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Arts and Culture (Movie Reviews)

An old story marred by modern filmmaking

Jimmy ‘The Gravedigger’ Conlon (Liam Neeson: Taken 3) was once the most feared man in New York. Suspected of having killed dozens for his best friend, mob boss Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris: Frontera), he’s eluded all efforts to pin a body on him.
    Jimmy’s crimes have caught up to him in other ways. He can’t sleep because of dreams of people he slaughtered. His son Michael (Joel Kinnaman: The Killing) will have nothing to do with him. Jimmy drowns his guilt in booze, stumbling from bars to his hovel of a home.
    To the Maguire mob, he’s a washed-up old man who used to be somebody. But he’s still Shawn’s best friend, and the ruthless mob boss tries to help him fight his demons. Shawn always saves him, no matter how drunk, belligerent or broke.
    Until Jimmy kills Shawn’s only son.
    Jimmy takes the shot to save his own son Michael, who happens to be the only witness to a Maguire murder. Now nearly insane with grief, Shawn orders every killer he’s ever worked with to hunt down Jimmy and Michael.
    Michael must in turn trust the ­violent father he has shunned for decades.
    Can the duo patch up their relationship while avoiding every thug and dirty cop in New York?
    At heart, Run All Night is an old-fashioned crime story about family ties, vengeance and the mark violence leaves on families. With subjects so rich, it’s a shame that director Jaume Collet-Serra (Non-Stop) values style over substance.
    Collet-Serra seems to be directing a video game set randomly throughout New York’s five boroughs. The movie is filled with aerial views of the city that zoom into minute details at nauseating speeds. He has no interest in justifying his slapped-together action sequences. When Jimmy and Michael are trapped in a seeming dead end, Collet-Serra cuts away to the cops. By the time he cuts back, the Conlon boys have escaped. How? The director doesn’t care, so why should you? The only one who seems to be paying attention to the action is Neeson. Jimmy’s ankle is injured in a fall, and to his credit, Neeson remembers to lumber along in at least 60 percent of the subsequent scenes.
    Female characters also follow the video game tradition, speaking only when they are nagging the beleaguered main characters.
    In Collet-Serra’s fantasy version of New York City, traffic is minimal unless there’s a car chase, there is ample street parking and all trains run on time. The citywide manhunt for the Conlons never affects traffic patterns. With transportation so simple, why don’t father and son hop a train out of town?
    Run All Night is redeemed by its leads, two veterans who know how to mine good material out of poor direction. Neeson and Harris play beautifully off each other. Neeson can pull off the dangerous dad in his sleep, but he perks up when Harris joins him on screen. Harris manages to make Shawn frightening, intimidating but oddly human. He clearly loves Jimmy, but this he can’t forgive.
    If only the director had focused on their relationship …

Fair Action • R • 114 mins.

With actors this delightful, who needs a plot?

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a success, thanks to the assistance of former housekeeper Muriel (Maggie Smith: Downton Abbey) to proprietor Sonny Kapur (Dev Patel: Chappie). With retired British ex-pat pensioners filling nearly all the rooms, Sonny seeks to expand his empire by buying a second hotel. To realize his dream, Sonny must court rich American investors.
    The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel must pass an undercover hotel inspection before the American company will put up the money. Meanwhile, Sonny is planning his wedding to Sunaina (Tina Desai: Sense8), who has had about enough of playing second fiddle to a hotel.
    Marigold’s residents are also considering some major changes. Widow Evelyn (Judi Dench: Philomena) is considering a relationship with her long-devoted admirer Douglas (Bill Nighy: Pride). Sexy Madge (Celia Imrie: What We Did on Our Holiday) must choose among her wealthy lovers. New couple Norman (Ronald Pickup: Call the Midwife) and Carol (Diana Hardcastle: Good People) must decide on — or against — fidelity.
    The arrival of two new guests — writer Guy Chambers (Richard Gere: Time Out of Mind) and Lavinia (Tamsin Greig: Episodes) — brings upheaval. Is one of them the inspector? Can Sonny love a hotel and a wife? Will the Marigold’s guests start a second life in a new home?
    The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is the cinematic equivalent of one too many candies: over indulgent, too sweet, but enjoyable.
    This time, director John Madden seems to have forgotten what drew crowds the first time. In Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, he spends entirely too much time on the younger generation. Sonny’s woes are of little interest compared to the pensioners finding a new spark in their lives.
    When Madden turns to the greying residents of the Marigold, the old magic returns. Dench and Smith, chums on and off the screen, light up the movie with their interactions. Dench is sweetly funny as a woman who finds success in business and love at 80. Her stumble toward independence is delightful and touching.
    Smith delivers the acerbic, wry performance she has become famous for in her golden years. She could arch an eyebrow and deliver a hilariously cutting insult in her sleep; no one can do it better. In the sequel, however, Madden chooses to expand her role, exploring her relationship with Sonny. Muriel has progressed from casually racist ex-pat to fiercely protective maternal figure to Indian Sonny. Their relationship is the backbone of the story and far more poignant and interesting than Sonny and his love.
    The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is not as much fun as the first, but it has charm enough to make you glad you checked in.

