Christopher Llewellyn Reed's Movie Ratings - Rotten Tomatoes

Movie Ratings and Reviews

The Birth of a Nation

A fiery mix of Haile Gerima's 1993 cinematic bloodbath "Sankofa," which profiles a West Indian slave uprising, and Steve McQueen's 2013 meditative "12 Years a Slave," which contemplates the toll wrought by slavery on all involved in its implementation, Nate Parker's rousing "The Birth of a Nation," a dramatized retelling of Nat Turner's 1831 slave rebellion, has much to recommend it, in spite of its director's well-publicized past allegation of rape. As a first feature from Parker, however, it suffers from not insignificant screenplay issues and a tendency on the novice helmer's part to emphasize each dramatic beat with soaring chords from composer Henry Jackman's often overly sentimental score. Still, despite these problems, "The Birth of a Nation" deserves to be seen for what it does right. McQueen's own Oscar-winning film was a beautiful work of art that shed needed light on our nation's disgraceful past; Parker's film, though far less accomplished, grants its African-American characters agency in their own liberation, an important upgrade, no matter how clumsily handled. In addition, any film that reappropriates the title of D.W. Griffith's virulently racist 1915 epic and gives it new meaning is OK in my book, whatever its weaknesses.

In a bit of historical irony, the film opens with a quote from slave owner Thomas Jefferson: "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever." We then segue directly into a premonitory prologue where little-boy Nat Turner is declared a prophet by what looks to be an African-American shaman of some sort. Corny as this device may be, it has the effect of moving us away from an established authority - Jefferson - to the more militant point of view of those who will rise up. We then follow young Nat to his plantation, where he catches the eye of the mistress (a fine Penelope Ann Miller, "Saving Lincoln"), who teachers him to read, setting in motion his own future intellectual emancipation. Unfortunately, when the master dies, he wills that Nat be sent back into the fields. The transition from house to field slave is not easy for the boy, but it does allow for a quick montage of cotton picking that transforms the child into the adult actor who plays him: Parker ("Beyond the Lights"), himself. In the passage of time, Nat's childhood playmate, Samuel, has now become lord of the manor, and the two have developed as easy a rapport as can be expected, given the disparity in their status. As played by Armie Hammer ("The Lone Ranger"), Samuel is spoiled and lazy, but not unkind, even sticking up for Nat when he is assaulted by another white man. That will all change, later in the film, once alcohol, boredom, and the institution of slavery work their ugly charm. No one can survive something as ugly as enforced bondage, not even those in charge.

As a character study in these early scenes, the film is at its strongest. Parker and Hammer work well together, and their false intimacy speaks volumes about the fraught relationship between master and slave on which much of our early history was built. There's a strong cast of supporting players, including Aja Naomi King ("How to Get Away with Murder"), Roger Guenveur Smith ("Dope"),  Gabrielle Union (Think Like a Man Too) and Chiké Okonkwo ("Paradox"), among others, as fellow slaves; Jackie Earle Haley ("Preacher") as a wicked slave hunter; and Mark Boone Junior ("Sons of Anarchy") as a white minister who views Nat as an especial existential threat. Little by little, the more we spend time with all involved, the clearer it becomes that no system built on cruelty and exploitation can or should last. Nat, now a preacher (thanks to Samuel's mother's early teachings), finds himself used to pacify other local slaves, earning money for Samuel in the process. Eventually, Nat loses faith, as the brutal treatment of his brothers and sisters (including, unfortunately, given Parker's own personal history, a rape) prove too much to bear. Rebellion awaits.

When it comes, though, it's disappointing. Having done a solid job of set-up, Parker can't quite handle the payoff with the same level of craft. Instead, he dwells on images of extreme violence to the point of fetishizing them, and cannot resist the temptation to lean on the musical score as overwrought accompaniment. That said, he does pull off one tragically powerful sequence at the end, once the revolt is defeated, where we see hanging bodies of martyred slaves hanging from trees while Billie Holiday sings "Strange Fruit" on the soundtrack. Is it the most original artistic choice? No. Does it work as effective document of the sins of our past? Yes. And so the movie goes, torn between Parker's competing impulses towards sentiment and harsh realism, sometimes evocative, sometimes less so. Not a perfect movie, but as necessary, in its own way, as its artistically superior cousin of a few years ago. If Parker survives his newfound scrutiny, it will be interesting to see what he does next.

