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Arts and Culture (Movie Reviews)

Two women run from society in this stirring drama

Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara: Pan) has the life she’s supposed to want. A sales clerk at a fancy department store, she has a devoted boyfriend with marriage and kids on the horizon. She wants none of it.
    When Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett: Cinderella) wanders into Therese’s store, the clerk’s world shifts. The beautiful and mysterious Carol flirts with Therese, and the young shop worker longs for a different life. Carol is everything Therese desires: beautiful, composed and a member of the New York elite.
    But Carol’s veneer of cool confidence and glamour hide a tumultuous life. After years of repression, she is ready to divorce her wealthy husband and embrace life as a lesbian. In the 1950s, lesbians were viewed as deranged deviants. She must choose between years of misery with a man she doesn’t love or social exile.
    Desperate to escape Harge and the prying eyes of New York society, Carol flees across the country while her daughter enjoys Christmas vacation with her in-laws. She asks Therese to come along.
    Can the potential lovers find a place that accepts them? Or are they doomed to travel the highway forever?
    An atmospheric character study, Carol is a slow-burn drama that rewards audiences with meticulous sets, in-depth character development and excellent acting. That is a nice way of warning you that not much happens in Carol. Billed as a thriller, this film by director Todd Haynes (Mildred Pierce) is more a period piece than a whodunit. He is more concerned with creating a tone and a specific look than refining pacing.
    His detailed recreations of the people and places of the 1950s are fascinating, and his relaxed style allows the performances to shine. But he’s a bit too languid with the story, allowing it to drag.
    As the title character, Blanchett holds the screen. Carol projects a veneer of breezy style and wit. But just below the surface is a woman fighting her confines.
    Mara is excellent as the repressed Therese, who never knew there was a life outside of heterosexual marriage. Her awakening is more joyful than Carol’s. Mara makes the most of Therese’s innocence and wonder.
    Gorgeous, well-acted and slow-moving, Carol isn’t for everyone. But if you’re an aficionado of nuanced acting, elaborate costume design and emotional depth, this film won’t disappoint.

Good Drama • R • 118 mins.

Quentin Tarantino’s Western has the good, the bad and the bloody

A blizzard traps eight strangers in Minnie’s Haberdashery just outside Red Rock, Wyoming. A cowpuncher, an English hangman, a Mexican cook and a Confederate general huddle in the drafty lodge, waiting for the storm to break.
    Last to arrive are bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell: Furious 7), his prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh: Anomalisa). The price on Domergue’s head is high, and allies have sworn to free her.
    Ruth analyzes the threat each stranger poses. Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson: Chi-Raq), a Buffalo Soldier turned bounty hunter, seems unlikely to aid vitriolic racist Domergue. Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins: Justified) is a different story. The son of a Confederate raider who hates blacks and northerners alike, he’s likely to be dangeously sympathetic to Domergue.
    As the blizzard builds, so does the tension, and as bodies drop, Domergue is confident her escape is eminent.
    Violent, crass and oddly beguiling, The Hateful Eight invites extreme reactions. Writer/director Quentin Tarantino (Django Unchained) — who has a penchant for brutal, unlikeable characters — has stacked the deck with some of the vilest characters he’s yet conjured. Racists, women beaters, rapists, murderers are all here. Hateful Eight beguiles the audience with America’s worst.
    Sergio Leone’s great spaghetti westerns inspire this film. Longtime Leone collaborator Ennio Morricone provides the soundtrack. Leone can also be felt in the sweeping landscape cinematography that makes the film look desolate but beautiful. Tarantino shot the film in 70 millimeter, an extreme wide angle that offers sweeping scale and excellent picture quality. Choose a 70mm screen, and set aside a large chunk of time, as this epic is three hours long, including overture and intermission.
    The weakest part of The Hateful Eight is the script. Tarantino revels in the grotesque, and his grindhouse sensibilities are beloved by fans. But Hateful Eight is too much of a good thing. Tarantino tries so hard to shock that disgust becomes annoying after the second hour. Always a fan of racial epithets, his script uses his favorite pejorative so often that, instead of marking his characters as racists, it makes Tarantino seem a snotty adolescent getting away with saying taboo words. Violence and sexual assault are so common that the horror of the acts is largely lost.
    Saving The Hateful Eight from parody are some excellent performances. As Domergue, Leigh manages to be funny, intimidating and sympathetic. Leigh’s feral performance relies on physical traits, but she never lets you forget that this murderess is fierce and smart. You can see her plotting at every moment. Goggins, who has made quite a career playing evil southerners, shines as a racist dolt who learns some harsh lessons about the ways of the world. He makes even the most ridiculous lines work through sheer force of will. Jackson is also in fine form, offering his usual brand of brash pontificating.
    Too bloody for general audiences, too crass for highbrows, Hateful Eight is pure Tarantino. But if you’re a fan, this movie is pretty bloody good.