Good Dramedy • PG • 122 mins.

Loaded with two charming leads, this movie doesn’t quite pull off its con

Nicky Spurgeon (Will Smith: After Earth) has a charming smile and a light touch. He’s adept at cons from lifting wallets to convincing investors that an empty warehouse is the Federal Reserve. A third-generation conman, Nicky has managed to stay successful in the game by staying isolated.
    When he meets Jess (Margot Robbie: The Wolf of Wall Street), a beautiful con clumsily targeting horny men, he sees potential. Jess becomes his student in the true art of the hustle.
    Soon his able pupil can emerge from crowded streets laden with wallets, watches and jewels. When their professional relationship turns romantic, Nicky panics. Explaining that love is dangerous in their business, he tosses Jess a pile of cash and takes off.
    Three years later, Nicky is working a scam on a billionaire racing magnate when he spots Jess. His deft touch fails. Distracted and lovesick, Nicky tries for both Jess and the money. His dangerous play could cost him his life and the girl.
    If Focus were a conman, it wouldn’t be a very good one. In a movie about misdirection and distraction, plot is convoluted and the numerous twists are telegraphed obviously by writer/directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Crazy, Stupid, Love). Experienced moviegoers will pick out twists long before they’re revealed. Watch for shots that last longer than they should.
    Nor does the film offer tension or propose stakes. The pair never seems in real danger, even when a gun is pointed at their heads. Nicky seemingly never makes a misstep, which creates a sense of invulnerability. Since Nicky is infallible, there’s no need to worry about him; everything must be part of his plan.
    Though the plot fizzles, the herculean efforts of the stars keep Focus watchable. Up and coming Robbie sparkles as Jess, who she makes an eager student who thrills at every watch she slips off her marks. Her enthusiasm and charm are beguiling, and she is susceptible to panic, which makes her interesting.
    As the man who has a plan, Smith’s Nicky is smooth to a fault. Smith fails to give Nicky vulnerability, but he succeeds in reclaiming his shine as a movie star. He’s slick, cool and exceptionally likeable as he hustles through the movie. Focus is an effective reminder of why Smith became one of the biggest stars of the screen, standing he lost in the wake of After Earth and Men in Black III.
    The stars work well together, too, and we fall for the way they play off each other.
    Focus isn’t a good crime film, but it’s an enjoyable romantic comedy. Buy a ticket for Smith and Robbie’s sexy banter. But don’t let them near your wallets.

Fair Romantic Comedy • R • 105 mins.

Beauty is in a guy’s eye

High school is a lot like the Occupy Wall Street movement: Only one percent of the student body is satisfied with their looks and lives. For the other 99 percent, it’s a four-year slog toward graduation.
    Bianca (Mae Whitman: Parenthood) is a senior who thinks she’s part of the one percent. Best friends since childhood with beautiful, smart and kind Jess (Skyler Samuels: American Horror Story) and Casey (Bianca A. Santos: Happy Land), Bianca takes it for granted that she’s as cool and popular as her friends. Her jock neighbor, Wesley (Robbie Amell: The Tomorrow People), shatters her delusion that she’s a worthwhile human being by informing her that she is a DUFF — Designated Ugly Fat Friend. As a DUFF, Bianca is the gatekeeper to her hot friends. Her existence is acknowledged only because of Jess and Casey.
    Bianca is confusingly beautiful and slender. Only her style of T-shirts and minimal makeup makes her a DUFF.
    Yet Bianca accepts this idiot’s opinion. She turns on her friends as traitors who befriended her so they would look better by comparison. She dumps them for Wesley, who helps transform her into a babe.
    With his advice on dressing, chatting up boys and making out, Bianca ascends the social ranks. She gives up schoolwork in favor of professionally styled hair and makeup. Who needs academic achievements when you’ve perfected the art of a good blowout?
    Director Ari Sandel (Aim High) fills the screen with emoticons and text-speak. Each frame looks like it’s pulled from a SnapChat.
    His characters are all horrible. Granted, teens aren’t always warm and likeable, but Bianca and Wes are such brats that it’s hard to conjure up much sympathy for either.
    The DUFF is the latest bad advice offered to kids in the guise of entertainment. As in most teen movies, this one has a message about being yourself and finding your inner beauty. But it’s hard not to notice that Bianca’s “true self” greatly resembles the dream girl Wes molded her into.
    Only teens could love this movie, though they shouldn’t.