Snowden
Snowden(2016)
½

Despite a prolific filmmaking career that began in the 1970s, picked up in the 1980s and then really kicked into high gear with the one-two-three knockout blow of "Platoon" (1986, for which he won the Best Director Oscar), "Wall Street" (1987) and "Born on the Fourth of July" (1989, for which he again won the Best Director Oscar), Oliver Stone slacked off in intensity some time in the 1990s, after making both "JFK" (1992) and "Natural Born Killers" (1994), powerfully righteous (some might say self-righteous) screeds against a system that takes its citizens for dupes. Even when tackling political subjects in subsequent movies like "Nixon" (1995) and "W." (2008), Stone pulled his punches and let his characters escape what earlier would have been a fiery font of principled wrath. Well, that old Stone is back, and though his new movie, Snowden - about the NSA whistleblower previously profiled in Laura Poitras's brilliant Oscar-winning documentary "Citizenfour" (2014) - is far from perfect, it is mostly a welcome return to form from the man who last gave us the underwhelming "Savages" (2012). Perhaps it's the influence of his Showtime documentary series "The Untold History of the United States" (2012-2013), or maybe it's the current state of politics in our country, or maybe it's legitimate outrage at both the government overreach that led Snowden to divulge his secrets and the ensuing government attempts to discredit and prosecute Snowden that just drove Stone crazy enough to wake the sleeping troublemaker within. Whatever the reason, Mr. Stone, it's good to see you in truculent trim once more.

Right away, before the movie even begins, you notice the change in the director's mien. With a cynical twinkle in his eye, he addresses the audience directly in a pre-screening PSA against cell-phone use in theaters that manages to be simultaneously hilarious and unsettling. It's the perfect opening, setting the tone for all that follows, warning you not just about annoying the viewers in your row, but about the inherent dangers in all smartphone technologies, which allow "them" to track you. Shortly thereafter, we will meet "them," and understand his alarm.

But first, we meet Snowden. As played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt ("The Walk"), he's a bundle of nerves hiding beneath a seemingly calm exterior. We're in Hong Kong in June of 2013, and Poitras (Melissa Leo, "Prisoners") and journalist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto, "Margin Call") are meeting him - without yet knowing who he is - at the airport. They go back to his hotel room, and if you've seen Poitras's film, much of what follows is familiar. Fortunately, Stone does far more than dramatize the events in the documentary. Shortly after the opening, he takes us back to 2004 and Snowden's failed army training (injuries prevented him from serving), which in turn led him to the CIA. The Snowden of that time is not just a young and unquestioning patriot, but also a conservative one. Much like the journey of Jack Lemmon's character in Costa-Gavras's 1982 blistering critique of U.S. involvement in Chile, "Missing"), Snowden starts out believing only the good about his country, and ends up completely disillusioned. Helping him along in this journey is his liberal girlfriend Lindsay (Shailene Woodley, "Divergent"), who challenges him on his first date to question the reasons we went to war in Iraq. Still, it's the dirt on government snooping that Snowden will uncover that really leads to his conversion, especially once Obama is elected and the mining of personal information only gets worse.

However you feel about Snowden's actions - and, for the record, I believe we should pardon him, since the government misdeeds he uncovered were criminal - the strength of Stone's film is the way he cuts back and forth between the conversations with journalists in 2013 and the evolution of Snowden's career and beliefs. At first timid as he begins his CIA training, he later gains enough in confidence to speak out and resign when he sees things he doesn't like. Rhys Ifans ("The Amazing Spider-Man"), as Corbin O'Brien, a shadowy spymaster-cum-mentor who first admits Snowden into the CIA and then tracks his progress over the years, bringing him back into the fold  even after he grows disillusioned, becomes this movie's face of evil, pushing his ends-justifying-means agenda at all costs. And why this obsession with Snowden? According to the script, co-written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald ("The Homesman") and based on two separate books - one by Russian lawyer Anatoly Kucherena and the other by British journalist Luke Harding - Snowden, though a high-school dropout, is unusually gifted in the art and technology of programming and hacking. His talent, once it's noticed by O'Brien, is coveted as a necessary tool in our fight against terrorism, which makes his ultimate defection sting all the more (witness our congress's recent report on why Snowden should not be treated as whistleblower). It's a complicated story, to say the least.

But a well-told one. Whatever the truths of various elements of the plot, Stone does an excellent job cutting between times and keeping the characters clear in our minds. Sadly, what he doesn't do so well is handle the relationship parts of the story, throwing in soggy sentiment - and even a sex scene - to humanize his protagonist. He also inexplicably adds Nicolas Cage ("Joe") - who can be quite fine when he decides to give an actual performance - to the mix, and allows him full range to overact. Fortunately, he's not in the movie for that long. Poor Woodely, though, does her best to make her underwritten girlfriend part meaningful, yet isn't given enough to work with. These problems aside, as a gripping dramatic thriller made by a master visualist, "Snowden" delivers the cinematic goods. Even an over-the-top video call towards the end, where Ifans's giant head towers over the diminutive Gordon-Levitt, though perhaps a little too obvious in its direct visualization of the power differential between the two men, is still effective. Speaking of Gordon-Levitt, he is wonderful in the part, bringing a troubled intensity and integrity to Snowden's moral dilemma. Given how much Snowden, the man, is still very much a part of our national conversation, the movie, despite some flaws, deserves to be seen by as wide an audience as possible. Welcome back to the fight, Mr. Stone!

