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Arts and Culture (Movie Reviews)

What do these aliens want from us?

One day, they arrive. Twelve giant pods hover over major countries throughout the world. No one knows where they came from. No one saw them coming. No one knows what they want.
    Every few hours, a door opens, allowing humans to enter the spaceships. Then what? The humans are stumped on how to communicate. Figuring it out falls to Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice), a trusted linguist who has helped the military translate enemy radio chatter. Her mission: learn the aliens’ language — and develop a system of communication, ASAP.
    Banks has a deadline: China and Russia promise military action if the aliens don’t state their purpose or move on. Intergalactic war will end diplomacy.
    Complicated and painstakingly filmed, Arrival continues the sci-fi tradition of examining the foibles of human nature in a broader context. These aliens are a fully developed metaphor for humanity’s fears of the unknown and how fear shapes geo­politics. If that sounds a little too heavy for a movie featuring creatures that look like a blend of squids and spiders, I promise that director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario) rewards you for expending brainpower at the cinema.
    Villeneuve and cinematographer Bradford Young (Selma) create an enthralling film. From the shape of the ships to the vast and isolating Montana backdrop, every shot is beautifully composed and styled. This world feels both familiar yet just alien enough to be unsettling. Expansive open areas contrast with cramped claustrophobic shots to ramp up tension.
    The script by Eric Heisserer (Lights Out), based on a story by Ted Chiang, picks at the ideas of destiny, time, communication and our drive to create connections. Lots of deep concepts are suggested. Still, the two-hour running time constrains their development, and Heisserer must rely on contrivance to wrap up the story. Like the classic Twilight Zone episodes written by Ray Bradbury, Arrival is both liberated and constrained by its medium.
    At the emotional core, Amy Adams is masterful. Her Louise is frightened but determined to make a connection. As she learns the alien language, she becomes more forceful. Banks discovers herself as she understands the aliens.
    An emotionally provocative sci-fi film that stimulates and rewards, Arrival is worth the price you’ll pay to see it on the big screen, where Young’s cinematography will have the most impact.

Great Sci-Fi • PG-13 • 116 mins.

Marvel gets metaphysical with this superhero romp

Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch: Zoolander 2), the world’s most sought-after neurosurgeon, has an ego as big as his brain. He is smug and calculating, cold and talented.
    But his talent means nothing after an accident cripples his hands.
    Scorning the physical therapy recommended by intellectual inferiors, Strange spends all his money on experimental surgeries that leave him broke, alone and hopeless. He spends his last pound to fly to Nepal, chasing a miracle cure in a temple.
    Strange finds a community following the mystical teachings of the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton: Hail, Caesar!). He mocks their mysticism and the idea of channel energy from the universe — until the Ancient One literally knocks the soul from his body. Convinced, Strange applies his brilliant mind and dogged drive to learning every facet of the teachings, gobbling up ancient books and practicing at all hours.
    Just as Strange is harnessing the powers of the universe, the attack comes. Former pupil Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen: Hannibal) wants to remake the world to suit his new beliefs.
    Kaecilius’ attack leaves only Strange and his trainer Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor: Triple 9) to defend the universe from a madman and his team of zealots.
    A mind-bending romp, Doctor Strange is, well, strange. That’s not to say the movie is without charm. Director Scott Derrickson (Deliver Us from Evil) eases us through confusing magical elements with slapstick comedy. Strange’s cape becomes a character, yanking the doctor around and doing silly things to distract the bad guys. Even baddie Kaecilius gets a few good punchlines. Mikkelsen, who’s strong bone structure and piercing eyes earn him parts as terrifying baddies in English-language films, has a bit of fun hamming up this villainous role.
    Derrickson also wisely skews the film toward younger audiences.
    This approach could devolve into puerile nonsense without a strong cast to keep it on the right side of ridiculous. Cumberbatch gives a charming performance, turning his prickly doctor into an endearing hero.
    There are problems, as well. Like most superhero movies, the plot doesn’t bear deep thinking. More troublingly, the film borrows heavily from Chinese and Nepalese imagery but features only one Asian actor with a speaking part (Benedict Wong, who offers some of the film’s best comedic moments)
    Though guilty of cultural appropriation, Doctor Strange should keep older viewers smiling and encourage younger viewers to attempt channeling the energy of the universe. If you’re looking for a popcorn flick for your whole clan, this film is strangely perfect.

