view counter

Arts and Culture (Movie Reviews)

You don’t have to be an artist to paint like a master — just a genius

Many have tried to copy Johannes Vermeer’s detailed and fascinating works, but it took a CEO from San Antonio with no artistic training to do it. An electrician and amateur inventor, Tim Jenison is the CEO of the wildly successful video technology company NewTek. He is not, however, a painter.
    Jenison was fascinated with the works of the 17th century painter. Vermeer was an oddity of his time because he didn’t sketch his paintings, instead working oil on canvas to achieve realistic images of Dutch domesticity. No documents survive to reveal Vermeer’s techniques; his process and the formulas for his paints are a mystery lost to the ages.
    To Jenison’s eye, Vermeer’s style resembled a compressed video image: reflecting true light values, showing single point focus and capturing amazing detail. Jenison theorized that Vermeer used a lens and camera obscura setup to get such realism. Using a small mirror and a technique he invented for matching shades, the untrained Jenison was able to create stunningly realistic paintings.
    So it was possible to paint using optics and mirrors. But did Vermeer do it that way?
    To test his theory, Jenison used his optics setup to recreate Vermeer’s The Music Lesson. This wasn’t simply a case of repainting a masterpiece; Jenison was out to prove that Vermeer could have used optics to achieve his results. Jenison visited Vermeer’s home, took measurements of his studio space and got to work.
    He recreated Vermeer’s studio, hiring experts to rebuild every stick of furniture, recreate the light that would have streamed through the windows and sew exact replicas of the clothing of the models. Jenison made his own lens, using techniques that would have been available in the 17th century, hand-polished the optics and learned how to hand-mix oil paints. With all the elements in place, it was time to test his hypothesis.
    A documentary that argues art and technology should be united instead of viewed as separate studies, Tim’s Vermeer is a tribute to inventive minds and determination. Directed by Teller (of magical duo Penn and Teller), the film is a joyful look at the dedication, obsession and ultimate triumph of Jenison and Vermeer. Narrated by Teller’s partner Penn Jillette, the film explores what makes an artist but finds no single answer.
    Capturing Jenison’s tenacity while giving the audience a hefty art history lesson, Teller manages to keep the film light and entertaining. He interviews all the right art historians to make his argument that Jenison’s methods are not only possible but probable.
    The real proof of Jenison’s thesis is his recreation of The Music Lesson. Teller painstakingly documents every exacting step Jenison takes to reach his goal. The commitment is part technology, part madness and all art.
    You’ll need to go to Baltimore or D.C. to catch this documentary, but it’s well worth the trip. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself buying a small mirror and some oil paints after you see it.

Great Documentary • PG-13 • 80 mins.

Liam Neeson texts with a terrorist in this silly but enjoyable drama

Bill Marks (Liam Neeson: The Lego Movie) needs a few belts of liquor before he goes to work in the morning. Marks is an air marshal entrusted with guarding passengers on international flights. He’s afraid of flying and desperate for another drink, but he tries to white-knuckle his way through.
    The one perk of the job is his seat: Apparently air marshals sit in first class and enjoy all the amenities. When his cell phone beeps mid-flight, he expects new orders from his boss. Instead it’s a text from a passenger threatening to kill one person on the plane every 20 minutes until a ransom of $150 million arrives.
    It might be a joke, but Marks has to be sure. He alerts the crew, sets his watch for 20 minutes and looks for who’s making the threats.
    The first body announces the 20-minute mark. Marks is convinced the threat is real, but TSA and Homeland Security suspect Marks himself. With only a flight attendant and fellow passenger to help him, Marks seeks to stop the killing and find the killer. But as he gets closer, the passengers begin to suspect his motives.
    Non-Stop is a ridiculous locked-room thriller with a tenuous grasp on physics and logic. Astoundingly, neither the breach of Newton’s laws nor facts keeps Non-Stop from being an entertaining film.
    Director Jaume Collet-Serra (Unknown) makes the most of the confined setting of the film. Every shot reminds you of just how small aircrafts can be, making the whodunit storyline tenser. Well-choreographed fights are staged in claustrophobic plane bathrooms, cabins and aisles.
    There are drawbacks to using text message exchanges to build tension. Texting is a passive form of communication, forcing you to read plot points with an autocorrect feature. It’s hard to make texting riveting, and the movie feels silly when Neeson grimaces at his phone, punching keys dramatically.
    As the man who kicked off the so called geri-action genre, Neeson is adept at making the ridiculous entertaining if not believable. Neeson is also a great brawler, rushing his opponents and throwing rapid, brutal punches. His dramatic training lets him give gravitas to even the silliest lines of dialog. Mark Wahlberg couldn’t get away with saying “I’m not hijacking this plane! I’m trying to save it!”
    This fun but mindless action would be great to catch on a plane.

