a bit of surprise casting, but she leaves all her twitches and quirks aside doing a credible job. Alan Arkin is still playing the same cranky character, but audiences seems to like him in that role. Aasif Mandvi is familiar and solid as the Bernstein's partner. But, as mentioned Mr. Mittal and Mr. Sharma really make the narrative work along with Mr. Hamm.

The movie is long, just over two hours, as director Craig Gillespie makes sure we don't miss any nuance of the story. And it does tend to the sentimental, but it is appropriate for families. It's an old-fashioned, feel good, sports movie.                  Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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NEIGHBORS

NEIGHBORS
Comedy
Rated R for pervasive language,
strong crude and sexual
content, graphic nudity and
drug use throughout.
96 minutes
2½ stars


You can dress up a pig, but it's still a pig. You can try to disguise low comedy in a movie by adding a cute baby and a nursing mother, but it's still silly, crude and slapstick more than funny. Oh yes, and the movie provides a reason for Zac Effron to appear shirtless, though there's really no excuse for doing the same with Seth Rogan. You can almost hear the filmmakers saying, "Maybe we went too far," then adding some inconsequential scenes on the pretense of making it less offensive.

I have to admit I did laugh at several of the funny bits in the movie, but overall it's tasteless. The premise is that a young married couple with a baby, Mac and Kelly (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne) have invested a large amount of money in their first home. Then, guess what? A fraternity moves in next door. After an initial positive meeting, the relationship quickly goes downhill as the frat boys do what frat boys do—party, and make lots of noise.

But the movie becomes repetitive, then seems to circle back on itself. For example, the frat boys court the other neighbors on the street so they don't call the police on them. Really? If you lived on the street, even if you didn't have a baby, and the frat boys were having a loud party that went well past 4 a.m., you wouldn't call the cops on them? Or what about when Mac accidentally breaks Kelly's breast pump and he has to "milk her" because there's no other way (beside the obvious—breast feeding the baby, or running out to buy another one)? Did I mention this movie was directed by a man and written by two men? Hence the humor and the ignorance.

Of course, I'm looking for logic here, which is probably the wrong way to go. If you like these kinds of movies, you will be in hog heaven.          Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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ONLY LOVERS
LEFT ALIVE

ONLY LOVERS
LEFT ALIVE
Drama/Horror/Romance
Rated R for language and
brief nudity.
123 minutes
3½ stars


Vampires. Are you still with me? This stylish film, written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, has much going for it, namely the cast, direction, and cinematography. The main issue for me is the ponderous pace that at just over two hours, had me fidgeting in my seat by the end. The movie feels stretched as if every scene and dialogue is longer than it needs to be. The story itself is modest, and I'm not sure if it adds anything to the vampire genre. This slow speed may be closer to correct vampire lore, but I found it distancing. If the pace doesn't bother you, then you may appreciate this movie immensely.

Married vampires Adam (Tom Hiddleston), and Eve (Tilda Swinton), are separated by distance. She is in Tangiers near her dear friend and fellow vampire Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt). Yes, that Christopher Marlowe, famed playwright from Shakespearean times. He was stabbed to death at age 29, and shouldn't vampires look the same as when they died? But wait, no, his death was faked. It's never explained why he lived to be an old man. Marlowe is the source of Eve's blood supply, "the good stuff."

Meanwhile, in Detroit, the wealthy musician Adam is suicidal. He's overwhelmed by the way "zombies," what he calls humans, are destroying the world. Though he has regular contact with one, a fence called Ian (Anton Yelchin), who buys guitars and other musical equipment for him. When Eve realizes how depressed Adam is, she flies to Detroit to be with him. All is well when they are together as he has also managed to obtain a reliable blood supply from a Dr. Watson (Jeffrey Wright) at a local hospital. Into Adam and Eve's idyll, comes her troublemaking, rambunctious vampire sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska).

Only skilled actors like Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton can say some of the lines in this movie and not have them sound ludicrous. Mr. Hiddleston has had a wide range of roles and has been convincing in all of them. Ms. Swinton is unusual. She is always slightly odd and off-center, and I'm convinced that's where her power as an actor lies. There is no one else like her. Mia Wasikowska and Anton Yelchin are both more than credible in supporting roles, as is John Hurt.

Director Jarmusch added scenes with an actual band called White Hills who bring much needed energy into the mix. Cinematography by Yorick Le Saux helps to capture the creepy atmospherics, and provides some stunning shots. Mr. Jarmusch has added witty literary references, dry humor, metaphors and symbols that speak to his intellect, and moves this film a cut above what we normally slog through this time of year. I only wish he could have done so at a brisker pace.          Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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THE AMAZING
SPIDER-MAN 2, 3D

THE AMAZING
SPIDER-MAN 2, 3D
Action/Adventure/Fantasy
Rated PG-13 for sequences
of sci-fi action/violence.
2 hours 20 minutes
3 stars


I guess I'm just not a quick study when it comes to these things. Tell me again, why is there another Spider-Man movie? Oh yes, the Marvel fans will like it. And I'm sure they will like this latest version. Every effort has been made to have realistic 3D, stunning CGI, great stunts, and above average acting scenes. The attempt to add gravitas is there. If you discount the fact that we've seen it all before, you'll have a good time and enjoy it for what it is.

Andrew Garfield is back as Peter Parker AKA Spider-Man. And Mr. Garfield is way above an average actor, though he looks older than a twenty year old. He has a nice rapport with Sally Field, who brings weight to the often underappreciated role of Aunt May. Also back is Emma Stone as love interest Gwen Stacy, a pretty and good actor adding to the mix. But it is Dane DeHaan here as Harry Osborne who is a knockout in the acting department. He manages to be sympathetic and menacing at the same time, not easy to pull off. Jamie Foxx does the best he can with the role of mild-mannered Max Dillon/villain Electro. And what to make of Paul Giamatti as Aleksei Sytsevich/Rhino? Words fail me on that one.

The filmmakers add witty humor, though some of it seems misplaced, that those who read comic books like. The plot, such as it is, centers around the same basic premise. Spider-Man fights crime as bizarre mutants try to stop him and wreak their evil ways on humanity. You know he has to win, and go on another day to make another movie, but there is a surprise in this sequel.

The real star of the movie is the CGI, 3D, and computer generated scenes. How many spectacular explosions, blasts, fights in the air, near-misses can you have in one movie? Apparently, never enough.          Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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JODOROWSKY'S DUNE
JODOROWSKY'S DUNE
Documentary
Rated PG-13 for some
violent and sexual images,
and drug references.
90 minutes
4 stars


You have an idea what you're in for when director Alejandro Jodorowsky says early in this documentary film he has "tremendous" ambitions for the movie Dune wanting it to "change all the young minds of all the world." That insight into the mind of the cult director, now 85, shows why this project, after years of work by multiple artists, was probably doomed from the start. Yet it's fascinating to imagine what it might have become.

The Dune saga, including five sequels, first penned by revered sci-fi writer Frank Herbert in 1965, and reportedly the world's best-selling science fiction novel, is a stunning masterwork encompassing sweeping ideas and themes. Jodorowsky was reverential, wanting to make the picture "sacred" though he also felt free enough to change certain concepts. His theory was that you can't have a masterpiece without madness. Clearly, this view colored his perception of the project, obsessing him.

But with his urgency and unique dream he was able to entice a collection of artists to contribute their own original efforts and passions to Dune. What Jodorowsky ended up with was a huge notebook with full details, artwork and storyboards of the movie that he ultimately failed to get made. He couldn't get funding for what would have been a fourteen-hour film.

The movie may have slipped through his fingers, but Jodorowsky makes no apologies about using his actor son, or anyone else, to get want he wants and needs for his project. This single-minded fixation is something artists will immediately recognize, but others may see as a type of mania, perhaps the "madness" Jodorowsky speaks of where everything is game to be served up on the altar of his vision.

Dune was eventually taken over and executive produced by Dino De Laurentiis, and released in 1984, having been written and directed by David Lynch. It was considered a box office bomb.          Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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THE OTHER WOMAN
THE OTHER WOMAN
Comedy/Romance
Rated PG-13 on appeal
for mature thematic material,
sexual references & language.
109 minutes
1 star


Does equality for women in movies mean being as crude as the men? If so, The Other Woman topped the guys. Having a gigantic dog defecate on screen is NOT my idea of a good time. Here's some news: women can be funny without the male stereotypes. It's harder to pull off, true. But I'm waiting for the time when gross-out jokes don't stand in for women's comedy the way it does for men's. Bridesmaids proved it can be done, even with its share of milder bathroom humor. There's nothing wrong with holding Hollywood to a higher standard.

This revenge comedy about a career woman named Carly (Cameron Diaz, playing essentially the same character over and over), who wants love, but gets duped by a married man, tries to pretend the movie is about empowering women, which is the opposite of what it really projects. She happens to meet the wife Kate (Leslie Mann, also playing the same ditzy character repeatedly), who clings to her wanting to be friends. When finally a third, younger woman named Amber (Kate Upton, likable with a beautiful body), shows up, they decide to pay back the handsome scumbag husband, Mark (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, definitely handsome). He does an okay job until the embarrassing banana-peel, physical comedy type ending.

The movie is totally predictable, and takes too long to get to the revenge part where they give Mark drugs that a) feminize him, and b) give him diarrhea. Hilarious. (By the way, is it criminal to give a person drugs against his will—just asking?) Of course, the clothes are fun to ogle, and the women, aside from looking like they need a sandwich, or two or three, are pretty and glamorous.

Sorry I went to this piece of ______ (fill in the blank) insult to women.                  Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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UNDER THE SKIN
UNDER THE SKIN
Sci-Fi/Drama/Thriller
Rated R for graphic nudity,
sexual content, some violence
and language.
107 minutes
3½ stars


A provocative, compelling, sometimes maddening film, Under the Skin is not for those who have difficulty with ambiguity along the lines of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It's a sci-fi movie about aliens that harvest humans in Scotland. Although we see how they go about this, the why is left up the audience. The movie can be appreciated both literally and metaphorically. Yet all we have is what the filmmakers give us on the screen, unless one has read the book.

Scarlett Johansson plays a nameless alien. She is pretty enough to attract the attention of young men walking around at night. She asks them a few questions like do they live alone, do they have family, and based on their answers she may or may not bring them to a location with the expectation of having sex with her. She begins to shed clothes as they do (there is full frontal nudity), and then her work is done. She is on to the next victim. This takes up much of the first half of the movie.

The alien observes one man she's trying to pick up, desperately fighting to help another. She is unmoved and harvests him anyway. But it seems that this episode changes her. Is she developing compassion for humans? She picks up a deformed man, making another mistake. An alien on a motorcycle who monitors her, or is her supervisor, searches for her. Now on her own as a pretty young woman, she is exposed to dangers she was unaware of before.

The pace is deliberate and slow during the first half of the movie. Very little is explained. You have to come up with your own interpretations. Some scenes are baffling, for example why these men are harvested and why the process is what it is. Apparently much more is explained in the book of the same name by Michael Faber that the movie is based on, though several of the plot twists are different. Director James Wilson and co-writer Nick Wechsler have whittled the screenplay to bare essentials, though more clues would have been helpful. During the second half the movie becomes more thought-provoking as we see a being struggle on its own, alone in a foreign environment.

Scarlett Johansson does a fine job of evoking the persona of an alien who says little. The music by Mica Levi is appropriately discordant at times, and weird. The cinematography by Daniel Landin is outstanding. If you are a sci-fi fan, this movie is worth a viewing.          Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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DOM HEMINGWAY
DOM HEMINGWAY
Comedy/Crime/Drama
Rated R sexual content, nudity,
pervasive language, some violence
and drug use.
93 minutes
3 stars


Jude Law's performance as the outrageous Dom Hemingway is better than the movie as a whole, and while it's enjoyable seeing him (mostly) naked, ultimately this character study is not fully realized. The volatile Dom is released from prison after serving a twelve year sentence for not informing on his gangster boss, Mr. Fontaine (Demian Bichir). He means to seriously make up for all he's missed by drinking, drugging and sleeping with women.

Dom's most salient personality feature is his rage. After making his way to the gangster's estate with his steady friend Dickie (Richard E. Grant), Dom cannot keep his mouth shut and almost blows his return by insulting a very dangerous man. Yet Mr. Fontaine is gracious enough to forgive him and allow him his share of the loot he stole.

But Dom likes to say trouble finds him everywhere and he has bad luck, when in fact, he makes terrible choices, causing the problems himself. After he is in a car accident and his money is stolen, he tries to connect with the son of his nemesis named Lestor (Jumayn Hunter), who unfortunately has it in for Dom. He challenges the supremely confident Dom to open a safe or lose a body part, tricking him. Again, bad judgment leads to disaster.

Supposedly, this wakes Dom up to the fact that what he should really be doing is re-connecting with his daughter Evelyn (Emilia Clarke), who was a child when he went to prison. She doesn-t want anything to do with him since her mother, Dom's wife, died of cancer while he was incarcerated. Nor does she want her son, Dom's young grandson, to be around him.

One can see why an actor would take this role. Jude Law is the movie, but the screenplay doesn't always justify his actions. His transition from wild and crazy safecracker to guilty father is not reasonable. Richard E. Grant is a quietly effective friend, and Emilia Clarke is lovely as Dom's daughter, but the heavy lifting belongs to Mr. Law.

Still, there is dark humor here, and fun to be had in watching Dom Hemingway, if you don't think too much about what makes sense.          Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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DRAFT DAY
DRAFT DAY
Drama/Sport
Rated PG-13 for brief strong
language and sexual references.
120 minutes
3½ stars


It may not always be true that Draft Day in the NFL can make or break a team, but it's undoubtedly true that good picks are more urgent for the teams not doing well. For someone who knows little of the intricacies of the National Football League except what I hear lately about multi-million dollar salaries, and head trauma, this is an enlightening story. Not that I buy in 100%, but it is entertaining fare.

The general manager of the Cleveland Browns named Sonny Weaver, Jr. (Kevin Costner, looking every bit his age), is weighed down by the responsibilities of trying to turn the losing team around by making a good decision with their number one draft pick. Many considerations come into play, including salaries, how players will fit within the system, giant egos, and genuine heartbreak. Sonny's father is a legendary figure with the team, and so he must compete with his father's reputation. His mother (Ellen Burstyn, wish we saw more of her here and in other movies), doesn't understand his thinking. Sonny's secret girlfriend Ali (Jennifer Garner, doing a respectable job), tries to be supportive, though this pairing is awkward.

Sonny's head coach Vince Penn (Denis Leary) has his own ideas about who he wants for the team based on his style of coaching. He and Sonny have an adversarial relationship, which doesn't help. I'm not sure what to say about Denis Leary. He does an adequate job, but an actor with more presence might have been a better fit for the role.

The burden for Sonny is to balance the needs of the team against the culture of the NFL and all the parties involved. Sonny wants to do right by all sides, including the young athletes whose success in life may depend on their draft pick number and being with the right team. Then there are the owners and the money people who want results with no questions asked. It's a tough spot, no doubt. Sonny's dilemma may be sympathetic because of his father's former position and standing with the team, and it's an appealing notion to think that such an upstanding guy would be guarding the gates. Yet realistically, it's probably a much more brutal, cut-throat business decision than we're seeing here.

Draft Day has some clever reverses that give the movie a notable twist on the highly anticipated make-or-break day. Oh yes, and there are major sports celebrities playing themselves. People who love sports will probably find the movie in their wheelhouse.          Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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THE LUNCHBOX
THE LUNCHBOX
Drama/Romance
Rated PG
104 minutes
4 stars


One reason we see films is to expand our world, to learn about other cultures. Such is the opportunity presented by The Lunchbox. It takes place in Mumbai, India, yet it is remarkable how universal the love story becomes in the hands of talented filmmakers. It is a straightforward plot about a mix-up of lunchboxes that leads to a relationship developed through notes.

In Mumbai, a complex delivery system of hot lunches by a "dabbawala" becomes the highlight of the impersonal office workday for many people. A worker named Saajan (Irrfan Khan), goes through his daily tasks without joy or hope since his wife died. One day there is an unusual mistake, and he receives someone else's delicious lunch. It turns out to be the creation of Ila (Nimrat Kaur), a lonely young wife striving to recapture her husband's attention with her sumptuous meals.

Ila informs the dabbawala of the error, but he claims he has delivered the lunchbox to the correct person. Ila sends Saajan a note telling him of the mistake. He answers with his note, and they begin exchanging messages through the lunchbox. As they reveal more about themselves, the relationship deepens and they are able to tell each other secrets and feelings they can't share with anyone else.

Saajan is near retirement and takes a young worker, Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), under his supervision. Saajan realizes that although Shaikh is impulsive and sometimes careless, he has an irrepressible love for life and faces it unafraid. As he becomes more drawn to Ila, Saajan must make decisions about his future.

This quiet, gentle story is charmingly told by writer/director Ritesh Batra, with co-writer Oza Rutvik. The movie captures the energy of the crowded city of Mumbai, where it is so easy to go unnoticed. Fine performances by Irrfan Khan, Nimrat Kaur, and Nawazuddin Siddiqui bring the quality script to life.

Loneliness is a universal situation that any audience member can understand. Yet change is difficult. The movie asks questions that Saajan struggles to comprehend. While his life has become stale and hollow, will he have the courage to take a chance for happiness and a new beginning?          Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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CAPTAIN AMERICA:
THE WINTER SOLDIER
CAPTAIN AMERICA:
THE WINTER SOLDIER
Action/Adventure/Sci-Fi
Rated PG-13 for intense
sequence of violence, gunplay
and action throughout.
136 minutes
3½ stars


Marvel people/close followers will like this movie. It'ss well-made and has good CGI and acting, though it's familiar, very familiar. For those who are not super Marvel fans, it is an entertaining futuristic sci-fi extravaganza. The hero here is, of course, Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, doing a skillful job with the role). He was a weakling solider during World War II who, after a scientific experiment, becomes the amazing muscular Captain. But he was frozen for preservation and now 70 years later must cope with a different world.

Steve has those can-do, old-fashioned values, like honesty, humility, moral and ethical courage. He is part of the Greatest Generation, after all. Yet he's lost as to how to remain relevant. He meets an ex-military paratrooper named Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie, first-rate as usual), and they make a connection which comes in handy later on. Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson, alluring) is back challenging Steve. The action reportedly takes place two years after The Avengers. They are on a mission for S.H.I.E.L.D. together. Steve is kept out of the loop by Nick Fury (the ever-interesting Samuel L. Jackson), and is angry, but Nick is trying to hold the agency together because of breeches. He tells Steve, "Donít trust anyone."

What does this have to do with the "Winter Soldier" of the title you may ask? Let's just say this scary being is another frozen concoction of mad scientists from the past. Witty dialogue and retorts help keep the story from becoming too heavy. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely offer a coherent if complex script, and the directing Russo brothers, Anthony and Joe, have command of the overall movie. Yet, as much as I like the character of Steve Rogers, I didn't feel particularly moved.

Opening fight sequences, and most close up fight scenes use hand-held cameras to the point of distraction. Certainly it's easier to hide flaws as the audience gets, and only needs, a general idea of what's going on, but it's used too much. Technical aspects of the movie are handled professionally.

For what the Captain America: The Winter Soldier is, it is well done. This Marvel addition is proficient, enjoyable, but these movies feel increasingly formulaic and diluted.          Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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THE GRAND
BUDAPEST HOTEL
THE GRAND
BUDAPEST HOTEL
Comedy/Drama
Rated R for language, some
sexual content and violence.
99 minutes
4 stars


For some, writer/director Wes Anderson is an acquired taste, for others, a genius. His movies are stylized and quirky, but have a point of view, so maybe the best approach is to see them as individual entities. I can't say I've appreciated them all equally, but The Grand Budapest Hotel is one I find thoroughly entertaining.

The complicated narrative focuses on a once grand hotel in the fictional country of the Republic of Zubrowka. The Author (Tom Wilkinson) has written a book about his experiences as a Young Writer (Jude Law), when he visited the hotel in the 1960s. The hotel was already in a steep decline, but the mysterious owner, Zero Moustafa, refused to sell the mountainside property. After some probing, the Young Writer has dinner with Zero, where the older man relates the story of how he came to own it and why it's so important to him to keep the hotel as it was in the early 1930s.

The hotel was run by a legendary concierge named Gustave (played brilliantly by Ralph Fiennes), a finicky throwback to those who served moneyed Europeans before war ravaged both their fortunes and the continent. It was a time of elegance, courtly manners and ostentatious wealth. Gustave is popular with his staff even though he has strict standards because they know they are working with the best. He pays special attention to the older women who frequent the hotel, servicing them in every way possible. Zero is hired as a lobby boy and becomes a special assistant to Gustave in the bizarre adventures that follow.

One of the fun aspects of the film is watching the parade of actors, in addition to those mentioned above, having roles in the movie. Some are standbys from his previous work including: Adrien Brody, Owen Wilson, Edward Norton and Jason Schwartzman, but also added into the mix is Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray, Saoirse Ronan, Tilda Swinton, and Tony Revolori (nice job) as the young Zero.

Filmed entirely in Germany, the cinematography by Robert Yeoman has a fantasy quality to it (intentionally), the music by Alexander Despalt also adds to the atmospherics. Impressive, too, in their details are the set design, production design, makeup and costumes.

The screenplay by Mr. Anderson, though based on 1930s writings of the popular Stefan Zweig, is written in his unique voice. This is the way a grand hotel might have been, askew and warped, from the creative eye of Wes Anderson.          Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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DIVERGENT
DIVERGENT
Action/Adventure/Sci-Fi
Rated PG-13 for intense
violence and action, thematic
elements and some sensuality.
143 minutes
3 stars


Young adult fantasy fatigue has set in. Here is yet another story placed in a dystopian future, Chicago specifically, where Earth's population has plainly messed up and destroyed most of the planet. Having not read the book, it's not clear if the movie is responsible for the gaping holes in logic or they were there in the first place. If anything elevates the film it is Shailene Woodley, every bit a first-rate actor and star, who carries the movie.

The story is derivative and will remind you of The Hunger Games, and other YA narratives, as well as books written about the future years ago. "Big Brother is watching you." People are divided into four factions: Abnegators (selfless), Candor (truth-tellers), Dauntless (police/protectors) and Erudite (intelligentsia).

Each young adult is tested to see which category he or she fits into, and at a ceremony can choose any Faction to join. The catch is there is no going back once a choice is made. Beatrice (Ms. Woodley), soon called Tris, when tested, is shown to be a "Divergent" having traits of each but no one dominant feature. She is in an Abengator family, but chooses Dauntless.

In other words, Tris is not "pure" and this is not good as the woman in power (Kate Winslet) tells others. She says the only way for no wars is to keep each person in his faction and doing his job. She wants to eliminate all Divergents. Tris must be careful, and she is eventually helped by the brooding and mysterious Four (Theo James, handsome.) Ms. Woodley and Mr. James have excellent chemistry. When he goes in for the first kiss, it feels real, unlike the limp passionless kisses in other YA movies. This helps a lame storyline, but doesn't solve the script problems.

CGI and stunts are well done, if only we hadn't seen them, or versions of these characters, before. The movie has a dark look, with washed out colors. And there isn't much to smile about though an occasional witty line is thrown out here and there. A little originality would have gone a long way.          Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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NEED FOR SPEED
NEED FOR SPEED
Action
Rated PG-13 for sequences
of reckless street racing,
disturbing crash scenes,
nudity and crude language.
130 minutes
2½ stars


Those who are into cars will appreciate the best part of this movie. The stunts are spectacular and it is reported no CGI was used, making it even more impressive. As for the story, sad to say it is unoriginal, and often lame. Maybe it just tries too hard. It feels padded at 130 minutes.

Aaron Paul, so compelling on Breaking Bad, mumbles and whispers too often. Yet, he does have his moments as Tobey Marshall, good guy blue-collar mechanic who lives, breathes cars. He has a small shop and a group of guys that hang-out and work with him on the cars—basically their whole existence is grease. Benny (Scott Mescudi), Finn (Rami Malek) and Joe (Ramon Rodriquez) provide Tobey with a support system and comic relief in the movie.

Tobey's father has just died, and his high school nemesis Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper, miscast), now a high-flying car broker, knowing his mechanical talent, wants Tobey to fix and sup-up an expensive car. Tobey's about to lose the shop so agrees. It turns out that Tobey's ex-girlfriend Anita (Dakota Johnson, pouting mostly), has taken up with Dino, but her younger brother, Little Pete (Harrison Gilbertson), idolizes Tobey and remains loyal to him. Dino challenges Tobey to a race that ends tragically. Tobey gets blamed.

The script tries to pile on in hopes of giving the narrative weight, but only ends up bogging it down. It would have been better if it had not been so heavy-handed. Michael Keaton makes an appearance, but is wasted as a hot-shot rich guy pulling strings behind the scenes. Julia Madden (Imogen Poots, doing the best she can with a sketchy character), challenges Tobey to be a better man.

Movies get into trouble when they try to be all things to all people. If you enjoy daredevil car racing and stunts, you will like the visuals, but it is difficult to advocate for speed demons using unsafe driving stunts that put regular people at risk of injury so they can get a cheap thrill. As some might say, don't try this at home.         Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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TIM'S VERMEER
TIM'S VERMEER
Documentary
Rated PG-13 for strong language.
80minutes
4 stars


Did 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer "cheat," making it appear that he painted in a realistic style, but actually used a technique called camera obscura, copying the scene? This documentary is both a mystery and an obsessive journey. Larger than the mystery of whether Vermeer used a certain technique to complete his paintings is the question that has been asked for centuries—what is art? Even if you are not an art lover, this documentary is fascinating.

Texas inventor Tim Jenison, a genius in his own right, sets out to discover the secret of Vermeer's paintings. More correctly, Tim becomes fixated with discovering the truth, going to extremes to recreate one of Vermeer's paintings. His eight year odyssey to recreate what he believes is behind Vermeer's work, is the subject of the film. Directed by Teller of Penn and Teller, and narrated and produced by Penn Jillette, the magic duo are not far-fetched champions for Tim.

And Tim is not the first to propose this theory. Painter David Hockney and author Philip Steadman both believe this to be true. So Tim, who is not a trained painter, sets out to test it, never realizing to what extent it would take over his life. He makes several trips to Europe, builds a studio with the same light exposure as Vermeer's, chooses one of his paintings called, "The Music Lesson," exactly recreates every item in the scene, hand mixes paints to get the perfect match, and most important of all, builds a better technological camera obscura to move the process along. But, it doesn't move the process along. Tim finds the work painstakingly slow.

The audience feels this way, too, as we anxiously experience every stroke we watch him make. This is where the documentary could have been trimmed, since the exhaustion Tim feels is shared by his viewers. When Tim completes the painting David Hockney declares the finished product "better" than the original. Not being able to view either close up or compare them, it's difficult to say if this is hyperbole. But it's safe to say Tim is more than relieved to complete his painting.

Is the documentary convincing proof? The bigger question may be, does it matter? If Vermeer, known specifically for his use of light, had skill enough to create the compositions seen in his paintings, but he used a tool to complete that feat, is the painting still art? Or was Vermeer merely a graphic designer centuries ahead of his time? It might help to remember that one definition of genius is to envision and create something startling and valuable that others cannot.          Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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300:
RISE OF AN EMPIRE
3D
300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE 3D
Action/Drama/War
Rated R for strong sustained
sequences of stylized bloody
violence throughout,
a sex scene, nudity and
some language.
102 minutes
2½ stars


300: Rise of an Empire is not a prequel, nor exactly a sequel, since it takes place concurrently with the events of 300, telling the story of the conflict between ancient Greece and Persia. Now that you're confused, join the club. A long voiceover at the beginning of the movie by Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), wife, then widow, of King Leonadis (Gerard Butler, who makes a brief appearance via footage from 300) of Sparta, attempts to explain the events leading up to a final battle at sea between these powers.

Writers Zack Snyder (who directed 300 ) and Kurt Johnstad adapted Frank Miller's graphic novel Xerxes as the epic battles continue. Though the movie is less about Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), the audience sees how he goes from man to god (which apparently means taking a dip in what may be that elixir of the gods, lots and lots of testosterone). The reinvented god wants to conquer Greece, and starts by killing Leonidas and all his men at the Battle of Thermopylae.

Athenian general Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) wants to unite Greek forces against Xerxes' general Artemisia (Eva Green), a vengeful warrior. But Queen Gorgo refuses to help once Leonidas is dead saying she has sacrificed enough. Themistocles has initial success at sea by outwitting the Persians, but eventually their superior numbers threaten to wipe out the Greeks.

The visual components that made 300 so stunning don't have the same effect the second time around. 3D doesn't add much, either. The movie is dark and calculated to have as much gratuitous bloody violence as it can fit in. Posturing by the actors feels hollow and at times, laughable. Sullivan Stapleton is a less compelling hero than Gerard Butler. It is Eva Green's over-the-top female warrior that captures attention. Not to give anything away, but Xerxes survives. You know what that means.          Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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NON-STOP
NON-STOP
Action/Mystery/Thriller
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences
of action and violence, some language,
sensuality and drug references.
106 minutes
3½ stars


Who doesn't like to see Liam Neeson save the day? He does it again here with considerable help from Julianne Moore and the cast of this ambitious thriller. I say ambitious because if you start questioning elements of the story, it doesn't quite add up. Yet director Jaume Collet-Serra keeps the action coming, making it suspenseful.