Good Action • PG-13 • 115 mins.

A poignant look at one man’s struggle for self-acceptance

There’s something wrong with Little (Alex R. Hibbert in his screen debut). His mama (Naomi Harris: Our Kind of Traitor) and the kids at school see it. He walks funny; he’s soft; he ain’t no man. Mama calls him names, and the boys at school chase and beat him. There is no place he feels safe.
    With Juan (Mahershala Ali: Luke Cage), a local drug dealer, he finds acceptance. Juan teaches him that being a man is more than going hard and showing off. Being a man is knowing who you are. Juan and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe: Rio 2) offer Little the first safe space he’s ever known.
    In high school, Little — now Ashton Sanders (The Skinny) — calls himself Chiron. But he’s still a pariah, still called gay and still tortured. Chiron also has a crush on the only boy in school who’s ever been nice to him. The attraction is clearly mutual, but consummation seems impossible.
    Chiron tries to navigate his feelings, his neighborhood and what it means to be a gay black man in America. Will he crack under the pressure?
    Beautifully acted, skillfully shot and heart-rendingly written, Moonlight is a powerful movie with important things to say about the perception of masculinity. Director Barry Jenkins uses his feature debut to examine the duality of male lives, exploring how they vacillate from hard swagger when trying to impress to genuine emotions and tenderness with loved ones. Even Juan, who preaches being true to oneself, is divided. On the streets, he’s all bravado and no nonsense. At home or with Little, he shows his nurturing side.
    Characters are authentic. There is no Hollywood sheen on these streets, and motives may not be explained. It’s up to you to enter Chiron’s world.
    The role of Chiron is divided among three actors: Hibbert in youth, Sanders as a teen and Trevante Rhodes (Westworld) as an adult. Their roles blend seamlessly into an epic portrayal of one man’s journey. Hibbert and Sanders both excel at Chiron’s fear and uncertainty, making him a timid, quiet boy always seeking someone to care. As an adult, Chiron becomes a parody of stereotypical black masculinity, blasting rap music, wearing grills and being the toughest guy on the block. Rhodes shows how hollow that existence feels.
    Lyrical, emotionally heavy and full of commentary on race and gender, Moonlight is not a popcorn flick. This film requires you to think and dig deep to understand the mass of conflicts that make up the principle characters. If you’re willing to put in the sweat equity, you’ll see one of the best films of the year.

Great Drama • R • 110 mins.

The Holocaust goes on trial in this courtroom drama

An  historian specializing in the Holocaust, Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz: The Light Between Oceans) becomes obsessed with people who deny the reality of that genocide.
    Earning Lipstadt’s particular ire is historian David Irving (Timothy Spall: The Journey), a Hitler fan who claims the gas chambers of Auschwitz were made up. Irving is so offensive that Lipstadt decries his poor research and dubious motivations in her book on Holocaust deniers.
    Having made a career of courting racists through the guise of “uncovering the truth Jews attempted to hide,” Irving is outraged and sues her for libel in the British courts.
    The choice of court is important, for in British courts, the burden of proof is on the defendant. Thus to win, Lipstadt and her team of lawyers must prove that the Holocaust existed and that Irving perverted historic documents to claim it did not.
    It’s not a quick process.
    Experts pour over Irving’s writings and research for more than a year. While Lipstadt and her team are mired in facts, Irving takes to the airways, giving interviews and offering glib soundbites like “No holes, no Holocaust.”
    The Jewish community in Britain worries that Irving’s insane but printable rantings will foster a new generation of neo-Nazis. Fearing that even a victory will be overshadowed by Irving’s media circus, they ask Lipstadt to settle the case before more damage is done.
    Based on a true story, Denial is a fascinating legal drama about how far freedom of speech can be taken. Director Mick Jackson (Temple Grandin) frames the film as a legal battle, which can be interesting but has drawbacks. As the intricacies of British law are explained, we lose time with Lipstadt, who becomes a supporting player in her own story.
    In fact, the spotlight falls, rather ironically, on Irving. Portrayed as an odious little man who sees nothing wrong with misogyny and casual racism, he is a bit of a mystery. At times, he seems almost comically self-deluded, spinning every loss or setback as a secret victory. One is never quite sure if David Irving is an evil genius or an intellectual gnat with a large vocabulary and a talent for media management. Spall plays his cagey insanity beautifully.
    Weisz is excellent as the dogged Queens-born historian rankled that the British courts keep her from speaking, but sadly, she takes a backseat to this vile character.
    Denial is a film about events, not people. The trial is fascinating, but the movie feels a bit hollow. I wish Jackson had instead explored the characters and what drove them to the court. From Lipstadt’s fiery refusal to kowtow to a bigot to Irving’s tone-deaf belief that history is on his side, these actions want to be understood. If only director Jackson had allowed their motives come out.
    Still, in this election year, when outrageous statements are passed as truth, it is interesting to see a film that carefully proves that not all opinions are valid, no matter how loudly they’re shouted.