Hands of Stone
½

Venezuelan actor Edgar Ramírez ("Carlos") stars as famed Panamanian boxer Roberto Durán in "Hands of Stone," a new biopic from Venezuelan director Jonathan Jakubowicz ("Secuestro Express"). Cuban actress Ana de Armas ("War Dogs") comes along for the ride as Durán's long-suffering wife, Felicidad, along with Panamanian actor Rubén Blades ("Cradle Will Rock"), as Carlos Eleta, Durán's long-suffering manager/promoter. All of these good folks bring a certain authenticity to the project, especially Ramírez who, though a little bigger than the real deal, completely inhabits the title role, portraying Durán in his all his physical glory, manic intensity and depressive vindictiveness. As played by Ramírez, Durán is not a particularly nice man, but certainly one with a compelling life story.

Joining our Latin-American friends are the former "Raging Bull" himself, Robert De Niro, as legendary boxing trainer Ray Arcel; Ellen Barkin ("The Chameleon," and many a terrific 1980s film), as Arcel's (also long-suffering) wife; John Turturro ("Fading Gigolo") as a New-York mafioso; and pop star Usher as the great Sugar Ray Leonard, Durán's erstwhile rival in the ring. All are fine actors and deliver solid work here (perhaps Usher could have smiled a little less, though I understand that Leonard was and is a stand-up guy), and make for an engaging ensemble. Why, then, does the movie ultimately feel a little flat? Maybe it's the nature of the biopic, constrained by the actual facts of the story and the limitations of chronology; maybe it's the mise-en-scène, which at times veers from melodrama to melodrama; or maybe it's the occasional expositional voiceover, spoken by De Niro, which tells us what we can already see on screen. Whatever the reason, the movie is eminently watchable, if deeply imperfect.

We start in 1971, which is the first time Arcel lays eyes on Durán. He's fresh out of Panama, poised for the big time, and carries a huge chip on his shoulder, having grown up in a country occupied by the U.S. military, and born of a union between such a North-American soldier and a teenage Panamanian gal, the soldier abandoning mother and infant son and hightailing it back to the States. Durán uses that rage as fuel for his punches, and as Arcel watches, he knocks out his opponent in 66 seconds. Soon, though Arcel has been banned, by the mob, from receiving income as a trainer, he's down in Panama, working for free, determined to make Durán a champion. Which, over the course of the ensuing decade, he does. Until Leonard.

Along the way, Durán settles down, has many a child - all named Roberto - with Felicidad (who manages to never lose her girlish figure, looking cinematically, if unbelievably, splendid throughout), and becomes something of a local philanthropist back home. But as Euripides would say, "whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad," and so we know that Durán will have to hit bottom before he can become the man he was always supposed to be. Perhaps that's the real problem here. Maybe the facts were odd enough that a truly unusual retelling might have worked; instead, the trajectory ends up feeling conventional, without surprises. Despite these flaws, "Hands of Stone" is worth watching for Ramirez, alone.

Hell or High Water

It's early morning in West Texas. The camera drifts lazily over and through the low-rise buildings of a small town, nondescript and empty in the morning. A patch of graffiti reads "3 Tours in Iraq, but no bailout for people like us." We travel through a parking lot and come to rest on a bank entrance, where a lone woman approaches the door, pulling out her keys. She's the first employee of the day. Suddenly, from behind, come two masked men, who push her roughly inside. And so begins "Hell or High Water," where riches will be sought, Robin Hood-style, from those who have stolen them. Our protagonists may be bank robbers, but the villains here are the forces of society that steal from the poor to make the rich richer. That graffiti we passed by is more than just a random happenstance: it's the theme of the film.

The truth of who's right and who's wrong is, fortunately, a lot more complicated than that - and of what importance is right or wrong in a good narrative, anyway, as long as the characters believe in what they're doing? - or we'd have a movie far too simple for its own good. Instead, what we get, courtesy of director David Mackenzie ("Starred Up") and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan ("Sicario") is a morally complex tale of economic and existential survival masquerading as a damn fine bank-heist thriller. Brothers Tanner (Ben Foster, "Lone Survivor") and Toby (Chris Pine, "Star Trek Beyond") need a lot of money quickly, for reasons soon to be explained. Tanner is the wild card, just out of prison; Toby's a divorced father of two, calmer and brighter than his older sibling, but in need of his ruthlessness. As they make their way through a series of attacks on banks, which go off with varying degrees of success, they attract the attention of a pair of Texas Rangers, played by Jeff Bridges ("True Grit") and Gil Birmingham ("California Indian"). The Rangers are yin to the brothers' yang, patiently tracking them down, trading (mostly affectionate) barbs as they go; two sets of partners with whom we spend almost equal time, dividing our loyalties. It's Birmingham's Alberto - of Native-American descent - who seems to most understand the brothers' motivation, as he likens their plight to that of all conquered people. If it's not the White Man putting you down, it's the banks, who go after all the poor, regardless of race.