Air Marshall Bill Marks (Liam Neeson) boards an international flight in New York to London, after a few swigs of liquor. He is a troubled man who has to hold on to his seat as the plane takes off. Luckily he is sitting next to a plucky passenger named Jen Summers (Julianne Moore) who helps him through it. When asked about her job, she never answers directly saying she "travels." This vagueness extends to other details. Yet the cast somehow makes it work.

Bill, who drinks because of a tragic past, receives a text message saying the sender intends to kill a passenger every twenty minutes unless 150 million dollars is transferred to a certain account. But because of his drinking, Bill has lost credibility with his superiors and the captain (Linus Roache) who don't quite believe him. He does get support from a flight attendant named Nancy (Michelle Dockery, Lady Mary from Dowton Abbey, aptly showing the same type of fortitude here), and Jen. Other actors who contribute their talents are: Nate Parker, Scoot McNairy, Corey Stoll, Lupita Nyongío, Omar Metwally, Shea Wigham, and Jason Butler Hormer.

It seems Bill hasn't forgotten his training though he goes about evaluating passengers by creating fear while trying to find the perpetrator. Whether patrolling up and down the aisles, speaking urgently on the phone, or asking insistently for help, Bill's actions are, well, that's right—non-stop.

Liam Neeson still intrigues and is believable as an action hero. There is a measure of sincerity and authority he brings to these roles along with a vital physical presence that makes the movie seem plausible, even while you may be questioning some of the outrageous aspects of the plot.

Non-stop is an action movie the audience shouldn't scrutinize too closely for the sake of having a bumpy, but satisfying ride.          Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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POMPEII
POMPEII
Action/Adventure/Drama
Rated PG-13 for intense battle
sequences, disaster-related action
and brief sexual content.
105 minutes
3 stars


Every once in a while a disaster movie comes along that is simply entertaining, as long as you keep your expectations in check. Such is the case of Pompeii which, as disaster movies go, has at its core a natural disaster that fascinates us to this day. Mount Vesuvius is a monster volcano that still coughs and burps enough to scare residents around Naples, Italy. But in AD 79 it erupted in spectacular fashion, destroying Pompeii.

The movie sets up a love story of slave and a noble lady. The young man, named Milo (Kit Harington), is a boy when the Romans invade his Celtic tribal lands and slaughter his family. He is taken as a slave and grows into a skilled gladiator. The young noble Roman woman named Cassia (Emily Browning), is returning from Rome to Pompeii to escape the attentions of the villainous Senator Corvis (Kiefer Sutherland).

Since Milo is so superior a gladiator, his handler decides to take him from Britain to Pompeii to fight in that arena. As luck would have it, Cassia is traveling the same road and when Milo ministers to her horse, love blooms. In prison, Milo is placed with a slave he is destined to fight to the death. Bridgageous (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, amazingly strong), believes if he wins this time he will be set free. They are as bitter adversaries, but have a common enemy.

The movie doesn't pretend to be Shakespeare despite all the British accents. (Although it's difficult to say exactly what accent Kiefer Sutherland is using.) The special effects and CGI are dazzling. You might visualize a volcano with lava coming down the sides, but here it shoots out lava, fiery rocks that fall into the Bay, destroys houses, and spews ash so high the sky turns dark.

Kit Harington, from Game of Thrones, is a good-looking, earnest hero. Emily Browning is feisty and pretty. They have innocent chemistry on screen. Jared Harris and Carrie-Anne Moss are credible as her doting parents. Kiefer Sutherland is over-the-top vicious.

You can guess everything that is going to happen if you know any of the history of Pompeii. You could probably write the dialogue yourself. That's not the point. If you like costume drama/fantasies, and if you go just with it, you can have a fun time at Pompeii.         Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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THE PAST
THE PAST
Drama/Mystery
Rated PG-13 for mature thematic
material and brief strong language.
Foreign Film: French/Persian
130 minutes
4½ stars


With an exceptional script, The Past draws you into the middle of a family drama. All the characters are likable, and unlikable, in various ways. But none of them are villains, just regular people trying to navigate their lives, doing the best they can at any given moment. They make mistakes, say things they shouldn't, and suffer the consequences. What makes the screenplay so effective is the way writer/director Asghar Farhadi reveals information slowly, almost casually, so that by the end of the movie the full picture that emerges is heartbreaking. It is messy, but real, and it feels as though we've been through the ordeal with the characters. Yet, we also learn that life does go on.

An Iranian man named Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), returns to France after four years to grant his wife Marie-Anne (Bérénice Bejo), a divorcé. In an extended scene in a car on the way home from the airport, we sense that powerful feelings still exist between the two. But Marie-Anne has a fiancé named Samir (Tahar Rahim) who has a child, a young boy named Fouad (Elyes Aguis, one of the most natural child actors in recent memory) who has to deal with some hard truths. Also living with her is her rebellious teenage daughter Lucie (a nice job by Pauline Burlet), and younger daughter Lea (Jeanne Justin, good as well) from her first marriage. Lucie resents the relationship between her mother and Samir, saying it caused his wife to take drugs and end up in a coma. Ahmad, trying to help, often finds himself in the mix as peace-maker between Marie-Anne and others.

Bérénice Bejo is the center of the film, and she carries it well. Every stress and strain is conveyed on her expressive face. Equally good are Ali Mosaffa and Tahar Rahim as odd rivals. Cinematographer Mahmoud Kalari presents a somber-looking city with muted colors. The look of the house is cluttered, disorganized, reflecting the chaos in the lives of the characters. Though the film is over two hours, it keeps your attention as each new bit of information is disclosed. We recognize these characters, their strengths and their faults. They are complicated; they are us.          Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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WINTER'S TALE
WINTER'S TALE
Drama/Fantasy/Mystery
Rated PG-13 for violence
and some sensuality.
129 minutes
2 stars


Talk about fantasy. Adapting an 800-page book is no easy feat. On top of that, the novel of the same name, Winter's Tale, by Mark Helprin, is described as a "metaphysical fairy tale." It is full of symbols—fantasy elements, good vs evil, stars and light. Unfortunately, as written, the best-selling novel doesn't translate well to the screen because either so much has been left out, or the organization of the material is confusing.

Best described as magical realism, the story carries the audience across three centuries from 1895 to 2014. Peter Lake (Colin Farrell) is an infant when his parents are refused admission to New York because of his father's illness and are sent back home. Not discouraged, before they leave, they set him afloat in the harbor on a small miniature boat. Years later in 1916 we learn he is a thief who has fallen out with Pearlie Soames (Russell Crowe) and his gang. Peter is apparently not evil enough for Pearlie who happens to be a demon. He meets regularly with Lucifer (Will Smith) to talk about harvesting souls. But a white horse, that's really a dog, saves Peter for the time being.

Trying to make enough money to escape Pearlie, Peter breaks into the house of a beautiful 21-year-old rich girl named Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Finlay). They immediately fall in love, but she is dying of tuberculosis. Yet Peter thinks he is her "miracle" and can save her. At this point Peter is supposed to be 21, which Colin Farrell clearly is not. It makes a difference. A pure love between two 21-year-olds is more apt to be passionate, impulsive, illogical, and breathtaking, as it is meant to be here.

Peter also finds himself in 2014, (supposedly the book ends in 1999), with no knowledge of how he got there or who he is. At this point he would be almost 120 years old, but looks exactly the same. He meets someone from his past who would be about 105 and still working. Even in a fantasy, the narrative has to make sense.

Writer/director Akiva Goldsman has good intentions, but misses the mark with his screenplay. Mr. Farrell and Ms. Brown Finlay certainly try. He is earnest. She is lovely. It's good to see Eva Maria Saint on screen again. At close to 90 she still has star power. Russell Crowe has played this type of malevolent character before. William Hurt, Will Smith, and Jennifer Connelly don't have much to do. The one bright spot is the cinematography by Caleb Deschanel. Much is made about "the light" in the movie, and Mr. Deschanel provides mystical, luminous, shimmering glows in many of the scenes.                                Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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ROBOCOP
ROBOCOP
Action/Crime/Sci-Fi
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences
of action including frenetic gun violence
throughout, brief strong language,
sensuality and some drug material.
110 Minutes
3 stars


Having recently seen the 1987 RoboCop again, I remember why I like it. This 2014 version differs, of course, updated for a new generation. Is it better? Overall, no. But it does have superior visuals including CGI, stunts, and special effects. What it gains in that area, it loses in black comedy and sharp satire. This time around Robocop is heavy-handed on the political commentary, making sure the audience "gets it."

On the positive side, Joel Kinnamon is an effective Alex Murphy, the cop who eventually becomes RoboCop. He may be familiar from TV's The Killing where he is a standout in the cast. Mr. Kinnamon is able to act persuasively with dialogue and facial expressions, because for most of the film that's all we physically see of him. (There is a high "ick" factor concerning Alex's mangled body.) Producers have learned to get the best acting talent they can, and here we have good supporting roles from Gary Oldman as Dr. Dennett Norton, the scientist who creates RoboCop, Michael Keaton as villain Raymond Sellars, the CEO of OmniCorp, Abbie Cornish as Alex's wife, Clara. Also adding to the mix is Samuel L. Jackson as Pat Novak, media host and supporter of robot cops, Michael K. Williams as Jack Lewis, Alex's sympathetic former partner, and Jackie Earle Haley as Rick Mattox, who trains RoboCop, but despises the machines. Jennifer Ehle and Jay Baruchel are reliably good, too.

The story is essentially the same. At some point in the future, machines are an ever-growing presence. Detroit has a growing criminal problem, unable to be contained by local cops. A large corporation takes advantage of the situation by building machines that are indestructible, but they need the human factor to assuage people's fears that machines will kill with impunity. When Alex "dies" in an explosion, Clara is forced to decide to give him "life" through the transformation to RoboCop. Alex has no option about his fate in either movie.

In the earlier version, Peter Weller as Alex Murphy is eerily robotic even before he is transformed. What is curious about that script is that he becomes more "human" as RoboCop. Here, the screenplay goes out of its way to make sure the human factor is ever-present, almost to the point of intrusion by too many scenes with wife and son as motivators. This RoboCop has an existential breakdown when he learns his destiny. It may be more realistic, but takes away an imaginative element of the original script. The black comedy is missing, this movie being so serious, and the satire is not as fresh.

Another specific problem for the remake is replacing Alex's partner with a male. In the original it was a woman, Officer Lewis, played by Nancy Allen. It makes a statement that is baffling and not welcome. Aren't women supposed to be increasingly equal in the future, especially now that women are attaining parity in the military?

RoboCop has been made with care. Director José Padilha has a good handle on the visuals, and brings out the best in his actors. It is the script choices that take away the edge from this RoboCop. But audiences will decide for themselves, and younger ones will probably find action moments entertaining when the movie has the look of a video game.              Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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THE
MONUMENTS MEN
THE MONUMENTS MEN
Action/Biography/Drama
Rated PG-13 for some images
of war violence and
historical smoking.
119 minutes
3 stars


If you an art lover and/or believe that art is not only precious but essential to the understanding of the history of different cultures, then you may appreciate The Monuments Men more than others. If you are looking for a straight action movie about World War II, you are likely to be disappointed.

George Clooney obviously believed in this project since he adapted and co-wrote the screenplay, with Grant Heslov, from Robert M. Edsel's book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History. He also produced and stars in the movie. That may be the reason that the movie sometimes slips into sentimentality, the tone is uneven, and the humor predictable.

Even decades later we are still learning intriguing stories about World War II. This is one of them. You may vaguely recall mention of stolen art work during the war years, and perhaps have seen John Frankenheimer's The Train from 1964, but this is a fuller explanation of what happened as the Allies searched for the hidden art. Hitler, a former art student who was rejected by the art establishment of the time, stole millions of works of art from throughout Europe. In late 1944 when it becomes clear the Nazis are losing the war, he orders that the stolen art be destroyed. George M. Stout (George Clooney) convinces President Franklin Roosevelt to let him and a group of men follow the Allies into France and Germany to try and recover the art and return it to the rightful owners. The President reluctantly agrees while voicing one of the central questions of the movie: is art worth a life?

George puts together a group of "Monument Men" made up of older scholars and art professionals who have to join the Army to accomplish their task, including: James Rorimer (Matt Damon), Sgt. Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), Sgt. Walter Garfield (John Goodman), Pvt. Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban). In addition, they are joined by Englishman Major Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville), and the French Lt. Jean-Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin). He sends James to Paris where he tries to convince the suspicious Rose Valland (Cate Blanchett), who helped catalog the art work, that the group intends to return them to their owners. (Interestingly, the movie The Train, is loosely based on a book she wrote about her war time experiences.) He further divides the group so they can make greater connections and gather more information.

As they find out about Hitler's plans to destroy everything the Nazis leave behind, the movie takes on the air of a treasure hunt. Will they find the huge stores of paintings, sculptures, other artifacts in time? Will the Nazis destroy the greatest art collected in Europe over hundreds of years?

The acting overall is inconsistent, with some of the actors seeming like they are in different movies; several are earnest and serious. The cinematography of Phedon Papamichael captures not only the majesty of the art but the look of the countryside and destruction of war. The music by Alexander Desplat is appropriate for the time period, but occasionally becomes too intrusive.

Since this film is based on a true story, there are some poignant moments, as there would be in any war, but one has to admire the Monuments Men commitment to something so fragile and valuable in the midst of death and destruction. What losses would we be mourning now if they hadn't been so determined?             Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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LABOR DAY
LABOR DAY
Drama
Rated PG-13 for thematic
material, brief violence
and sexuality.
111 minutes
2½ stars


Even as a depressed single mother, Kate Winslet radiates appeal and gives weight to this thin storyline. Her characterization of Adele Wheeler is the major reason to see the film. Though it is directed carefully, and slowly, by Jason Reitman, who also wrote the screenplay, it is stretched to its limit. What is essentially a love story about two damaged people, becomes a bit too precious and deliberate. Because of that it is difficult to feel invested in the characters or the story.

It takes place over the long Labor Day weekend in 1987. Adele rarely leaves her run-down house, but her son Henry (young Henry played by Gattlin Griffith, natural and sincere), needs clothes for school. The older Henry is played by Toby Maguire who narrates in voiceover and has a few scenes. On a rare foray into town with Adele, Henry is approached by a stranger who is clearly in trouble. He forces Adele to drive him to her house under a vague threat to Henry.

Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin) admits upfront he is an escaped convict. He jumps from a hospital second floor window after an appendix operation. Here is where the story starts to become gratuitously contrived. Few questions are asked of Frank, fewer explanations are given. Yet Adele, so fearful of everything else, but desperate for human contact begins to fall for him. He in turn becomes Mr. Fixit around the house, and father figure to Henry, who then becomes confused about Frank's true motives. Even though we see Frank's backstory as well as Adele's, his is less understandable.

Ms. Winslet and Mr. Brolin work well together, but there is one scene in particular where the action is dangerously close to being unintentionally laughable, which is never a good outcome for a drama. Most of the problem is with the contrivances that just don't come across as believable. The resolution doesn't pack any power either, and feels like a letdown.
Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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THE
INVISIBLE WOMAN
THE INVISIBLE WOMAN
Rated R for some sexual content.
Biography/Drama/Romance
111 minutes
4 stars


The great English writer Charles Dickens understood human nature and gave the world novels that still resonate today. A "rock star" in his time, we realize from this film he was not above those human frailties that obsessed his characters. Based on the book of the same name by Claire Tomalin and the adapted screenplay by Abi Morgan, this clear-eyed view of Dickens presents an old, but familiar story about the power differential between a famous and rich older man and a beautiful young woman of lower means and status.

When Dickens (Ralph Fiennes) meets Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones) he is 45 and she is 18. He is married with ten, that's right, ten children. Coming from a family of actors, Nelly is employed by Dickens when she is in one of his plays. They notice each other immediately, of course. It is revealed that Nelly is perhaps the least talented of her sisters, limiting her future. Though the relationship with Dickens, and this film, move slowly until we finally get to a demure kiss. The pace befits the subject, but some scenes could have been shortened for a better effect.

The movie opens with an older Nelly, now a married teacher with a child, directing her students in one of Dickens' plays. She seems to have special insight into his stories because, as a matter of pride for those in her town, she knew him as a child (actually saying she was younger than she was to protect her hidden past with him). Yet, she is presented as troubled and guilty, haunted by regret. The movie flashes back to their first meeting, their attraction, and finally their coming together.

What is striking about the story is the lack of choices for women in those times (1857). Once Dickens opts out of his marriage, in a decidedly cruel way, he never looks back. For Nelly, being with Dickens meant stability, but at what price? Nelly is awed by him, at first. Yet, she is the one looked down on, socially isolated, and lonely. He still comes and goes as he pleases.

Ralph Fiennes, also the director, is a compelling Dickens. His appearance grows on you and his masculinity comes through even with the period costumes. His Dickens has enormous energy, good will toward those less fortunate, and is generous to those who work with him. He is also selfish and self-absorbed. Most dishonorably of all, he denies knowing Nelly when it is convenient for him to do so. In short, Dickens is a flawed, complex man.

Felicity Jones is pitch perfect and sympathetic as Nelly. She and Mr. Fiennes have a fine rapport on screen that makes the film work. What emerges is an exquisite portrait of an all-too-human genius and the consequences to one woman, who had few options, of her involvement with him. Fortunately for Nelly, she was able to rebound and have a life after Dickens.             Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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INSIDE
LLEWYN DAVIS
INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS
Rated R for language
including some sexual
references.
105 minutes
4 stars


Llewyn Davis is a member of that breed known as "struggling artist," in this case, a singer. We've met him, or her, perhaps a family member or friend, seen or heard their work, maybe attended a performance. It's a thoughtful movie that does not sugarcoat the life or the nature of the artist eking out an existence waiting for "the big break," and given the desperate and sad reality, it's not easy to sit through.

It's 1961, folk music is king, and Greenwich Village is the epicenter of the movement. Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac, perfectly cast) is one of a number of singers scrambling nightly to play sets at the brick-walled Gaslight Café. A good deal of his energy centers on sustaining himself through the good graces of established and barely or newly met acquaintances willing to supply a couch for the night or a meal. There is little money. Any current or future plans hinge on the hope of being discovered. The initial impression (despite an ominous opening, later reprised more knowingly) is that Llewyn's efforts seem charming, a whimsical paying of dues on the road to success. But this is the outer Davis and as the movie title indicates (it has a literal use, too), the aim is to get under his survivalist outer self. The discovery, parceled out, is that Llewyn is not a nice guy. He is a liar, manipulator, betrayer, and he has a strong propensity to abandon everyone or thing.

Davis sole dedication, it becomes evident, is to the music he pursues with futile single-mindedness, though he cannot be aware, as the viewer is, that the music scene will change and the folk genre will begin a descent into nostalgia and public television fund raising specials. Doesn't matter. Despite the fact he is talented, and gives a few sterling performances, he is not great, nor does he have a good agent (definitely old school, past prime, and hilarious though he and his secretary are), nor does he connect with his audience, nor will he get lucky. He is just another singer in the hunt for success and among the sad insights of the film is that even the good guys don't stand a chance. Most artists don't make it, no matter the talent or ability. A fact brought home in the brutally dismissive, frank, searing commercial judgment uttered by Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham, indelible), a Chicago club owner and music heavy.

As the movie progresses, it becomes increasingly bleak. The outer world is cruel. For instance, Davis agrees to split expenses for a car ride to Chicago with Roland Turner (John Goodman, as always, aces) an addicted, pompous, egotistical bigot who nevertheless seems to have achieved success as a jazzman in that he owns a car and retains the services of a driver/assistant named, comically, Johnnie Five (Garrett Hedlund, believably stoic). On the interior side, Davis continues to evince no concern for the understandably raging singer Jean (Carrie Mulligan, topnotch) who, though not as innocent as she appears, he has impregnated (not the first, by the way).

Joel and Ethan Coen have written a terrific script wherein nothing is extraneous; there is a meaning and purpose to every detail, such as, a box of unsold albums speaking volumes. Much, also, is left for interpretation. For instance, what to make of the particulars of Llewyn's never seen singing partner's suicide? The Coens direction is focused, economical, and razor sharp. The technical aspects are right-on with the streets, the apartments, the clothes each conveying the time and place perfectly, and the photography by Bruno Delbonnel visually matches the story. This is a dark, dim tale of a murky past draped in somber shades and shadows. The acting is superb by everyone aboard without exception. Though this is a tale of distasteful, unfortunate, frustrated artists and the unequal fortunes and injustices of their world, and it can be unpleasant to endure for periods of time, on the whole, and without a doubt, it's a realistic look behind the scenes worthy of pondering and sympathy.

Inside Llewyn Davis — Dark side behind the show business lights.              Review by Charles Zio


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LONE SURVIVOR
LONE SURVIVOR
Rated R for strong
bloody war violence and
pervasive language.
4 stars


The military has changed now that it is an all-volunteer force. Early file footage of Navy Seal training shows the commitment and grit necessary to make it through. A high percentage drop out, and that's probably good because when we see what combat is like later on you realize only the best and bravest need apply.

Writer/director Peter Berg makes no overt political statements with the film despite what some critics may say. In fact, that's a strength of the movie. It tells the straightforward story of a mission gone horribly wrong, sadly, for the right reason. He adapted the screenplay from the book by Marcus Lutrell and Patrick Robinson about the failed Operation Red Wings. Marcus is the "lone survivor" and clearly haunted by that fact.

Afghanistan is a country with an unforgiving mountainous terrain. Our military fights the Taliban there with total loyalty to the cause. Early scenes show the camaraderie of men bonding with sometimes silly rituals that assure each will be there for his "brothers." Would you want to go into battle not trusting the other guy would be there for you? The point of Operation Red Wings was to capture or kill a Taliban leader in a village nearby. Four soldiers are sent on the mission: LT Michael P. Murphy (Taylor Kitsch) who was in charge, Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch), Matthew Axelson (Ben Foster).

There is no surprise. We know from the beginning that Marcus survives as we see him airlifted to safety. But the battle and how this happens is suspenseful. You feel that you are there in the middle of a desperate situation, and you can only imagine how they feel knowing the odds when they are unable to call for help.

Meticulous attention to details of the military is impressive. Notable is the cinematography of Tobias A. Schliessler, editing by Colby Parker, Jr., stunts, visual effects, and most especially the sound effects with the chilling reality of bullets whizzing by, and wounds inflicted.

The acting is impressive with Mark Wahlberg leading a first-rate cast. He gives a wonderfully underplayed, stoic performance (especially if you've seen interviews with the real Marcus Luttrell). Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, and the terrific Ben Foster use nuance in their roles to fill in unspoken information since the focus of the film is limited on character development.

Not every mission will be successful. Professional soldiers know this going into war. But every failed mission shows the metal of the military as much, if not more, than glamorized dramatized wins. Whatever your feelings about our current state of war, there is no denying the heroism and sacrifice of these men.             Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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HER
HER
Rated R for language, sexual
content & brief graphic nudity.
126 minutes
4 stars


We are fast approaching a time when HER might not be fantasy. The premise is that in the near future, face to face relationships might be so difficult that you may fall in love with your operating system.

Joaquin Phoenix stars as Theodore Twombly, a lonely man who cannot seem to connect romantically with anyone, yet he cannot seem to let go of his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) who wants him to sign divorce papers. He has a female friend named Amy (Amy Adams) who is similar in temperament, and you think that maybe they will become involved. But no, they only talk about their situation to each other.

Theodore gets a talking operating system with a female voice and names her Samantha (voice of Scarlett Johansson). The voice is sexy, supportive, reassuring. Samantha seems to understand him in a way no one else can. Or is it that human beings are so predictable in our needs and desires that she has been programmed to respond as he would want? When Catherine finds out about Theodore's romantic attachment to his software, she is appalled, but Amy understands. As Theodore becomes more dependent on Samantha she pulls a way and he begins to see the "reality" of their relationship.

Joaquin Phoenix's performance is outstanding given that much of the time he is acting alone with just a voice. He is able to convey the joy of initially falling in love, feeling sad, jealous, confused. Much credit to Scarlett Johansson for infusing Samantha with so much emotion and life-like qualities despite being a disembodied voice.

The film is intriguing in what it says about human beings and our never-ending quest for connection to — somebody or something.              Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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AUGUST:
OSAGE COUNTY
AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY
Rated R for language
including sexual references,
and for drug material).
121 minutes
3 stars


Every family is dysfunctional in its own way, though not to the degree of the Weston family — thankfully. August: Osage County the play, was written by Tracy Letts and first produced in 2007. He adapted it for the screen, but the translation from stage to screen is uneven. With plenty of movement, it still feels static. Given the high drama and large cast, it probably works better in live performance. The first problem is that the most intriguing character, the patriarch, is out of the picture soon after the action begins.

When tragedy strikes, matriarch Violet Weston (the one and only Meryl Streep) gets her three daughters and their various men/partners home. Also coming to help is Violet's sister Mattie Fae Aiken (Margo Martindale) and her husband Charles (Chris Cooper) and son "Little Charles" (Benedict Cumberbatch). The large cast includes first to arrive Julia Roberts as oldest daughter Barbara Weston-Fordham with her estranged husband Bill (Ewan McGregor), and their teenage daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin).

Violet is a nasty piece of work. She is suffering with cancer of the mouth and has erratic behavior because of the many pills she is taking, but also because she is a hateful, bitter woman who says whatever she wants. Barbara is becoming her mother's match. She is no kinder to her own daughter. Violet's sister treats her son Little Charles no better either, frustrating his father, who seems like a decent guy getting fed up with the unpleasant goings on. Middle daughter, the unmarried Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), has stayed close by home to look after her parents and appears to have no life of her own. Youngest sister Karen (Juliette Lewis) flies in with sleazy boyfriend Steve (Dermot Mulroney). Misty Upham plays Johnna Monevata, a Native American woman who is hired to take care of Violet.

Once the family is all together, the real fireworks begin, with long held secrets revealed. Old wounds are opened and new grudges add to the family mess. The cast, starting with Ms. Streep, who is excellent as usual, does an adequate job given their limited screen time. Julia Roberts, who gets a bit more to do, is fine, but I'm not sure why her performance warrants special notice. Benedict Cumberbatch, an actor who usually delivers exciting performances, seems miscast without enough time develop Little Charles.

There is humor to be sure, but the whole movie feels dreary and depressing, even as its meant to. The intention is admirable, but not particularly interesting. Have we seen enough shots of wind chimes tinkling in the wind?              Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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THE WOLF
OF WALL STREET
THE WOLF
OF WALL STREET
Rated R for sequences
of strong sexual content,
graphic nudity, drug use
and language throughout,
and for some violence.
Bio/Comedy/Crime
179 minutes
4 stars


This is a long one, almost three hours. It may feel more like three years being stuck at a party with people you can't stand. No need to question director Martin Scorsese's skill as a filmmaker, though. He's as masterful as ever. My issue is that the characters, starting with real life "Wolf of Wall Street" Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), are contemptible. Except for Mr. Scorsese's powerful storytelling, which kept me intrigued the entire length of the movie, I would have been out of there.

Greed, corruption, narcissism of Wall Street types has been covered many times in recent years. What makes this slightly different is that the real Mr. Belfort appears to be brutally honest about his lack of a "moral compass" and that doesn't bother him one wit. Starting out as a 22 year old stockbroker on the Street he is quickly taken under the wing of a cunning egotist named Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey, watchable). When the 2008 recession hits, Jordan is out on his rear. His wife Teresa (Cristin Milioti), a hairdresser from Queens, stands by him.

Redemption comes in the form of a small stock office selling penny stocks. These are the kind of stocks that are sold to gullible prospects. From his days as a high-powered broker/salesman Jordan knows how to sell. Eventually, he goes out on his own and opens an office with a bunch of misfits that he instructs with a high-pressure sales script that works. His second in command, a nerdy guy named Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill, appropriately obnoxious), is thrilled to be raking in the dough no matter how illegal it may be. Soon Jordan, Donnie and others in the office are living a debauched life of hard drugs, fast women, and illegal financial transactions all fueled by unbridled hedonism.

Wife Teresa is no longer classy enough for Jordan. He sees a beautiful woman at one of his parties. She is the blonde ideal arm candy/trophy wife that Jordan must have. Goodbye supportive wife Teresa, hello opportunistic wife Naomi (Margot Robbie, gorgeous and well cast).

You can already guess how the story goes. Jordan and company need ever-increasing amounts of drugs, sex, money. Eventually, the FBI gets wind of their goings-on, though one wonders why it took so long. Straight arrow agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler, an ideal straight arrow) doesn't let up until Jordan does himself in after a series of desperate maneuvers to save himself.