Good Drama • PG-13 • 110 mins.

A number-cruncher proves he can do more than balance the mob’s books

Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck: Suicide Squad), a math genius with poor social skills and the ability to fire a .50-caliber round through a melon from a mile away,  becomes the underworld’s top accountant. He works with cartels, the mafia, gunrunners and terrorists — whoever will pay his price. He comes in, looks at the books, finds any missing money and leaves.
    It’s a good system until one client is unhappy with what Christian discovers. Now the target of a psychotic hitman (Jon Bernthal: Daredevil), Christian has to avoiding treasury agents while determining which of his clients is trying to kill him.
    The Accountant is a character-driven thriller harkening back to the action movies of the late 1980s. Director Gavin O’Connor (Jane Got a Gun) crafts interesting circumstances for Wolff. Coincidences and obvious twists are okay so long as they engage the main character. Creative cinematography in the action sequences helps.
    Key to it all is Christian Wolff. Affleck is in top form as a high-functioning man with autism who is part nerd, part action hero. Misunderstandings are played for humor, but Affleck and O’Connor make no jokes at Christian’s expense.
    Backing up Affleck, veteran character actors Bernthal and J.K. Simmons (The Late Bloomer) help gloss over the plot holes and improbabilities.
    If you’re a fan of character-driven action, The Accountant is well worth the ticket. An unbelievable plot is balanced by believable character work and unique cinematography to make a film that’s pure popcorn fare at its best.

Good Action Thriller • R • 128 mins.

This mystery never leaves the station

Rachel (Emily Blunt: The Huntsman: Winter’s War) rides the train to Manhattan every day. Sitting in the same spot, drinking clear alcohol from a water bottle, she stares at the passing houses. Two homes interest her particularly. One she shared with her ex-husband, Tom (Justin Theroux: The Leftovers), whose new family now lives there. The other is home to Megan (Haley Bennett: The Magnificent Seven) and Scott (Luke Evans: Message from the King), a sexually adventurous couple idealized by Rachel.
    Megan goes missing, and Rachel may know something. She saw a man, whom she took to be a lover, with Megan on the day of her disappearance. The police, however, think Rachel is stalking her ex.
    The movie fails to capture the narrative urgency of the bestselling novel. Director Tate Taylor (Get On Up) copies the style of another bestseller-made-movie, David Fincher’s far superior Gone Girl, again with little success. With plot twists prioritized over character-building suspense, the female heroines are a particular disappointment. All are miserable women victimized by men.
    Blunt is muted and sad as Rachel, who slurs, stumbles and mopes her way through life. As Megan, Bennett is every femme fatale cliché in movie history, from the tragic secret to the insatiable desire. The men in their lives have all the power, and they use these women’s bodies and minds as they see fit.
    Taylor thinks he’s being clever, but you could figure out his reveal from the previews. It’s all dark and depressing, brooding and boring.
Poor Thriller • R • 112 mins.