Good Action • PG-13 • 106 mins.

The couple that kills together may not stay together

Thérèse (Elizabeth Olsen: Very Good Girls) had a tough childhood. Abandoned at her aunt’s home by her father, Thérèse was raised with her sickly cousin Camille (Tom Felton: From the Rough). Trained by her Aunt Raquin (Jessica Lange: American Horror Story) to be a nursemaid to spoiled rotten Camille, Thérèse escapes to dreams of Paris.
    When Camille decides he’s of an age to move to Paris and make a living like a grownup, Madame Raquin forces Thérèse to marry him. Her ploy not only keeps the family together but also ensures Camille’s inheritance of Thérèse’s secret fortune. Thérèse isn’t thrilled, but she’s an illegitimate daughter with no education. Her options are marriage or the streets.
    Just as Thérèse has resigned herself to a loveless and sexless marriage, she meets Laurent (Oscar Isaac: Inside Llewyn Davis), Camille’s artist coworker. The two begin a torrid affair. Life would be perfect if they could openly be together.
    Camille has to go. They plot his demise between trysts, but when it comes to the deed, they are infirm of purpose.
    Based on Emile Zola’s classic novel Thérèse Raquin, In Secret shares the original’s fascination with sex, guilt and obsession. Unfortunately, director Charlie Stratton (Revenge) is not Zola. Unlike Zola’s novel, which maps out themes of repression, sexual awakening and guilt, Stratton jumps from sex scenes to overwrought dramatic monologues. We don’t have time to develop sympathies, so it’s a long march through the plot.
    As the tragic lovers, Olsen and Isaac are oddly cast. Though they have decent chemistry, their acting styles clash with the story. They’re too loud and expressive for repressive 1867 France, where a woman’s transgressions could ruin her. Olsen seems especially lost, vacillating from vacancy to histrionics. Isaac is a charming seducer, but he can’t mine much substance from this shallowly written character.
    Lange makes the most of her underwritten role by gracefully chewing the scenery as Thérèse’s controlling aunt. She has recently reinvented herself as a Bette Davis-style crone, reveling in the grotesque. Here, she dials back the performance, portraying Aunt Raquin as a well-meaning woman who is so blinded by her devotion to a sick child that she neglects the other child in her care.
    In Secret does have a few good moments, especially when Stratton plays with the guilty couple’s minds. He also invites us to watch very pretty people having sex in beautifully lit montages.

Fair Drama • R • 101 mins.

What price do you put on art?

On the road to world domination, the Third Reich developed quite the taste for art. Looting the churches, museums and private collections of Europe, the Nazis amassed millions of paintings, sculptures and precious pieces of jewelry. Hitler intended to create a Fuhrer Museum and fill it with art pilfered from conquered lands.
    Monuments Men to the rescue!
    To combat the rape of Europe’s culture, art historian Frank Stokes (George Clooney: Gravity) appeals to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Tasked with rescuing and returning the great works of Europe, the Monuments Men are a motley crew of old, fat and/or physically impaired art experts. After white-knuckling through basic training, they head to France post-D-Day, hot on the heels of the retreating Nazis.
    The stakes rise when they learn that if Germany falls or Hitler dies, the surviving Nazis will destroy every piece of art in their possession.
    This true story has amazing potential, but Monuments Men the movie has little follow through. Director Clooney fails to develop a cogent storyline. Eschewing the great historic drama of the true tale, he fabricates deaths and romances for the sake of comedy.
    For the real story, track down the superior documentary The Rape of Europa.
    Because Clooney gives little time to his characters, we don’t invest in their stories. Characters build friendships, fall in love and die in jump-cut scenes, and we don’t much care. To drive home important points, Clooney cues the soundtrack, pulling out the bombastic stop.
    Saving the film from utter disaster is an all-star cast. Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman and Bob Balaban work overtime to wring every bit of drama and comedy from a weak script. The standout is Bill Murray, who creates the film’s one genuine emotional moment and steals every lighthearted scene he graces.
    If Clooney had trusted his cast to flesh out their characters, Monuments Men could have been a great film instead of an entertaining but shallow historic comedy.

Fair historic dramedy • PG-13 • 118 mins.

See this film and you’ll waste not only your money but 94 minutes of your life.