The technicalities of the wrongdoing really don't matter as much because people like Jordan Belfort live to scam others. It's the way they create excitement in an otherwise emotionally bankrupt existence. Working for a living is for suckers when they can rob people right under their own noses. Though they may swindle individuals, they cheat all of us by stealing our trust. It is again another cautionary tale. Eventually some of us get the message.

I didn't find these people fascinating. I found them despicable. Yet, their story, as told with the style and know-how of Martin Scorsese, is compelling.              Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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GRUDGE MATCH
GRUDGE MATCH
Rated PG-13 for sports
violence, sexual content
and language.
Comedy/Sport
113 minutes
2 stars


I'd like to be more positive since this is the season of generosity, but that is proving difficult with Grudge Match. I'm not sure what the reasoning is for releasing this movie during the holiday season when so many top notch films come out. A story about two boxers whose title bout was never realized, it is a bundle of clichés. And to have no less than Robert De Niro playing Billy "The Kid" McDonnen, and Sylvester Stallone playing Henry "Razor" Sharp is just plain perplexing. It must have been like the "good idea at the time" type of thinking.

The screenplay by Doug Ellin, Tim Kelleher and Rodney Rothman is convoluted. Just when the Kid and Razor each had a win and loss against each other thirty years ago, Razor pulls out of the third and final grudge match. He gives up boxing, then works in a factory all that time, barely subsisting because he's taking care of his old trainer Lightning (Alan Arkin, doing his usual bit).

Who shows up to revive their never played last bout but The Kid through a promoter, who wants revenge for being cheated out of his legitimate title (or so he believes). Razor wants no part of it, but Lightning and his ego convince him to go through with it. It turns out the bad feelings are over a woman named Sally Rose (Kim Basinger), and that is why Razor canceled the match. How soap opera can you get? Not only that, but I'm guessing most men would have the opposite reaction and would want to get in the ring and go at the man who stole his woman.

The boxing scenes are not exceptional in any way, though watching the two over 60 actors train is mildly interesting. A subplot about De Niro's son feels forced and is only put in to support the original story of the bout cancellation. A bright spot is Jon Bernthal as B.J. the son. He and De Niro have an easy rapport.

Though the acting is passable for the most part, except for Mr. Stallone who remains wooden throughout, the screenplay leaves little room for the actors to maneuver. A few amusing moments don't add up to much, most provided by the sometimes hyperventilating comedian Kevin Hart who sets the situation in motion. If you are a fan of the actors or boxing there is little here to find inspiring.             Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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AMERICAN HUSTLE
AMERICAN HUSTLE
Rated R for pervasive
language, some sexual
content & brief violence
Crime/Drama/Comedy
138 minutes
4 stars


The tagline of this movie is: "Everyone hustles to survive." Is that ever truer than when filmmakers make a movie about con men/women involved in a scandal in New Jersey in the 1980s? A disclaimer tells the audience up front that not all they are seeing actually happened. Apparently quite a bit is embellished, for the betterment of entertainment, one would think.

The story focuses on a FBI sting code named ABSCAM. In the film a FBI agent named Richard "Richie" DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), a young ambitious hot shot nets a con couple named Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and his girlfriend Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). He forces them to work with him. After stumbling around a while he focuses attention on the corruption of public officials like the mayor of Camden, New Jersey, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). Irving's out-of-control wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), knowing he's cheating, can blow the whole operation with her loose lips.

Complex as the scam is director David O. Russell and co-screenwriter Eric Warren Singer give us some hilarious/poignant scenes. Time and place come fully alive with Jersey accents, gaudy clothes. And a special shout out to the hair stylists/wig people. The music by Danny Elfman evokes the mood and excesses of the times.

The biggest strength of the movie, though, is the ensemble acting by the stellar cast. Christian Bale, who gained weight for the part, is almost unrecognizable with his pudgy fingers and bad comb over balding hair as the smartest con in the movie. His rapport with Amy Adams works well with her portrayal of a smart cookie who has had to look out for herself. Bradley Cooper plays a different kind of character for him, an ego-driven jerk under the guise of good guy. He's not afraid to look silly. Jeremy Renner is sufficiently earnest as the mayor who justifies what he is doing for the good of his constituents. Yet, Jennifer Lawrence is so out there, so in the moment, that you can't help but be riveted by her performance.

The film lets the audience in on the joke. The characters are sincere in their folly. Sit back and enjoy the hustle.             Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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SAVING MR. BANKS
SAVING MR. BANKS
Rated PG-13 for thematic
elements including some
images.
Bio/Comedy/Drama
125 minutes
4 stars


Make no mistake, this is a Disney film. Empire builder Walt Disney, as played by Tom Hanks, comes across as kindly Uncle Walt. Would you expect anything different? Experience tells us you don't get that far and big without some ruthlessness, but the only nod to a crack in the armor is a reference to his smoking (he eventually died of lung cancer). But to be fair, the real meat of the narrative is about the backstory of P.L. Travers, the woman who wrote the series about nanny Mary Poppins , favorite books of Disney's daughters.

P.L. Travers travels to Hollywood in 1961 to negotiate with Mr. Disney on the making of the movie Mary Poppins . Emma Thompson plays the prickly writer with great gusto, shooting out her zingers like bullets. She is determined that her beloved creation will not be corrupted. The problem for Ms. Travers is she very much needs the money. Yet she stubbornly refuses certain decisions: she doesn't want music, she doesn't want animation, she doesn't like Dick Van Dyke, etc. The team that works with her tries hard to please her, but to no avail.

Interspersed in between these amusing scenes are the flashbacks to her unhappy childhood. As the story moves on the flashbacks reveal more. You begin to understand why she is the way she is, and why Mary Poppins is so important to her. Writers who write about subjects that affect them deeply may seem problematic to those who haven't created something so personal and powerfully significant for themselves. Compromise doesn't come easily, and sometimes not at all. In this case, the real P.L. Travers may have been less happy with the result than she appears in this movie, but it did allow her a comfortable future, not to mention a movie that is beloved to this day.

Director John Lee Hancock and screenwriters Keely Marcel and Sue Smith avoid overly sentimental scenes as you might have expected. Emma Thompson is likable even when she's not. She is always a pleasure to watch. Tom Hanks does a better than credible job as Walt Disney. The supporting cast of Colin Farrell, Paul Giamatti, Bradley Whitford, B.J. Novak, Kathy Barker, Melanie Paxson, and Jason Schwartzman contribute their skills as well.

I found Saving Mr. Banks more moving than expected; bring tissues.                    Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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ANCHORMAN 2:
THE LEGEND
CONTINUES
ANCHORMAN 2:
THE LEGEND CONTINUES
Rated PG-13 for crude
and sexual content, drug use,
language & comic violence.
Comedy
119 minutes
3 stars


It's a guy thing. Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues is alternately silly, stupid and funny. Starring a mostly male cast of comedians led by Will Ferrell as television newsman Ron Burgandy, they look as though they're having one heck of a good time (probably breaking each other up). Steve Carell, Paul Rudd and David Koechner are Ferrell's main co-stars, but there is no shortage of comedians such as Fred Willard, Luke Wilson, Greg Kinnear, James Marsden, Chris Parnell. Cameos are entertaining too, from Harrison Ford to Vince Vaughn and others I won't mention so as not to spoil the "fun." As for the women, it is basically Christina Applegate, Meagan Good, and Kristen Wiig.

The story picks up as Ron and wife Veronica Corningstone-Burgandy face their boss and he gets fired and she does not. This leads to a break up and Ron is lost. Yet redemption comes in the form of GNN, a 24 hour news channel which Ron thinks is a stupid idea, but hey, he can get his news crew together again and have a job. What is probably fun for people in the news business is to see it satirized so blatantly. While that is amusing, it tends to go on too long as the movie is around two hours.

Ron's ego does get the better of him and he begins to think he's all that so the movie has to set him up only to take a fall before realizing what is important — a lesson Ron apparently needs over and over since he is so dim. But don't we already know that when some people get on television they lose the common touch? Yet, there are humorous, laugh-out-loud scenes in between ones that land with a thud.

I'm not sure why we needed this sequel except to get these comedy folks together to act goofy. If you are looking for an amusing movie experience without putting too much energy into it, if you want to sit back and say "make me laugh," you will find it here.             Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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THE HOBBIT:
THE DESOLATION
OF SMAUG
THE HOBBIT:
THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG
Rated PG-13 for extended
sequences of intense fantasy
action violence & frightening images.
Adventure/Drama/Fantasy
170 minutes
4 stars


This second installment in The Hobbit trilogy is an improvement on the first, but there is still much to keep track of in the story. Some of the characters continue and others are introduced. If possible, the visuals are even more spectacular than ever. That is both its strength and its weakness as the story itself becomes overshadowed by the special effects and CGI. Yet, the classic beloved fantasy novel by J.R.R.R. Tolkien does have a point beyond the look of the film. This is a quest story with characters learning about themselves, growing in courage and gaining wisdom.

As usual, you may notice differences from what you remember reading, but then again, the filmmakers have turned one book into three movies. It has been changed considerably, but not so much that it is unrecognizable Even then the movie is long at over two and a half hours. This second installment opens with the old wizard Gandolf the Grey (Ian McKellan) convincing the dwarf leader Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) that he can take back Lonely Mountain, and its treasure, from the dreaded dragon Smaug. The Hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is still traveling along with the dwarves as Gondolf thinks he will be useful to steal an item from Smaug when the time comes.

Getting to the mountain is the problem as it is treacherous along the way. The dreaded Orcs find the group and give chase, but they are able to find shelter with a bear-changing creature who hates the Orcs and so he helps the dwarves on their way to the dangerous forest Mirkwood. After losing their way they are attacked by giant spiders. Yet Bilbo has a mysteriously powerful ring that allows him to be invisible and able to translate other languages. He uses this to save the dwarves and himself, but then they are taken prisoner by the Wood Elves.

The female elf and head fierce fighter Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) takes a liking to the dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner), Thorin's nephew, making Legolas, the Elf King's son, (Orlando Bloom) jealous. Through various means they escape the Elves, but find themselves stranded until they come across Bard (Luke Evans) who helps them escape. But they still have to get to the mountain.

Director Peter Jackson again serves up a fantastic-looking adventure with incredible visuals between the combination of cinematographer Andrew Lesnie and the special/visual effects teams. The casting works with the added evil silken voice of Benedict Cumberbatch as the dragon Smaug. Yet, the nature of the film is episodic with the majority being fight scenes then a few small quiet scenes, but right back to fight scenes and narrow escapes again. Tolkien fans will no doubt support this second film of the trilogy.             Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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NEBRASKA
NEBRASKA
Rated R for some language.
and mild rude humor.
Drama/Comedy
115 minutes
4 stars


Nebraska is both sad and uplifting. Sad in that looking back on a life not well-lived leaves much room for regret. But uplifting in that even those who have made many mistakes may have done at least some things right. Bruce Dern won the Best Actor Award at Cannes for his role as Woody Grant, an aged cantankerous long-term alcoholic whose mental acuity and physical condition are dropping off rapidly.

Woody is convinced he has won a million dollars when he receives a sweepstakes notification that he may have won the money. So convinced is he that Woody begins to walk from Billings, Montana where he lives to Nebraska to pick up the money when his wife Kate (June Squibb) won't drive him. She calls on her older son Ross (Bob Odenkirk), and younger son David (Will Forte) to help control him. Both sons have anger towards their father for his lack of time and attention. Yet David, with a mix of curiosity and compassion, agrees to take the road trip by driving Woody to Lincoln, Nebraska to pick up his winnings even though he knows it's a scam.

On the way to Lincoln they stay with family in Nebraska. The movie gets more interesting from this point on when the dynamics of family relationships become evident. Woody apparently left a large farming family behind, but we find out that not all were saints, as Kate so ably demonstrates in a small cemetery outside town. David knows little about his own father or his family, but quickly learns several reasons Woody wanted to get away from them and the town. His father is an enigma — a man who seemed to have promise, but squandered it.

Like many alcoholics there is much unspoken pain behind Woody's blank, flat expressions for years of bad decisions and waste. David (and the audience) can only wonder what he is thinking as Kate chastises him like a child, former friends make fun of him, or long ago secrets are revealed. The poignancy of choices that can't be undone or made right pervades the mood. The alcohol has taken its toll and Woody is often confused, yet his delusion of winning the money remains unshakable.

The casting, and as a result, the performances are first rate. Bruce Dern has always been an edgy actor and here is a character that is a good fit for his style. The real revelation is Will Forte. His portrayal of the wide-eyed son exudes decency. He is so natural that he seamlessly fits the role. As the older brother Bob Odenkirk has lost patience with the old man, and many wouldn't blame him for his lack of interest. Stacy Keach does a fine job as an opportunistic aging jerk. June Squibb as Kate provides much of the humor as the feisty tell-it-like-it-is wife/mother who has had to bear a too large burden in the marriage.

Director Alexander Payne seems drawn to these damaged characters and finds nuances in their behavior. The strong writing in the screenplay shows Bob Nelson knows his subject. The black and white cinematography by Phedon Papamichael suits the atmospherics and vast landscapes. Though, the movie does not have a dark look instead there is a stark brightness to the daylight scenes.

When it's all over, what does David learn? For one thing, choices have consequences —times passes quickly, don't let it slip away...             Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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FROZEN
FROZEN
Rated PG for some action
and mild rude humor.
Animation/Adventure/
Musical/Comedy
110 minutes (and GET A HORSE short)
3½ stars


Very loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen, don't be surprised if one day you see this show appear on Broadway. More and more projects are being created with crossover potential. The musical style by composer Christophe Beck is heavily reminiscent of what you would hear on a stage. Disney may be looking to the success of Wicked, a show that features two strong female leads like this one.

But this review is about the movie which does have impressive animation, so it's not that they scrimped on this film. The story revolves around two sisters Anna (voice of Idina Menzel, speaking of Wicked), and Elsa (voice of Kristen Bell). Anna is the older sister and will become queen of the fictional land of Arendelle. Anna has a special power where anything she touches turns to ice/snow. She realizes with horror that when she gets angry she can become quite destructive. After an incident with Elsa when they are children, she cuts herself off so as not to hurt her sister who is crushed by losing contact with her.

The day Anna is to be crowned Queen, the coronation goes terribly wrong and Anna heads to the mountains where she intends to live alone, but she leaves a frozen kingdom behind her. Elsa refuses to give up on Anna and follows her to the ice palace, hoping to save both her sister and their country. She leaves a Prince whom she met and became engaged to named Hans (voice of Santino Fontana) behind and whom she leaves in charge. Elsa makes the difficult journey with help from mountain man Kristoff (voice of Jonathan Groff) and his reindeer Sven, and the funniest little snowman to come along in a while named Olaf (voice of Josh Gad).

The story is stretched to its limit at times as it is essentially a simple one. The ending is never really in doubt, and though there are a few scary minutes, children should be able to handle it. (Parents, of course, will have to judge age-appropriateness for themselves, but it is rated PG.) The cast of voice actors/singers is first rate. Though the movie is slanted toward girls, there's probably enough to appeal to boys as well.            Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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BLACK NATIVITY
BLACK NATIVITY
Rated PG for thematic material,
language and a menacing situation
Drama/Musical 95 minutes
3½ stars


Langston Hughes was a poet, storyteller and icon of the Harlem Renaissance. This adaptation of his play Black Nativity is as much a homage to him as the inspirational message he was relating. Writer/director Kasi Lemmons brings a fine ensemble cast to the screen to update and re-imagine the Nativity. The music includes traditional gospel spirituals sung with power and passion by, among others, Jennifer Hudson.

In modern Baltimore a young mother named Naima (Ms. Hudson) and her teenage Langston (Jacob Latimore) son are about to be evicted. It's obvious she has been struggling. She makes the tough decision to send her son to Harlem in New York City to stay with her parents from whom she is estranged. Langston is angry with his mother for sending him away and when he arrives, his money is immediately stolen. He is arrested because of a misunderstanding, but his grandparents show up to take him home. They are the Reverend Cornell Cobbs (Forest Whitaker), and Angela Cobbs (Angela Bassett).

The Reverend is a stoic, strict man who lectures Langston about his past, showing him a pocket watch given to him by none other than Martin Luther King. For his part Langston wants to know what caused the break with his mother. When he gets no answers he decides he will find the money for his mother by whatever means so they can get back to their home in Baltimore.

The movie has mostly realistic scenes, but is not to be taken too literally as it also includes dream sequences and a holiday "miracle." The cinematography by Anastas N. Michos supports this with a lush looking Harlem as well as the mentioned ethereal dream sequences. In addition the camera lovingly captures and frames an already good looking cast. Forest Whitaker brings gravitas to the role of the Reverend who has to admit mistakes. Angela Bassett is lovely and looks amazingly young as the comforting grandmother. Jennifer Hudson has a voice that captures the pain and hardship of a being single mother. Mary J. Blige surprises with a large platinum wig. Other notable performances by Tyrese Gibson, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Nas, and Rotimi round out the exceptional ensemble. Yet young Jacob Latimore brings all the anger, confusion, and emotions needed in the pivotal role of Langston.

Occasionally the movie becomes a bit too sentimental and a point is driven home with too much emphasis, but overall it is worth seeing. You don't have to agree with the religious message to enjoy the experience of a talented cast and filmmakers. †                     Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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THE BOOK THIEF
THE BOOK THIEF
Rated PG-13 for some
violence, intense depiction
of thematic material.
Drama/War 125 Minutes
3 stars


Despite being based on an established and beloved, as it has been described, book, there is nothing new or original in this version of The Book Thief. Well-intentioned and meaningful, and admirable in those respects, the film lacks impact due to the undeniable familiarity of character and plot. It is only at its conclusion that human emotion finally manages, truly but briefly, to overcome the clichés.

The film begins, triteness alert, with a voice over from Death himself who is, in the words of Roger Allam, kind, caring, and reasonable, and informs us, as the camera traverses a train car of poor, ill, troubled passengers, that he occasionally becomes interested in human lives for no particular reason, such as that of the young girl Liesel (Sophie Nélisse), seated with her mother and baby brother. She is alert, watchful, and reserved yet possesses a feisty, fearless nature as she confronts being sent off to a foster home and new parents, sympathetic Hans (Geoffrey Rush, excellent even in small moments) and cranky Rosa (Emily Watson, excellently imbuing an unpleasant character with likability).

Liesel is befriended by next-door neighbor Rudy (Nico Liersch, nicely capturing the innocence and charm of youth) and it is revealed that she has a secret, she cannot read. Why this is so is never explained (several other unanswered questions arise and are equally brushed aside) but she has in her possession a grave tender's guide book (secured at her brother's funeral) and the kindly Hans uses it to teach her to read. The title of the movie becomes evident when Liesel engages in book theft from a town official to bring comfort (and cure she hopes) to Max (Ben Schnetzer, appealing), the gallant and wise Jewish refugee whom Hans has hidden in his small, cold, modest basement.

A strength of the movie, ably captured, is its sense of time and place. Heaven Street (of all names) is an old, narrow, workingman's alley of modest homes located within a German town of small shops surrounded by lovely forests and waterways. However, casting a pall over all is the rise and increasing grip of Nazism. It's ever chilling to watch children donning uniforms and unthinkingly singing the praises of fascism as well as the adults' acquiescence in a hate filled town rally. Courage, fear, heroism, the ravages and horrors of war will all play out, predictably. Still, in the end, the fate of the characters, though primarily one-dimensional, cannot help but be moving. Especially that of Liesel, whose journey we have shared and, no matter how foreordained, with which we have come to empathize.

Director Brian Percival does a serviceable job with the technical elements (of special note are production design by Simon Elliot and supervising art direction by Bill Crutcher) in Michael Petroni's adaptation, one imagines straightforward, of the original book by Markus Zusak. Though it ultimately touches the emotions (and the stories of World War II before, during, and after merit retelling and remembrance), the movie disappoints.

The Book Thief - Only steals your heart at the end.             Review by Charles Zio


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THE HUNGER GAMES:
CATCHING FIRE
THE HUNGER GAMES:
CATCHING FIRE
Rated PG-13 for intense
sequences of violence and
action, some frightening images,
thematic elements, a suggestive
situation and language
Action/Adventure/Sci-Fi
146 minutes
4 stars


Faithful enough to the second book of The Hunger Games trilogy, Catching Fire is a better movie than the first in the series. Director Francis Lawrence has been able to draw more from his actors and as a result there has been movement forward with character development. He is also able to make the action scenes suspenseful.

The story continues as Katniss Everdeen (an excellent Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (a sympathetic Josh Hutcherson) return from the Hunger Games unhappy winners. President Snow of Panem visits Katniss in District 12 to tell her he is not fooled by her "love" for Peeta and their unorthodox win. He warns her that under threat of harm to her family, she will do a victory tour by train with Peeta and convince people of the other districts that she does love Peeta and supports Panem. Katniss tells long time friend and love interest Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) that President Snow has threatened everyone she loves and she has to follow through, but as she makes speeches around Panem she finds the people support her (and revolution) instead of the corrupt government.

A solution by gamekeeper Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is to have something called a Quarter Quell (that occurs every 25 years), this one celebrating the 75th Hunger Games. This means that 24 past experienced winners will compete until one is left alive. The winning tributes are not happy since they have already survived one game and now must fight for their lives again. Katniss and Peeta's mentor Haymitch Abernathy (good support from Woody Harrelson) tries to put himself in place of Peeta, but Peeta volunteers and goes with Katniss instead. Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks in wild costumes) organizes and helps the two get ready for the new game.

Instead of being in a wooded area, this game takes place by the water, though it is just as deadly. Strange poisons, animals, electro-magnetic fields, all controlled in a central area, force the tributes to have even more difficulty surviving.

Jennifer Lawrence anchors skillfully as she did with the first movie as a feisty young woman who hates the oppression of her time. Josh Hutcherson is less needy this time around and more buff and good-looking. Their relationship is able to blossom as they become more dependent on each other and Katniss begins to trust him more. The rest of the cast is also notable including: Sam Calflin, Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Donald Sutherland, and Stanley Tucci.

Though a bit slow in the beginning, the pace begins to pick up speed. The movie is more in keeping with the spirit and themes of The Hunger Games books. If you are a fan you will be pleased.            Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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DALLAS BUYERS CLUB
DALLAS BUYERS CLUB
Rated R for pervasive
language, some strong
sexual content, nudity
and drug use.
Biography/Drama/History
117 minutes
4½ stars


You can almost smell the grit and grim. The underside of Dallas is not a pretty place, but then this 1985 biographical drama aims for truth not solace. Adapted by screenwriters Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack from a 1992 article in the Dallas Morning News by journalist and author Bill Minutaglio, it tells the story of Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) who fights the medical establishment when he is told he only has a month to live after he has been diagnosed with AIDS.

What is ironic about the story is that Ron Woodruff was not gay. That population comprised the largest percentage of patients at that time. He was infected by a drug-addicted sexual contact. Ron himself was a drug addict and callous homophobe. But Ron was obstinate, rebellious, smart, shrewd, though often unlikable.

When he learns his diagnosis, a sympathetic doctor named Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner, in a quiet performance countering the leads) is tied to the medical wisdom of the moment which was using large doses of AZT, the only known drug treatment at the time. Yet the large doses often made people sicker. Ron goes to Mexico where an American doctor working there can prescribe medications that actually help sustain him and others. Always looking for an angle, Ron begins the Dallas Buyers Club with the help of the transsexual Rayon (Jared Leto), whom he met in the hospital. But the FDA, which doesn't come off very well, keeps trying to shut him down.

There are two stunning performances here. I'm not sure losing or gaining vast amounts of weight for acting parts is wise, but Matthew McConaughey looks the part of a seriously ill man. He is skeletal. That's not his only strength though. He is totally committed and into the part of Ron Woodroof. He is believable and even sympathetic as the con man who learns late about the humanity that connects us all. The other amazing performance is Jared Leto as the transsexual Rayon. His acting draws even more sympathy for a person, not only sick, but shunned by society most of his life. (And he's pretty, too.) Both of these men give heart-breaking performances.

It's been almost thirty years since the events of the film, but it is a story worth telling. It is important to either remind those who have forgotten, or pass it on to those too young to remember how awful things were.             Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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DELIVERY MAN
DELIVERY MAN
Rated PG-13 for thematic
elements, sexual content,
some drug material, brief
violence and language
Comedy
105 minutes
4 stars


Delivery Man is a comedy with a heart. A remake of the excellent 2011 French-Canadian film Starbuck, it has that foreign sensibility of family being all-important. In America we seem to have lost much of the connection with "the old country" that many second generation Americans once carried over to their children. Respect for parents and parental figures is no longer what it used to be. In this American film they get around that with the main character's father, played knowingly by Andrzej Blumenfeld, as a hard-working immigrant who made good.

Vince Vaughn plays David Wozniak, one of three brothers who work for their father's meat business. The part is a good fit for Mr. Vaughn who plays lovable screw-ups well. Here David is the delivery man who gets more wrong than right, especially since he owes a large amount of money to unsavory characters. He is also in an off/on relationship with a pretty policewoman named Emma (an appealing Cobie Smulders) who he finds out is pregnant. She is hesitant because she isn't sure David will be there for her and their son.

All this gets complicated and downright bizarre when David finds out that he has fathered 533 children from his sperm bank donation days over twenty years ago. The eventual reason for this becomes clear and it provides a notable twist. Meantime, over one hundred of his children decide they want to know who their father is and sue to get the information. David's long time friend Brett (in a good turn by Chris Pratt), with four young children of his own, and who lost his law license, steps in to defend his case.

Brett hands him an envelope with profiles of his kids and David is told not to look, so of course he does. He begins to follow and get to know some of these kids. Since David is a decent guy connections are made.

One thing I really liked about this movie is that it shows that the kids are so different from each other. Yes, they have different mothers, but it emphasizes the point that even within the same family each person is an individual and attention should be paid to him/her.

This movie is almost scene for scene like the original so I'm not sure why it needed to be remade. Both are good. Both are well cast. Both were written by director Ken Scott and writer Martin Petit. That's probably why both have heart and are well worth seeing. Bring a tissue.            Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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THOR: THE DARK WORLD
THOR: THE DARK WORLD
Rated PG-13 for sequences
of intense sci-fi action and
violence, & some suggestive content.
Action/Adventure/Fantasy
120 minutes
3½ stars


This two hour mix of impressive special effects, esoteric legend story, mixed myths and medieval-looking gods and monsters is certainly a spectacle. Whether it all makes sense is another thing. It would have been better to keep it simple. Instead, Thor: The Dark World begins with a long voice over by Anthony Hopkins as Odin, Thor's father. I would like to tell you what he said, but I can't remember one fact he mentioned.

It all boils down to this: the bad guys, namely the Dark Elves, led by Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), want to plunge the entire universe and heavens into darkness, presumably to take all the power away from Asgard where the gods live. Thor (Chris Hemsworth), like the true son he is, helps his father to fight various battles to prevent this from happening and keep peace in the Nine Realms, though a rare alignment is about to take place. Meantime, scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) beloved of Thor has been waiting two years on Earth for Thor to return. With her is Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings) former intern and now friend of Jane.

Jane finds herself in an abandoned factory and somehow manages to have a force called the Aether taken into her body. Thor finds this out and takes her to Asgard where the Dark Elves attack and look for her. Loki (Tim Hiddleston) has been sent to the Asgardian prison by his father because of his evil deeds, but Thor gives him a part to play in their rescue of Asgard. But can he trust Loki to help him save their home?

Thatís about all you need to know to begin to understand what is going on in this movie. The film works only because of the visuals and Chris Hemsworth as the appealing superhero Thor and Tim Hiddleston as the deliciously malicious Loki. Kat Dennings brings witty comic relief as someone you might want to hang out with on earth, but Natalie Portman is bland and unexciting as Jane Foster, only improving marginally from the first Thor movie.

Like many of these big Marvel movies, there is constant activity — make that fighting and battles. Donít think too much about these scenes or you may start to wonder why with all the advanced weapons in their worlds they still fight primarily with swords. Or why some characters die and others live though mortally wounded. The movie is too long and gets bogged down before the ending in London. It's all in good visual fun, even if the story doesn't add up. The character of Thor is a comic book hero after all.
Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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ALL IS LOST
ALL IS LOST
Rated PG-13 for brief
strong language.
Action/Drama
106 minutess
4 stars


One person movies, like monologues in theatre are tricky. Some people don't like them — period. But the real problem is how do you make a one person movie interesting enough to hold the audience's attention for 90 minutes? All is Lost has done it, starting with an intelligent spare script by writer/director J.C. Chandor who gave us the successful Margin Call in 2011.

It is a simple premise. The only character, never named (Robert Redford) is alone and adrift at sea. He is writing a letter expressing his regret admitting he tried, ď...to be true, to be strong, to be kind, to love, to be right. But I wasn't.Ē The movie flashes back eight days when the Man wakes to find that his sailboat, the Virginia Jean, is taking on water from a hole in the boat after a collision with a shipping container. His first problem is disentangling from the container full of childrenís sneakers. He is in the middle of the ocean. Once he manages that he realizes his equipment has been damaged and he isnít able to call for help. He then searches and finds books about navigating by the stars. He has prepared for this trip, probably never suspecting he would be in such a position.