It's a deeply satisfying film that mixes genres - crime, Western, epic drama - in a brilliant combination that keeps us guessing how it will all turn out until the very end. There are great - if also devastating - surprises in store and, most importantly, a wonderful sense of plot and character development that is often missing in some of the bigger movies of our day: unlike in, say, the last Marvel movie, here we care deeply about the fate of all involved. Foster and Pine are both terrific, as are Bridges (doing his old-man thing, but doing it well) and, especially, Birmingham, an underused actor (perhaps best known to most viewers as Billy Black in the "Twilight" films) who here gets a chance to shine. A deceptively small movie, set in vast and desolate landscapes, "Hell or High Water" deals with important themes relevant to our day and age, all the while entertaining the "hell" out of you. Go see it.

War Dogs
War Dogs(2016)
½

Todd Phillips is the man responsible for giving us all three "Hangover" films. I loved the first one but hated the second, and therefore avoided the third. As they went along (at least from #1 to #2), their humor degraded from boundary-pushing to just plain vicious, as the protagonists' antics and attendant jokes grew more and more desperate to transgress at any cost. While it was easy to laugh off the loss of a dentist's tooth in part one, the loss of a pianist's finger in part two was not nearly as amusing. I shudder to think what happened in part three. Still, in that first film, anyway, Phillips demonstrated a solid ability to mix action and comedy that boded well should he find or write a better script.

And now we have "War Dogs," co-written by Phillips, Stephen Chin ("Another Day in Paradise") and Jason Smilovic ("Lucky Number Slevin") - based on the true-life tale profiled in a "Rolling Stone" article, later turned into a book, by Guy Lawson - and starring Jonah Hill ("22 Jump Street") and Miles Teller ("Whiplash") as twenty-something arms merchants. It is that better script, funny where it should be and not afraid to tackle larger themes beyond the scatological: a bitingly satirical look at the way we operate our military conflicts, offering contracts to any and all comers without any moral concerns over the provenance of the weapons. As an opening montage makes clear, war is an economy, much as Dwight Eisenhower warned it would become; as long as the merchandise arrives on time and operates as expected, everyone's happy.

Hill and Teller are Efraim and David, childhood friends who reconnect in their 20s. David's stuck in a tailspin, working as a massage therapist in Miami Beach while he tries to get an ill-fated business project - selling quality sheets to nursing homes - off the ground. Efraim is just back from Los Angeles, where he and his father have been operating a gun-repossession business, selling confiscated weapons back to law enforcement (I think, but the details of that particular set-up don't really matter). Now he's ready to move on up to the big time, taking advantage of the U.S. government's legal obligation to allow bids on weapons contracts to small operators in the wake of legal problems due to Halliburton subsidiary KBR previously earning all the money. He needs a partner, and David, about to be a father, needs better prospects. Soon, given the army's never-ending demand for weapons and ammunition, they're off and running, though an initial snafu sends them into an actual war zone to recuperate and then deliver a batch of promised guns. It's in that sequence that Phillips brings his trademark mix of comedy and action most to bear, pulling off a series of tour-de-force moments that are both thrilling, hilarious, and very disturbing.

Eventually, the too-good-to-be-true scheme falls apart, but not before Efraim and David have made a lot of money and had a good time. They get in over their heads thanks to a shady international arms dealer played by Bradley Cooper ("American Sniper"), whose amorality makes Efraim and David look like Boy Scouts. Cooper is chilling as a man for whom nothing is off limits, even through (or perhaps because) he looks and talks like a hedge-fund manager. Both Hill and Teller are equally strong, and even Ana de Armas ("Knock Knock"), in an underwritten part as David's girlfriend (and mother to his child), gets a chance to shine in a few select scenes. The movie is far from perfect - I wish it had kept its satirical edge right up to the end, rather than embracing a sentimental takedown of its ostensible heroes - but is made with such energy and brio, all the while illuminating the seedy underbelly of American arms dealing, that its flaws pale in comparison to what works. 