Poor Comedy • PG-13 • 101 mins.

These spies could use some sensitivity training

There aren’t many gentlemen in Eggsy’s world (Taron Egerton: The Smoke). His stepfather is an abusive criminal, his friends are petty thieves and his mother refuses to let him leave home. When a stolen car and a high-speed chase through London land Eggsy behind bars, the outlook is bleak, until Harry Hart (Colin Firth: Before I Go to Sleep) shows up.
    Hart has the pull to get Eggsy sprung and charges his dropped. Hart, it seems, has always felt the need to repay Eggsy’s father for saving his life. He also offers Eggsy the chance of a lifetime: training to join the secret Kingsman gentlemen spies.
    Kingsman enjoy the freedom of independence. The only mission is to do good throughout the world. Named for one of King Arthur’s knights, each spy is a highly trained killing machine with impeccable outfits and outlandish gadgets.
    Eggsy joins a group of elite teens hoping to earn spots at the Kingsman’s table. While he trains, a media mogul known as Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson: Kite) is planning a nefarious new world order with the help of his henchwoman Gazelle (Sofia Boutella: Monsters: Dark Continent).
    A throwback to the James Bond-era of drinks, sexism, ridiculous violence and punn-ish jokes, Kingsman: The Secret Service could have been a fabulous over-the-top action romp along the lines of John Wick. It has all the elements: silly accents (from Jackson and Mark Hamill), thrillingly gory fight scenes and a charming cast. Director Matthew Vaughn (X-Men: First Class) is a deft hand at action, crafting fast-paced battles that are bloody, brutal yet beautiful. A musical sequence featuring exploding heads manages to be a hilarious tribute to ­Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point.
    As the bespoke spy whose impeccable manners make James Bond look like a back room brawler, Colin Firth exudes unflappable charm. He also convincingly sheds his posh exterior for a couple of fight sequences that highlight his physicality. As the successor to Hart, Eggerton is a talented new discovery with plenty of charm. His crooked smile and bravado help ease awkward dialog and scenes.
    With a talented cast, great action and a fun concept, what could go wrong? As it turns out, not much. Kingsman was well on its way to earning a place in the pantheon of action greats. Until its final 10 minutes.
    A running gag in the final moments is so vile and sexist that it nearly spoils the movie. Too crude to repeat in a family-friendly paper, the joke would have been at home in a Seth MacFarlane movie. It’s made worse by Vaughn’s dedication of the film to his mother.
    Too bad this fun and fast-paced thriller about gentlemen spies ends on a decidedly ungentlemanly note.

Great Action/Gross Humor • R • 129 mins.

A cacophony of noise and colors for youngsters

The secret to the harmonious life of the ocean town of Bikini Bottom isn’t friendship, love or understanding. It’s the Krabby Patty. The fast food treat is so addictive that the residents of Bikini Bottom can’t live without it. So when Mr. Krab’s (Clancy Brown: The Flash) secret formula for the Krabby Patty goes missing, the town falls into chaos. To prevent a Krab-induced apocalypse, fry cook SpongeBob SquarePants (Tom Kenny: Adventure Time) teams up with his nemesis Plankton (Mr. Lawrence: SpongeBob SquarePants) to find the secret formula. The search leads to the surface world, where the nefarious pirate Burger Beard (Antonio Banderas: The Expendables 3) may know the fate of the formula. Can SpongeBob save Bikini Bottom from a Krabby Patty crisis? Will the evil Plankton finally learn how to work with his neighbors instead of against them? Can your reviewer make it through this film without a flask? In the interest of full disclosure: I don’t have a child. I was unfamiliar with the travails of SpongeBob, Patrick and the rest of the Bikini Bottom crew, airing for nearly two decades on Nickelodeon. I imagine that most people buying a ticket to see this mass of loud noise and color will have been conditioned by the television show. Alas, my folly was attempting to watch a feature length film without inoculating myself with a few 30-minute episodes first. SpongeBob SquarePants: Sponge Out of Water is best enjoyed by smaller viewers. There are cute moments, but this is a film written and animated for the youngsters. As on television: there is no growth of characters and no real danger. All is back to normal before the credits role. Adults without knowledge of SpongeBob’s antics will find themselves lost in a sea of poorly written puns, silly noises and posterior-based humor. I was not the target demographic, but the film did very well with its intended audience. Children laughed, shouted and clapped their way through my screening. If you are taking a group of children, don’t waste your money on the 3D upcharge. Because of the flat animation style, 3D effects do little besides lightening your wallet. My bright spot was Banderas’ grizzled pirate. As the only human in the film, Banderas must adjust his performance accordingly. He shouts, snarls and high steps around his animated co-stars, clearly having the time of his life. His performance is so full of fun that you can almost forget how inane the plot is. Almost. Good Animation for Kids/Bad for Your Reviewer • PG • 93 mins.