But it gets worse. He gets caught in a storm. He is lost at sea. The Man has only the crudest tools to gain attention on the open ocean. Everything he tries puts him in further desperate straits.

Supporting the action admirably is the music by Alex Ebert, cinematography by Frank G. DeMarco, editing by Pete Beaudreau. The pacing of the movie is enough to cause anxiety in the audience as we identify with the Man, alone and stranded on a hostile sea as the situation escalates for the worse. The vague ending will elicit different feelings from viewers who can decide facts for themselves.

Director J.C. Chandor draws the best from his actor. Mr. Redford says a handful of words, more like cursing at the Universe for his cruel plight. Yet, the movie is compelling and you canít look away, especially when all seems "lost." Mr. Redford has always been a rather enigmatic presence on screen, certainly far from transparent. The same is true here, but in his character's plight and his humanity, he becomes more of an "every man" than he has ever been.             Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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12 YEARS A SLAVE
12 YEARS A SLAVE
Rated R for violence/cruelty,
some nudity & brief sexuality.
Biography/Drama/History
133 minutes
4½ stars


In 1841 a free black man named Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was tricked by two men who promised him work in a circus. They took him to Washington D.C. where he was drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery, which was still legal at that time. This story is unlike any other recent film about slavery. It is said that historians have verified Mr. Northrup's account and the subsequent book written about it. That may be because it was written by Solomon Northrup himself. Adapted by screenwriter John Ridley and directed by Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave is compelling, sad, infuriating.

Solomon is married with children in Saratoga Springs and clearly doing well financially. He is known for his fiddle playing and this leads to an introduction to the men who eventually sell him. This is simply the first of many betrayals Solomon will have to endure. Through his eyes we see clearly he isn't the only one who suffers. For instance, there is the woman kidnapped with Solomon who is separated from her two young children. She wails for their loss to the point that even Solomon can't take it. But Solomon and most of the others do what they have to do to survive, and that is no easy task.

He sees others beaten, whipped, hung, raped, abused even as he pays for his own defense of his dignity with cruelty, and very little kindness. What Solomon has going for him is his education, his intelligence, and his talent for music that makes him valuable. But that intelligence is the very thing that threatens his life.

It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the circumstances of Solomon's existence, yet the audience is only watching it, not living it, so it is not difficult to imagine how terrible it must have been for him. A positive aspect of the film is that it neither tries to create, nor avoids stereotypes. The characters seem real because they are layered. Even the brutal slave owner Edwin Epps (played superbly by Michael Fassbender) has nuance to his sadism.

Enough can't be said either of Chiwetel Ejiofor's performance. If the audience can't find empathy for his situation, the movie doesn't succeed. Yet from the moment he wakes bound by chains, trying to hold on to some little bit of dignity, the audience is as trapped as his character in his terrible journey. Another outstanding performance is from Lupita Nyong'o as Patsey, another of Epps' slaves. The humiliation and degradations she suffers at the hands of both Epps and his wife (a first-rate Sarah Paulson) are difficult to watch. Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, and Paul Giamatti, among others also give good supporting performances.

Director Steven McQueen has paid attention to every detail so the movie looks and feels right. The cinematography of Sean Bobbitt's lush Louisiana landscape presents an ironic juxtaposition to the cruelties that occurred there. And this is one of the best scores by Hans Zimmer in a long time. The movie is well worth seeing.             Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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ENDER'S GAME
ENDER'S GAME
Rated PG-13 for some
violence, sci-fi action
and thematic material.
ActionA/dventure/Sci-Fi
114 minutes
3½ stars


So young people are going to save the world in the future? That may be true if so much depends on being good at video games. Writer/directer Gavin Hood adapted the popular novel of the same name by Orson Scott Card. We accompany Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield, up to the task of reluctant hero) on his journey from awkward young teen to a tough master of the universe.

Many years previous to the opening of the movie aliens known as Formics attacked the Earth almost wiping out mankind. The military have been preparing ever since to protect the planet from their next invasion. (As a side note, it is interesting that the reason for the attack is said to be "water" something that has been used before in sci-fi movies as motivation for invasions as it supports life, and something we shouldn't take for granted?)

Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford, in his most earnest gruff voice) has to choose the next person who will command the forces against the aliens, and as mentioned, it will be a young person in training. Though Ender seems an unlikely candidate he has a brilliant mind for military strategy and leadership. He is plucked from Earth and sent to Battle School where he undergoes rigorous training and testing. Ender not only has to fight his own insecurities and mistakes, he has to compete with other recruits and win the right to be the next commander.

Asa Butterfield looking young and fragile, but with clear light blue eyes that can turn hard and cold, does a credible job as Ender. He has help from two girls that support and believe in him: Hailee Steinfeld as recruit Petra Arkanian, and Abigail Breslin as his sister Valentine Wiggin. Also supportive is Viola Davis as psychologist Major Gwen Anderson. Ben Kingsley as Mazer Rackham, along with Colonel Graff have to make the decision if and when they think Ender will be ready to lead.

The graphics are impressive, as is the cinematography by Donald McAlpine. The movie is long, but it moves along at a good pace, though the ending resolves faster than expected. If you like sci-fi, video games and young heroes this movie is for you.             Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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ABOUT TIME
abouttime
Rated R for language
and some sexual content.
Comedy/Drama/Sci-Fi
123 minutes
3½ stars


When I saw this movie involved time travel, I inwardly groaned. This particular device has been used more than enough recently. Yet, by the end of this film it is touching because of the simple but charming sentiments it conveys. Despite some confusion about the "rules" of the specific time travel, the reactions it causes are worth noting. Time travel is a fantasy wish most of us have had at one time or another. If only we had a second chance to say or do something different...

Tim Lake (Domhnall Gleeson, doing a good job showing character growth) is a kind of off-center shy young adult when we meet him. Tim's father (Bill Nighy, who has become the resident lovable eccentric Brit) informs him that they have a secret in their family — the men, only the men, can time travel. They can go back in time, though, not forward. Tim tests this out when he goes back to a New Year's Eve party where he didn't kiss a girl, and corrects it by kissing her. He's delighted.

His father warns him to use this special power judiciously to make his life better. Tim moves to London to become a lawyer and very much wants to find a girlfriend. One night, out with his friend he meets Mary (Rachel McAdams, always appealing) in a strange dark restaurant. When he sees her outside the restaurant he immediately falls in love and gets her phone number. Through a series of circumstances where he goes back in time to help someone out, he doesn't meet Mary and fears he has lost her. But he keeps trying to find her and when he finally does she has a boyfriend. Tim maneuvers so that he and Mary end up on a date. You get the picture. Tim goes back in time to improve his conditions to get the desired result.

You could say Tim is manipulative, but you could also say he doesn't abuse the privilege. He just repeats some situations as a better version of himself. It is not monumental; it will not bring about world peace, but instead contentment for Tim, and some sorrow.

Writer/director Richard Curtis, known for romantic comedies such as Four Weddings and a Funeral, Bridget Jones's Diary, Notting Hill, and particularly Love Actually knows how to write sweet, involving characters. Domhnall Gleeson and Rachel McAdams have a good rapport and are believable as friends and lovers. The supporting cast is helpful, too, especially Lydia Wilson as Tim's sister, Kit Kat.

Without preaching the movie points out that we should not throw away any moments in time as you never know how important they will become. It is also a touching tribute to father/son relationships.             Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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WADJDA
WADJDA
Rated PG for thematic
elements, brief mild
language and smoking.
Drama
98 minutes
4 stars


Wadjda is a breakthrough for filmmaking in Saudi Arabia. It is the first full-length film entirely shot in Saudi Arabia written and directed by a woman, Haifaa al-Mansour. It has become somewhat of a phenomenon, and has been selected as the entry from Saudi Arabia for the upcoming Academy Awards.

The movie shows us a feisty girl within a conservative society who wants to be her own person. That character is Wadjda (Waad Mohammed, natural and appealing), an eleven year old girl. She lives in the capital of Riyadh with her Mother (the lovely Reem Abdullah) who is dealing with a crisis of her own. Her husband, who Wadjda idolizes, is receiving pressure to take a second wife because Mother can't have any more children, and he wants a son. Mother tries to convince her husband not to go through with it knowing he loves her, but it is causes a constant state of anxiety for both Mother and daughter.

Wadjda attends a strict all girls school where she is constantly in trouble with Ms. Hussa (Ahd, effectively stern) because, among other things, she likes Western music and wears sneakers under her robes. Yet she is enterprising by selling items the other girls want. She also has a male friend Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani, likable) who teases her with his bike. Feeling one down, Wadjda is determined to save enough money to buy a bicycle of her own and race her friend. Apparently bike riding is discouraged for girls, but that doesn't stop her. Wadjda spots a new green bicycle at a local store, but it is very expensive. She then learns that there will be a Koran recital competition at school with a cash prize which would be enough to pay for the bike. Wadjda devotes herself to winning.

The movie feels episodic at times and the pace could have picked up, but overall the movie is entertaining, informative, and disturbing. While we come to admire Wadjda, she is still young, but where will her rebellion take her in a few years when she has to begin to follow the strict rules for women in her culture? It's a troubling question, but this realistic look inside the life of a lively young girl who won't accept suppression is an enlightening piece of filmmaking.             Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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THE FIFTH ESTATE
THE FIFTH ESTATE
Rated R for language
and some violence.
Biography/Drama/Thriller
124 minutes
2½ stars


My first thought after seeing The Fifth Estate is that it might have been better as a mini-series. There is so much information packed into a little over two hours that is takes away from the "thriller" element of the movie as much has to be set up. Another component is that the film is based on a "true story" and adapted by Josh Singer from two books: Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World's Most Dangerous Website by Daniel Domscheit-Berg, and WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy by David Leigh and Luke Harding. It is a complicated story no matter where the truth falls. Another issue is that it is so recent the distance of time has not equalized the emotions caused by it.

The acting is first rate with Benedict Cumberbatch filling the screen as Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder. That is the whistle-blower website that released hundreds of thousands of government documents and created a furor. The objections include that these releases put Americans and others in danger, and that release of certain documents is criminal.

The movie is not flattering to Mr. Assange. He is shown as arrogant, erratic, rude and eccentric while also being highly intelligent. Yet he uses his intelligence as a weapon because he can't tolerate disagreement. Once someone doesn't do exactly as he wants, they are outcasts. This happens with Daniel Berg played by Daniel Brühl, recently so good in Rush and equally effective here. As Mr. Assange becomes increasingly unpredictable and unlikable, Mr. Berg becomes the person the audience can identify with more.

What is interesting, and many might not be familiar with, is the beginnings of WikiLeaks. Yet, so many details are added into the story that it bogs the movie down. It doesn't become "thrilling" again until the end. The movie might be a hard sell to begin with, though the visuals do occasionally add dimension as they pop up in certain sections of the film to illustrate in a very creative way the imagined cyber network Assange fabricated at the intersection of journalism and so-called truth.

Serious journalism has lost its objectivity; everything now has a slant/spin. The internet is full of information — much false, governments hide facts, our privacy is eroded. Who can you trust? As Daniel questions Julian's decisions, he finds he can't agree with his absolute rule. Is Mr. Assange really doing this for the right of people to know what their government is up to, for self-glorification, or just because he can? That is left for the audience to ponder.
Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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CAPTAIN PHILLIPS
CAPTAIN PHILLIPS
Rated PG-13 for sustained
intense sequences of menace,
some violence with bloody
images, and for substance use.
Biography/Crime/Drama
134 minutes
4 stars


When a movie is "based on a true story" it is inevitable that there will be differences of opinion about what actually happened. Captain Phillips is adapted from the book A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea (2010), written by the captain himself Richard Phillips, with Stephan Talty. There is a lawsuit indicating differences with the accuracy of the representation of the incident. Movie reviewers are not determiners of truth. My comments are concerning what is on the screen.

Having said that, this movie is without a doubt a thriller. It relates the story of the hijacking of the cargo ship MV Maersk Alabama in 2009 by Somali pirates. You may know how it all ends; you may think the story can't be that enthralling, but you would be wrong. Director Paul Greengrass knows exactly how to capture, and keep, an audience's attention, and he wastes no time getting into the heart of the narrative. Captain Phillips (played with heartfelt humanity by Tom Hanks at his best), must get his ship to Kenya even though there are reports of pirates in the area the ship will be passing. He tries to prepare the crew, yet the worst happens. After a few false attempts four pirates board his ship.

What follows is a tense chess game of the pirates trying to get control of the ship, the captain and crew resisting, then the U.S. Navy intervening to end the standoff once the pirates have taken Captain Phillips hostage in a lifeboat.

Tom Hanks is pitch perfect as he plays the hapless everyman, his specialty, caught in circumstances beyond his control. Though the captain is afraid, he tries to stay calm so he can think of his next move. A scene at the end allows his character, and the audience, a cathartic release. Opposite Mr. Hanks are terrific new actors Barkhad Abdi as Muse, Barkhad Abdirahman as Bilal, Faysal Ahmed as Najee Mahat, and M. Ali as Elmi as the Somali pirates. They are not only convincing as terrifying, unstable hijackers, they make the men human. This is especially true of the leader as played by Barkhad Abdi who is so natural in the part that you swear he is the real thing. The script shows the other side, too, the brutal conditions they have to live with in Somalia to survive.

When the U.S. Navy enters the picture another level of awe becomes evident with the technical ability and know-how of our Navy Seals who attempt to rescue Captain Phillips. It doesn't appear there is any way in this tense standoff it will have a good outcome for him.

Whatever the actual circumstances of the hijacking, the movie Captain Phillips is smart filmmaking of a frightening incident.             Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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GRAVITY
GRAVITY
Rated PG-13 for intense perilous
sequences, some disturbing images
and brief strong language.
Drama/Sci-Fi/Thriller
90 minutes
4½ stars


Gravity is a special achievement in filmmaking. Not only is it the most realistic space movie in years, the photography is stunning showing the vastness of an endless starry space. This is one film that should be seen in 3D. Written with his son Jonás Cuarón, director Alfonso Cuarón is masterful in his understanding of the infinitesimal human condition set against the back drop of the universe.

The drama centers on a catastrophe in space. On a spacewalk to fix some minor problems engineer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), on her first space expedition and astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), on his last, are trapped outside their space shuttle named Explorer. A debris field hurtling through space has set off a chain reaction causing crashes and destruction to anything in its path, and when it arrives it destroys the Explorer. Not only has their entire crew been killed, but Stone and Kowalski are running low on oxygen, and they are unable to communicate with Mission Control.

Kowalski determines the debris field will be back again in 90 minutes after it orbits the earth. In an effort to save both of them Kowalski, in a thruster pack, tethers Ryan to him as they make their way to the International Space Station (ISS) only to find the crew has left because of the damage caused by the debris field. One Soyuz module is missing, the other damaged. Kowalski makes a fateful decision. The inexperienced and horrified Ryan must use all her training to help get herself back to safety. To reveal more than this is to cheat the viewer out of the movie experience it offers.

Gravity is a terrifying thrill ride from the beginning to end. The visual effects are simply magnificent, and will leaving you asking yourself, how did they do that? The vastness of space is perfectly rendered and is both alluring and frightening. In fact, all the elements together create a feeling of being right there. What really makes it believable is the simplicity of the story and characters, mainly Ryan Stone as acted superbly by Sandra Bullock. The writing is so incisive that little dialogue is needed to explain the intense loneliness and helplessness she feels. It is all there in the sound of her voice and the expressions on her face. George Clooney brings his witty persona right along with him into space, and his likeability is a counterpoint to her isolated loner.

Most of us are not experts on space exploration, yet the actual physical situations seem entirely accurate and plausible. We are told from the beginning there is no sound in space so even the crashes don't produce any noise. There is a minimal soundtrack that only plays when appropriate. The movie itself is spare and stripped down to the essentials. At this level, above the din of silly and inconsequential noise that makes up modern life, spiritual thoughts can be processed, unfiltered. But if you want to look at the movie only as an excellent survival story, that works, too.            Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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THE
PATIENCE STONE
THE PATIENCE STONE
Rated R for sexual
content, some violence
and language.
Drama/War
102 minutes
4 stars


This film was the Afghan entry for the 85th Academy Awards (in 2013). Although it was not ultimately nominated in the Best Foreign Language Oscar category, it is well worth a viewing. Taking place in an unnamed war-torn country, a consequence of the fighting has left a tragic situation. An older Man (Hamidrez Javdan) is comatose after a being hit by a bullet in the neck. His younger wife, the Woman (the luminous Golshifteh Farahani), is left behind by his family and hers with no money to take care of him in a barren room. Some kind of IV drip that she puts directly into his mouth is his only sustenance.

The movie is actually a long monologue by the Woman, interrupted occasionally by small bits of dialogue between her and her Aunt (Hassina Burgan), or a Young Soldier (Massi Mrowat), and several others. When the Woman takes care of her husband she has the opportunity to tell him all the things she could never say as a woman in a patriarchal culture. She was engaged to him at seventeen and attended the gathering by herself because he was off fighting. Many times in her marriage she was left alone by him to take care of herself and her two young girls at the mercy of his family.

She is told by her aunt about the "patience stone," where one confides all the hardships and secrets. When all has been told, it shatters and there is a release for the teller. Here, the Patience Stone is the husband. As the Woman recounts the story of their marriage, the sadness and anger begins to build. She tells him more and more personal, painful indignities that she has suffered. She could have been any number of women finally getting to articulate years of built up feelings she has not able to express.

While she is tending to her husband soldiers pass through looking for "enemies." The randomness of war, the destruction and the desperation of her situation leaves her unable to protect herself except by her own guile. She "meets" a young soldier. It is clear that everyone has been damaged by a war that never seems to end; it has become a way of life.

The Patience Stone could be trimmed, as it tends to be a bit tedious waiting for the last of the big secrets to be revealed, but the ending justifies the slow build up. The movie evokes tremendous sadness for those who must try to survive in such terrible circumstances with a futile war that not has no ending in sight.             Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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RUSH
RUSH
Rated R for sexual content,
nudity, language, some disturbing
images and brief drug use.
Action/Biography/Drama
123 minutes
3½ stars


What is the lure of car racing? Rush gives you any number of possibilities: the danger, the competition, the rush of going faster than you ever imagined, the fame, the money, the recognition—maybe all combined. Framed by the real story of drivers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), the movie provides thrills of its own. It begins and ends with the 1976 Formula One season.

Formula One is a type of single-seat racing where there are rules that make up the "formula" that all must follow to participate. Formula One cars race at over 200 miles per hour. That makes the races extremely dangerous with severe casualties expected as part of every season. The international circuit of races creates a point system that eventually crowns a champion for a particular year. The 1976 season was especially exciting because James and Niki, two talented drivers of opposite temperaments and techniques, were in a close point system race.

Niki was ahead on points for most of the season with his superior engineered car, but he couldn't shake James. The relationship, in the movie, is contentious as each man is spurred on by the success of the other. Grudging respect eventually develops after Niki, a methodical perfectionist, and James, a free-wheeling playboy, begin to appreciate each other's strengths. A horrific crash drastically changes the race that comes down to the wire at the Japanese Grand Prix on a dangerous rain-soaked course.

Chris Hemsworth, aside from being one of the best-looking actors on screen today, proves he can act making James seriously flawed but believable. He and Daniel Brühl, with his character's squinty-eyed paranoia, play well off each other. Each man was from a wealthy background, but chose to enter racing against the family wishes. They may not have been so different after all, recognizing a quality needed to drive fast cars — the guts to go it alone.

Director Ron Howard has a few minor lapses where our attention is distracted in some of the middle scenes, but keeps the action moving for the most part. He was smart enough to hire expert cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle providing rich, colorful, exciting shots of the races, along with quick cuts and extreme angles making you feel the rush by editors Daniel P. Hanley and Mike Hill.

If you are into racing, this movie will rev up your engine.            Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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DON JON
DON JON
Rated R for strong graphic
sexual material and dialogue
throughout, nudity, language
and some drug use.
Comedy/Drama
90 minutes
3½ stars


Joseph Gordon-Levitt's debut as writer/director certainly grabs your attention. It shows a newer, hipper stereotype of a young Italian New Jersey male now with the internet offering him a way to distance himself from equally predatory young New Jersey females. Gone is the sweet-looking child star Mr. Gordon-Levitt used to be, instead a buffed up Jersey Shore look-alike emerges. He plays Jon Martello, Jr. known as Don Jon, a take off on the famous seducer Don Juan who beds women then leaves them.

Hanging out with his buddies (Rob Brown and Jeremy Luke), there is a rigid code Jon, a bartender, lives by where he has his life super-organized, including his use of porn (with many quick cuts of images he sees). Why does Jon place so much emphasis on his car, his clean apartment, his work out, going to church with his family on Sunday, his confession, his attitude that porn is better than actual sex with a woman? In a desperate attention to feel in control of his life he doesn't realize he has trapped himself. He is so regimented that he loses the ability to be spontaneous and just, well, live.

When he sees what for him is the ultimate "10" in Barbara Sugarman (a terrific Scarlett Johansson) he tries to make adjustments to please her, not realizing that she is now controlling him using her sex to lure him into submission. The new standard for young women like Barbara is to be as sexy as possible to have the pick of men, and then hold off the prize until the man is drooling. Before you know it, he's doing whatever she says including bringing her home to meet the parents, Don Sr., and Angie (Tony Danza and Glenne Headly, funny), and non-verbal sister (Brie Larson, good job).

But because the connection is superficial and based on two people posing, each pretending to be something he/she is not, the need for porn continues. Jon is in "love" so goes to a night class to improve himself at Barbara's request where he meets a needy older woman named Esther (Julianne Moore, giving an engaging performance) who notes his behavior with amusement, and sad wisdom.

Mr. Gordon-Levitt has some interesting things to say about his generation's dilemmas and mating habits, and what easy access to porn has done to create a chasm between real life and the perfect images that can never be real. A resolution for Jon comes a bit too easily if he is actually addicted, and the heavy accents are sometimes overdone, but the sincerity of the message is not in doubt.             Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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ENOUGH SAID
ENOUGH SAID
Rated PG-13 for sexual
content, some thematic
material and brief language
Comedy
90 minutes
3 stars


Although this comedy has some witty, amusing dialogue, the humor is specific to a certain middle class sensibility. The acting by James Gandolfini in one of his last roles as Albert, a man looking for companionship and understanding, is vastly different than Tony Soprano, and therefore memorable. Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Eva brings a ditsy persona to a character with flaws that cannot be overlooked.

Eva goes to a party with some friends and meets several new people. One is a poet named Marianne (the ever wonderful Catherine Keener), and Albert (Mr. Gandolfini). Eva is a masseuse. She makes a connection with Marianne and begins a professional relationship which eventually becomes a friendship. Albert gives Eva a call and they begin to date. Since both are divorced they are tentative with each other at the beginning, sometimes acting as shy as teenagers on a first date.

As Marianne begins to feel more comfortable with Eva she begins to share her personal feelings. This is not unusual with this kind of one-to-one service (just go to a hair salon and see the secrets being shared there). She begins to tell Eva about her ex-husband in blatantly negative terms, pretty much painting him as a fat, sloppy, obnoxious lightweight compared to her great depth as a neatnik poet and local celebrity.

A sweet low-key relationship develops between Eva and Albert who each have daughters going off to college, leaving both with an empty nest. But the kicker is that Albert is Marianne's ex-husband and the object of her bile. When Eva realizes the connection, it begins to subtly damage her budding romance with Albert.

The problem is that though these characters may represent women you may know, neither Eva nor Marianne is likable. Even Eva's married friends (Toni Colette and Ben Falcone) are hard to take with their squabbling.

Am I being judgmental? You bet. A little honesty from these characters would have gone a long way to solving the so-called contrived dilemma of the movie. I suppose that's the point. People don't say what they mean leaving many to have to guess what's going on in the other's head. But I didn't find this particular revelation that interesting here. Unflattering female stereotypes, of Marianne as the narcissistic artist, and Eva as the guileless single woman, have no dimension. As good as both Mr. Gandolfini and Ms. Louis-Dreyfus are in their roles separately, and as much as they try, they have little chemistry, and it is awkward and painful to watch.

Nicole Holofcener, a talented writer/director wrings a simple plot out as much as possible, but the slow pace that stretches the movie does it no favors. The lack of energy is telling. In the sunny land of good taste and political correctness, this movie just doesn't feel organic.            Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS 2 3D
CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE
OF MEATBALLS 2 3D
Rated PG for mild rude humor.
Animation/Comedy/Family
90 minutes
3 stars


This is a sequel to 2009's Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs which was based on the children's book of the same name by Judi and Ron Barrett. The screenplay was written by John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein, and Erica Rivinoja based on an original idea. The character of inventor Flint Lockwood (voice of Bill Hader) who created the machine that caused the giant food storm, finds that he and his group must leave the small town of Swallow Falls so it can be cleaned up.

The good news for Flint is that his idol Chester V (voice Will Forte) invites him to join his company where inventors create new discoveries for the sake of humanity. But soon Flint and his group must go back to Swallow Falls to help with the clean up. Little does he know that his machine is still producing food in the form of "foodimals," giant, threatening foods that Flint and his group run away from out of fear.

They encounter foodimals with fun names like cheespiders, tacodile supremes, mosquitoasts, flamangos, hippotatomuses, leeks, watermelophants, fruit cockatiels, meatbalruses, bananostriches, buffaloaves, eggplanatees, sasquash, and wildebeets. The foodstuffs are very inventive, though if you think too much about it, it's a bit icky.

The cast, besides Bill Hader, including: Anna Faris, James Caan, Andy Samberg, Neil Patrick Harris, Benjamin Bratt, Terry Crews, Will Forte, and Kristen Schaal do an entertaining job with the material, and sound like they are having a good time with it. The animation is fun, and the music works well. If you liked the first movie, this one will please you though it's a bit darker.             Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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PRISONERS
PRISONERS
Rated R for disturbing
violent content including
torture, & language throughout.
Crime/Drama/Thriller
153 minutes
3½ stars


I'm not going to candy-coat it for you, Prisoners is an ordeal. This is especially true if you have children, since the main drama of the movie centers on the abduction of two little girls. At over two and a half hours and with a complex plot, the movie takes the audience to dark places. So if you go, be prepared.

It begins innocuously enough in a gray, overcast Pennsylvania town. A father and son are hunting. The son takes down a deer with one shot getting congratulations from the father. This isn't the first time we've seen deer hunting used as a metaphor. Think of The Deer Hunter, an ominous 1978 war movie that also takes place in Pennsylvania, that one in a small decaying steel town.

The father, a working-class carpenter named Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), and the son Ralph (Dylan Minnette), join the mother Grace (Maria Bello), and young daughter Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) for Thanksgiving at the home of friends Franklin and Nancy Burch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis), and their daughters Eliza (Zoe Borde) and young Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons). All goes well until Anna and Joy take a walk to Anna's house and don't return. Full blown panic sets in, the parents call police, and the terror-filled circumstances for the rest of the story are put into motion.

Young hot-shot Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), with serious issues of his own, takes over the case. He not only is trying to find the kidnappers, he has to deal with the parents, especially Keller who is not only frantic, but dangerously unstable. Ralph saw a van parked down the street from the Burch's and this leads Loki to a suspicious mentally challenged man named Alex Jones (Paul Dano). His aunt Holly Jones (Melissa Leo) explains that Alex hasn't been "right" for years and brings him home from the police station when he's released for lack of evidence. Keller can't accept this believing that Alex is guilty. Events unfold in an excruciating manner and are difficult to watch.

The cinematography by Roger Deakins perfectly reflects a dreary, decaying landscape like the moral decay of several of the characters. Even inside the houses, it looks cold, isolated, and unwelcoming. The plot is layered, with twists and turns that would be difficult to guess or put together. Hugh Jackman's intense Keller is a tortured man as we learn through the course of the movie and frighteningly out of control. Jake Gyllenhaal gives an understated, quality turn playing against type. Maria Bello's portrait of the wife who falls apart is logical when paired with Keller. Supporting performances of the other parents played by Terrence Howard and Viola Davis are modulated representing shock and depression, the more common reactions.

Director Denis Villeneuve gets the atmospherics right in the screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski, including the pacing and oppressive, suspenseful atmosphere, but it goes too far by the end after a long list of puzzle pieces that fit together, then leads to a questionable ending. The short title has more than one meaning.             Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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THE FAMILY
THE FAMILY
Rated R for violence,
language & brief sexuality.
Action/Comedy/Crime
111 minutes
2 stars


With all the talent in this movie you would think it would have been better. Yet, an unoriginal plot and screenplay that has every Italian-American and Mafia stereotype you can imagine, sinks it. The basic premise is that a Brooklyn big shot tough guy named Giovanni Manzoni (Robert De Niro) has turned rat and is on the run with his family. This includes his wife Maggie (the still gorgeous and talented Michele Pfeiffer), daughter Belle (Diana Agron doing a good job here), and son Warren (John D'Leo, also making the most of his role).