Ben-Hur
Ben-Hur(2016)
½

American Civil War Hero Lewis Wallace - or General Lew Wallace, as he is most often known - published what would become a mega-bestseller, "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ," in 1880. It told the fictional story of a Jewish prince of Jerusalem, Judah Ben-Hur, in the years of Jesus Christ's preaching, who is betrayed by a childhood friend, Messala, a Roman who sentences him to certain death. Like the hero of another 19th-century epic -  Alexandre Dumas's "The Count of Monte Cristo" - he escapes after a long imprisonment, later to return and exact his revenge upon his would-be executioner. Such retribution takes the form of a victory in the chariot races of the Roman circus, during which an accident cripples Messala, who dies thereafter. Where does Christ enter into of all this? At repeated intervals of the novel, Judah crosses paths with the rising prophet, until finally his story and that of the messiah's intersect at the crucifixion of the latter, leading to Judah's conversion to the nascent new religion. Vengeance is not yours to wreak, sayeth the newly resurrected God. And so Judah rises from the ashes of his former life, reunited with his once-lost family, and embraces a hopeful future.

The first time Wallace's book was brought to the silver screen was in 1907, and then, as ever, the major set piece was that chariot race. When, in 1925, Louis B. Mayer's freshly constituted MGM Studios took on a feature-length version, starring Ramon Novarro as the titular prince, it became, with its $4 million budget,  the most expensive silent film ever made, up to that point. Why? It costs a lot of money to build that circus! But it paid off, saving the studio's fortunes, and the brilliantly realized race sequence was justly celebrated for years to come. Then, in 1959, MGM - again in need of a big hit - took on the epic story once more, now with the great William Wyler ("The Best Years of Our Lives") at the helm and the ever-solid Charlton Heston ("The Ten Commandments") in the chariot. This time, the circus sequence, alone, cost $4 million. Still, it was all worth it, as the new film went on to win 11 Academy Awards, a record matched only, as of this writing, by "Titanic" and "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" (when epic films win Best Picture, they tend to clean up, since they also win so many of the technical awards, as well). As with the 1925 silent version, what has never failed to impress viewers - even those, like me, who find much of the other parts extremely dated in their aesthetic - since that time is the magnificence of the sets and the masterful mise-en-scène of the chariot race.

And now here we are, in 2016, with a brand new retelling of the 136-year-old classic. Religiously minded husband-and-wife producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey ("The Bible" mini-series), working with Russian-Kazakh director Timur Bekmambetov ("Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter"), have decided that what the world needs now is another version of Wallace's story. Why not? So much else gets remade. But as with all storytelling, old, new or an amalgam of both, what counts is the central premise - or raison d'être - behind the endeavor. Is there an idea beyond the mercenary? According to Burnett and Downey, there is: to salve the wounds of our hurting world with the balm of healing. Which is why, in this movie, things don't turn out quite the way they did in 1959 and 1925 (I'm purposefully ignoring a 2010 mini-series that is not worth mentioning). There's more forgiveness and more love.

Fair enough. Who can argue with that? Unfortunately, there's also less talent. Say what you will about Heston (along with William Shatner, my favorite over-actor), but he held your attention with true magnetism. Director Wyler knew a thing or two about camera placement, and though his Oscar-winning film is riddled with excessive sentiment, it feels brisk, even at over 210 minutes, because we are wholly invested in Ben-Hur's journey. Bekmambetov, who once so wowed me with his early promise in films, made back in Russia, like "Night Watch" and "Day Watch," has since those day become mired in the special-effects wizardry of modern-day Hollywood, hopelessly adrift in creative limbo. Lead actors Jack Huston ("Kill Your Darlings"), as Ben-Hur, and Toby Kebbell ("Warcraft"), as Messala, are appealing in a boyish way, but no match for Heston and his co-star Stephen Boyd ("Fantastic Voyage"). This time, the rivals are brothers, and not just friends, a change which actually renders Messala's betrayal a hundred times worse, straining the credibility of the final forgiveness scene. The entire affair is narrated by Morgan Freeman ("Lucy") - because who doesn't want to have their film accompanied by his wise, mellifluous voice - who is saddled with so much exposition that we sometimes wonder why we even need the subsequent action. Nevertheless, once the film settles down to its storytelling, there are some sequences that entertain. Of particular note is the scene in the Roman galley, when all hell breaks loose in a naval battle; the chariot race is also fine, though less impressive now in our world of CGI without the sense of it all taking place, for real, in front of the camera. I also enjoyed some of the transitions between scenes, such as when we flash forward 5 years from Ben-Hur's arrival on the ship through the mere flick of a whip. But overall, this is a movie that genuinely begs the question, why bother?

Perhaps the most egregious fault is the choice to show Jesus - remember that this is "A Tale of the Christ" - in all his ordinary humanity. For the record, I am an atheist, and so do not believe that Jesus Christ was the son of God. But if you're going to make a film about a deity walking the earth, that deity should have star power. In the 1959 film, we never see Jesus except from behind, and when everyone - from Jews to Romans to slaves - react in awe when gazing upon the man, we supply our own vision of what they see. Here, poor Rodrigo Santoro ("300: Rise of an Empire") as Jesus, whose face we see from the get-go,  is burdened with too great of a task, and comes across as just a struggling soul who wishes the world were better. That would be fine - and it's how I envision the historical Jesus, anyway - but when everyone reacts to him as if he commands special power, it makes no sense, because he doesn't. And from the misconception flows all that doesn't work in the rest of the film. If, in the course of my review, I have failed to mention any of the actresses, it's because their parts are as underwritten as they were in 1959, which in 2016 feels unforgivable. Save yourself some money and re-watch the 1959 "Ben-Hur" at home on your beautiful widescreen TV. Hokum and all, it'll be more fun.