What would you do if you lost yourself?

Forget The Conjuring and Paranormal Activity. The most bloodcurdling movie of the last five years is a quiet drama about a brilliant woman slowly losing everything that matters to her.
    Dr. Alice Howland (Julianne Moore: Mockingjay Part I) is a linguist, professor and sought-after speaker. The fiercely ambitious woman raised three children while climbing to the top of her field. She wrote the seminal textbook in linguistics, teaches a popular course at Columbia University and still finds time for date night with her doctor husband (Alec Baldwin: Blue Jasmine).
    On her 50th birthday, Alice is going strong, noticing only a few signs of aging. Sometimes she forgets a word when speaking to a class, as well as names. But when she gets lost jogging a well-known campus trail, she worries. Her diagnosis is much worse than the brain tumor she fears. She has early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
    Refusing to be defeated, Alice throws herself into finding ways to keep her mind. But occasional lapses turn into frequent confusion. She can’t hold a conversation. Words slip from her mind just as she needs them. Her own home betrays her, and she finds herself lost.
    To her family, Alice’s descent is torture. Their strong, vibrant matriarch is reduced to childlike behavior. Husband John tries to be strong, but he misses his partner and escapes into work so that he can afford his wife’s expensive care and forget that the woman living with him now barely resembles his love. Her children help when they can, but watching her deteriorate means glimpsing their own possible futures.
    Poignant, beautiful and utterly terrifying, Still Alice shows us the horror that is Alzheimer’s disease. Directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland (The Last of Robin Hood) wisely choose to underplay the drama, slowly building on Alice’s deteriorating state. There is no tension to the story, no miracle to save the day. The film peaks in the middle, when Alice breaks down. Thereafter it slowly fades away, mimicking Alice’s journey.
    As Alice, Moore proves that she remains one of the best actresses of her generation. Her performance is a slow descent into hell. Everything that makes up a person, her ability to express herself and her memories, is stripped away until Alice is a shell, capable of only the most basic vocalizations. It’s a brutal performance, one that will likely earn Moore the Oscar and one that will leave you weepy and uncomfortable.

Good Drama • PG-13 • 101 mins.

An impressionistic tale of a painter

J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall: Blandings) better expresses himself through paint than words. A famed member of the Royal Academy of Art, the Victorian artist travels Europe capturing vivid landscapes.
    Turner stands out from other academicians in more ways than one. They are refined; he is not. His manner is awkward and his speech accented with a thick brogue. His fame keeps him from humble circles, so he is often on his own. Closest to him is his father (Paul Jesson: Closer to the Moon), who has always supported his son’s art and works as Turner’s studio assistant.
    As his father’s health declines, Turner becomes more isolated. His only friend is Mrs. Booth, a landlady at a seaside town where he paints. He calls himself Mr. Mallord to maintain his anonymity, even as the friendship deepens to romance.
    Turner’s artistic obsession is capturing the spirit and the light of his subjects. He has a sailor lash him to the crow’s nest during a winter sea crossing to capture the light; he walks for hours in search of the perfect composition.
    Cinematography is stunning. Leigh fills his film with Turner’s paintings and its locales, treating us to sweeping seascapes, pastoral leas, surging trains and austere battleships.
    Spall’s performance is one of the best of the year. His Turner is an almost feral creature, driven by nature’s beauty. He grunts instead of speaking. He spits on his canvas in the middle of a show to loosen the oils and make changes. He watches human interaction with the interest of an alien observer.
    The artist is famous in his native England as an early experimenter in the style that would become known as Impressionist painting. But his international renown is not that of Picasso or Monet. Director Mike Leigh (Another Year) assumes a well-versed audience, so his film may be difficult to follow. Do yourself the favor of a bit of research before you go.

Good Biopic • R • 150 mins.