Federal agent Robert Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones, you've seen him do this humorless part many, many times before) and two agents are trying to protect the family as they are moved from the French Riviera to Normandy in the north. Gio, now renamed Fred Blake, has not changed his ways and is still the same violent murderer he always was, as he proves over and over again. It seems the kids have inherited his criminal smarts as they prove once they start at the local high school. Maggie contributes to the chaos, but at least makes an attempt to keep them from doing as much damage as possible.

Scenes of the bad guys killing whole families are supposed to show no mercy for when they find Gio, but the carnage of those scenes and a final showdown are unnecessarily bloody and violent. Did I mention this is a comedy? What was director Luc Besson thinking? This is supposed to be a "dark" comedy, but that doesn"t work. Instead of going halfway, it might have been better to have it go all the way and be a black comedy where the audience is in on the joke instead of wincing at the slaughter.

The old pros here: De Niro, Jones, and Pfeiffer know how to make a scene work, but are let down by the material. Even the setting in small town France is under-utilized. The production values are good, but the movie is not.             Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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AUSTENLAND
AUSTENLAND
Rated PG-13 for some
suggestive content - innuendo.
Comedy/Romance
97 minutes
1½ stars


Would Jane Austen be smiling or turning over in her grave if she could see Austenland? Dear Audience, she would most certainly do the latter. While I understand the reverence legions of readers have for Jane Austen's books, this messy tribute is awful. The movie premise had promise, but the translation into film from the 2007 novel by Shannon Hale is either too loyal, or too silly.

Jane Hayes (the lovely and underused Keri Russell), a thirty-something disappointed with modern slimy boyfriends, has built a shrine of Austen memorabilia in her bedroom complete with cardboard cutout of Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy. She decides to go for broke to England for a vacation at Austenland where the she can feel as though she is living as Miss Jane might have done. The problem is she can only afford the minimum package so is relegated to a tiny bedroom. The traveling companion she meets in England named Miss Elizabeth Charming (Jennifer Coolidge) has the money to be treated better.

There is no pretense as the guests know that the actors are playing the parts of various character types in Austen's books, but Jane begins to confuse what is real and what is fantasy despite the bad acting. She is both attracted and repelled by the Darcy type, Mr. Nobley (J.J. Field, doing a fine turn here), and yet lusts for the servant, Martin (Bret McKenzie, appropriately rakish).

The movie progresses slowly and seems to meander until it gets its footing near the end, but by that time who cares? The actors do a credible job, but there is an over-reliance on Miss Coolidge's broad comedy that eventually wears thin. Using modern music interjected at seemingly random moments takes one out of the movie rather than enhancing whatever point is trying to be made. The setting at West Wycombe is nearly perfect, the cinematography is able, and the costumes and make-up are well done, but that doesn't make up for a weak screenplay, and questionable direction. And so Dear Audience, you might want to rethink going to this one.            Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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GETAWAY
GETAWAY
Rated PG-13 for intense action,
violence and mayhem throughout,
some rude gestures, and language.
Action/Crime
90 minutes
2 stars


If you don't care about the characters in a movie, who cares what happens to them? Unless — you are making a movie that consists of car chases and car crashes as the real reason for its existence. Such is the case with Getaway, a movie so bad in so many ways that it's pitiless to list them all.

Let's start with the premise. A former race car driver named Brent Magna (who thought that one up?), phoned in by Ethan Hawke, comes home to find his wife gone and blood on the floor. He is living in Bulgaria, for no apparent reason. But he gets a phone call telling him to steal a souped-up car by a mysterious voice (John Voight). This sadistic voice (we only see the lower part of Mr. Voight's unshaven face for most of the movie) tells him that he has abducted Brent's wife and will kill her unless Brent does what he tells him to do. Right off the bat he tests Brent's commitment to her and has him careening through the streets at night destroying everything in his path. It's Christmastime after all, and with all the pretty decorations and lights flying everywhere, but avoidance of taking out the innocents, it is supposed to indicate what a genuine guy Brent is. Yet, he was involved in some shady dealings we never learn about. He loves his wife, but will avoid killing if it comes to it.

Well, it does come to it when The Kid (Selena Gomez, miscast) gets in the car with a gun threatening Brent, saying it's her car that he stole. When he takes the gun away the Voice tells him to kill her, he refuses. What a guy. Now they are both on a lunatic chase that seems pointless, but wait, she is a smart computer nerd and between the two of them they have one brain. If you've seen enough of these actions movies, it turns out to be a disappointingly common reason for all their trouble.

The stunt drivers get quite a work out, and there is one sequence towards the end where they are following a car at high speed instead of being chased that is well done. Other than that the characters are flat. The two leads have no rapport. The number of car crashes numbs you after a while. The dialogue is elementary. I didn't care about anyone in the movie, and in fact, found them annoying. Need I say more?        Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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THE
SPECTACULAR NOW
THE SPECTACULAR NOW
Rated R for alcohol use,
language and some sexuality
- all involving teens.
Comedy/Drama/Romance
100 minutes
4½ stars


In the early part of The Spectacular Now you may think it will be another silly coming of age story about a partying teen just rolling through his last year of high school. But as the movie moves along and more is revealed about the main character Sutter Keely (Miles Teller), it takes a hard right turn. To begin with, Sutter drinks daily. He fools no one except his mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a nurse who works too hard leaving Sutter to his own devices.

Sensitively directed by James Ponsoldt from a screenplay by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, it was adapted from the novel of the same name by Tim Tharp. What we eventually see on the screen is a movie that reveals the painful truth about the teenage years for some. That truth is devastating and heartrending for the audience.

Sutter is not a bad kid. He thinks he's projecting a carefree image of someone out for a good time in the "Now," yet his bravado covers up a deep insecurity and unhappiness. He is in love with his girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson) who finally gets fed up and dumps him. After one particular drunken night he wakes up on the lawn of a timid classmate named Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley), a girl who unlike Sutter has issues in the opposite direction where she has to assume responsibility in the family because her mother can't/won't.

Sutter's friend warns him that she likes him; Aimee's friend warns him about the same thing, but Sutter uses her, telling them and himself, he is helping her with her shyness. It all begins to unravel as they near graduation. Adult males in his life, a teacher, his boss at the clothing store where he works like him, but their kindness is lost on Sutter. He is adrift. Sutter is resentful of his mother because she won't tell him where his father is so he finds out from his older caring sister Holly (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). When he and Aimee make a trip to see his father (Kyle Chandler) it is all too evident why his mother tried to protect him. It doesn't end well, and Sutter hits bottom.

The entire cast is first rate with Miles Teller realizing his potential from Rabbit Hole. He can play both the jerk and the damaged man/child. Shailene Woodley, excellent in The Descendants, is pitch perfect as Aimee. They have an excellent rapport on screen. Also notable are: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Brie Larson, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Andre Royo, and especially Kyle Chandler in a small but pivotal role as Sutter's, or anyone's, nightmare of a father.

You will not leave The Spectacular Now smiling, instead you may be sadder but wiser, but it is well worth your time and money to see this film.             Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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BLUE JASMINE
BLUE JASMINE
Rated PG-13 for mature
thematic material,
language & sexual content.
Drama
98 min
3½ stars


Cate Blanchett is Blue Jasmine, literally and metaphorically. The movie succeeds, quite simply, because of her performance, and what a doozy it is. She manages to make an unlikable character sympathetic. That character is a pampered rich woman named Jeannette, having renamed herself the more exotic Jasmine, who is falling into the pit of hell after a series of losses. The movie is about her journey from once haughty snob to desperate transient.

The movie opens with Jasmine on a plane sharing too much information with a perplexed older woman. Besides Jasmine's over sharing at warp speed, the woman senses what the audience must right from the start: this woman is unbalanced. She leaves New York to live with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) and two boys in a small apartment in San Francisco. Just as they lived a continent apart, so these adopted sisters are miles apart in temperament, looks, intelligence. Jasmine's husband Hal (Alec Baldwin, underplaying nicely) had a very public fall from his high perch as a financial advisor and they lose everything — the million dollar lifestyle, social standing, money, friends. Jasmine is having difficulty coping with her new normal, in fact, she can't seem to accept that she is living there by the grace of the sister her husband cheated, and which probably caused Ginger's divorce. She won't even bother to be civil to Ginger's boyfriend Chili (Bobby Carnavale) who she considers low class. But Jasmine is clueless, so caught up in her own version of reality, she can deny anything unpleasant that doesn't suit her view of herself.

Writer/director Woody Allen has crafted an interesting story, though there are a few holes. When Jasmine finds a man (Peter Sarsgaard) who finds her alluring, they get together way too quickly in spite of the fact that he wants to be a politician. What potential politician do you know who wouldn't check out a woman that he is serious about? Then Ginger's ex-husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) shows up a bit too conveniently to spill the beans about her. What Mr. Allen does do well is to carefully pace the many flashbacks to fill in missing information as the audience finally gets an honest picture of the real Jasmine, that is, Jeannette.

Her life continues to track downward as Jasmine tries to find work and endures the same humiliations that women in unfortunate circumstances have to put up with to survive. But Jasmine is not a survivor. Living large has not made her a genuinely caring person with much to give; it has only made her self-absorbed to her detriment. She is a disturbed women who can't deal with reality.

The movie has a few nervous habits and ticks that mark it as an Allen film. It carries over to the actors as some are a bit too over-the-top and seem in a different movie than Ms. Blanchett who so easily dominates the film. You should not miss her performance which is truthful, believable; an outstanding Oscar-caliber role.             Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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YOU'RE NEXT
YOU'RE NEXT
Rated R for strong bloody
violence, language and
some sexuality'nudity.
Horror/Thriller
96 minutes
3 stars


You would not normally put the word "fun" in the same sentence with horror movie, but that's exactly what you have here, and that combination has made this horror movie standout. Having said that, it also fulfills other criteria of the horror genre by being excessively bloody and violent.

The movie opens with two brutal murders by a killer wearing a light-colored animal mask. He sprawls "You're Next" after the first to make it even more frightening to the second victim (and the audience). Switch to a large house up the road where the Davison family is having a reunion. In addition to the mother and father there are four children and their spouses or partners. The mother Aubrey (Barbara Campton) is visibly scared of every noise. The father Paul (Rob Moran), who has recently retired, comforts her.

When everyone arrives, the family sits down for dinner, two of the brothers begin to argue, Crispin (A.J. Bowen), and Drake (Joe Swangberg). The argument is one you might hear at a typical family dinner, with others rolling their eyes. The only girl in the family, sister Aimee (Amy Seimetz), brings her boyfriend who is the first victim in what turns out to be a gorefest. After he is shot with an arrow, panic ensues and the family starts running around without much purpose except for Crispin's girlfriend Erin (Sharni Vinson). It turns out she was raised as a survivalist.

It becomes clear that not one, but several crazed killers are hunting the family. They begin to be killed off one by one, but in-between there is some inane funny dialogue that would seem otherwise inappropriate but works here because the movie makes fun of itself and allows the audience to take a breather from the unrelenting bloodbath.

The special effects are all too real with blood everywhere. Just the thought of the brutality, even though it may be off-camera, is pretty frightening. More than half way through the movie, it takes a surprising turn. Depending on the way you like your gore, it may or may not fit what you think of as classic horror, but by that time the audience has bought into the premise. Writer Simon Barrett, and director/editor Adam Wingard have crafted a horror movie to remember if you are a fan of the horror genre.

"You're Next" is clever in adding an extra element of humor so that you don't have to ask yourself, now why did that person do that stupid thing when he/she knows killers are roaming about? You end up speculating that on some deep level these not too bright people have it coming.             Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS:
CITY OF BONES
THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS:
CITY OF BONES
Rated PG-13 for intense
sequences of fantasy
violence and action, and
some suggestive content.
Action/Adventure/Fantasy
120 minutes


The first of a new teenage favorite book series: The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones is now a movie. Not having read the books, my only comment in terms of plot, character, and originality is that much of this may seem familiar to you. There are no "muggles, " but there are "mundanes," which means the same thing — ordinary people like you and me who walk around not knowing about an alternative world right under our noses.

You can understand why teens might be attracted to this other world. The main character, Clary Fray (Lily Collins, pretty and heroic enough), is a typical teen, fighting with her mother Jocelyn (Lena Heady), until she visits a club one night with her nerdy best friend Simon (Robert Sheehan, good job). Clary is rather distracted and doesn't notice that Simon is in love with her, but she does notice a murder in the club that only she can see. It turns out that the murderer is Jace Wayland (Jamie Campbell Bower, a good choice), and it's okay, really, because you see Jace is a shadowhunter, a half angel/half warrior who fights and kills demons in the eternal battle of good against evil. It turns out that Clary, though her mother didn't tell her, is also a shadowhunter, but a very special one. What teen hasnít fantasized about being special?

When Clary goes back to her apartment she finds her mother is missing. To bring her back from the Downworld she must team with Jace and the other shadowhunters against all manner of creatures and demons. They take Clary to The Institute, a kind of cathedral in Manhattan, for protection. At this point the movie begins to get somewhat confusing if you are not familiar with the books. All types of characters, vampires, werewolves, (but no zombies because they're not "real"), nasty others come in and out of the story. A romantic triangle forms with Clary, Simon, and Jace, but Clary and Jace are clearly drawn to each other.

Rules in the world of shadowhunters seem be conveniently made up as needed. Oh yes, and Daddy Dearest, in the form of psychopathic shadowhunter Valentin Moregenstern (an always charismatic Jonathan Rhys Meyers) shows up to terrorize Clary in order to find the "Mortal Cup" that will give him unique powers. It turns out that Jocelyn had Clary's memories erased so she wouldn't be able give away where it was being kept.

The current New York City of the movie is dark, violent, forbidding with the shadowhunters and all others fierce warriors trying to kill each other. The CGI is all right. Though there is some clever ironic humorous dialogue, it misfires at times like when Jace explains to Clary that the music of classical music composer Bach included cryptic messages, and she says with a perfectly straight face, "then Bach was a shadowhunter?" much to the amusement of the audience. The movie begins to get tiring as the battles continue long before the end of the second hour. Questions are left unanswered, natch, because there is already a sequel planned. If you like this book series — keep the faith, mundanes, it will be back.             Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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LEE DANIELS'
THE BUTLER
LEE DANIELS' THE BUTLER
Rated PG-13 for some violence
and disturbing images, language,
sexual material, thematic
elements and smoking.
Biography/Drama
132 minutes
4 stars


It's a rare film that gives an historical perspective that doesn't preach. Lee Daniels' The Butler accomplishes that feat by showing, not through someone famous, but through the life of one quiet but significant man, the way what happens to one affects us all. Sometimes the most difficult material to watch is the most enlightening.

Unlike movies where the acting raises the level of the movie, in The Butler the theme and storylines elevate the film. It is a sweeping view of the history of a certain time and place that has been well-conceived and is clear and understandable. Based on the article "A Butler Well Served by This Election" by Will Haywood in the Washington Post, it is about Eugene Allen, a White House butler who witnesses history in the making.

The life events adapted by Danny Strong into the life of the main character called Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) are apparently somewhat fictionalized, but the spirit of the story is true. It begins when Cecil is a boy working on a farm picking cotton. Because he doesn't understand the consequences he urges his father on until tragedy strikes. The matriarch of the farm, Annabeth Westfall (Vanessa Redgrave), in some way trying to make up for the injustice, takes the young Cecil into her home to be taught how to serve. He leaves when he realizes that he will never have a better life if he stays. But traveling the road is treacherous where death is a reality. He stays out of trouble until his hunger is too strong. But even here he finds kindness and finds a job serving in a hotel. This is the break that leads him to the White House. Cecil serves under seven presidents from Eisenhower through Reagan where he must remain "invisible" even when the occupants are making derogatory comments. The behind-the-scenes life of Cecil and his fellow staff in the White House are intriguing and humorous.

The movie is striking without trying hard because the events speak for themselves. Cecil is stoic, having seen first hand what happens when someone without power tries to take a stand in the early 1900s South. That trauma stays with him. He is above all a survivor, but fear is always with him. Yet his son Louis (David Oyelowo) has no such patience with the injustices of the time. Cecil is unable to convey to his son that his fear, while seeming subservient to his son, has kept him alive, and Louis can't fathom the terrible price Cecil and those of his generation paid for their struggle.

The movie also looks at the everyday life of a long term marriage. Cecil and wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) have their ups and downs as most long-married couples do. Some are mundane, others heart-breaking.

Forest Whitaker's quiet, dignified, modulated performance is masterful. After the long movie you feel that you know, respect, and want to honor Cecil. Likewise David Oyelowo's performance is outstanding in its range. Oprah Winfrey has her moments, as does many of the large cast members such as Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz, Terrence Howard, and others. Unfortunately, many of the historical figures do not come across as well. There is little time to develop the characters like civil rights leaders, or the presidents except to see Cecil serving them and having to hold back his emotions as they almost casually discuss their next moves. Of the presidents, only John Cusack's Nixon is close to notable.

The movie has a few issues. It tends to be slow at times, and as mentioned, the acting is uneven. Film and photos of the some of the most important events of the day add realism though are not overdone. Lee Daniels' The Butler is moving and well worth seeing.
Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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ELYSIUM
ELYSIUM
Rated R for strong bloody
violence and language throughout.
Action/Drama/Sci-Fi
120 minutes
3 stars


The visuals of writer/director Neill Blomkamp's films are immediately recognizable. Elysium has the same look as his masterful sci-fi thriller District 9. The difference is that this movie is not as effective. In fact, it's a disappoinment. It does have underlying social issues that it addresses metaphorically, and that is welcome. At least it's not mindless CGI entertainment. Yet lately, all of these "big" sci-fi movies are blending together into sameness.

The year is 2154. Earth is ravaged, dirty, gray, depressing. People live in utter poverty everywhere, except Elysium. That high-tech space station is like the Garden of Eden where the elite live. The rest of the earthlings are outcasts who want to get up there because you can be cured of diseases in under a minute with a special machine.

Matt Damon deserves credit for working so hard. He is the best thing in the movie. He starts out as bad boy orphan Max DeCosta who decides as a child he will some day get to Elysium. When we first meet him he is an ex-con living a miserable existence like everyone else working as a drudge in a factory trying to go straight. In his youth his best friend is Frey (grown up as Alice Braga) and they meet again later where she works as a nurse. He is injured and they seem to make a connection again, but she resists. Later we learn it's because she has a sick child.

When Max is radiated at work he discovers he has five days to live (no workman's comp necessary). Desperate, he goes back to his old criminal buddies to find a way to get to Elysium for a cure. Here he is thwarted by the ice cold Secretary of Defense Delacourt (Jody Foster in a surprisingly one-dimensional performance). She will kill without mercy to keep all the "immigrants" out of Elysium. Delacourt has a brutal agent named Kruger (Sharlto Copley, the hero of District 9 ) operating on Earth. Even after he is dismissed she contacts him to contain Max, who is now half robot.

Elysium has a semi-hopeful ending, which is a relief. Humans degenerate ever faster in the sci-fi land of the future where it's all about basic survival, but the seeds are here now. The problem is that something is only done about it in the movies.                         Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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PLANES 3D
PLANES 3D
Rated PG for some mild
action and rude humor.
Animation/Adventure/Comedy
92 minutes
3 stars


Planes animation looks very much like Cars. But there is a big difference in the subject matter. While most children have been in a car, comparatively few have been in an airplane. The animation is sound, but not outstanding and the 3D doesn't make that much difference.

The main character is Dusty Crophopper (voice of Dane Cook, an odd choice), a dust cropper airplane that leads a boring life going back and forth over the crops. Dusty dreams of being a racer, even though he is afraid of heights and wasn't made with the equipment to race. Is that enough for a hero to overcome? He asks a gruff military plane, Skipper Riley (Stacy Keach), to help train him because of his battle history. Predictably, Dusty gets the help he needs.

Dusty initially fails to qualify for the "big" race, but because of cheating by another plane, he makes it into the field of racing planes. The planes and other inanimate objects that support Dusty represent various characters in stories like this.

The voice actors who portray them include an impressive array of talent: Priyanka Chopra as Ishani, Brad Garrett as Chug, Teri Hatcher as Dottie, a forklift, Cedric the Entertainer as Leadbottom, Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Rochelle, John Cleese as Bulldog, Val Kilmer as Bravo, Anthony Edwards as Echo, Sinbad as Roper, a forklift, John Ratzenberger as Harland, and Brent Musburger as Brent Mustangburger among others. Yet, even they can't bring much magic to the movie.

You have to be pretty sharp to understand the differences in the planes which I think would be difficult for a five year old. The story is geared to this age group and is otherwise simplistic and formulaic. Boys will probably like it more than girls, and that may help to sell toys associated with the movie, but overall this is not a first-rate effort.                     Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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WE'RE THE MILLERS
WE'RE THE MILLERS
Rated R for crude sexual
content, pervasive language,
drug material and brief
graphic nudity.
Comedy/Crime
110 minutes
3½ stars


No doubt that We're the Millers is crude, silly, and at times offensive, but it also has laugh-out-loud scenes that had the audience roaring. R-Rated comedies are hard to pull off without going over the line into smuttiness. So you may need to steel yourself — or maybe not depending on what type of comedy you like.

Jason Sudeikis plays David Clark, a thirty-something who is adrift after college. An essentially decent guy who has no direction in his life, he stays afloat as a small-time marijuana dealer. He is far from fierce, so when he gets robbed he has no recourse but to agree to become a smuggler. His boss/associate Brad Gurdlinger (Ed Helms), an acquaintance from school, is a non-typical happy sort of drug dealer. He tells David he only needs to bring a "smidge" of the drug back from Mexico.

It is David's clever idea that leads him to the plan that is the centerpiece of the movie. He will rent a family for his trip to Mexico and back to Colorado to throw suspicion off his activities. He asks stripper with a heart of gold Rose (Jennifer Aniston) to act as his wife, homeless teen Casey (Emma Roberts), and lonely teen Kenny (Will Poulter) to be the kids. And so the foursome takes off in a huge RV (recreational vehicle). You can imagine that there is much that goes wrong during their various misadventures on the trip to Mexico and back. But they get to know and care about each other as a real family would.

Their most significant meeting comes with fellow RV couple Don and Edie Fitzgerald (Nick Offerman and Kathryn Hahn, good if a bit over the top) and their daughter Melissa (Molly C. Quinn). They seem like super straight arrows, but you know how that goes.

Jennifer Aniston is almost too classy as the stripper, but she certainly could do the job as she proves here. Jason Sudeikis' understated style pays off in this part. Emma Roberts fits in well as the moody teen runaway. But it is Will Poulter who steals the movie. He was a stand out in the British comedy/drama Son of Rambow in 2008. Even though this is an entirely different kind of movie he does a smashing job.

The comic timing of the cast is on target. Credit to director Rawson Marshall Thurber and the screenwriters Bob Fisher, Steve Faber, Sean Anders, and John Morris who concoct a plot that, while not overly original, at least makes sense in the world of the movie. The music by Ludwig Goransson and Theodore Shapiro works throughout.

Yes, We're the Millers is certainly a late summer guilty pleasure.                         Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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2 GUNS
2 GUNS
Rated R for violence
throughout, language
and brief nudity.
Action/Comedy/Crime
109 minutes
3 stars


In an attempt to introduce humor into a crime story that has layers of complexity to it, 2 Guns has multiple bad guys, several twists and reversals, and the distinction that it may help increase your cynicism about our government. The other element that stands out is the bloody violence, though what else can you expect from a movie with this title? Yet, shooting other human beings at point blank range is particularly brutal even if one believes it's deserved. And this happens more than once.

You may be aware by now from news reports that we have multiple secret government agencies working on the same issues. An initial confusion has DEA agent Bobby Trench (Denzel Washington) pitted against Navy man Michael Stigman (Mark Wahlberg). Though they have been "working" together they are suspicious and not aware of the otherís identity, but ready to turn him, the criminal, in. My first thought is, are they actually using their real names undercover? Sure you can cover a trail on the internet, but as we know all too well, you can also track down just about any information on anyone in the intelligence community if you are savvy enough.

Mr. Washington and Mr. Walhberg are two actors who play well with others so they have a good rapport on screen. It's helpful that their characters styles are well defined at the beginning, even if there is as little back story as possible. For openers their characters have been following movements of a Mexican drug cartel and its vicious leader Papi Greco (Edward James Olmos). They plan a bank robbery expecting to find a few million of Papi's money, and the other to be arrested, but the amount is much larger and no one shows to stop the robbery. Bobby is waiting for fellow agent Deb (Paula Patton), a some-time girlfriend, to get the cops there, but it never happens.

Bobby and Stig come clean with each other out of necessity; the love still isn't there. But they have bigger problems with this convoluted plot like the bad guys after the money who are trying to kill them. Besides Papi, there is a sadistic guy named Earl (Bill Paxton) and his creeps. To tell you who he is would spoil the surprise. Stigman reports to his Navy boss named Quince (James Marsden) and eventually we find out why Stig is on this assignment.

Plenty of zippy, snarky dialogue here can be amusing. The movie is well cast, adapted by Blake Masters from several graphic novels written by Steven Grant, and directed with non-stop action by Baltasar Kormákur. If you like these kinds of action movies it may satisfy, but I keep coming back to the extreme violence. Haven't we seen it before? Is it really necessary?                Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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THE WOLVERINE 3D
THE WOLVERINE 3D
Rated PG-13 for sequences
of intense sci-fi action
and violence, some
sexuality and language.
Action/Adventure/Fantasy
126 minutes
3½ stars


This is the second time this summer we've had a character, but first Marvel mutant X-Man, with an existential crisis, the other being Iron Man in Iron Man 3. Logan AKA Wolverine's (Hugh Jackman) problem is that he can't die. This causes tremendous pain when people he loves, especially another mutant named Jean Grey, passes on. So he decides to isolate himself by living in the mountains, though he continues to have vivid nightmares. That's just the beginning of his journey.

The movie opens with a scene from a Japanese prison camp where he saves a prison guard named Yashida (young Yashida is played by Ken Yamamura) from the atomic bomb. Flash forward and Logan comes down from the mountain only to find a hunter and right a wrong, but in the encounter he has an ally in Yukio (Rila Fukushima) who seems to come out of nowhere. She tells him that Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi), now an old man and head of a technology empire, is dying and wants to see him one last time.

In Japan Yashida offers to free Logan from his prison of immortality, but Logan refuses. A cast of characters now emerges: Yashida's son Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada), a crime boss, his granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto), a pawn in the family drama, but also trained in martial arts. Logan notices a "doctor" attending to Yashida. She is actually the mutant Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), who is immune to toxins. After Yashida dies, Logan takes it upon himself to protect Mariko from criminal elements, but what he doesn't know is that they are after him, too, for a very specific reason.

There are subtitles when necessary, but they are not difficult to read. The Japanese cast on the whole is impressive, and interesting to watch. As for Hugh Jackman, he spends most of the movie with furrowed brow, and his imposing muscles flexed. The writers want to make the character of Wolverine more complex through his suffering, but ironically the movie works best when he is sarcastic and humorous. It is full of extreme violence, but it is cartoonish, not bloody.

The movie is long at over two hours. The technical aspects are, as expected, super, though if necessary, the 3D is optional. Have no fear if you are an X-Men fan, Wolverine gets his sense of purpose back.               Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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THE TO-DO LIST
THE TO-DO LIST
Rated PG-13 for thematic
elements, language, some
sexual content and brief
drug material.
Comedy/Drama
103 minutes
3 stars


I applaud when any female writer/director gets a movie made. Maggie Carey has accomplished what few other women have done. The To-Do List also has an initially sympathetic female lead in Aubrey Plaza playing Brandy Clark, a nerdy, socially awkward brainiac.

It used to be that coming-of-age movies were made about boys wanting to lose their virginity before going off to college. The roles are reversed here as Brandy is embarrassed by her innocence wanting to look cool by the time she gets there. Having many OCD (Obsessive-compulsive disorder) qualities, Brandy can't leave it up to fate. She makes a project list of sexual items to cross off before the summer ends. It is all strictly business for Brandy, even though it's glaringly obvious that her study partner and lifelong friend Cameron (Johnny Simmons) genuinely cares for her and probably would go down the entire list to help her out.

Her two friends Fiona and Wendy (Alia Shawkat and Sarah Steele) are her advisors, and seeing no big deal, urge her on. Her mother (Connie Britton) wants to be more open with Brandy, while her father (Clark Gregg) is conservative and protective. Her spoiled sister Amber (Rachael Bilson), has nothing but bile for her younger goody-goody sibling. Brandy's summer job at a swimming pool puts her in contact with various guys besides Cameron including a dumb hunk named Rusty (Scott Porter), a lethargic pool manager named Willy (Bill Hader), and accommodating pool worker named Derrick (Donald Glover).

The movie has its moments of outright comedy, yet it feels as though scenes are strung together instead of being part of a cohesive whole. One scene in particular serves no purpose except to make people in the audience gag.