Sausage Party
½

If the thought of your food having sex (note: not you having sex with your food) after doing battle with those who would eat it, all the while spouting gourmet profanities galore, then this just might be the movie for you. On the other hand, depending on your tolerance for ethnic and racial jokes, you could find the movie a turnoff (food sex notwithstanding). What is most definite, however, is that "Sausage Party" is not the family-friendly animated confection you have been waiting for (its R rating is well-earned). Hopefully, you already caught "Zootopia," "Finding Dory" and/or "The Secret Life of Pets" earlier this year. Whatever you do, don't take your children to see this, unless they're adults, and even then, you may just want to sit in separate theaters. Unless you enjoy yukking it up over semen jokes with your offspring (and then I'd rather not know you, thank you very much), in which case, Sausage Party is your fantasy come to cinematic life!

The day dawns bright; the sun shines on the corn; a baritone sings out. No, this is not the opening of "Oklahoma!," but rather a supermarket in a big city where produce, non-perishables and health and beauty products all celebrate each morning with a joyous song, hopeful that this will be the day they are chosen for the "great beyond." As it so happens, it's July 3, and tomorrow will be "red, white and blue day." The frankfurters and buns are especially excited, as they know that this is a particularly fine opportunity for them to achieve their destiny. Among them are Frank (voiced by Seth Rogen, "The Interview," also one of the writers) and Brenda (voiced by Kristen Wiig, "Ghostbusters"), a sausage and bread product made for each other, or so they believe, and as they're declarations of first love, and then explicit raunchy lust, indicate, they have but one thought in mind, which is to join in coital harmony. They are not alone. Who knew that food was so eager to get it on? 

Sadly, however, the spell of their idyll is broken by a returned jar of honey mustard, who tells of evil deeds afoot beyond the walls of the supermarket. One thing leads to another, and before long our heroes are jettisoned from their packaging, with but one goal in mind, which is to return things to the way they were. If this sounds like "Toy Story," that's because, apart from the choice of actual subjects and the foul language, it hews pretty close to the plot of most quest movies, animated or not. What makes the film stand apart is not the trajectory of its narrative, but it's liberal use of scatological and carnal humor, as well as it's equal-opportunity offenses in the realm of ethnic slurs. From a Woody Allen-esque nebbishy bagel (voiced by Edward Norton ("Birdman"?) to a virgin-seeking Jew-hating Lavash (voiced by David Krumholtz , "Gigi Does It") - and if you have to ask what a Lavash is, don't worry, as the movie makes fun of that, as well - to a hot-blooded taco shell (voiced by Salma Hayek ("Savages") to, well, many more (and many more actors than the ones listed here), the script indulges in every possible stereotype it can justify among the food shelves. It's funny for a while, and not as offensive as it might seem, especially since so many supermarket items are marketed via such stereotypes, but then it just gets old.

And that's the real problem with the movie. Inconsistent with the big laughs, it all too often elicits nothing more than a chuckle. Sausages proclaiming their desire to sleep with buns, in far more explicit language than that, is amusing, but the constant repetition of that fact is not. There needs to be more. Finally, at the end, there is, and I must admit that the grand finale did catch me unawares and make me laugh, loudly and raucously. But before then there was much squirming, and even a cringe or two when the film actually became quite violent (a not so quasi-rape scene, a beheading, and more). It's quite the hodgepodge, with some tasty morsels and others quite rotten. Still, the audacity of that ending scene almost made the whole experience worth it. Go for that dessert, at least, and maybe you'll enjoy the appetizer and main course more than I did.

Florence Foster Jenkins
½

I miss the Meryl Streep of yore, before she was an institution, accorded diva status and expected to play corresponding roles. I loved her in Tommy Lee Jones's recent "The Homesman," where her few minutes on screen allowed her enough time to show how much she could do with very little. These days, however, she all too often plays larger-than-life parts, from Miranda Priestley in "The Devil Wears Prada," to Julia Child in "Julia & Julia," to Margaret Thatcher in "The Iron Lady," to the battle-axe of a matriarch in "August: Osage County" (where, for my money, she was outclassed by the far more restrained Julia Roberts). I am sure that much of this is the result of a dearth of normal roles for women as they age. Who wouldn't rather play eccentrics than faceless helpmates and housewives? Still, knowing the emotional depths of which Streep is capable - think "Kramer vs. Kramer," "Sophie's Choice" or "Silkwood," to name but three of her many past (comparatively subtle) glories - it seems almost a shame to watch her don yet another set of stylized mannerisms for yet another oddball. Nevertheless, if we compare her to a male contemporary who began in the same 1970s era - Robert De Niro - whose work over the past decade has included far too many forgettable comedies like the recent "Dirty Grandpa," Streep remains the far better model of how to remain relevant in the later years of one's career.