Once upon a time, two little pigs lived in New York City. Graphic designer Jason (Zac Efron: Parkland) creates outlandishly sexist covers for women’s books. Jason cultivates a roster of women and gels his hair straight up. Whenever a woman asks more from him than a few disappointing minutes, he cries Wee, Wee, Wee all the way home.
    His graphic partner is college buddy Daniel (Miles Teller: 21 & Over), who also enjoys chauvinist jokes and casual sex. Instead of hair gel, Daniel uses sarcasm to make him more attractive to women at bars.
    The two porcine pals are shocked when their buddy, doctor Mikey (Michael B. Jordan: Fruitvale Station) is dumped by a cheating wife. They drag their devastated friend to a bar.
    Unaware that he has the most disgusting friends in the world, Mikey pours his heart out to Daniel and Jason. The brain trust makes a bet: All will remain single. This of course means that all three men will meet irresistible girls in a matter of hours.
    Jason hooks up with a successful author who is creative and vivacious. We know that because she mixes thrift store coats with pricey designer dresses and doesn’t own a hairbrush. They roam the city together, reveling in how vapid and attractive they are. Daniel falls for his gal pal, who has apparently spent a large chunk of her 20s following him to bars and helping him trick women into sleeping with him. Mikey meets a girl with glasses, which is all we learn about her.
    Can these men make the leap to commitment? Can you stomach this movie without becoming violently ill?
    It’s rare to find a romantic comedy starring three people so vile that you hope they never find love, not out of any vindictive impulse but out of an altruistic desire to protect humanity’s gene pool from further contamination. Judd Apatow has proven that gross-out humor can be smart and hilarious. Here writer/director Tom Gormican made sure That Awkward Moment lived up to its name with his incompetent direction and insulting view of male friendship. You cringe for everyone listed in the credits.
    See this film and you’ll waste not only your money but 94 minutes of your life. Both Teller and Jordan have offered fantastic performances in the past year and have careers to watch. Jordan is barely in the movie, but his natural charisma makes a nothing part slightly more interesting. Teller does his best with Gormican’s ham-fisted dialog, but even he can’t land these dud punch lines.
    Efron, who’s in the spotlight, doesn’t have the skill to carry a good movie, let alone this abysmal flick.

Horrible romantic comedy • R • 94 mins.

Four fishing flicks to see you through February

When you can’t go fishing, you might as well watch a good fishing movie. Here are four sure to hook you.
    Captains Courageous was filmed in 1927 and plays as well today as it did almost 90 years ago. Based on the 1897 novel by Rudyard Kipling, Captains details the adventures of Harvey Cheyne (Freddie Batholomew), a privileged and spoiled young man recently expelled from his exclusive boarding school.
    Taken by his father on an overseas business trip as a form of counseling, Cheyne is swept overboard off the coast of Newfoundland. Rescued by a passing Grand Banks fishing schooner, the youngster is unable to convince his rescuers to interrupt their journey to return him to port. Instead, he must accept a low-wage job to cover his keep until the boat’s scheduled return three months hence.
    Cheyne soon finds that bragging, cheating and complaining do him no good among rugged fishermen. Under the guidance of Manuel, a Portuguese-American seaman played by a brilliant Spencer Tracy, Cheyne learns the way of life at sea and the skills of a fisherman.
    Blossoming under the harsh conditions, the lad changes before our eyes into an admirable young man. He is eventually reunited with his father, who is overwhelmed that the son he believed lost at sea is still alive but even more so at the maturing changes his son has undergone.
    Fast forward to 1944 for To Have and Have Not, a multi-layered World War II film set in Fort de France, Martinique. On the first level it is a conflict story. Humphrey Bogart plays an American sport fishing captain (Henry Morgan) who, plying his trade on the island, gets involved smuggling for the French resistance.
    Cover girl model Lauren Bacall, in her first movie role at age 19, was brought in to spice up the movie’s romantic interest, thus a love story is the second level of the film. Off-screen she and Bogart actually fell in love, the third level. And at that point in the film the celluloid begins to smolder.
    Add in some great character acting by Walter Brennan and Hoagy Carmichael, and you’ve got a hooker of cinematic art — You know how to whistle, don’t you Steve?
    1958 gave us another fishing classic, The Old Man and the Sea, again starring Spencer Tracy. Taken from a 1952 novella that won Ernest Hemingway the Pulitzer that year and led to a Nobel Prize, the film retains many of the book’s internal (and classic Hemingway) monologues.
    A Cuban fisherman in his waning years hooks a giant blue marlin far offshore and battles him for three exhausting days. See the film to find out what happens next. If you already know, view it to renew your experience with both Hemingway and Tracy, two masters at the peak of their craft.
    The best recently released fishing movie is 2011’s odd Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. A wealthy Yemeni sheik falls in love with fly fishing for salmon while living in England and decides to bring that experience to the desert-living people of his native land.
    He and his attractive British financial consultant manage to finagle the cooperation of Britain’s leading expert on salmon, icily played by Ewan McGregor, who reluctantly signs on to the seemingly impossible challenge.
    From there the film becomes a love story, a political satire and a charming work of art. If you’ve ever suspected the sanity of fly anglers, this film will confirm your suspicions.
    Enjoy this quartet these cold winter nights and replay them any time the fishing is slow.