I get it, it's about female empowerment, but the crudeness of the humor with Saturday Night Live-like sketches that are one-joke wonders, and characters who lack any sense of personal integrity, demeans the story. Though in the end Brandy realizes where she went wrong in her approach and does the right thing, it is too late. The lively last scene only confirms the shallowness of the story. Little has been learned. The cast does a good job, but I wouldn't want to spend any extended time with these mostly silly and unlikable characters.                 Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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FRUITVALE STATION
FRUITVALE STATION
Rated R for some violence,
language throughout and
some drug use.
Biography/Drama
84 minutes
4½ stars


The tragedy of a young life needlessly, and senselessly, cut short is effectively presented in docudrama fashion in this true life story of a young man, unarmed and face down on a subway platform, shot by a transit patrolman on New Years morning 2009. Dying later in the hospital, the death of Oscar Grant led to protests and unrest. Even though there was a trial and a guilty verdict, the underlying racial issues to this day remain unresolved (check your local newscasts and talk shows) and while they are critical to the context, unfolding, and outcome of the events, the power of the movie lies in the depiction of how easily and quickly an average life can be transformed, because of those societal realities, into one at risk.

Oscar Grant III (played superbly by Michael B. Jordan) is a young man at loose ends. Having grown up in the hard scrabble streets of Oakland, California, he's street wise having served time in prison, been involved with drug dealing, is an unwed father, cheating boyfriend, and skilled liar. He is also, however, yearning to make something of his life (though he does not know what), a kind-hearted and decent man (one instance, a bit corny but moving, shows his concern for a stray dog), a loving father (his daughter adores him as do her flock of cousins), and devoted son (and thoughtful sibling to his brother and sister). While he is not quick to violence, he won't avoid a fight, which will serve as the cause of the police action on the Fruitvale Station platform. But even here, he counsels his friends to remain calm given the circumstances and sends Sophina, his tough but loving girlfriend (Melonie Diaz, perfection), away to meet him at another stop. Knowing the danger of the situation, sadly, is not proof against the inevitable gunshot that will end his life.

The opening visuals of the film are actual cell phone footage of the police action that early morning ending with the screen going black as a gunshot sounds. The movie then moves back in time to show us the realities of Oscar's life. He is a regular guy, a bit at sea at the moment, not perfect but certainly, for most, a recognizable family member, or friend, or neighbor, or co-worker. His life is low-key, filled with the commonplace, ordinary undertakings of everyday life, as exemplified in particular by the activities surrounding his mother's (a superb Octavia Spencer) birthday.

The potential drawback to a docudrama format is that it can be distancing, relegating the viewer to spectator rather than willing suspension of disbelief participant. But, for the most part, this movie is successful in offering a life story that has one rooting for the protagonist. A minor complaint regards Grant's relationship with his daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal, natural and appealing) in that it's just a bit too Hallmark perfect.

Credit is due Ryan Coogler. Not only has he written a sure handed and thoughtful script, but he's directed a work with polish and professionalism. Most impressively, this is his debut feature. High praise to him and also to his exemplary cast (Jordan, Diaz, Spencer, and Neal, but all others, too) and a very able crew. A powerful movie, deserving of notice.

Fruitvale Station - Thoughtful, in both its personal and societal aspects.          Review by Charles Zio


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THE WAY, WAY BACK
THE WAY, WAY BACK
Rated PG-13 for thematic
elements, language, some
sexual content and brief
drug material.
Comedy/Drama
103 minutes
4 stars


This insightful, gentle comedy/drama by writer/directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (a native Charlottean) is a nostalgic coming-of-age story about the kind of summer you never forget. But all is far from "perfect" for Duncan (Liam James, touching and real), a young teenager who is miserable when dragged to a small beach town on the East Coast by his wounded mother Pam (Toni Collette, appealing as always), and her new boyfriend Trent (Steve Carrell, in one of his best performances so far). She has been divorced from what we gather is a cheating husband, Duncan's father, who is across the country in California. Trent is petty, controlling, and cruel to Duncan, while permissive with his bratty daughter.

Trent owns the beach house and between the intrusive next door neighbor Betty (Allison Janney, excellent), and his careless good friends Kip and Joan (Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet, a nice job by both), the adults indulge themselves while the teens are ignored. Duncan takes the only thing he can find to escape, a girl's bike, and rides to the nearby Water Wizz water park. Owen (Sam Rockwell, terrific), one of the outgoing managers notices him moping around and befriends Duncan, giving him a job. This is his summer escape, noticed by Betty's pretty daughter Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), who understands his pain.

Owen becomes a big brother/father figure to Duncan and brings some fun into his life, along with other employees at the park, including the writer/director Jim Rash playing Lewis. He wants to, but can't seem to leave the comfort of the supportive group. Owen has his own issues with responsibility and the girl he has a relationship with, another manager named Caitlyn (Maya Rudolph, natural and appealing).

As the summer progresses and the adult drinking and careless behavior increase Duncan confronts Trent one night at a party. Though there is witty, playful fun in one area of his life, Duncan's new-found confidence from being cared for and included by people who actually like him, gives him the impetus to deal directly with the most important issue in his life.

The film does an excellent job of balancing the pleasure and pain of teens as they navigate the damage and hypocrisy caused by adults in their world.          Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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THE CONJURING
THE CONJURING
Rated R for sequences of
disturbing violence and terror.
Horror/Thriller
112 minutes
3½ stars


Here's a tip. Never buy a secluded old farmhouse. Another tip. Never buy a secluded old farmhouse when you don't know its history. That's exactly what Roger and Carolyn Perron (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor) did in 1971 in Harrisville, Rhode Island. This based-on-a-true-story horror film has a similar plot to numerous haunted house tales, but it is actually a cut above many of them.

The addition of real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) to the mix adds an extra layer of interest as they get drawn into the demons' clutches, too. These four skilled actors are believable as the characters they play, which isn't always the case in the horror genre.

After the Perron's move into the farmhouse with their five daughters it doesn't take long for seriously bad things to happen. Almost immediately, their dog, who would not enter the house, is killed, there are the prerequisite strange noises and occurrences, they stumble on a hidden basement, the girls are terrorized and wake up screaming. Finally, Carolyn attends a lecture by the Warren's and begs for their help.

Once they arrive and check out the place Ed and Lorraine realize that this is for real and they try to rid the house of the evil spirits. But, a priest must do the exorcism and it can be dangerous for those standing by as Lorraine found out previously when she had a bad experience. As the terror escalates, a policemen and another young investigator are additional witnesses to the paranormal activity. Those in the house are not just scared, but are soon getting attacked.

The Conjuring is frightening because it strikes at our deepest fears about wicked spirits more powerful than ourselves that we can't control. Yet, the movie feels grounded in 1970s reality because the family is not irrational or abnormal. According to various sources, the story didnít exactly play out as it does in the movie. No matter, what you choose to believe about what really happened is up to you, but it's a well told story.                          Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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RED 2
RED 2
Rated PG-13 for pervasive action
and violence including frenetic
gunplay, and for some language
and drug material.
Action/Comedy
116 minutes
2½ stars


In theory this movie should be more interesting and fun, but with all the star power it is curiously bland. Oh, there are plenty of car chases, marital arts fights, and explosions, but it falls flat much of the time. It is only when Helen Mirren is on screen that it is smart and intriguing.

The movie is a follow-up of Red a more entertaining movie than its sequel. Not that Red didn't have its faults, but there was a certain air of giving a new twist to the old retired government agent situation. Those old geezers could still handle themselves and they did it with wit and sophistication. In the second movie it already looks tired.

When first we see retired (for the second time) agent Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) he is with acquired girlfriend Sarah Ross (Mary-Louise Parker) shopping in Costco. Indications are that she is now finding their life boring, so when Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich) shows up at the store, Sarah is willing to listen more than Frank. Of course Frank can't get away without being involved because Interpol is looking for him about a, what else, old Cold War case?

Trips to Paris and Russia find the old gang plying their trade with a young gun out for Frank named Han Jo-Bae (Lee Byung-hun). Even though he is half Frank's age, Frank is able to keep up with him — sure. As mentioned Helen Mirren shows up again as super agent Victoria. Catherine Zeta-Jones is wasted in a small part as Frank's long ago love interest. Anthony Hopkins channels Hannibal Lector again. Brian Cox repeats as Russian Ivan Simanov, David Thewlis is The Frog, and Neal McDonough is American agent Jack Horton who kills at will (that's so not helpful).

The story is recycled from many others you've seen, adding nothing of interest or a reason why we needed this sequel. If any of it was improvised, the missing humor is a mystery. The movie is tired, and so are we by the end.                  Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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R.I.P.D. 3D
R.I.P.D. 3D
Rated PG-13 for violence,
sci-fi/fantasy action,
some sensuality, & language
including sex references.
Action/Comedy/Sci-fi
96 minutes
2½ stars


Rated PG-13 for violence, sci-fi/fantasy action, some sensuality, & language including sex references. Action/Comedy/Sci-fi 96 minutes The tone keeps shifting in R.I.P.D., the Rest In Peace Department, a place somewhere between heaven and hell. When detective Nick Walker (Ryan Reynolds) is killed he is recruited in the afterlife by a supernatural organization that finds and/destroys evil spirits who create havoc on earth and refuse to be contained or go to hell where they belong. At first, Nick can't believe he's dead, then it gets worse. He is paired with Roy Pulsipher (Jeff Bridges, sounding too much like his character from True Grit ), a curmudgeonly 1800s lawman by their wrangler Mildred Proctor (Mary-Louise Parker).

Nick sees his funeral, his partner, but only cares about the wife he left behind, and getting revenge. Roy takes him through the steps of capturing or killing the demons. Oh yes, they have avatars on earth which is the way people who are alive see them. This is the best sight gag in the movie with Roy a beautiful blonde and Nick an older Chinese man. Most of the movie is spent with Nick coming to terms with his fate, and developing a relationship with Roy.

The CGI dominates the movie, and the comedy such as it is, is secondary to the frantic animation. The world of both the living and dead, is cold, unpleasant and unsettling. Itís not clear why Jeff Bridges would want to repeat such a character in this setting. Ryan Reynolds does the best he can with the role.

It may for some that the "fun" of the movie also gets lost amid gross, ugly-looking beings. The story is similar to others, and the 3D doesn't add enough. When it was over the audience seemed a bit confused as to what to think of the movie.                          Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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TURBO
TURBO
Rated PG for some mild
action and thematic elements.
Animation/Family
96 minutes
3 stars


Turbo is a sweet animated movie that boys will relate to more than girls. Theo, a small garden snail (voiced by Ryan Reynolds) wants to be a racer like his hero Guy Gagne, a French-Canadian Indy 500 champion (Bill Hader). Yeah, that's a big dream, but through the power of storytelling Theo is renamed Turbo after he is miraculously infused with nitrous oxide that mingles with his DNA. Then he becomes a supercharged super-snail and begins winning snail races. From there it's a short trip to none other than the Indy 500.

Of course, much happens from the time we first meet him working in a garden to the time he is racing others cars - too much. It takes a long time with side trips, and subplots along the way to get to that point, though it is not particularly original.

The large cast of well known actors does a good job including: Ryan Reynolds, Paul Giamatti, Michael Peña, Snoop Dogg, Maya Rudolph, Michelle Rodriguez, Samuel L. Jackson, Luis Guzmán, Bill Hader, and supporting cast.

Like all animated movies you have to broadly suspend your disbelief. This isn't difficult for children and many young ones will find Turbo delightful, but it doesn't rise to the superstar level of classic animated movies. It will be an afternoon of relief from the heat, and pleasant enough for a family to watch. As usual the 3D is not a huge factor here and parents can decide for themselves if the extra money is worth it.                  Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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PACIFIC RIM
PACIFIC RIM
Rated PG-13 for sequences
of intense sci-fi action
and violence throughout,
and brief language.
Action/Adventure/Sci-fi
131 minutes
3½ stars


Pacific Rim is a video game with several normal sound level scenes for exposition included. The majority of the movie is loud and dark with giant Gozilla-like monsters called Kaiju from the deep ocean fighting giant man-made robots called Jaegers. Two pilots in a kind of mind-meld situation control the huge Jaegers. I'm not sure why it's stated that this story takes place in the near future since the world technology, except through video and CGI, is not nearly caught up to what is shown on the screen.

The movie starts quickly with the audience getting the set-up even before the opening credits come up. Essentially the Kaiju are destroying the earth. Governments work together to try and protect them from taking over. Their answer, at first, are the Jaegers, but those pesky Kaiju adapt and are winning the war. Leader Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) knows there is only one shot left for humanity and that is the Jaegers, though the program is being phased out. He contacts Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam), whose last mission with his brother led to the brother's death. He's still recovering. Pentecost has several teams ready to go and needs a co-pilot for Raleigh. But he rejects teaming him with Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) for personal reasons, but eventually they do get into the Jaeger together.

No doubt the visuals are the stars here, though the set design, art design, production design while imaginative, still have that green/gray cast of most futuristic sci-fi movies. The fight scenes are dazzling if disorienting and it's difficult to see exactly what's going on, especially when the Kaiju and the Jaegers are in the ocean.

Thanks to Idris Elba, an actor with the weight to pull off a commanding prescence, the acting isn't totally laughable, but it has its moments. Usually dependable Sam Rockwell overacts the eccentric scientist. Ron Perlman as Hannibal Chau, a black marketeer of all things Kaiju, is less entertaining than strange. Charlie Hunnam and Rinko Kituchi don't exactly set the screen on fire with their chemistry, but they are attractive enough actors.

Obviously Guillermo del Toro is an imaginative director (see Pan's Labyrinth as an example). He co-wrote the script, too, with Travis Beacham and his touches are there, especially in the crowd scenes. But the humans in this story are wanting, even though just about every tragic scenario is covered. Do we really get so predicable in the next few years?

Pacific Rim will no doubt delight certain audiences if you would like a long, loud, visually-oriented homage to sci-fi monster movies.                  Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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FILL THE VOID
FILL THE VOID
Rated PG for mild thematic
elements and brief smoking.
Drama
90 minutes
4 stars


Writer/director Rana Burshtein brings the audience into a world most of us have never seen or know much about, that of an ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jewish community in Tel-Aviv. The extended Mendelman family seem to be a happy and stable part of this tight-knit religious group. Traditional prayer, observances, clothing may seem unusual to the audience, but they soon become secondary to the drama that unfolds.

Younger daughter Shira (Hadas Yuron) hopes to make a good marriage like her older sister Esther (Renana Raz) has to her husband Yochay (Yiftach Klein). She gets a secretive look at her possible prospect for a husband in a grocery store shopping with her mother Rivka (Irit Sheleg) by her side, and is excited by the possibility. At eighteen the pretty, naive Shira has romantic imaginings of what her life will be like going forward with someone as new to marriage/life as she is.

The family is celebrating Purim (a Jewish holiday celebrated with meals, gatherings, charity, and gift-giving) when Esther goes into labor and dies during childbirth leaving an infant son, Moredechi. It is because of this tragedy that everything changes in the lives of the families involved and affects the greater community. Yochay, left with a baby and depending on Esther's family to help watch the child, must consider remarrying for the sake of the baby. But this poses heartbreak for Shira's mother Rivka as he might relocate and take the child away. In the meantime, Shira's engagement is put on hold and Rivka has an idea. She asks Yochay about the possibility of marrying Shira.

At first both Yochay and Shira object, but he soon warms to the idea more than she does. Obviously in this culture marriage is sacred, not the least because it helps to carry on the beliefs and traditions of their religion. Shira's dilemma is whether to give up her dream of a marriage where both husband and wife face a new life together from the start, or to succumb to subtle pressure from Yochay and her family. She is told that the decision is up to her, but even though she is young, she knows what will make everyone happy.

Though this movie is about a closed, rigid, patriarchal culture there are many subtleties and interesting nuances to the characters and the situation. The story feels believable. The casting helps, beginning with Hadas Yuron as the character with the central dilemma. Without over-acting Ms. Yuron expresses the inexperience and confusion of someone making a major life decision with little real knowledge of what to expect going forward. Could it be that that he is the right person in the long run? As the older brother-in-law Yifit Klein is an attractive, secretly romantic yet imposing figure, (although there is one questionable scene that seems out of place for his character).

In our modern, self-centered culture there would be little chance that a young woman would make such a sacrifice for her family or the greater good. The writer wisely leaves the conclusion, about whether Shira makes the right decision, to the audience.
Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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GROWN UPS 2
GROWN UPS 2
Rated PG-13 for crude
and suggestive content,
language and some male
rear nudity.
Comedy
101 minutes
2½ stars


With a high quotient of crude adolescent humor, many comedians/actors popping in and out, and just plain silliness we have the follow-up here to the first 2010 movie in this one, Grown Ups 2. That movie made money, but it got slammed by critics so this one tries harder to bring back the gang, and more friends or characters from the past, with even more sight gags and idiocy.

Lenny Feder (Adam Sandler, one of the luckiest people in show biz), again is the main character. After making big bucks he and his wife Roxie (incredibly beautiful Salma Hayek) return to Lenny's hometown where the friends he grew up with still live. They include: Kevin James as Eric, Chris Rock as Kurt, David Spade as Higgy, and Nick Swardson as Nick. They all have kids, except Nick who is as out there as you may see in a small town, and this is the last day of school. Now that the kids are older, the adults must deal with concerns of being the older generation.

Issues about bullying, parenting well, relationships, drinking, sex, and fighting, are all handled with the lightest touch possible and quick, humorous solutions. Of course, no one really gets hurt.

It is summer farce. To say everyone in this movie overacts is an understatement. So many unexpected people show up in small roles and cameos, that it is fun to wait and see who is next. It is modern slapstick with a budget. Groans and laughs were plentiful in the audience. If you inclined to this kind of humor, Grown Ups 2 will lighten your mood and keep you laughing.                  Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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THE LONE RANGER
THE LONE RANGER
Rated PG-13 for sequences
of intense action & violence,
and some suggestive material.
Action/Adventure/Western
149 minutes
3½ stars


This movie is a total surprise. When I saw the trailer with Johnny Depp in yet another costume I was expecting all bizarre style and little actual amusement value. But The Lone Ranger is an intriguing, high-energy, not perfect, but decidedly entertaining movie. Most of it works, some doesn't because the script has too many ideas, but overall it's a good time.

Of course, a hero as hokey as the original Lone Ranger with his faithful, but subservient Indian guide Tonto has to be reinvented for modern audiences. Credit to heavy-hitting writers Justin Haythe, and writing partners Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, who throw just about everything into the mix. But it's too much. A bit about cannibalism isn't needed and doesn't work. Early on a character gets shot but there is never any follow-up and no real consequences because he might be a "spirit warrior." Those are the lapses that keep the movie from being better. Director Gore Verbinski, also to his credit, is able to handle this sometimes outrageous, unwieldy, too long, two and a half hour Western, keeping the right tone throughout.

Tonto frames the narrative after a young boy (Mason Cook, good job) visiting a carnival where Tonto is an exhibit. He shows up in a cowboy costume with mask reminding Tonto of his own story. As for Mr. Depp's costume, complete with crow on his head, it becomes less off-putting and is at least partially explained as the movie goes on (the inspiration has been reported as based on a painting of an imaginary Native American called I Am Crow). It is difficult to say if any Native Americans will find it offensive. Depp's Tonto has a back story, and he is not just a follower, he has to atone for his sins. In fact, you might say he leads the way for John Reid (Armie Hammer, not cashing in on his good looks) to become the Lone Ranger, after believing at first that Reid is not hero material. To be sure the pairing of Mr. Depp and Mr. Hammer is odd, but since the characters have no affinity for each other that is ultimately what makes it successful. The two actors work well together. The droll humor and one-liners are all part of the joke of a movie that doesn't take itself too seriously, yet gets it's point across about the corruption of the Old West.

John Reid comes to visit his sheriff brother Dan (James Badge Dale) and his wife Rebecca (Ruth Wilson) and young nephew Danny (Bryant Prince, natural). Stubbornly believing that good will always win out, John gets drawn into the middle of a desperate fight. Greed, treachery, and brutality rule as men take what they want from those who can't defend themselves. The building of the railroads connect the vast country, but also leave honest workers and townspeople at the mercy of outlaws and criminals. Though not especially bloody, there is more than enough violence to express what the times were like for those subject to the cruelty of others.

The cinematography by Bojan Bazelli is superb with stunning landscapes, visible night scenes, and capturing and making the stunts believable. Film editing by James Haygood and Craig Wood has an old time Saturday morning serial feel to it later in the movie. The art and production design add to the overall crisp look of the movie. The stunts and CGI are clearly helpful, too. It's not your grandfather's Lone Ranger — but it's absolutely more fun.
Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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DESPICABLE ME 3D
DESPICABLE ME 3D
Rated PG for rude
humor and mild action.
Animation/Comedy/Crime
98 minutes
4 stars


This is a delightful sequel to a delightful movie. Despicable Me 2 picks up where Despicable Me left off. If you missed the first try to see it before this one, but if you don't get a chance you can still understand what's happening, though it may take a few minutes to get oriented.

When we last left the super-villain Gru (voice of Steve Carrell), he had adopted his girls. Miranda Cosgrove voices Margo the oldest, Dana Gaier voices Edith the middle one, and Elsie Fisher voices Agnes, the youngest child of the three girls. And Gru was giving up his villainy. He is so nice now that when Agnes' fairy godmother doesn't show up to her party, he takes her place. But turning nice has its problems when his evil scientist Dr. Nefario (voice of Russell Brand) leaves his employment to be nasty somewhere else. All his adorable, small yellow minions are sad to see him go, but they are so happy most of the time that they keep chugging along. Yet, they start mysteriously disappearing.

In the meantime, Gru is offered a job with Silas Ramsbottom (voice of Steve Coogan), the head of the Anti-Villain League to find a new fiend in the area. Gru must work with a sweet-natured agent named Lucy Wilde (voice of Kristen Wiig) who takes a liking to Gru, even though he resists liking her. In their exploits they come across Eduardo Perez/El Macho (voice of Benjamin Bratt), the flamboyant owner of a Mexican restaurant.

Needless to say, the animation is outstanding. The imaginative scenes are charming and heart-warming. The soundtrack is well chosen, and there are two songs at the end of the movie that border on hysterically funny. Adults and children will get a kick out of Despicable Me 2 . If it gets too expensive, I don't think the 3D is crucial, but for some laughs don't hesitate to go.                 Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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KEVIN HART:
LET ME EXPLAIN
KEVIN HART:
LET ME EXPLAIN
Rated R for pervasive
language including
sexual references.
Documentary/Comedy
75 minutes
3 stars


If you're in the mood for risqué comedy with loads of R-rated words, and enjoy the likes of stand-up comic masters like Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, and Richard Pryor, then Kevin Hart has a fast-paced concert-tour style film for you. Much of the movie focuses on a well-edited portion of Hart's 2012 sold-out concert tour at Madison Square Garden, with several creative cinema-verite scenes up front.

The major part of the film is essentially Hart's stand-up comedy routine that he delivers with rapid fire precision, and which draws on many of his life experiences. As with most comics, relationships with friends, lovers, spouses, and ex-spouses are ripe for humorous derision. While this material is almost expected, he does have a sweet section about his five year old son that tugs at the heart. The funniest bit by far, though, is not blue in any way, but rather it's about cleanliness. In fact, it addresses Mr. Hart's fear of being touched by a bum's hand. But be prepared for language that is heavily infused and repetitively laced with what some people may consider offensive words.

The talented 33 year old Mr. Hart has obviously worked hard to build a career in the tough worlds of comedy/acting/entertainment and has built a loyal following. Like many comedians before him, his hard luck, challenges, and trauma are the threads which find their way into his routines. He is not only a comic, but has acted convincingly in a number of television shows and movies, such as Scary Movie 3, Think Like a Man, and The 40 Year Old Virgin.

Though well photographed, this movie is your regular, late night stand-up. Certainly, Mr. Hart keeps your attention and that is not easy in such a large venue as Madison Square Garden. The movie audience gets to experience the show as if you are there watching live. And to the movie's credit, it less than an hour and a half. If you like this comedy style, you will probably like this movie.                  Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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THE HEAT
THE HEAT
Rated R for pervasive
language, strong crude
content and some violence.
Action/Comedy/Crime
117 minutes
3½ stars


This will not go down as a ground-breaking female buddy cop movie, though it has more than a few satirical elements to it. But, if you are looking for light summer entertainment watching two appealing, likable actors strut their stuff then The Heat will do it. Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy have gone to the well one too many times with similar characters, but they both have good comic timing, especially Ms. McCarthy. The problem is that she is talented enough to give us some different looks, yet she is essentially replaying her character, with a few adjustments, from Bridesmaids.

It is not that you haven't seen this storyline before, either, but how many male buddy cop movies have we seen with the same story? Sarah Ashburn (Sandra Bullock) is an FBI Special Agent who has super detecting skills, but poor people skills. Her fellow agents don't like her; her boss doesn't know what to do with her. She wants a promotion, but she doesn't appear to be leadership material. She is sent to Boston to work on the case of a mysterious drug lord. This is where we meet Detective Shannon Mullins (Melissa McCarthy), a sloppy-looking, intimidating hard-*** if there ever was one. The two don't like each other or even get along, but are told to work together by Ashburn's boss (Demian Bichir) to catch the drug kingpin.

Since neither woman is friend material, it works out just right for them to be all business as they go through various episodes to catch the elusive criminal. Complicating matters is the fact that Mullins got her brother Jason (Michael Rapaport), arrested and sent to jail to keep him off the streets, but he knows the people they have to deal with to find the drug kingpin. This infuriated their family (with a funny bit of few words by Jane Curtain as the mother), and they are all angry with Mullins. Ashburn's family situation isn't revealed until later. These attempts to add twists and turns don't necessarily add much to the plot. Familiar contrivances don't help much, either.

Marlon Wayans plays FBI agent Levy with a friendly, laid-back smile, while several comedians add their individual takes on the cops and criminals like Spoken Reasons, Tony Hale, and Dan Bakkedahl.

But the movie is all about Bullock and McCarthy. It is what they bring to it, and if you are a fan of either or both, it will only be a minor diappointment that the movie itself is not more arresting. They both try hard to make it work and give the audience some laughs.                  Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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WORLD WAR Z 3D
WORLD WAR Z 3D
Rated PG-13 for intense
frightening zombies sequences,
violence and disturbing.
Action/Drama/Horror
115 minutes
3½ stars


Let me just acknowledge one more time that a movie is not going to be able to include everything that's in a popular book. The annoyed fans of the book World War Z by Max Brooks seem to be everywhere complaining that this or that is left out or changed in the movie. Well, choices have to be made. Since I have not read the book yet I can make no value judgments about those choices. I can only comment on what is on the screen. And what I saw is pretty interesting, though it has a few flaws. Screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, Damon Lindelof with screen story by Matthew Michael Carnahan and J. Michael Straczynski certainly make the gravity of the situation understandable. Credit to director Marc Forster for managing to pull the visual and global elements together.

Everyone knows the story by now. There is some kind of world wide outbreak of disease that turns people into zombies in a matter of seconds. These snarling predators race (yes race, no more slow zombies) around ravaging every town and city they attack.

Former UN employee Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) and his wife Karin Lane (Mireille Enos, appealing) are in a car with their kids in Philadelphia when disaster strikes and they are caught up in the zombie crush. They knew nothing about it as it spreads that fast. They somehow manage to escape the immediate disaster. Gerry hears from a former colleague who will help them get away, but they must last the night as the zombies never have to sleep and are quite strong and persistent.

When they are brought to safety Gerry learns that it wasn't out of kindness. They want him to find the source of the virus to find a possible cure. He is teamed with a young doctor and several Navy Seals. His family is left behind, but they remain safe as long as he agrees to the mission. This begins Gerry's saga as he travels the world trying to find the answers to the zombie nightmare.

You don't have to use too much imagination, but the idea of one country after another falling to the diseased population that is uncontrollable, is extremely frightening. Though world leaders try to help each other, they are powerless over the zombies. Obviously, there is much symbolism and the movie says more about human nature than can be contained here. You may have heard by now of the CGI scenes with zombies climbing over each other, then falling. These visuals are something new, arresting, and memorable.

The last part of the movie slows down and close-ups of an actor/zombie probably should have been shot from a distance, but overall Brad Pitt does an admirable job anchoring the movie, and it is certainly better than most movies of its kind.       Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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THE EAST
THE EAST
Rated R for thematic elements,
violence, some disturbing
images, sexual content and
partial nudity.
Action/Drama/Mystery
116 minutes
4 stars


The East is a provocative movie about eco-terrorism. Though there may be considerable anger towards corporations, only small groups of individuals take environmental radicalism to the level of damaging/destroying property. Some see the loss of life that may occur because of their actions as collateral damage, much as armies might justify in war. Make no mistake, they see their participation as a "war" to save the environment.