Good Western • R • 168 mins.

One doctor tackles the NFL head-on

Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith: Focus) speaks for the dead. A medical examiner in Pittsburgh, Omalu is obsessed with learning what led to each death.
    When Pittsburgh Steeler great Mike Webster (David Morse: True Detective) dies, Omalu is puzzled about how Webster went from local hero to homeless madman.
    He discovers that Webster’s brain was suffocating. Repeated concussions had caused it to choke from the inside out, causing violent rages, addictive behavior and rapid mental degeneration. Omalu publishes his results and names the disease: Chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Realizing that Webster’s death was not a fluke, he concludes that more players must be suffering from CTE. But there is no confirmation possible until after death.
    Meanwhile, the NFL works overtime to disgrace the doctor and his findings.
    A movie to make football fans reconsider how they spend Monday and Sunday nights, Concussion is a thriller with great potential and poor execution. Director Peter Landesman (Parkland) only touches on the many outrages in the NFL concussion cover-up. He hints at the depth and breadth of the conspiracy but stops short of full examination of the league’s commitment to stopping Omalu. Hints that the government is involved are not pursued.
    There is also a thin subplot involving Omalu’s family life that could have increased the sense of danger — had it been developed. Smith and Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Jupiter Ascending) are both gorgeous, capable actors, but their awkward chemistry makes their relationship seem forced.
    It’s a shame Landesman wastes so much time with Omalu’s personal life, because Smith is at his best fighting the NFL.
    Morse delivers the most effective performance, portraying Mike Webster’s spiral into madness.
    Concussion is an imperfect movie, but it’s a good way to start talking about how America treats its sports heroes and about the corporations that profit carelessly from their skills.

Good Thriller • PG-13 • 123 mins.

You don’t have to be a financial whiz kid to understand incompetence

Michael Burry (Christian Bale: ­Exodus: Gods and Kings) is always on the lookout for a new investment.
    Investigating the housing loan market, Burry discovers that its bottom is about to fall out. Predicting a collapse, he uses his fund’s money to short the housing values. In essence, he bets against the lending system that has been the bedrock of American banking.
    Burry’s theory gets the attention of investor Mark Baum (Steve Carell: Freeheld). Anticipating the coming global storm, Baum must decide whether to join Burry in profiteering or sound the alarm.
    Glib, informative and fast-paced, The Big Short won’t put you to sleep. Director Adam McKay (Anchorman 2) achieves quite a feat in making an exciting movie about stocks, loans and mortgages — without high-speed chases, guns or a cool heist subplot. McKay goes to great pains to explain even the most confusing financial concepts entertainingly. Want to know about sub-prime mortgages? Margot Robbie (Focus) explains them while sipping Champagne in a bubble bath. Interested in how banks create AAA-rated mortgages using small mortgages that are rated B or below? Chef Anthony Bourdain talks you through it while whipping up a fish stew.
    These quirky bits of humor are McKay’s strong suit, tricking you into caring about the financial market and simplifying long boring concepts.
    Less sound is the film’s emotional beat. Each character gets a single distinguishing trait but very little in the way of development. Bale is the oddball genius. Carell is a loudmouth with a heart of gold. Brad Pitt is into organic foods. Characters exist only to move the storyline, so it’s hard to care about Carell’s home life or the tragedy that haunts him.
    McKay’s visual style is frenetic. Whenever the pace lags, he bombards us with footage of news events, publicity photos — anything and everything he can think of — to keep our focus while explaining mortgages. After the eighth montage, the style gets annoying.
    The movie is a good investment if you’re in the market for an entertaining look at banking and how it almost ruined our country.

Good Drama • R • 130 mins.