Kevin Hart steals the show in this cop comedy

Ben Barber (Kevin Hart: Grudge Match) is a tough, well-respected soldier nicknamed the Black Hammer — in virtual reality. In real life, Ben is a school security officer with a loud mouth and a big heart. He spends his day breaking up petty teenage fights, mentoring kids and dreaming of becoming a real cop.
    But Ben is a man with a plan: He’s been accepted to the police academy and plans to propose to his girlfriend Angela (Tika Sumpter: A Madea Christmas). Blocking the way is Angela’s domineering older brother James (Ice Cube: 21 Jump Street), already a real cop.
    Ride along with me for a day, says James, to prove yourself as a man and a cop. Ben leaps in like a puppy, but James is setting him up for failure, sending him to confront a biker gang, a violent drunk and a mouthy kid.
    But a real case gets in the way, forcing a real team effort.
    Filled with silly gags and dubious plotting, Ride Along isn’t a great work of filmmaking. It is, however, a fantastically funny piece of cinematic fluff, thanks in large part to a great leading performance by comedian Hart. Director Tim Story (Think Like a Man) sets up a few interesting action pieces, but he’s smart enough to know that this film is Hart’s show.
    Hart’s fish-out-of-water routine works well as he fumbles through dangerous scenarios and bizarre situations. In a performance worthy of Lou Costello, Hart makes Ben a man in flux. He’s capable of bravery and cowardice, easily transitioning from hysterics to calm competence.
    As the Abbott to Hart’s Costello, Cube has an easier job. He snarls through the movie, playing the straight man with a tough veneer. Ice Cube has never been noted for his acting skills, but he is a decent foil to Hart.
    Ride Along is a rare modern comedy, deriving its humor from traditional slapstick rather than the gross-out humor that’s put Sandler and Apatow on the map. While it’s still not droll drawing room humor, it’s a nice change in tone.

Good Comedy • PG-13 • 99 mins.

How do I love thee? Siri, count the ways.

People walk the streets talking aloud to their phones, wrapped up in their own electrical worlds. Digital interfaces have nullified human interaction.
    Living a quiet life of digital obscurity is Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix: The Master). A ghostwriter of handwritten correspondence for a faceless corporation, he pours over the personal lives of people who would rather play with their phones than write love letters and thank you notes.
    On the tail end of a divorce, Theodore is testing the dating game. But people are difficult; videogames and technology are easy. To streamline his life, he buys a new artificial intelligence operating system. Thus Theodore meets Samantha (Scarlett Johansson: Don Jon), who is his new operating system.
    Think of her as Siri with a sexier voice.
    She begins as an assistant, sorting Theodore’s email, suggesting music, keeping him on time for appointments. But her helpful nature and apparent curiosity about Theodore put her on more intimate terms with the shy, wounded man.
    Are we only a few iPhone updates away from romancing a programmed intelligence?
    Director Spike Jonze (Where the Wild Things Are) constructs a strange but plausible future that seems no further than 10 years ahead.
    His cinematography and style enhance the world of Her, which looks like an updated Apple store. Lines are sleek, clothes are cute and everything has a touch of whimsy. Her is a beautifully realized film filled with visual interest, not one frame wasted.
    As Theodore, Phoenix is a jumble of isolation and adulation. He gives a believable and impressive performance as he falls in love with a phone, crooning, dancing, whispering the sweet nothings you expect from a man in love. As he’s often the only physical presence, his hold on our attention is remarkable.
    Johansson does masterful voice work as Samantha, imbuing a four-inch metal box with warmth and soul as she challenges Theodore to go out in the world and celebrate the beauty of life.
    But is it love?
    No matter how charming and unique Samantha seems, she is a program generated to please Theodore. His choices are the basis of her personality, meaning that there’s an even darker layer to the story: Is it Samantha’s choice to love Theodore? Jonze doesn’t answer that.
    A brilliant look at our deep and often dysfunctional relationship with technology, Her is a film that all you smartphone users should see.