Co-written by actor Brit Marling and director Zal Batmanglij, the movie presents a surprisingly balanced view of the situation. Sarah Moss (Ms. Marling), a former FBI agent working for a private multinational corporation determined to protect itself against radicalized individuals, is contracted to infiltrate a group known as The East, a name never explained in the movie. They have been managing to commit terrorist acts without their identities being known or any of them being caught.

Sarah leaves her boyfriend behind and travels around trying to make contact with them. The opportunity comes eventually, and she is taken to their safe house by Luca (Shiloh Fernandez, appealing and affecting). Members of the group don't trust her, especially the charismatic leader Benji (Alexander Skarsgard, ideal for the part), and a militant member named Izzy (Ellen Page, in one of her best roles so far). They live by freeganism, those who forage for discarded food that is still good to eat, a simple lifestyle, dancing and playing spin the bottle (of all things), and a fierce commitment to destroying pharmaceutical companies that lie and ruin lives.

After her first involvement with sabotage she is warned by her boss Sharon (Patricia Clarkson, appropriately icy), not to become too sympathetic as they won't hesitate to kill her if necessary, but Sarah is of the same generation and sensibility as members of the group. The members are, in fact, educated, intelligent, and likable. She finds herself drawn to them, especially Benji. When the group talks about violence she asks if that isn't a contradiction. As Sarah gets pulled deeper into the conspiracies the movie cleverly shows how good people can be led to do bad things. That is the main strength of the movie, showing the moral ambiguity of the situation. The contradiction is that they are not violent people, but they are willing to be so for a cause they believe in, even if that is outside the acceptable boundaries of society because it is for the greater good of the planet.

Brit Marling comes across as intelligent and relatable in her role, as does the entire cast. They make their characters' extremism understandable, and even at times sympathetic. But choices are made freely, and there are consequences for our actions. Tension builds. What will Sarah do?                  Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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MONSTERS UNIVERSITY 3D
MONSTERS UNIVERSITY 3D
Rated G
Animation/Adventure/Comedy
103 minutes
(includes "Blue Umbrella" short)
3½ stars


Monsters University is a prequel to the hugely popular Monsters, Inc. released in 2001. The animation by Pixar is still wonderfully imaginative. How do they think up all those monsters? There are hundreds as we see the familiar Mike Wazowsky (voiced by Billy Crystal), the serious little one-eyed monster heading for college with a major in scaring. He is industrious because being a scarer has been his dream for a long time.

Into his classroom lecture comes the smart-mouth James P. "Sulley" Sullivan (voiced by John Goodman). He is from a well known family so he figures he has it made without trying too hard. The two don't get along and become rivals. Where socializing is easy for Sulley, Mike is an outcast and feels lonesome.

When Mike and Sulley get into an argument they accidentally destroy an important scream-can belonging to Dean Hardscrabble (voiced by Helen Mirren, wonderful as usual), the headmistress at Monsters University. She throws them both out of the scaring class. Mike is devastated, but there is a Scream Contest that he thinks can get him back into the class. Mike joins a fraternity of misfits, but needs one more monster to be able to apply. Luckily, Sulley is available, though Mike doesn't want him. The competing fraternities have to go through a series of challenges before one of them can win. The most fun is one where they have to run over little spiked balls that cause the part of the body to swell if touched. To tell you the outcome spoils the fun, but it sets up the Monsters, Inc. movie, and I'm guessing more in the series to come.

The voice actors are a diverse group with distinctive voices so it works out quite well to have a large cast. As mentioned, the animation is excellent, though the 3D isn't prominent, and is probably okay without it. The movie is colorful and interesting for little eyes. It's unclear if kids will get the college references. It appears much of it could be over their heads, but the adults may appreciate it. The smallest ones might be frightened by several of the scenes, but parents will have to assess their readiness as this is rated for a general audience.

It's been a long time since Monsters, Inc. The clever conceit of monsters being afraid of children still works. It may help make the imagined monsters of their dreams a little less frightening. I like Monsters University which could be cut shorter, but so far Monsters, Inc. is hard to beat.                  Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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THE BLING RING
THE BLING RING
Rated R for teen drug and
alcohol use, and for
language including some
brief sexual references.
Crime/Drama
107 minutes
4 stars


As if it's not enough that a group of well-off teens stole $3 million dollars in items and jewelry from celebrities, it's their lack of remorse that's even more disturbing. Based on the true story of disaffected teens in California obsessed with the rich and famous, writer/director Sofia Coppola's movie is an indictment of a society that has lost its privacy and sense of values. The actors' persona of languid amorality is just right. For this group, knowing their idols' schedules, likes and dislikes, their secrets, could create the fantasy of being them by stealing and wearing their possessions. Fandom has become like an entitlement to know anything and everything about one's favorite celebrities.

The story begins when Nick Prugo (Israel Broussard, convincing) meets popular girl Rachel Lee (Katie Chang, appropriately chilling) on entering a new high school. She pays attention to the self-described outcast who says he just isn't good looking enough, not ugly, just not A-list material. As they hang out together Nick and Rachel bond over their fashion taste. When they discover Paris Hilton is out of town, Rachel decides they should check out her house. When they find the key under the doormat they let themselves in and are awestruck to be in the house of a fashion icon. They also help themselves to some of her possessions, but not so much that she notices.

The movie presents Rachel as having icy confidence and Nick being the nervous follower and lookout. At first this episode seems more of a lark, as though getting away with being in her house is the thrill. But they begin to search the internet for times when stars are out of town, and as other friends join in the excursions it becomes much more criminal. Emma Watson plays the narcissist Nicki (who with this performance has shown a major leap in her acting ability). Nicki is a wanna-be star whose mother home schools her and best friend Sam (Taissa Farmiga, nice job) who lives with them. The airhead mother Laurie (Leslie Mann, good at this kind of character) is clueless about what the girls are up to at night when they are out clubbing. Another of the friends is Chloe (Claire Julien) who eventually gets her boyfriend to fence some of the stolen items.

During the group's spree in 2008-2009, they rob Paris Hilton five times as well as Audrina Patridge, Rachel Bilson, Orlando Bloom and Miranda Kerr, and Lindsay Lohan. I never expected I would have a reason to sympathize with Paris Hilton, but the thefts are so audacious that no one's home/life should be violated in such an arrogant, outrageous, criminal way.

After all, these are not teens who are starving, except maybe for good parenting. Even when parents are present their children are doing these things right under their noses. Are there no clues?

The soundtrack is excellent with music selected by Brian Reitzell and Daniel Lopatin. Likewise the cinematography by Christopher Blauvelt and Harris Savides is notable for an almost harsh California look.

If you saw the movie Spring Breakers you may notice the similarity in the psychopathic trajectory of these girls and guys. Too much too soon, not having to work hard for anything can distort life to a dangerous degree. Nicki tells the ever-present camera after being caught that she looks at this as a "life lesson" because someday she might want to run a country, or something. As if.                  Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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KINGS OF SUMMER
KINGS OF SUMMER
Rated R for language
and some teen drinking.
Comedy/Drama
93 minutes
3½ stars


What's satisfying about The Kings of Summer is that you get a feeling it's about real teenagers. They show the spectrum of adolescent behavior that has them alternately annoyed, exasperated, silly, angry, mean-spirited, naÔve, brave, hurt, and sensitive. In fact, the editing is loose with the movie itself sort of all over the place like a teenager, but in a charming way.

Joe Toy (Nick Robinson), at odds with his gruff father is obviously unhappy. His father Frank (Nick Offerman), someone you might describe as a "nasty piece of work," is not dealing well with the loss of his wife, Joe's mother. He handles it with sarcasm and trying to control his son to a ridiculous degree, instead of giving him some room to just be. His sister Heather (Allison Brie) sympathizes with him, but she doesn't live near by. Joe's friend Patrick (Gabriel Busso) is stifled in another way. His parents adore him so much he can't make a move without them making a sugary comment. When Joe can't take it another minute he returns to a clearing in the woods where he convinces Patrick, and a strange but entertaining kid named Biaggio (Moises Arias) to build a house so they can run away and live there.

Over the course of time they complete the house and actually do begin to live there. At first, all is well as they do the things boys do to amuse themselves like punching each other in the arm, pounding on a pipe like it's a drum, and making wild jumps into the water. No one has any idea where they are. The parents are frantic, but Joe, Patrick, and Biaggio are having a ball. Joe makes contact with a pretty girl he has a crush on named Kelly (Erin Moriarity). She comes with some friends and it disturbs their summer idyll for various reasons. Of course, there are lessons to be learned all around.

The acting is good. Nick Robinson is natural and appealing. You believe that he and Gabriel Basso, who is likable as well, are best friends. Moises Arias adds just the right amount of crazy to the mix. The parental units: Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally, and Marc Evan Jackson do well, but the attempt to show the police as quirky is not as successful.

Like all coming of age stories, there are painful truths that can't be ignored as teens learn being truly independent is not that easy. The adults learn, too, that letting go is hard. This is a sweet, disarming movie.                  Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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THIS IS THE END
THIS IS THE END
Rated R for crude and
sexual content throughout,
brief graphic nudity,
pervasive language,
drug use and some violence.
Comedy
107 minutes
3½ stars


If you want to see nerdy/cool actors in a self-mocking apocalypse comedy parody with enough adolescent humor to last you a while, then This Is The End is the movie for you. The main actors: Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, and Danny McBride are having riotous fun playing exaggerated narcissistic versions of themselves. You can just tell there must have been plenty of breaking each other up, and plenty of outtakes to laugh about later.

Jay Baruchel visits Seth Rogen who then wants to party at James Franco's big new house. Jay doesn't want to go because he claims not to like the crowd he hangs with, especially Jonah Hill whom he can't stand. They go anyway and during a break in Franco's party something attacks. Seth and Jay are at a convenience store at that moment and several of the patrons have a blue spotlight shown on them that then sucks them up into the sky. They run back to Franco's house in time to see the earth swallow up most of the guests so the six guys barricade themselves in the house for protection.

They try to act logically by gathering their rations and dividing them equally so they'll last. Of course, the end of the world seems to bring out the worst in everyone. The need for water sends someone out and they must deal with what is killing the rest of the world outside the door. Other actors make cameos like: Emma Watson, Michael Cera, Jason Segel, David Krumholtz, Paul Rudd, Mindy Kaling, Martin Starr, Channing Tatum, Kevin Hart, Rihanna, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Aziz Ansari, and Backstreet Boys.

Written and directed by Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen, who have known each other for years, it's reality television meets "the Rapture," with a bit of CGI thrown in. Though the movie does not seem to be mean-spirited, it does spoof a—how to be a good person before you die—kind of philosophy. The references to previous movies they have acted in, to The Exorcist and other horror films, and many of the lines are funny with good comic timing. The result is humorous, but also self-indulgent with inside jokes we are probably not even aware of. But if you are fans of the actors and their movies you will have a good time watching them go through their paces.                  Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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MAN OF STEEL
MAN OF STEEL
Rated R for intense sequences
of sci-fi violence, action
and destruction, and for
some language.
Action/Adventure/Fantasy
143 minutes
3 stars


Where's the fun? Unfortunately, Man of Steel doesn't have much. If there were some underlying issues that were ominous and serious that might be okay, but Superman's origin story and saving Earth? Really, that's old news. No matter how much CGI there is in a movie it doesn't make up for a plot and story that's bland. I'm not sure what the reasoning is by screenwriter David S. Goyer, with the story he created with Christopher Nolan, and director Zack Synder for this dark vision, but it is not compelling. Mr. Nolan did give us a darker Batman, but that one worked. It doesn't mean it will work here.

The evidence of problems is seen, not in the casting, but why the movie doesn't work with talented actors chosen. To begin with Henry Cavill is a physical specimen appropriate for the title of man of steel. Heís handsome and can act, but he's limited to a range that shows us nothing about an essentially tortured alien being. Sure, we get to see him bullied and holding back. We see him as a kid saving other kids in a bus accident and deny his heroism, but as an adult his responses are muted. Lois Lane as embodied by Amy Adams, a talented actor I like to watch, seems as much off base as a smart newspaper person with a hard edge, way beyond "spunky." The two don't have much chemistry so that the kiss, when it finally arrives, falls flat. I had the urge to laugh because it seems so phony.

Russell Crowe and Ayelet Zurer as Superman's parents Jor-El, and Lara Lor-Van escape much of the heaviness because their story, told at the beginning, is simple and understandable. They want to save their infant son's life. Mr. Crowe, especially, has more screen time and has the weight of a character who has a higher purpose. About General Zod someone sitting near me said, "Okay, I get it, he's the bad guy." It's true Michael Shannon is good at being bad, but like much of the movie, it's too much. It's not his fault. The movie seems to end three or four times so there are more opportunities for him to kill Superman, and Superman to kill him.

Enough already. There's so much going on visually it is difficult to take in. Yes, the CGI is good, but it clearly takes up too much of this long movie at the expense of the characters and clarity. If you like video games this might not bother you, but I want to spend time with one or other.

The result of the way this movie is put together can leave an audience numb from all the spectacle. The visual field gets flooded so that after the movie you retain only a few images because it has gone past your eyes so quickly. In the world of the future when it's said our eyes will be much larger so we can take more in at once, no doubt we will be able to handle it. For right now I'd like to absorb more of what I actually can see. How disappointing.                  Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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BEFORE MIDNIGHT
BEFORE MIDNIGHT
Rated R for sexual content,
nudity and language.
Drama
108 minutes
3½ stars


Call me cranky, but watching two people argue in a hotel room for an extended period, even these two characters, is a bit much. The previous two movies, Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004), in the series are more provocative and charming. Somehow this one loses steam. Yet, what the movie has going for it are the two characters because the audience has made an investment in them. The concept is an interesting one in that it follows the same couple Jesse (Ethan Hawke), and Celine (Julie Delpy), from their meeting on a train eighteen years ago to nine years ago when they meet again, and now in present day when they have been together for a while with twin girls.

Their relationship is complicated, as many are nowadays. Jesse is divorced and his son lives in Chicago with the ex-wife who still hates him. His guilt over the circumstances causes problems since he lives in Paris with Celine and their girls and is separated from his son for long periods. That in turn angers Celine who loves his son, but is feeling pressured to make a career decision based on Jesseís guilt.

It's true that the situation and dialogue is realistic, yet long scenes with little action and almost exclusively dialogue are better suited for a play where you can see the actors live and get a more visceral feel for what they are trying to say. The argument begins but doesn't end. It just goes on and on. Again, not unlike real life, but this extended scene begins to feel interminable.

One reason so many audiences like this series is that it is not full of CGI and special effects. It's a simple story that people can relate to and understand. Not much happens in actual fact, except in their relationship, as they try to negotiate that dangerous territory of "feelings," and "you did this, you did that." It seems she has been trying to communicate her unhappiness with certain aspects of their lives for a while and Jesse, thinking he is doing all the right things, has not been able to hear her.

I have to say if you are a fan of the first two movies you should see this one as well. Though I personally felt let down maybe others will find Before Midnight more absorbing.                  Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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THE INTERNSHIP
THE INTERNSHIP
Rated PG-13 for sexuality,
some crude humor, partying
and language. Comedy
119 minutes
3½ stars


Not much is subtle about The Internship, but then this is a comedy with Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson. They have had the same personas for a time now, but their chemistry works. If you like watching them, as I do, you will appreciate them here. Just don't take the plot or any of these schemes seriously. The obvious elements that make this movie laughable are telegraphed and over-the-top, but then it's a fun, light summer movie. It is also a homage to Google as nerd paradise.

When watch salesmen Billy McMahon (Vince Vaughn) and Nick Campbell (Owen Wilson) find themselves dinosaurs in the job market they search for a way to become relevant again. Billy comes across information about a Google internship. They decide that even though they are twenty years older than most others applying they will take a shot. They are so computer illiterate that they donít even realize that their online interview is a two way visual. Through some miracle they get the internship, but then are subject to humiliating experiences as the teammates no one wants.

Of course, to the young teammates that get stuck with them Billy and Nick are like the crazy uncles who actually make sense occasionally, and they are entertaining, too. The old guys are all like rah, rah, don't give up, because they're salesmen at heart and they are good at it. Billy can sell you just about anything. Vince Vaughn plays Billy as a big teddy bear of a guy, who messes up with alarming frequency. Owen Wilson plays Nick as an infatuated, spacey optimist who develops a thing for a stuck-up Google employee named Dana (Rose Byrne, well done) until Nick melts her icy exterior.

The teammates are basically stereotypical sorts, but do an okay job representing them: Josh Brener plays Lyle their super-nerdy genius mentor, Dylan O'Brien is a Rob Lowe look-alike which they try to play down but don't succeed, who is an above-it-all-cynic genius, Tiya Sircar is a smart-mouth girl genius, Tobit Raphael is a nervous Asian genius who pulls out the hair on his one eyebrow when stressed. Max Minghella is the evil opponent genius.

Billy and Nick are obviously out of their league genius-wise, but have life experience the others lack. The kids and old guys learn from each other. In addition, Aasif Mandvi, who seems to be everywhere these days, is perfect as the disapproving Mr. Chetty.

No, in the real world this outlandish story would never happen since those internships are highly coveted with only a reported 4% acceptance rate for interns at Google, but so what, it's a fun, silly ride.                  Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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LOVE IS ALL
YOU NEED
LOVE IS ALL YOU NEED
Rated R for brief sexuality,
nudity and some language.)
Comedy/Romance
Foreign Film: Denmark
110 minutes
4stars


A woman is more than the sum of her parts. A man can feel grief without raging at everyone. Whether injuries are physical and/or psychic, people who suffer hardships are often more discerning of, and better at recognizing the wounds of others. The sappy title, Love Is All You Need, doesn't fit the subtle, perceptive nature of this film about a man and a woman who have been traumatized by painful life circumstances. People do the best they can. Yet, sometimes they can share their burdens making them lighter for each.

Ida (Trine Dyrholm) has her last breast cancer treatment but isn't assured a cure by her doctor. At home she walks in on her oafish husband Leif (Kim Bodnia), and a younger woman Thilde (Christiane SchaumburgƽMüller). Stunned, she attributes his behavior to a temporary lapse when he leaves her. As he does so he tells her he will see her at the wedding. Their daughter Astrid (Molly Blixt Egelind) is getting married soon in Italy. In the airport parking deck Ida absent-mindedly backs into a passing car. The irate driver turns out to be Philip (Pierce Brosnan) the widowed father of Ida's future son-in-law Patrick (Sebastian Jessen).

Before leaving for Italy Philip is shown at his office as an angry, aggravated boss who no one can please. He tries to keep everyone at a distance with his off-putting behavior. By the time he gets to the parking deck, it doesn't take much to set him off. Philip is uncomfortable in his encounter with Ida when she shows genuine emotion. He travels with her to his estate where the marriage will take place. Once they get to Italy though, she tells him she doesn't understand why anyone would work for him after the way he speaks to them on his constant phone calls.

When everyone arrives for the wedding strains begin to show from the stress of being forced to spend time together in the house. Philip and Patrick are estranged, though polite. Ida's children are resentful when their father brings Thilde to the wedding. Philip's manipulative sister-in-law Benedikte (Paprika Steen) and niece are both irritants. And the future bride and groom are showing signs of cold feet. Yet, the return to the house he shared with his wife brings back memories that begin to humanize him. Mainly, he sees Ida's pure and generous spirit.

The wedding storyline is not an unusual one. It's ripe for showing the fault lines in relationships. With a screenplay by Anders Thomas Jensen and directed by Susanne Biers, who is also responsible for the story idea, there are not many surprises. Also, Ms. Biers doesn't rush the story, but her sensitive direction and the responses that she elicits from the actors makes the movie watching worth while. This is especially true of Trine Dyrholm, who is luminous as the passive and frightened but dignified cancer survivor. Pierce Brosnan is well-suited to the role of a man who until he knows better, only knows one way to exist with his pain, and he and Ms. Dyrholm have a palpable rapport. The beautiful surroundings in Italy add to the romantic mood.

Almost in spite of this being listed as a comedy Love Is All You Need is a poignant, life-affirming film with humorous moments for those who are willing to be patient.
Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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AFTER EARTH
AFTER EARTH
Rating PG-13 for sci-fi
action violence and some
disturbing images.
Action/Adventure/Sci-Fi
100 minutes
2½ stars


It seems that no matter how far into the future we go, boys/men will still have Daddy issues. The father-son combo here is esteemed general Cypher Raige (Will Smith), and his son Kitai (real son Jaden Smith). As a military man Cypher has spent years away from his family and is especially estranged from his son who resents him yet desperately wants his approval. Cypher tells his wife Faia Raige (Sophie Okonedo, doing what she can with a small part) that this will be Cypher's last mission before he retires. Her part is not demanding and she doesn't have much to do, but Faia is wise and Cypher does listen to her appeal to pay more attention to Kitai. As a result he takes Kitai, who was passed over as a ranger, on this last mission with him. I guess that's the privilege of being the boss.

Their space ship gets destroyed in an asteroid field and must land on the closest planet before it breaks apart. That planet happens to be Earth — 1000 years in the future. It doesnít look good for them. Earth is abandoned, inhospitable, and forbidden due to its toxic atmosphere. But, having no choice they crash land killing everyone on board except Cypher and Kitai.(The audience is left to assume that we finally nuked ourselves out of our home.) The ship is broken apart, but Cypher is too badly injured to recover an emergency beacon that will give their location. So guess who has to brave the planet to retrieve it from the tail section of the ship?

Some cool gadgets help. Kitai has a backpack that allows Cypher to observe everything and guide him. His communication device is on his forearm so they can be in constant contact. And he takes this liquid that allows him to be able to breathe in the noxious atmosphere. Kitai also has some kind of all-purpose cylindrical sword that turns into versions of several weapons. His special space suit is heat/cold sensitive and can regulate his temperature to a degree. Even with these helpful items he is vulnerable from the climate and the many large ferocious animals that have taken over the planet.

This is the point when wondering about the logic of the story takes you out of the movie. If the atmosphere is so toxic how can the animals breathe with no problem? If the human population had to leave earth to survive, how did the animals manage by staying to do so? And after a thousand years they would only still be evolving, so they could be understandably savage, but how could they grow so large? Kitai sets out to find the tail section of the ship and is gone for a number of days, but the audience never sees him eat, and especially, he never drinks anything. How is it possible to survive without at least drinking water?

Will Smith gives a stilted performance. The emotion, or should I say emoting is left to Jaden Smith, though father and son seem to have a good rapport. Females, as usual, don't get much time or attention in the future (what do they all do one wonders?), even with the appealing ZoŽ Isabella Kravitz as Cypher's daughter and Kitai's older, brave sister.

This future is terribly slow and not unlike most that we have seen in movies recently with a neutral/grey color cast. It is a sleek, less-is-more world with little aesthetic beauty and because of that looks stark, cold, and uninviting. The set design, art decoration, stunts, CGI, and cinematography are well done, but it is not a world where I would want to live, or even visit.                 Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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WHAT MAISIE KNEW
WHAT MAISIE KNEW
Rated R for some language.
Drama
100 minutes
4 stars


Though it is adapted from a Henry James novel, What Maisie Knew is a modern day horror story with the monsters being narcissistic, immature, irrational parents. It seems that Susanna (Julianne Moore), a fading rock star, and businessman Beale (Steve Coogan) thought they had a pet instead of a real child. As the movie opens they are arguing loudly and constantly in earshot of their young daughter. Maisie (Onata Aprile) blocks out the noise as their entire marriage has probably been volatile. She has a caring nanny named Margo (Joanna Vanderham) who is a constant in her life.

When the marriage implodes Maisie is the main bargaining chip and source they use to get back at each other. Beale takes Margo away from Susanna and marries her. In retaliation Susanna marries an easy going bartender named Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard). When court is finished and they have used her to as much advantage as they can and are free of each other, Maisie is no longer as precious, but more of a scheduling inconvenience. So now poor Maisie is passed around when one or the other has to run off somewhere.

Julianne Moore is such a good actor she is easy to despise. The antithesis of a good mother, Susanna plies Maisie with words of love and gifts though she is clearly inappropriate most of the time. Steve Googan gives an informed performance as Beale. He shows only slightly more understanding of the damage he is doing, but ultimately abandons her, too. The heroes turn out to be Margo and Lincoln who are drawn into the vortex of the parents' crazy-making and genuinely care about Maisie though they have no obligation to do so. Joanna Vanderham and Alexander Skarsgard are appealing actors and able to show compassion, though what happens with their characters feels somewhat contrived.

Onata Aprile is terrific as Maisie. She is natural and recognizable as a real little girl, rather than an actor playing one. As the focal point of the movie she is able to give a consistent performance though several scenes must have been difficult. Credit must be given to directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel who bring out the best in all their actors and give a wistful look to New York City. And credit also to writers Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright for an insightful adaptation of the material.

Though it is tough to watch and often heart-breaking, What Maisie Knew is a harrowing reminder of an all too common disastrous situation.                  Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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NOW YOU SEE ME
NOW YOU SEE ME
Rated PG-13 for language
some action & sexual content.
Crime/Thriller
116 minutes
3½ stars


That this movie centered on magic is as enjoyable as it turns out to be, though not exceedingly so, is an act of legerdemain in the sense of displaying lots of skillful CGI (donít sit through the long, long credits as thereíll be no bonus bit as in Iron Man 3) for the deceitful purposes of the characters. Itís logic and skepticism, via the FBI, versus four canny and talented magicians. How not to root for the magicians when they are played by four talented actors who seem to be having a good time?

Each of the four magicians-in-crime (details to follow) is introduced performing their somewhat penny-ante tricks. J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg, playing egocentric and mouthy to the hilt) dazzles a crowd with a card trick whose answer is revealed on the surface of a large office building. Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson, a pleasure even when portraying a low life) is a mind reader/hypnotist not above blackmail. Jack Wilder (Dave Franco, playing the "kid" convincingly) is a neophyte who resorts to picking pockets when necessary. Rounding out the Four Horseman, as they will bill themselves, is Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher, very good) as an escape artist. The four are brought together and form a super magic quartet whose first "trick" is performed before a large crowd in Las Vegas and entails robbing a bank long distance. It's quite a feat and mightily frowned upon by the FBI embodied in the person of Agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo, ever believable), who bungles along, always being fooled and mislead and a step behind the doings. Lending him support (and adding a dash of sexual tension) is Alma Dray (Mélanie Laurent, sincere and feisty) representing Interpol (since the robbery is of a French bank).

The second "trick" takes place in an auditorium in New Orleans and involves withdrawing funds from the account (144 million plus) of the magician's mentor Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine, reliable of course). Unfortunately, matters get jumbled. Mr. Caine's role is unclear as is that of Morgan Freeman as Thaddeus Bradley, a magician debunker, as both seem more red herrings than essential to the plot. There is also talk (not much or followed through) about corporate greed. There is also some mumbo jumbo about the "Eye," an ancient order of "true" magic. There is even a bit of a surprise ending.

The special effects, as mentioned, are dazzling. What holds them back from being awe inspiring is the knowledge that they are, in fact, CGI and, therefore, as an audience member you have not been fooled by your own two eyes, but by the machinations of the tech people. Direction by Louis Leterrier is thoroughly professional and he smoothly orchestrates the various technical elements. The script by Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin, and Edward Ricourt (based on a story by the later two) can best be enjoyed by not delving deeply beyond surface meanings. It's a mystery, a chase, a magic show, and an ensemble of actors having a good time. All of which is enough to insure a pleasant, non-taxing movie experience.

Now You See Me - Visually agreeable but skin deep.                 Review by Charles Zio


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FAST & FURIOUS 6
FAST & FURIOUS 6
Rated PG-13 for intense
sequences of violence and
action and mayhem throughout,
some sexuality and language.
Action/Crime/Thriller
130 minutes
3½ stars


Since this is the sixth movie in the series, audiences have a good idea of what they are getting with Fast & Furious 6. The action scenes are more incredible, the stunts more extreme, the dialogue more snarky and schmaltzy, and the acting just as wooden. In short, if you like this kind of movie you will find it even more enjoyable and it certainly leads you to believe the series will continue (as has already been announced), and are tipped off at the end of the movie.

When we find this band of wanted criminals with hearts of gold this time around they are spread across the globe after their last heist, retiring with millions. Their leader Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) has a heavy heart because his lady love Letty Ortiz (Michelle Rodriguez) died at the end of the last movie, though he now lives with Elena (Elsa Pataky). Dominic's partner former policeman Brian O'Connor (Paul Walker) is living with Dominic's sister Mia (Jordana Brewster) and they have a baby named Jack. The whole "Family" angle is played up; a virtual love fest of devotion.

Since there has to be a reason for the gang to get together and make this movie, Dwayne Johnson shows up again as their pursuer U.S. Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) agent Luke Hobbs. He presents Dominic with a photo of Letty. Could she really still be alive? Is she in cahoots with the coolly evil Owen Shaw (Luke Evans), a former Special Forces guy, now master heist criminal? The suspense is almost too much — as you can tell. Hobbs says if the gang helps him get Shaw, they will find Letty, and in addition, he will have them pardoned so they can go home. Oh, and he has another law enforcement team member with him named Riley (Gina Carano, believable as a tough girl), a quasi-military superwoman type.