Just what a Star Wars film should be: silly, exciting fun

Long ago in a galaxy far, far away millions of Star Wars fans were despondent when George Lucas offered them three prequels that ruined the mythology of the beloved originals.
    Fans can rejoice, for now there is another.
    Taking over the franchise under Disney after its purchase from Lucas, director J.J. Abrams (Star Trek) proves the force is strong with him. He has produced a miracle: an entertaining new Star Wars film.
    Set decades after Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) helped the rebels crush the empire, The Force Awakens reveals that this trio has not lived happily ever after. The Empire fell, and in its place rose the fascist military First Order, determined to quash free thought and the remainder of the Republic. Leia, now a general in the rebel army, still fights to save her galaxy from oppression.
    Luke, now the last of the Jedi, has ­disappeared. But his powers are essential to victory.
    Filled with nostalgia, action and comedy, The Force Awakens is exactly what a Star Wars film should be: silly, exciting fun. Abrams carefully sets the stage for his new cast of characters while letting the audience catch up with old favorites. He also embraces practical effects, making alien interaction more fun to watch.
    There are a few problems. Big dramatic moments are telegraphed early; You’ll probably be able to guess how the film ends by the 30-minute mark. But plotting missteps are outweighed by the joy of watching favorites fight for the Light Side. Han and Chewie dash onto the bridge of the Millennium Falcon in one such joyful moment. New characters are fun and engaging, so it’s not a chore as the stage is set for the next two films.
    The Force Awakens has already broken pre-sale records around the globe. If you’ve bought your tickets, I’m happy to reassure you that your money is well spent.

Good Sci-Fi • PG-13 • 135 mins.

This whale of a tale doesn’t live up to the book

When The Essex leaves port in 1820, first mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth: Vacation) tells his pregnant wife he’ll be back soon. The whaler leaves port in search of whale oil to fill 2,000 barrels and keep the lights on in American homes.
    Over-fishing is beginning to take a toll on the theretofore hugely profitable industry of whaling. Over a year out to sea, the Essex is far from reaching its quota. Tensions become near mutinous between Chase, an experienced seaman, and Captain Pollard (Benjamin Walker: Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight), a wealthy seafaring scion captaining his first voyage.
    In Ecuador, a one-armed captain tells them of rich whaling grounds in the middle of the Pacific. He warns them, however, of a demon white whale that killed most of his crew and relieved him of his arm. Pollard and Chase laugh off the mangled captain’s warning.
    As the men of the Essex prepare to lay waste to pod after pod of sperm whales, a white behemoth surges from the sea. This whale is basically a waterlogged Smokey the Bear on steroids. Instead of proclaiming only you can prevent over-fishing, he thrusts through the hull of the Essex, ripping its mast down onto the crew. Forced to abandon ship, the men throw what they can into three small rowboats.
    Adrift in the Pacific, the Essex whalers are hundreds of miles from land. Their fate worsens when Smokey the Whale pops up again.
    Can the crew survive a conservation-minded whale and the unforgiving sea?
    If this story of a demonic white whale reminds you of high school, it’s because the true story of the Essex inspired Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby Dick.
    In the Heart of the Sea offers cracking action, but it lacks the poetry and introspection of Melville’s masterpiece.
    Director Ron Howard (Rush) knows how to create dramatic action. It’s awe-inspiring and terrifying when the whale emerges from the depths of the ocean. The whale stalks the deep, waiting for his moment to strike. The magnitude of the threat — this whale can bash men to bits with a flick of its tail — is beautifully emphasized by overhead shots.
    The crew of the Essex, however, are not as nuanced or interesting as this computer-generated whale. Only Hemsworth, who subjected himself to a startling physical transformation, gets any character development. His Chase is a natural leader with a chip on his shoulder, a cliché, perhaps, but Hemsworth’s commanding presence sells the underwritten role. Walker is relegated to a thankless antagonist, while the crew remains largely nameless.
    Howard also bookends his film with superfluous scenes showing Melville tracking down the last survivor of the Essex for the true story. He’d have done better developing the crew so that we’re on Team Whale for the voyage.
    Beautiful to look at but unsatisfying as a story, In the Heart of the Sea is an epic tale of wasted potential.

Fair Adventure • PG-13 • 121 mins.