Good Dramedy • R • 126 mins.

Four SEALs fight for their lives in this gripping action film

Navy SEALs Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg: 2 Guns), Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch: Savages), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch: Bonnie and Clyde) and Matt Axelson (Ben Foster: Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) are proud frogmen. They run long distances at great speeds, push their bodies to their limit for fun and take deadly assignments as part of the job.
    The latest mission should be an easy one. Their task is to scout a village in the woods of Afghanistan, positively identify a terrorist cell leader (code named Rick James) and report back to headquarters. Next, they’ll either get permission to eliminate the target, or fade into the shadows.
    The mission goes haywire because of three men and their goats. Herding their flock up a mountain, two boys and their father literally stumble on the frogmen. The SEALs have a choice: Kill the goatherds, or let them go possibly to return with an army of angry terrorists.
    Can the four team make it out of Afghanistan alive?
    Lone Survivor isn’t coy about what happens; it’s spelled out in the title. Though you know early that only one SEAL leaves the mountain, the film is a thrilling, gut-wrenching portrayal of a real incident. Stay through the credits to see a tribute to the brave men who lost their lives. 
    Director Peter Berg (Battleship) doesn’t bother with artistic shots or subtle imagery. His straightforward storytelling style doesn’t leave much room for nuance or character development. What he does well is convey the actuality of life for men stationed overseas. The opening credits show footage of actual SEAL training and how extreme it can be. Other effective sequences invoke the shadows of the people back home, whether the men are chatting with wives or wondering what to buy their fiancée.
    Berg also delivers on action, making the SEALs’ fight for survival brutal and terrifying. Gunfights in real life probably don’t come with visual metaphors and a soaring soundtrack, so Berg’s pared-down approach seems realistic. Berg views these SEALs as nearly superhuman, and his admiration shows in every shot.
    Keeping the SEALs from becoming action heroes are the actors entrusted with their story. Wahlberg, Foster, Kitsch and Hirsch keep their characters grounded in reality, showing their flaws as well as their dedication and drive. Together, the cast creates a tangible sense of brother­hood.

Good Action • R • 121 mins.

Sometimes, you shouldn’t go home again

The only thing that could bring together the Weston women is tragedy. When the family patriarch — poet ­Beverly (Sam Shepard: Out of the Furnace) — goes missing, the three sisters converge at their ancestral home, steeling themselves to deal with old hurts, family secrets and, worst of all, their mother.
    Violet Weston (Meryl Streep: Hope Springs) has been terrorizing her family since anyone can remember. Rude, cruel and high most of the time, Violet loves only her pills and her booze, both stashed around the house in case of emergencies. Two daughters have fled the state, but one has stayed in hopes of earning a kind word.
    Did Violet drive her husband away? Or has he, too, gone on a bender?
    The family emergency comes at the perfect time for all three of the Weston daughters, who are going through tumultuous changes. Ivy, the youngest (Julianne Nicholson: Masters of Sex), lives down the road and resents the sisters who left her to deal with mommy dearest. Ivy has a secret: She’s planning a big escape.
    Middle child Karen (Juliette Lewis: Open Road) devotes her life to finding a replacement for her mother’s love. She’s found a string of terrible men and awful relationships. She’s brought along her latest fiancé — no less a disaster — in hopes of impressing mother.
    Eldest Barbara (Julia Roberts: Mirror Mirror) is also in crisis. Her husband has left and her teenager hates her. Still, she guilts both husband and daughter into joining her, hoping Violet won’t notice the rift.
    Will the Weston women find healing? Or will they join together to kill Violet?
    Based on the play by Tracy Letts, August: Osage County is the film to see if you’ve spent the holidays arguing with family. The comedic drama examines how Violet’s poisonous relationships have infected every aspect of their lives.
    Director John Wells (Shameless) makes Violet’s home cramped and dark if theatrical. The film doesn’t flow easily. Each scene seems more a set piece than a natural progression of storytelling. The only thing missing is a curtain drop.
    Excellent performances save August: Osage County the movie. As the matriarch, Streep is a collection of vices and vicious words overlying a deep sadness that adds pathos to her villainy.
    In a performance that’s both confident and commanding, Roberts stands out. Struggling to suppress her inherited cruelty, her Barbara is a wonder to watch, whether trying to show her daughter love or wrestling her mother to the ground.
    August: Osage County isn’t a film for everyone. There’s enough blue language and abusive behavior to send most holiday audiences running for the exits. But it’s a fantastic showcase for a troupe of powerful actresses.

Good Drama • R • 121 mins.