But here she is as wealthy heiress Florence Foster Jenkins, whose inability to hold a tune was matched only by her willingness to belt it for all to hear. Dubbed "the worst singer in the world" by at least one reporter (according to this film), Jenkins was a great patron of the arts, both in her adopted hometown of New York and across the globe, spreading her riches generously through circles large and small. As a result, she had a devoted following that even included the great conductor Arturo Toscanini, though that (purchased) loyalty did not necessarily translate into attendance at one her concerts. After all, art is art, and brooks (almost) no compromise. As played by Streep, she is all nervous and clueless bluster, sweetly bombastic as she prepares for one final concert at Carnegie Hall. It would all seem so improbably if it were not, in fact, based on the truth. Earlier this year saw the release of French director Xavier Giannoli's "Marguerite," which told a highly fictionalized version of the same story. In many ways that was the superior film, both in its central performance (by the great Catherine Frot, "Haute Cuisine") and period splendor. Both movies, however, suffer from the same problem: what, beyond their ridiculous belief in their nonexistent talent, makes these women worthy of a feature-length treatment of their lives. They're rich, spoiled, and, aside from that one peculiarity, not very interesting.  

Fortunately, what "Florence Foster Jenkins" has going for it is a marvelous performance by Hugh Grant ("The Man from U.N.C.L.E.") as Jenkins's husband-cum-manager-cum-valet, St Clair Bayfield, a failed actor who long-ago decided that life held more pleasures in the company of a loving patron than on an empty stage. Of course, this doesn't prevent him from spending half his time in the company of his much younger mistress (Rebecca Ferguson, "Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation," in a thankless part), but there is no question that the relationship is mutually beneficial to husband and wife, both. As the film begins, the two are engaged in a joint performance where Bayfield recites monologues and Jenkins poses in tableaux vivants of famous opera scenes, all for the wealthy patrons of the tony Verdi Club. Soon, though, Jenkins decides she wants to sing again, and so Bayfield - played by Grant as an all-purpose fixer - arranges auditions for a new accompanist. They settle on one Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg, "The Big Bang Theory"), as much a lost artistic soul as are they, and before long the three are preparing for the big concert. Not, however, before we hear Jenkins sing, and realize what a disaster this will be.

Ah, the singing. It is funny. Streep makes it so. But after 5 minutes of hearing the desperate warble, and watching McMoon struggle not to laugh (a process repeated many times), we grow bored. Is that all there is to the movie? Director Stephen Frears ("Philomena") likes his outsiders and oddballs, but her can't seem to rise above the mere showcase of strangeness. Yes, Jenkins's life was a celebration of the fact that belief in art can sometimes be as powerful as actual talent, but we get that point early on. The rest of the time, we're simply watching a deluded millionaire sing out of tune. There was another story that could have been told here (and "Marguerite" came closer to telling it) - a satire about the distance between wealth and talent - but Frears and company get too lost in the surface ticks of their main character, and the tragic sentimentality of her love life, to see what could have been. It's all veneer, in other words, and occasionally entertaining, at that, but lacking in a strong story, beneath.

Pete's Dragon
½

If you are a fan of the original "Pete's Dragon," released in 1977, eager to see what the new version has to offer, know this: where that film trafficked in the kind of adorably silly vibe that was Walt Disney's stock-in-trade at the time, the 2016 remake is most definitely a product of the second decade of the 21st century (post-"Dark Knight"), for better or for worse, with tragedy and sentiment interwoven in a sometimes successful, sometimes cloying mix. Elliott the dragon may still be an adorable magical guardian for the orphaned Pete, but the road to the happy conclusion is much more stressful now, and bad things happen to good people. Interestingly, this time around, the bad people suffer nary a scratch, which can frustrate those looking for a story where evil deeds lead to nasty punishment. Instead, though, director David Lowery ("Ain't Them Bodies Saints") has redemption on his mind, underlined by the repeated calls to accept the glories of faith, spoken by, of all people, the Sundance Kid (a.k.a., Robert Redford). Nothing wrong with believing in something, but the heavy-handedness of those exhortations is part of what doesn't work here; what does is the wonderful CGI main character, whose rumbling, if wordless, mournful baritone serves as moral soundtrack to this mixed-bag of an updated fable about loyalty and friendship.