Arlo (voiced by Raymond Ochoa: Fallout 4) is afraid of everything. The Apatosaurus lives on a farm where his family grows corn. As the smallest, Arlo is assigned menial chores, like feeding the chickens. He’s terrified of chickens … and bugs … and bad weather … and leaves … and the critter that steals corn.
    To change his cowardly reputation, Arlo sets out to capture and kill the corn thief. The critter turns out to be a feral human boy (Jack Bright). In pursuit, Arlo enters a raging river.
    He survives, but wakes with no idea of where he is or how to get home. Terrified and incapable of caring for himself, he turns to the boy for protection. Together the small boy and the giant dino seek their way home.
    Gorgeously rendered but emotionally shallow, The Good Dinosaur lacks the storytelling mastery we expect in Pixar films. Lack of nuance shows in the characters, especially one-note Arlo. It’s also troubling that rage seems to be Arlo’s only motivation. Not exactly the lesson most parents would want for their little ones.
    Director Peter Sohn (Partly Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs) does build an impressive supporting voice cast including Sam Elliott (Grandma) as a cattle ranching T-Rex and Steve Zahn (Modern Family) as a psychotic pterodactyl. The movie also has a darker sense of humor than most Pixar fare, including jokes about the deaths of little creatures. This gallows humor drew laughs from the adults in the audience, but small viewers seemed upset.
    The star of The Good Dinosaur is Pixar’s photo-realistic nature animation. The film takes you from lush forests to deserts to snowy peaks, lovingly creating each environment. Some of the sets are worthy of National Geographic, and it is a marvel of technology and talent that we see such realistic vistas on the silver screen.
    Even a bad Pixar movie is pretty good. At plenty of moments, adults guffawed and children cheered. The Good Dinosaur is about fun instead of feelings.

Good Animation • PG • 100 mins.

The latest in the Rocky series is a knockout

Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan: Fantastic Four) has been throwing punches all his life. Orphaned and alone, Adonis ricocheted between foster care and juvenile detention. When a well-dressed woman visits him in lockup, he’s shocked.
    Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad: For Justice) has sought Adonis ever since she discovered that he is the son of her late husband, heavyweight champ Apollo Creed.
    The grown up Adonis has had the benefits of money, an education and a loving stepmother. But he can’t shake the urge to fight. He works weeks in a finance company, but on weekends he boxes in illegal matches in Tijuana. Fearing that her surrogate son will meet the same end as his father, Mary Anne won’t help him start a fighting career.
    Adonis then travels to Philadelphia, where his father’s greatest opponent lives. Tracking down Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone: The Expendables 3), Adonis begs the Italian Stallion to train him to become a champion. A shell of the man he once was, Rocky isn’t sure he or the kid has what it takes.
    Creed is the first movie in the Rocky series not written by Sylvester Stallone. That could be why it is easily the best film since the original Rocky. Written and directed by Ray Coogler (Fruitvale Station), it honors the icons of the Rocky films while crafting a bold, independent vision. Coogler’s Philadelphia is gritty and punishing, full of life and promise. As Adonis runs through the streets, the neighborhoods seemingly come alive around him.
    Fight scenes are well choreographed and exhilarating. Coogler puts the camera behind Adonis, so the audience is directly in the path of the onslaught. It’s visceral and effective, making more than one viewer scream OH! when a particularly brutal blow lands.  
    Coogler’s biggest triumph, however, is reminding Stallone to act. Alone in the world and waiting to join his dead loved ones, Creed’s Rocky is a tragic figure. Stallone doesn’t push his big speeches, instead turning Rocky into a sad, shambling man who sees Adonis as his last hope for family. Stallone’s natural chemistry with Jordan helps to sell the relationship, which is the heart of the film.
    The heavyweight in this film, however, is Jordan, who breathes new life into the Rocky franchise. Jordan’s natural charisma evokes memories of Apollo for Rocky fans and charms franchise newcomers in equal measures. His impressive physical transformation into a powerful boxer is overshadowed only by the emotional depths he reveals. Adonis is a damaged boy yearning to prove he’s worthy of his father’s name.
    A knockout for anyone who’s ever dreamed of running up the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s stairs, Creed is both a great Rocky film and a great character study.

Great Sports Drama • PG-13• 132 mins.

