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Arts and Culture (Movie Reviews)

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.

Phenomenal performances sell a story stretched thin

Homecoming after the Great War is wrenching for Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender: X-Men: Apocalypse). Seeking solitude, he signs on as keeper of the lighthouse on uninhabited Janus Island.
    On a tri-monthly visit to the mainland, he catches the eye of Isabel (Alicia Vikander: Jason Bourne). Their epistolary romance soon blossoms into marriage. On Janus, they are incandescently happy until Isabel becomes pregnant. Two miscarriages and two little wooden crosses leave her on the brink of a breakdown and Tom struggling to save the marriage.
    Salvation appears in a rowboat: a baby in the arms of a dead man. Tom wants to call the authorities, but Isabel convinces him to bury the dead man and pretend the baby is their child.
    Tom relents, and happiness returns to the island.
    But on the mainland, Tom learns that their daughter is the child of a woman who believes the baby and her husband were lost at sea.
    What is an honest man to do?
    Boasting great performances and gorgeous cinematography, The Light Between Oceans is a throwback to the Magnificent Obsession melodramas of Douglas Sirk in the 1950s. Scenery is lush, performances are heartfelt and the plot improbable. Director Derek Cianfrance (The Place Beyond the Pines) adapted the film from a bestselling novel, and cinematic time constraints may explain leaps in logic.
    Characters make life-altering decisions then recant minutes later; Coincidence strains credulity. This can be frustrating if you hope to understand the plot as it’s unfolding.
    Only Fassbender and Vikander save it from becoming dreck. Both give heart-wrenching performances within the limits of a form high on dramatic events but short on the emotional impact of these events on the characters.
    While the leads try their best, it’s hard to build characters in a film unspooling an increasingly ridiculous plot.

Fair Drama • PG-13 • 133 mins.

Two brothers fight the law and the banks in this gorgeous Western

Toby (Chris Pine: Star Trek Beyond) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster: Warcraft) are days away from losing their family home. They’re the latest in a long line of landowners in Texas who’ve taken unfair mortgages from banks that leave them on the brink of homelessness. Signs for debt relief and bank buyouts populate their small town, which is slowly decaying because of the economic collapse.
    Toby has spent his life trying to preserve the family land. It’s his legacy and one he’d like to pass down to his children. Tanner is a jailbird who likes bar fights and women. The land has never meant anything to Tanner, but he’s loyal to his brother and wants to help Toby create a legacy.
    To keep their land, Toby comes up with an idea: rob branches of the bank that’s foreclosing on the Howard homestead, taking only enough money to pay the mortgage and back taxes. Toby figures it will take five banks, and if they do it right, no one will die. Tanner figures it’s his chance to play outlaw again and immediately leaps into the role of desperado, unnecessarily beating bank employees and waving guns. They’re the modern-day James brothers, raising hell on the plains of Texas.
    The heists attract the attention of Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges: The Little Prince), who’s on the brink of retirement. He decides that the Texas Midlands bank robbers will be his last big case, a chance to go out in a blaze of glory.
    Will Hamilton track down the men before they finish their crime wave?
    Filled with great acting, a tight script and gorgeous cinematography, Hell or High Water is a fantastic twist on the classic Western genre. Director David Mackenzie (Starred Up) makes West Texas one of the stars of the film, utilizing the flat expanses of land to isolate Tanner and Toby, making them seem both adrift and trapped by their surroundings. Dilapidated towns and deserted streets set the scenes and make it clear that economic downturns have sucked the life from these communities, sparing Mackenzie from long boring rants about the evils of banks.
    Mackenzie also works hard to make every speaking part in the movie memorable. Notable southern character actors like Dale Dickey and Margaret Bowman show up for scene-stealing cameos that help populate the film with intriguing characters. The culture of Texas, the pride and hubris that comes with Lone Star citizenship, is key to understanding the choices characters make. Being from Texas is not just a geographical fact but a state of mind. The people in these towns are armed and annoyed, which means that local citizens have no compunctions about starting a shootout during a bank robbery.
    Pine, Foster and Bridges all carry their roles. Bridges’ southern drawl and bravado masks deep feelings of dread and inadequacy; he faces retirement the way a man faces a firing squad. As the bank robber brothers, Pine and Foster manage to forge a believable bond with a real tenderness. These are men who love each other deeply but are more comfortable expressing that devotion through a shared beer or a bout of roughhousing. Foster especially steals his scenes as the Howard Family screw-up. Brash, violent and terrifyingly charming, Tanner is a liability from the start, and one that seems to know his story won’t have a happy ending.
    A love letter to Texas and a lamentation of the dying culture of the sprawling western lowlands, Hell or High Water is one of the best films of the year. Topical and timeless, this tale of two outlaw brothers sounds like a story that could be told over a campfire. But a legend featuring a villainous bank plays well even if you’re not at home on the range. If you’re a fan of western lore or just great storytelling, Hell or High Water is the movie to see this summer.

Great Western • R • 102 mins.

A boy learns the power of a good story in this exceptional animated film

If you must blink, do it now.     
     So begins the story of young Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson: Game of Thrones), a troubadour in ancient Japan. Each day in the square he tells fantastical tales of the Moon King and the brave warrior Hanzo who fights him. As he weaves his tale, Kubo plays his shamisen as origami to come to life to act out his story. Villagers gather to watch and shower Kubo with coins.
    The most fantastical thing about Kubo’s stories is that they are true.
    Kubo is the son of Hanzo the samurai. Kubo’s mother, a daughter of the Moon King, betrayed her father for Hanzo’s sake. The Moon King vanquished Hanzo, ripped out one of Kubo’s eyes and exiled his daughter.
    Kubo’s distraught mother arms him with three pieces of advice: Never take off his father’s robe, never go anywhere without his monkey charm and never stay out after sunset, when the Moon King can see.
    When Kubo breaks the rules, the Moon King and his loyal daughters descend on the village to find him and take his other eye. Only his father’s legendary armor can save him.
    In Kubo and the Two Strings, LAIKA studios has made a beautiful film about the power of stories and the strength we draw from family. The combination of CGI and stop-motion animation creates a unique and highly stylized look. Paired with visual effect is an innovative story that examines the role storytelling has in our lives, from the stories we tell about our families to the stories that record our history.
    LAIKA has quietly become one of the best animation studios around, posing a credible challenge to Pixar and Disney in both technology and storytelling. Director Travis Knight, LAIKA’s lead animator for years, makes his debut behind the camera with this finely detailed and ­beautifully rendered story of a boy’s quest for his origin story.
    A talented voice cast enhances the powerful visuals and intricate story. Charlize Theron (The Huntsman: Winter’s War) vocalizes a scene-stealing monkey, growling and threatening to keep Kubo safe. Matthew McConaughey (Free State of Jones) offers comic relief as the cursed samurai Beetle, who is filled with warmth and kindness though a ­little rattled.
    Wonderful as it is, Kubo and the Two Strings may not enthrall little ones. The story is complicated and has scary bits. Ages nine and up should be enchanted.
    LAIKA Studios has yet to have a feature-film misfire, with Kubo and the Two Strings a masterwork proving that animation is a medium powerful for more than amusing children.

Great Animation • PG • 101 mins.