It is all too much to turn down so off they go chasing down Owen Shaw, full team intact. Among others returning in their roles are Tyrese Gibson as Roman Pearce, and Chris Bridges (AKA Ludacris the rapper, who actually is a bit more natural this time around) as Tej Parker and they provide much of the "humor," Gal Gadot as Gisele Yashar, and Sung Kang as Han Seoul-Oh.

The stunts are pretty spectacular including stunt men jumping from high bridges onto the tops of moving cars, or is that CGI? It's done so well, it's hard to tell. Of course, what has always been absurd is that after every incident like that, or cars chases where they race, or where they climb around on moving vehicles, and even after hand to hand fights, no one has broken bones, or barely a scratch. But then, that's the way it is for a Fast & Furious franchisee.                  Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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AT ANY PRICE
AT ANY PRICE
Rated R for sexual content
including a strong graphic
image, and for language.
Drama/Thriller
103 minutes
2½ stars


We may often have visions of family farms as homey, cozy places with acres of crops, quaint watercolor farm houses, with people of solid values and strong bonds among family members. At Any Price presents quite a different picture. In fact, it is so much the opposite that there are no redeeming main characters.

Director Rahmin Bahrani fulfills what we expect of the visual elements that make up the physical landscape that draws us in, even as the there is a meanness and an ugliness that pervades the mental landscape of this movie. The script by Mr. Bahrani and Hallie Elizabeth Newton is a letdown. This is especially so after Mr. Bahrani's much admired third film Goodbye Solo.

Sleazy, ambitious farmer and seed salesman Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid) does whatever he needs to do to be top dog in his farming community, no matter how under-handed or illegal. His older son has "escaped" to travel the world, while his young son Dean (Zac Efron) can barely tolerate his father, wants nothing to do with farming, and only wants to race cars. Wife and mother of the clan Irene Whipple (Kim Watkins) is a pretty, understanding woman who supports her men.

Several of the storylines develop rather awkwardly, then either stop abruptly or go in an unexpected direction. This may be in an effort to create surprises down the road. For instance, a former colleague asks Henry for a job, even several days a week, since he needs the money. Henry dismisses him abruptly even though he has to count on him to keep a secret. Does this make sense, even for a manipulator? Dean's interest in his girlfriend and racing change abruptly after an incident that is puzzling. Dean hates his father, but calls him when he is in trouble. And so it goes. The script is inconsistent.

The tone is dark and unrelenting with little that is likable about the characters, except for Dean's girlfriend Cadence (Marika Monroe), the one character who shows positive change. Heather Graham has a small role that isn't necessary. Dennis Quaid is so extreme that by the time he softens you donít really care about him. Zac Efron still has potential, but his character is written inconsistently, and ultimately his actions make him unsympathetic, too.

This movie is a missed opportunity.                  Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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STAR TREK
INTO DARKNESS 3D
STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS 3D
Rated PG-13 for intense
sequences of sci-fi action
and violence.
Action/Adventure/Sci-Fi
132 minutes
4½ stars


In the opening moments of Star Trek Into Darkness, the audience hears the words of Star Trek mythology that Gene Roddenberry wrote decades ago. The crew must adhere to the "prime directive," that is, to not interfere with the natural course of events in other worlds. As we know by now — easier said than done. In the movie the filmmakers followed their own prime directive, which is above all, to tell a good story using the blueprint of the original.

You don't have to be a Trekkie to appreciate this latest movie in the series. While sci-fi movies today are generally about a dystopian future where all semblance of humanity is lost to the baser instincts of greedy, treacherous, evil men or hideous outer space beings, Star Trek presents an alternative. The Star Trek creator imagined a different future where it wasn't just the fantastic technology that we could use for the forces of good, but that the better nature of man would prevail. The good guys would ultimately win because, though imperfect humans, they value honor, integrity, courage, and love for one another.

Despite a rather generic title and what begins to feel like multiple endings, director J.J. Abrams and writers Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof succeed in a most fundamental way: we identify with, have empathy for, and become invested in these characters. Witty dialogue and likable people help, but the core of the series has always been the friendship between James Tiberius Kirk (Chris Pine), and the half Vulcan Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto), who can't tell a lie. Whenever Kirk is in trouble and needs Spock's support, he appeals to his human side as illogical as it may be. In this movie, their bond is solidified as each man saves the other's life and Spock comes to truly understand the meaning of friendship. Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy (Karl Urban), represents the opposite nature of Spock as the emotional, instinctual healer. And yes, he does speak one of the character's most memorable, and one of the audience's favorite lines, "Damn it Jim, I'm a doctor not a ..."

Starfleet Command, the "Academy," and the military in general are seen as heroic and noble, turning out cadets/soldiers of the highest caliber. Yet, betrayal from within almost causes the downfall and destruction of our planet, indicating there must always be vigilance as men can turn against the principles that sustain us. If you remember back to one of the early Star Trek movies, The Wrath of Khan, (1982) you already know much of the plot of this one. That doesn't mean that the action doesn't provide many thrilling moments as the genetically enhanced human named John Harrison, better known as Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch), awakens in the future and seeks to destroy his inferiors. Not only is the technology terrific but the CGI, stunts, 3D, visuals, sets, and costumes are all together meticulous in creating a universe that fascinates us still.

With the human element so important to the series, the entire cast is first rate. As led by the bad boy, womanizing, rebellious Kirk of Chris Pine, to the controlled performance of a younger Spock played by Zachary Quinto, (with a cameo by Leonard Nimoy), the casting choices of the director pay off big time. Benedict Cumberbatch is an ideal antagonist who is superior to his human counterparts in every way, except he is a monstrous psychopath. Zoe Saldana as a strong but feminine Uhura, John Cho as a smart, masculine Sulu, Karl Urban as the cantankerous Bones, Anton Yelchin as the agreeable Russian Chekov (reference intended), and Simon Pegg providing humor as the beloved Mr. Fix-it Scotty all bring a new, but effective spin to their characters. Several new characters are introduced, even a possible love interest for Kirk. Talk about diversity, too, in the future even interspecies interaction will be ordinary.

As Kirk and crew face one disaster after another, they do whatever it takes to save each other. Even as they falter, make bad decisions, and fail again and again, they do it together. What a world it would be if those visions of the future came true?                      Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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THE GREAT GATSBY 3D
THE GREAT GATSBY 3D
Rated PG-13 for some
violent images, sexual
content, smoking, partying
and brief language.
Drama/Romance
142 minutes
3 stars


The main problem filmmakers have with turning The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald into a movie is that his novel is literature, not pop fiction. That means that the writing more than anything is what sets it apart, not the plot of the story. Where best seller lists once consisted primarily of literature, they now feature mostly crime stories and romances, not that there's anything wrong with it - it reflects public tastes. But, what it does mean is that we are not as used to deep, thoughtful, symbolic work that gives praise to authors who can show us something insightful about the human condition.

It doesn't matter that Gatsby takes place in the 1920s. A work of art has a universal element to it, and so the audience should be able to draw meaning from it, no matter the time or place.

Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) is the mysterious uber-wealthy neighbor of the narrator Nick Carraway (Toby Maguire), who finally meets the man who throws all-night parties that the elite (new money) people attend. Jay's interest in Nick is not unselfish. Jay wants him to set up a meeting with Nick's cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan), a long ago love of Jay's. She is now married to old money bigot Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). It seems Jay has had an obsession with Daisy ever since they parted, and his huge house, clothes, cars, and wealth are all about getting her attention. This tragedy plays out against the over-indulgence and extravagance of a decade that ends with the stock market crash.

Leonardo DiCaprio tries mightily to give us a Gatsby we can understand; a man born dirt poor who aspires to fame and respectability, though he doesn't earn it honestly. As Jay gets closer to his personal American Dream, he becomes more unglued. Mr. DiCaprio builds a character of increasing irrationality and desperation. Yet curiously, it's difficult to have empathy for him. As the object of his love Carey Mulligan is more a symbol than a real person, exactly as she is meant to be in the book; a vacuous beauty who has no core. She is the ultimate eye candy. Toby Maguire's Nick, a writer who abandons his vocation to make money on Wall Street, narrates the story from some kind of retreat where he is being treated for his alcoholism. The doctor suggests he write the story if he cannot explain it to him. His hero worship of Gatsby is difficult to comprehend except that every character in the story has some deep flaw, and he may connect with Gatsby's outsider the most. Two supporting actors, Joel Edgerton who plays the despicable Tom, and Elizabeth Debicki as Daisy's friend Jordan Baker, have a noteable presence on screen.

Much has been made of the music incorporated in the movie especially that of Jay-Z, but it plays a relatively minor role. The atmospherics that are there don't contribute to giving the movie the feel of the era portrayed anyway.

Director Baz Luhrmann, who co-wrote the script with Craig Pearce, has it about half right. The decadence of the roaring 20s Jazz Age is partially in evidence by the sumptuous production design and costumes of Mr. Luhrman's wife Catherine Martin. Also notable are the set and art decorations, visual and special effects, 3D, stunts, and cinematography by Simon Duggan. That unfortunately only helps the other issues to a degree.

Unlike the 1920s, today vast wealth gives "new money" instant credibility. The American Dream now is more about being seen than known. It doesn't seem to matter if one is famous or infamous. That's where Gatsby went wrong, and many make the same mistake today. It doesn't matter what you have, how many Twitter followers or Facebook friends you have, in an increasingly alienating society, what matters is - are you for real?                      Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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IRON MAN 3
IRON MAN 3
Rated PG-13 for sequences of
intense sci-fi action and
violence throughout, and
brief suggestive content.
Action/Sci-Fi/Thriller
130 minutes
4 stars


Iron Man gets his comeuppance - of sorts - in this third installment of the Iron Man series. Who knew Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) would be subject to anxiety attacks? The filmmakers want Tony to seem more human even as they ratchet up the sci-fi/CGI/technical aspects of the movie. Of course, they give him plenty of reason for anxiety; his flagrant egotism and arrogance have invited an attack that destroys his laboratory/home and he and girlfriend Pepper Potts barely escape.

(Note: Most of the filming of the movie took place in North Carolina, particularly Wilmington, and here's hoping filmmakers continue to find North Carolina a good place to do business.)

Before Tony Starks and his assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) become involved he is a selfish, pompous, rich genius who sleeps around. On New Year's Eve 1999 he "celebrates" with, then casually discards serious scientist Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) who has developed an experimental technology called Extremis, a kind of regenerative, but unstable, treatment. Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a crippled scientist, approaches Tony saying he has an idea for him, but Tony cruelly puts him off.

These two incidents come back to devastate him years later when he and Pepper are a couple. For the first time someone means more to him than himself, and this causes him great anxiety. He works day and night developing an Iron Man army (for what?), but before he can perfect it a global terrorist named Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), threatens the world. Tony responds with bravado thinking his security chief Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau, director of Iron Man 1 and 2), and gadgets will protect him. He underestimates Mandarin and his seaside fortress is destroyed. Tony is on the run and has to find some way to come back from disaster.

This attempt to make the character of Tony Stark vulnerable works for the most part. Director and co-writer Shane Black and writer Drew Pearce have crafted a script that in sci-fi terms makes sense. At his lowest point Tony must accept the help of a child (Ty Simpkins) since he has no one else to count on — just deserts for someone who has led a charmed life. Several clever reverses also help the plot. Yet, the biggest bang for the buck with Iron Man 3 is not the personal story of Tony Stark; it is the technical wizardry on the screen. It is almost too much to take in at one time. The scenes go by so fast there is little time to absorb it all.

First-class actors make a difference, too. At one time these sorts of movies were filled with lesser known actors. Filmmakers have learned that even tech-heavy, superhero movies benefit from not just star power, but actual good acting. That starts with Robert Downey, Jr. whose sarcastic line deliveries are pure fun. Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Ben Kingsley, Rebecca Hall, Gwyneth Paltrow, William Sadler, James Badge Dale, and Miguel Ferrer all bring a level of quality that adds to the satisfaction of the movie audience. But after all the praise for the human element is said and done, the CGI, stunts, and technical expertise are what take it over the top.            Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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PAIN & GAIN
PAIN & GAIN
Rated R for bloody violence,
crude sexual content, nudity,
language throughout and drug use.
Action/Comedy/Crime
129 minutes
3 stars


Talk about a type of sordid, noxious, underside of life that exists in Miami. It's a smutty world covered over in pastel shades of aqua and peach. And Michael Bay's over-the-top style is a credible match for this (mostly) true murderous tale. The question is do you want to see what this movie has to offer?

It helps to have some knowledge of the unbelievable story, and I say unbelievable because it's scary that in the modern world criminals can actually be so stupid. The main character is Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg), a muscle-bound jerk looking for a get rich angle. Once he goes to a seminar on success and is told to be a "doer" there is no stopping his use of the word/concept to justify anything he does, including murder. He's tired of working at a gym and watching the wealthy look down on him so he recruits two others, Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) to help him kidnap an unsavory millionaire named Victor Kershaw (Tony Shaloub) and take everything he owns.

To say these three are bumbling idiots is an understatement. They put on superhero costumes to kidnap Kershaw (which in an article says took seven attempts), get him to a warehouse of sorts, and then torture him for weeks until he finally signs over everything he owns. They decide to kill him, but botch that. When Kershaw gets to a hospital the police don't buy his story. It would have ended with him as a ruined man except that private detective Ed Dubois (Ed Harris) first turns down, then looks into his case.

The three quickly go through Kershaw's money and find another mark with even more disastrous results. With all the true crime shows this one would be hard to top for gross indecency.

Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson are pitch perfect as dumb and dumber. They probably have known versions of these guys in their time — remorseless (Lugo), self-centered, dense, but in one sense childlike in believing they are entitled to the "American dream" except that they can feel entitled to take shortcuts. And as most people know, there are no shortcuts to the hard work it takes to make it. Both these actors themselves could have taken an easier path and made their money playing the same characters over and over, but both have decided to be more than muscle memory.

Anthony Mackie is almost too classy for his role, but does a fine job playing opposite the entertaining Rebel Wilson. Tony Shaloub is appropriately off-putting, as is Rob Corddry. Ed Harris brings his good-guy weightiness as the only admirable figure in this messy tale.

The movie has received criticism for its comic elements since murder is involved, but not to worry, director Michael Bay gets the tone right, even though the repulsion really begins to wear on the viewer during the last half hour. There is no sympathy for these low-lifes; they get exactly what they deserve. The issue is do you have the stomach for what the movie is dishing out?            Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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THE COMPANY
YOU KEEP
THE COMPANY YOU KEEP
Rated R for language.
Thriller/Drama
125 minutes
2½ stars


Apparently, much has been lost in translation. This movie, based on the novel of the same name by Neil Gordon, has a powerhouse cast, but a flawed screenplay about an intriguing subject. Excuse me, but the audience can add, subtract, and follow plot devices, yet logic is missing here. So why wouldn't the filmmakers develop a narrative that makes sense without having people counting on their fingers?

A story about the Weather Underground, a radical leftist group of college students active in the late 1960s and 70s (years later) could have been informative, illuminating, compelling, and yes, even profound, but ends up as disappointing. It begins with a woman named Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon, excellent as usual), a former member of the Weather Underground, arrested and jailed. This begins a series of events that ensnares other former members of the group, most notably a widowed lawyer named Jim Grant laying low in Albany with his eleven year old daughter. He is played by producer/director Robert Redford who is clearly too old for the part — no counting necessary. Sometimes, as an actor, being earnest and committed is not enough to convince an audience in a visual medium like film.

Young newspaper reporter and aspiring hotshot Ben Sheperd (Shia LeBeouf, doing unlikable well) starts to sniff a big story and follows his instincts about Jim Grant. This forces Grant to go on the run after leaving his daughter with his brother (Chris Cooper, good in a small part). Jim needs to find a previous fellow radical named Mimi Lurie (Julie Christie, still luminous, but older than seems credible). This brings Grant into contact with other fellow radicals that he hasn't seen in decades. The FBI, led by Cornelius (a curiously enervated Terrence Howard) is right behind him.

The most inventive element of the movie could have been where Jim makes contact with his old comrades, and the allegiance of their youth helps explain what caused them to resort to violence. But aside from cursory exposition by Solarz, the passion of their idealism is not elucidated. Part of the problem is the slow pace of the movie. Mr. Redford doesn't like to rush his scenes, but urgency is lost, and this is supposed to be a thriller after all.

Rarely does the audience get to see such a display of talent like this, and there is plenty beside those already mentioned: Brendan Gleeson, Brit Marling, Anna Kendrick, Richard Jenkins, Nick Nolte, Sam Elliott, Stephen Root, and Stanley Tucci. This movie could have been so much more.            Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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OBLIVION
OBLIVION
Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action
violence, brief strong language
and some sensuality/nudity.
Sci-fi/Action/Adventure
125 minutes
3 stars


Maybe Oblivion isn't the best name for this movie; it just is not memorable. It is based on the unpublished graphic novel by Joseph Kosinski. It starts out fine, but then about halfway through too much of it begins to be familiar; three quarters in to the 125 minute run time, I lost interest. Of course, the technical aspects like set design and CGI are well done. Sci-fi movies, especially, show that you can make great looking movies without heart. Why is it that the people of the future have lost the human qualities that make life worth living?

The future is predictably bleak. Aliens tried to conquer Earth to take our natural resources. They destroyed our moon. We fought back with nuclear weapons and defeated them, but we destroyed our own planet in the process. Now the earth is barren, abandoned, and much of the planet is radioactive.

Tom Cruise, still looking buff and going for hyper-masculinity as Jack Harper is an older, future version of the Top Gun character he played 27 years ago, but with no expressions. Here he is service repair man Tech 49. That's right. Jack's mission is to service drones when they break down. Drones are the round flying weapons machines that hunt for "Scavs," that is, any alien Scavengers left on earth. You may be wondering why drones would be needed if so few Scavs are left to mess with earthís resources. It's a good question left to be answered later in the movie. Yet, Jack has flashes of memories of New York when the planet was still intact some seventy years ago. A young woman is with him on top of the Empire State Building. They walk, laugh, and look at each other lovingly.

Jack's partner and communications officer on their high outpost is Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), and they are nearing the end of their mission. She is mainly in touch with the rest of civilization by way of a video link with Sally (Melissa Leo). The movie scenes have a grayed cast to them. It is a sterile, colorless world that they inhabit and Jack's only real excitement is flying around to fix drones and exploring what is left of the planet. One day a spacecraft lands that has time capsules with people inside them, but Jack can only save one before the drones kill the others. Guess what? The person he saves is Julia (Olga Kurylenko), the woman in his memories.

It all begins to make sense, slowly, as Jack discovers more information as he explores the earth, which goes against his orders from Sally. There are pop culture references that show up from 20th Century America. Somehow 1960s music, a certain well-known work of art, poetry, in this case the poem "Horatius", and long playing records seem to have become nostalgic symbols for writers of sci-fi. Did we leave a better life behind? Two Oscar winners, Morgan Freeman who has several scenes, and Melissa Leo, seen only in the video communications are in the cast, but have small supporting roles. Mr. Cruise has no chemistry with either Ms. Riseborough or Ms. Kurylenko which is unfortunate.

The movie is intended to have an epoch feel, but doesn't live up to that standard. The story is similar to many other sci-fi stories, and restates the same ending you've seen before. Who do you think is going to survive?            Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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STARBUCK
STARBUCK
Rated R for sexual content,
language and some drug material.
Foreign Film: Canada
Comedy
109 minutes
4 stars


Starbuck surprises you in the best possible way. The premise of this (French) Canadian comedy made in Quebec in 2011 is ludicrous, but sneaks up on the audience becoming a sweet, heartwarming story about what it means to be family. The movie was runner-up for the People's Choice Award when is was screened at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival. The movie has subtitles, but is easily understood.

It begins in 1988 when a young man named David (the perfectly cast Patrick Huard) is providing donations to a sperm bank. In 2011 David is middle-aged and a slouch. He works delivering meat for the family business. It seems David is not very good at his job, and he also owes some rough looking characters $80,000.

David has just heard the news from his girlfriend Valerie (Julie LeBreton) that she is pregnant when he is stunned to learn that all those sperm donations he made years ago have resulted in him fathering 533 children with 142 of them joining a class action law suit to have his identity revealed. Apparently, David never gave a thought to what his donations would mean years later. His code name is "Starbuck" which is the name of a bull who produced thousands of offspring by artificial insemination.

Of course, at first David is overwhelmed and asks his friend and (almost) lawyer (the comical Antoine Bertrand) to represent him in opposing the revelation. His friend agrees, but gives David profiles of all the children. He resists looking, but opens the envelope and reads some of the information. David can't seem to help himself, whether out of curiosity or genuine interest, and follows some of his progeny. He has some contact with them and even helps them at times. These scenes are touching and funny, and it begins to occur to the audience that David is much more than what he seems at first.

In the meantime, the toughs confront David's father and David realizes he has to pay off the debt or someone will get hurt, and so he goes ahead with a lawsuit suing the sperm bank for damages.

Just like other medical advancements we may have plunged into, this area of sperm donation is full of unresolved issues. Without taking into account all the moral and ethical consequences that might arise, we are only now beginning to deal with what could happen. Lucky, this comedy handles the situation with a kind of sweet innocence rather than crass vulgarity.                       Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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42
42
Rated PG-13 for thematic
elements including language.
Biography/Drama/Sports
122 minutes
3½ stars


High expectations are not always a good thing. Jackie Robinson is such an icon, I wonder if any movie could do him justice. Yet, ultimately, the good outweighs the disappointments in this movie, and it is clear what happened during those early years of his career and why. 42 tells Jackie's story starting with his post-college days when he is 26 and playing amateur baseball. But even at the time people were aware of Mr. Robinson (Chadwick Boseman), who was apparently known as an outstanding athlete who had played multiple sports.

Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) decides he is going to integrate baseball for two reasons: it is good for baseball as it will make money, and it is the right thing to do. He begins a search for a player who will be the first black player in major league baseball history to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Even his own assistant Harold Parrott (T.R. Knight) doesn't think it's a good idea, but Rickey forges ahead anyway. He comes across Jackie Robinson's file and decides this is the guy. When they meet he confronts Jackie and tells him he can't fight back or he will be seen as the villain and it will ruin it for the other black players that will come after him. Jackie agrees and plays with a minor league team before joining the Dodgers.

It is difficult to fathom now how terrible it was in those days regarding racism. Many of the scenes are difficult to watch. Yet, though Jackie had a temper, he was able to keep it under control during even the most provocative moments earning the respect of the entire nation. It helped that he always had the unwavering support of his wife, Rachel (Nicole Beharie). In the beginning a number of his teammates (mainly southerners) won't accept him and sign a petition saying they won't play with him. Rickey leaves it to fiery manager Leo Durocher (Christopher Meloni) to set them straight making a late night speech about only caring if he could help them win, not his color. When Durocher is suspended for a year for a dalliance outside his marriage, Rickey has to find an interim manager.

Tensions heighten as Jackie is harassed at every turn, with fans yelling at him, balls thrown at his head, his own teammates angry that they have to endure the situation. But at one particular game when the Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) harasses him as he's batting, several teammates begin to sympathize with Jackie and defend him. Rickey convinces Jackie not to give in to ignorance and he makes the decision that he is in baseball to stay. At this point, Jackie is seen as a hero, not to just black fans, but to white ones as well for his skill as an athlete, but also his dignity under pressure.

Chadwick Boseman is outstanding as Jackie Robinson; the major asset of the movie. He is absolutely believable in the part (even resembling the young Jackie), not because he portrays Jackie as superhuman, but because he makes him a real person. Not knowing anything about Branch Rickey, I can only assume that Harrison Ford is basing his performance on accurate information about the man. Yet, while Mr. Boseman's performance is tight, it is difficult to forget it is Mr. Ford. Alan Tudyk is so good as the racist manager of the Phillies that his character is certifiably detestable. Also noteworthy in their roles are Christopher Meloni as Leo Durocher, Lucas Black as Pee Wee Reese, Hamish Linklater as Ralph Branca, John C. McGinley as Red Barber, and especially Nicole Beharie as Jackie's wife Rachel.

The movie tends to be long and slow with several scenes repeating the same information that could be cut without any detrimental effect. Sentimentality tends to creep in at times when the obvious is more than understandable. The set design, costumes, and makeup work well to create the late 1940s atmosphere. But I was hoping for exciting cinematography during the game sequences.

Overall, the movie is well done, though it tends to play it safe, but is instructive and helps explain why Jackie Robinson means so much to baseball and to all of us.            Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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TRANCE
TRANCE
Rated R for sexual content,
graphic nudity, violence,
some grisly images and language.
Crime/Drama/Thriller
101 minutes
3 stars


Sometimes movies outsmart themselves. Psychological thrillers play head games with the characters, and by extension with the audience. So itís often a fine line between an engrossing thriller, and ďhuh?Ē Trance starts out well enough. A fine art auctioneer named Simon (James McAvoy), addresses the audience as the movie opens with information about how easy it used to be to make art heists, but now it is much more complicated. Before long a $25 million or so Goya is stolen during an auction and it becomes evident that Simon is in cahoots with the thieves led by Franck (Vincent Cassel).

The problem comes when Franck hits Simon on the head to throw off suspicion and Simon lands in the hospital having to have surgery, and subsequent amnesia, forgetting where he put the painting. Torture doesn't work as Simon genuinely doesn't remember what happened. Franck and his three thugs decide to remedy the problem by hiring a hypnotherapist named Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson) to recover the memories of that day, thus finding the painting.

At this point gamesmanship takes over. Elizabeth becomes more than just a tool. She becomes a player. Who is outsmarting whom? Which memories are real, which aren't? It is hard to follow. At first Simon seems like a hapless victim, but he never addresses the audience again. Franck seems sinister, his men menacing. What the heck is going on? Though ultimately all is explained, it seems like a circular root. This is an unlikable bunch for sure.

The cast is good led by James McAvoy who shows range, Vincent Cassell who is always edgy, and Rosario Dawson so pretty it can be distracting, as well as the supporting players. Director Danny Boyle has a proven flair even when there is not all that much to work with, as there is here. Much of the movie is trickery just to divert from the simple, ugly truth. Itís not that Trance is a bad movie, but it is more confusing than clever. Though audiences like to figure things out for themselves, they also don't like to be frustrated.            Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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EVIL DEAD
EVIL DEAD
Rated R for strong bloody
violence and gore, some
sexual content and language.
Horror
91 minutes
3 stars


For those into the horror movie genre and/or are fans of the original cult movie Evil Dead made in 1981, this reincarnation made over thirty years later, also called Evil Dead is something of a event. Though it does pay homage to the original, it also makes the movie seem dated. When fresh, the idea of a group of young people going off into the woods to an isolated cabin, for whatever reason, was intriguing. Over this many years, how many times have we seen this exact situation with a few variations? Though the movie follows the conventions of the genre, it feels clichéd and manipulative more than entertaining.

This particular "remake" is serious yet also sarcastically funny, but then it is not so clever that when that happens it doesn't take you out of the movie. In other words, the transitions are not as smooth as they could be. But it is absolutely very high on the gory scale if that is your thing. So in between the horror and gore, we have moments of tense tedium waiting for something to jump out or grab one of our hapless victims.

The setup is that estranged brother David (Shiloh Fernandez) and sister Mia (Jane Levy) meet with other friends Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci), Olivia (Jessica Lucas), and David's girlfriend Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore) at an isolated cabin. The estrangement between David and Mia involves a once close family that was shattered by circumstances which caused David to run away from all contact and left Mia to deal with their dying mother. In the interim, Mia has become a drug addict. Eric and Olivia have tried to help Mia before with little success, but now Mia says she is committed to a cure for the addiction, and the memories that are ruining her life.

Being this is the childhood family cabin of David and Mia, they know it pretty well. A terrible odor draws them to the basement behind a closed door where they find dead animals hanging in some kind of ritualistic display. The first scenes of the movie take place here, and it all begins to make sense when they find the "Book of the Dead." Eric takes the book which clearly says "Do Not Open" which he then, of course, immediately ignores and unknowingly unleashes an evil entity. In the meantime, Eric and Olivia warn David that Mia has tried and failed before to stay with her detox. It's no surprise when Mia runs away into the woods. They go after her. Too late. The evil entity gets to her first and it's gore city from there on.

The young actors do an effective job, especially Jane Levy as the hapless Mia. She plays a range of emotions and is ugly and disgusting as the entity transforms her. Shiloh Fernandez is earnest as David. As Eric, Lou Taylor Pucci provides the one-liners that bring in the obvious but modest guffaws. Jessica Lucas and Elizabeth Blackmore are adequate supporting players.

Curiously, the movie is not all that terrifying. Surprise is more of an element that scares the audience. Maybe that's because you know what's coming, though not exactly when or how. Atmospherics are well done with cinematography by Aaron Morton, and the transformations of young, good-looking bodies into grotesque disfigured monsters by the make-up people should satisfy fans. Director and co-writer Fede Alvarez manages to capture the essence, if not the true spirit, of these minor evil dead.            Review by Ann Marie Oliva


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