In this historical biopic, women become warriors for the right to vote

A London laundry worker since she was seven, Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan: Far from the Madding Crowd) works long hours as harsh chemicals corrode her lungs. She’s paid less by the hour than male co-workers, who get to spend their days outside the factory making deliveries.
    It’s abominable. It’s unfair. It’s life in early 20th century England.
    A coworker who believes in the suffragette movement, which demands the vote for women as well as equal rights and pay, convinces Maud to join her at a parliamentary hearing on the working conditions. But their testimony falls on deaf ears.
    Thus Maud joins the suffragette fight as the women turn from marching and chanting to blowing up letterboxes.
    Shamed by neighbors and friends, Maud’s husband threatens her with homelessness and loss of her son. It’s a terrifying threat, as under the law women have no rights to their children.
    A fascinating look at the women behind the equality movement, Suffragette is a gripping but unfocused movie. Director Sarah Gavron (Brick Lane) knows her history and excels at detailing the injustices suffered by the suffragettes, from beatings to force feedings to stalking by the police. But her characters remain a mystery. It’s hard to care about the beating or death of a character whose name you can’t recall.
    One notable exception is the firebrand feminist played by Helena Bonham Carter (Cinderella). As Edith Ellyn, a highly educated pharmacist and dedicated suffragette, Bonham Carter easily steals every scene she’s in. Edith is a fierce proponent of the movement, who delights in blowing up symbols of the patriarchy and refuses to apologize for her behavior. Her husband is her partner in her causes, often acting as the getaway driver.
    As Maud, Mulligan offers a heartfelt performance, selling her transformation from suffering to suffragette.
    Doing better with facts than people’s stories, Suffragette rolls like a documentary, opening a window into a time that now seems almost unthinkable. Women have had the right to vote in England and America for less than a century; stay after the end for a list of when women around the world earned the right to vote.
    See Suffragette to understand how far the women’s movement has come — and how far it has to go.

Good Historical Drama • PG-13 • 106 mins.

Chilean miners fight for survival in this stirring drama based on a true story

Before descending into the bowels of the earth, workers at the San Jose gold and copper mine pause before a shrine to pray for protection. They need help from a higher power as the mining companies place profit above safety.
    Each time the miners enter the gaping maw, they know there is a chance they’ll never return.
    When the mountain collapses after 100 years of mining, it’s no surprise. Thirty-three miners are trapped. A rock twice the size of the Empire State Building stands between the men and fresh air. In their small refuge, they have a dozen cans of tuna, some stale cookies and milk. It’s barely enough to feed 33 men for a day, let alone the days it will take for help to reach them.
    The company response is to follow protocol: Ignore the collapse, try to contain news of the trapped miners and avoid terrified family members seeking answers. Infuriated that their husbands, brothers and sons are being left to die, the families riot, making the news.
    The president of Chile (Bob Gunton: Daredevil) sends his minister of mining (Rodrigo Santoro: Focus) to deal with the crisis. As the government races to drill to the miners, morale and food run low for the trapped men.
    Frustrating and gripping, The 33 is best underground, excelling at capturing the dynamics of the miners who spent 69 days trapped in a gold-and copper-laden tomb. Director Patricia Riggen (Girl in Progress) masterfully crafts the cave-in scene, escalating the tension as the miners scramble toward safety. Watching the group come together and fracture as starvation, exhaustion and depression infiltrate is riveting.
    As Mario, the leader of the miners, Antonio Banderas (The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water) carries the film well, even managing to sell some of the more heavy-handed dialogue. The other miners are all tertiary, but Riggen gives them all character action so that we care for the men.
    Above ground, Riggen has mixed success. She devotes a good deal of time to the miners’ families, but the characters are underdeveloped and boring compared to the miners. The notable exception is Juliette Binoche (7 Letters), who plays Maria, the fierce sister of a trapped miner. Binoche becomes the leader of the families, forcing the government to take accountability and refusing to give up hope.
    The greatest problem with The 33 is its scope. Riggen brings in so many plot threads and themes that they obscure the main story of survival while buried in the earth. Because the film is overcrowded, no character is fully developed. It’s also slightly uncomfortable to watch white actors, like Gunton who plays the president, pretend to be Chilean with ridiculous accents.
    Though flawed, The 33 is compelling whenever Riggen focuses on the subterranean drama. Buy your ticket to watch Banderas and his band of brothers fight for survival. When the film cuts to topside drama, take a bathroom break or get a popcorn refill.

Fair Drama • PG-13 • 120 mins.