A stork and orphan connive to deliver a baby in this animated comedy

Storks have long had the job of delivering babies. But now they’ve left the strenuous and emotionally taxing baby business for box-store delivery. Partnering with CornerStore.com, storks now specialize in same-day deliveries. They’re cogs in the corporate machine.
    Except for Tulip (voiced by Katie Crown: Clarence), an orphan who hangs around the stork factory trying to help. Her heart is in the right place, but her head isn’t. Most of her inventions end as explosions. Junior (Andy Samberg: Brooklyn Nine-Nine) is assigned to fire her.
    Junior doesn’t have the heart, so he assigns Tulip to the abandoned Baby Orders room, where the higher-ups won’t notice the lonely orphan. The plan works until Tulip finds a letter from the Gardner family, requesting a baby. She dusts off the baby machine and creates an adorable tot to deliver to the Gardners.
    Junior is horrified. If management sees the baby, he and Tulip will get the boot. He resolves on a secret delivery. But office busybody Pigeon Toady (Stephen Kramer Glickman: The Night Time Show with Stephen Kramer Glickman) has discovered the baby and plans to expose Junior and steal his big promotion.
    Can Tulip and Junior work together to get Baby Gardner home? How hard could it be to deliver one baby?
    For this week’s review, four-and-a-half-year-old Grace Kearns assisted The Moviegoer. Grace reports that Storks was funny. She liked Tulip’s curly hair and the silly wolf pack.
    The wolf pack was indeed the best part of the film. Voiced by comedians extraordinaire Key & Peele, the scene-stealing wolves played a goofy version of charades.
    The rest of the film, however, is a bit of a drag for those of us who’ve graduated preschool. Grace watched quietly, while your regular reviewer squirmed and checked her watch. The plot was overly complex, jokes often fell flat and characters seemed inconsistent. Worst of all in a movie written for younger audiences, there were no lessons to be learned or engaging songs.
    A few days later, Grace’s fondest and only memory remained the wolf pack.
    Buying a ticket may earn you a quiet child for 90 minutes, but don’t expect a lasting impression from this shallow, underwritten comedy.

Fair Animation • PG • 87 mins.

Can a rag-tag bunch of ne'er-do-wells defeat an army of villains?

To rid himself of the Rose Creek townspeople impeding his mining operation, land baron Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard: Black Mass) offers an ultimatum: take the paltry sum offered — or die. To prove he’s serious, he burns the church and shoots a few men, women and children, leaving the survivors to pick up their bodies.
    Thus begins the latest take on two great movies, Akira Kurosawa’s classic Seven Samurai, and John Sturges’s subsequent western classic The Magnificent Seven.
    Newly widowed Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett: Hardcore Henry) won’t be intimidated and seeks to buy a champion to bring justice to Rose Creek.
    Her knight in shining armor is a man in black. Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington: The Equalizer) is a bounty hunter who had to be fast with his guns because of the color of his skin. He is touched by Emma’s tale, impressed by her spunk and independently invested in destroying Bogue.
    But to go up against hundreds of well-armed men, Chisolm needs his own army.
    Chisolm signs on six recruits: a gambler (Chris Pratt: Jem and the Holograms); a former Confederate sniper (Ethan Hawke: Maudie); an Asian brawler (Byung-hun Lee: Misconduct); a wanted murderer (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo: Term Life), a former Indian hunter (Vincent D’Onofrio: Daredevil); and a Comanche (Martin Sensmeier: Lilin’s Blood).
    Can seven men turn a town of farmers into an armed militia?
    Director Antoine Fuqua’s (The Equalizer) remake takes strength from this diverse cast. By casting minority actors, and acknowledging their racial status in the post-Civil War West, Fuqua adds depth to the familiar story. Washington’s Chisolm, a man used to prejudice, has managed to thrive in this hostile environment, fueled by adversity.
    It takes team chemistry for underdogs to succeed in felling a greater power. This cast supplies it. Washington is in fine form as the stoic leader. Pratt, the gambler, adds comic relief, while the others fill in requisite western roles, from the drunken coward to the oddball mountain man. The cast clearly enjoyed working together, and their natural camaraderie draws you in.
    Fuqua’s only misstep is Sarsgaard, who as Bogue fails to be either physically or mentally intimidating.
    In spite of the poor villain, The Magnificent Seven is an enjoyable western with a modern, diverse twist.