We’ve got a long way to go — but look how far we’ve come

By 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo: Interstellar) was a household name. His nonviolent protests had provoked the American government to strike down segregation laws. It would have been a victory for any other man, but even as King accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, he knew there was more to do.
    While whites could no longer keep blacks out of their establishments, they were doing their best to keep them from the polls and off the ballots. Black men and women who attempted to register were asked demanding questions, forced to recite the preamble of the Constitution and usually dismissed. When brave souls managed to register, their names and addresses were printed in the newspaper, making it easy for the Ku Klux Klan and other violent groups to find them.
    President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson: The Grand Budapest Hotel) is sympathetic. But he is bombarded by Vietnam protests, and his attention is divided. He tells King that the Civil Rights Act is victory enough for now, and he’ll consider proposing new legislation about voter registration in the coming years.
    King isn’t satisfied. He needs a cause to gain publicity, win the sympathy and support of whites and put political pressure on lawmakers. With the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he plans a march from Selma to Montgomery in protest of Alabama’s voter registration policies. Selma’s brute sheriff and the state’s racist governor will surely earn them headlines by violent opposition to the march.
    King is monitored by the FBI, scrutinized by his own movement and watched from every outside angle. His family is threatened. Can he endure the pressure?
    Unlike many biopics of great men, Selma isn’t a canonization rite. Instead, director Ava DuVernay (Scandal) wisely chooses to show the human behind the saint. Her King is having marital problems, is frustrated with the slow progress of his movement and, in his darkest hours, worries that his methods are not worth blood and death. He clings to his purpose and his faith because he has become the spokesperson for a group that desperately needs a voice. He relies on his SCLC family to help him keep his eyes on the prize.
    Selma is a beautiful, humane look at one of the greats of American history.
    Oyelowo captures the power and vulnerability that made King so compelling. He mimics the cadence and drama that made Dr. King’s speeches so memorable; don’t be surprised if you get goose bumps listening to these sermons. But the actor is most effective during quiet moments, when King leads not by fiery oratory but by refusing to break under pressure.
    Before you decry the movie’s inaccuracies, consider this: All biopics create inaccuracies for the sake of drama. If they ­didn’t, they’d be called documentaries. Fellow Oscar contenders The Imitation Game, Foxcatcher, The Theory of Everything and American Sniper all stray from history, some quite a bit. Yet Selma is the only film criticized for it. What does that say?
    Selma shows many grim scenes of beatings and ugly racist interactions, but it is not a movie about hate or blame. It’s about the hope and determination to overcome. Buy a ticket and join the march.

Great Drama • R • 128 mins.

A biopic with a body count

Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper: Guardians of the Galaxy) was raised to believe there were three types of people in the world: Wolves, sheep and sheepdogs. Wolves preyed on the weak and took what they wanted. Sheep did as they were told and hoped to never meet a wolf. Sheepdogs took responsibility for the flock and beat back the wolves.
    A natural protector, Kyle spent his early life bumming around the rodeo circuits of Texas, looking for women, beer and brawls. The bombing of the U.S. embassy in Kenya awakened his sheep-dogging skills. An excellent marksman, he was recruited to the SEALS as a sniper charged with keeping Marines safe as they raid homes in Afghanistan.
    Kyle proves a superior sheepdog. ­Eerily calm and sure of himself, he picks off men, women and children who seek to harm his troops.
    Four tours later, Kyle has become The Legend, with more confirmed kills than any sniper in U.S. history. When the Taliban puts a price on his head, he is unfazed. It’s the home front that terrifies him.
    With his wife and children, Kyle is a tightly coiled spring. He obsessively watches bloody sniper footage and worries about the men he isn’t protecting. Normal social interactions make him squirm, and the slightest noise can provoke a violent reaction.
    Director Clint Eastwood (Jersey Boys) turns this true story into a war between duty and family. Based on Kyle’s bestselling autobiography, the film doesn’t debate the merits of the war or the morality of killing. Eastwood, who famously said “it’s a hell of a thing, killing a man” in his masterpiece Unforgiven, has abandoned this moral ambiguity. Kyle becomes a sort of John Wayne figure, single-handedly taking out the baddies and saving the day.
    This unquestioning approach makes a simplistic movie.
    Still, Eastwood knows how to construct a compelling narrative. The opening sequence, in which Kyle must decide whether to shoot a young boy, is heart-pounding. But Eastwood wisely saves the greatest pressure for the scenes at home. Using clever sound editing and tight close-ups, he traps Kyle in the frame, a prisoner in his home.
    Cooper’s excellent performance keeps the film grounded. Besides making an impressive physical transformation to play the hulking Kyle, Cooper delves deeply into his character’s mind, making his zeal impressive and frightening. But every time he drops his gun, Cooper looks like he wants to crawl out of his skin.
    Together, Eastwood and Cooper create a thrilling tribute to a real person.

Good Drama • R • 132 mins.