Good Western • PG-13 • 133 mins.

Perpetual disaster Bridget Jones grows up a bit in this comedy

Alone on her 40th birthday Bridget Jones (Renée Zellweger: The Whole Truth) fears that her fate is to become the pitied spinster aunt.
    She makes a birthday vow to embrace spinsterhood rather than fear it, becoming an interesting older woman who cultivates an air of mystery and takes lovers when she chooses.
    Her first attempt leads her to Jack (Patrick Dempsey: Grey’s Anatomy), founder of an internet dating site that boasts making love matches. One night of passion is all Bridget plans.
    A week later, she runs into the love of her life, Mark Darcy (Colin Firth: Genius), who loved his job more than he loved her. After a few drinks and a lot of reminiscing, Bridget decides that ancient history could be a current event. When she wakes up in Mark’s bed, however, she decides that she can’t endure rejection again.
    Bridget’s pride in her new life as a sexually liberated woman of a certain age falters when she realizes she’s pregnant. Worse still, she’s not sure if the father is Jack or Mark.
    Goofy, heartfelt and genuinely funny, Bridget Jones’s Baby reinvigorates the flagging franchise. Co-written by Oscar-winning writer Emma Thompson (who also co-stars), the script adds wit, classic physical comedy and charm. Thompson focuses the film on Bridget, showing that the perpetual screw-up can also be competent. Awkward on dates, Bridget excels in her work as a TV producer.
    It also helps that original director Sharon Maguire (Incendiary) returns. Maguire’s excellent sense of comedic editing makes the most of every laugh. She’s also able to coax loose and charming performances from her three leads, especially Firth, who can seem stiff in comedies.
    As Bridget, Zellweger shines. A gifted physical comedian and mugger, she makes Bridget endearing in her messes. Though Zellweger famously gained over 30 pounds for her first two outings as Bridget, she remains svelte for this film.
    Another surprise: Both romantic options are charming.
    Still, it’s all a bit predictable. It takes only a basic understanding of romantic plots to figure who Bridget will pick. Thus the question that frames the movie is largely moot.
    Even ending with a foregone conclusion, this romantic comedy offers pluck and humor.

Good Romantic Comedy • R • 122 mins.

An old-school hero flick, but not for nervous fliers

You know the story: Catastrophic engine failure gives Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger only 208 seconds to recover U.S. Airways flight 1549 — and save or end the lives of 155 people.
    The question is how director Clint Eastwood (American Sniper) and Tom Hanks (A Hologram for the King) will tell the story.
    They don’t start at the beginning. You have to wait to see his daring water landing on the Hudson River, in the midst of densely populated New York City. Your eventual reward for the wait is seeing, in detail, both the harrowing recreation of the bird strike that killed the engines and the exacting decisions made by the pilots of the plunging plane.
    Eastwood gives you a second drama, as well: the National Transportation Safety Board inquiry, supported by data recovered from the plane, claiming that instead of a dangerous water landing, Sully could have safely returned and landed at LaGuardia.
    Though hailed as a hero by press and public, Sully begins to doubt himself. Is he the Hero of the Hudson? Or a reclkess pilot who risked the lives of his passengers?
    As a director, Eastwood is a classicist, focusing on tone, performance and character. At its best, these choices help the movie thrive.
    Hanks stays true to his role, portraying a seemingly steel-nerved man — a pilot for 42 years, including war experience — who would have gladly have lived out his days in anonymity. The scrutiny combines with post-traumatic stress to wear on Sully’s calm exterior. Hanks, who was born to play stalwart hero types, imbues Sully with quiet dignity — and emotional turmoil just behind his eyes.
    At worst, Eastwood overstates your point. Bits of dialog that overwork the theme are a bit hard to swallow even with Tom Hanks’ considerable charm. Flashbacks feel obligatory, and the family back home only confuses the issue.
    This old-school hero tale has lots to recommend it — unless you’re a nervous flier.

Good Drama • PG-13 • 96 mins.