As the film begins, the titular Pete (relative newcomer Oakes Fegley, perfectly acceptable) is not yet an orphan, though five minutes later he will be. As he wanders, bereft, through the woods, the local wolves (the most maligned creatures of the fairy-tale universe) sense an opportunity, but just before they pounce, something far bigger shows up. It's a dragon, who rescues young Pete in a lovely moment that showcases the expressive power of modern animation, especially when combined with live action (nothing in the original came close). We flash forward 6 years, and now Pete and his caretaker/best friend, Elliott (named after a lost dog in Pete's favorite book) have the woods (which look like they belong to the Pacific Northwest) to themselves. If the setup bears an unfortunate resemblance to that of two previous films released this year - first "The Jungle Book" (also from Disney) and then "The Legend of Tarzan" - that should hardly surprise, since Hollywood is as much addicted to repetition as to recycling. Speaking of the latter, one of the nicer additions that Lowery has made to his version is a strong ecological call to action: preserve and keep the wild in as pristine a state as possible.

Unfortunately, while the joyful romps through the forest are delightful, we need conflict, and this must take the form of other humans, none of whom are drawn with the same depth as Elliott and Pete. Bryce Dallas Howard ("Jurassic World") shows up as a forest ranger who has somehow missed seeing Elliott all these years; Robert Redford ("All Is Lost," slumming it here), the film's narrator, plays her father, whose dragon stories have long gone ignored; Oona Laurence ("Lamb") is Howard's daughter, and though she has done fine work in the past, is here relegated to one-dimensional emoting; Karl Urban ("Star Trek Beyond"), who can snarl like no other, makes a good villain, though perhaps too good, since his comeuppance (or, rather, lack thereof) is such a let-down. The rest of the cast, including Wes Bentley ("Interstellar") as Howard's milquetoast husband, are merely faces in a nondescript crowd. Since the screenplay demands that we invest our emotions in Pete's necessary place in this world - rather than with Elliott - this is a narrative problem. Yes, ideally, we (mostly) belong with our own species, but this Pete's Dragon fails to convince that these particular humans are up to the task. As a result, the final resolution, where dragon and boy each go their own way, feels even sadder than the accident that opens the movie. Let Pete have his dragon, dammit!

Don't Think Twice

Comedian Mike Birbiglia has developed a loyal fanbase over the past 10 years or so with his standup routines, Comedy Central specials and frequent appearances on the popular public radio broadcast "This American Life." One of his most devoted fans, in fact, is the producer/star of that last show, Ira Glass, who has gone on to produce both of Birbiglia's features: his debut, "Sleepwalk with Me" (based on sketches he performed on "This American Life" and then collected into a book) and now his follow-up, "Don't Think Twice." Though I do not know Birbiglia personally, he seems like an affable fellow, who commands the respect and affection of those with whom he works, and whose comedic writing, when not in service of a feature-film script, is sharp and funny. Unfortunately, neither of his long-form movies have quite lived up to my expectations, though they have both had many moments of fine wit and subtle characterizations that make for very pleasant, if not particularly memorable, viewing. I like them; I do not love them.

"Don't Think Twice" tells the story of a small improv group, called "The Commune," that has served as a feeder, in the past, for a popular sketch-comedy show, called "Weekend Live," that is clearly modeled on the real-life "Saturday Night Live." As the movie begins, the members form a close-knit group of colleagues and friends who manage to be both mutually supportive and extremely wary that any one of them will make it big. Sure enough, that happens, and when the lucky comic gets the call to move on up to the big leagues, before long their once happy community begins to fall apart. Jealousy and insecurity do not a happy combination make.

The moments in the film that work best are the delightful scenes when the improv group is either on stage or riffing in ostensibly private moments. There, we get a real sense for their dynamic and ability to mine all situations - even the most tragic - for deep comedy. In addition to Birbiglia, we have Gillian Jacobs ("Community"), Kate Micucci ("Steven Universe"), Tami Sagher ("Women Who Kill"), Keegan-Michael Key ("Key and Peele") and Chris Gethard ("Broad City"), all of whom bring wonderful comic timing to their sketches. Unfortunately, even though they are also all more than capable actors, the more mawkish parts of the story do not work as well. What is it with comedians and pathos? The late Robin Williams, in the second half of his career, could never seem to avoid such maudlin miseries as "What Dreams May Come" or "Bicentennial Man," which brimmed with unearned sap. Birbiglia is too good of a writer for his own films to be without merit, but the comedy feels soggy because it is weighed down by a bog of sentiment. The same held true for "Sleepwalk with Me," which lacked the energetic drive of its source material.

I suspect that anyone who has spent time in an improv troupe will probably appreciate the portrait of this particular group, which feels grounded in actual experience. I appreciated the characters and the easy rapport of the actors. I just wish that the ratio of humor to drama were reversed, as Birbiglia has a steadier hand when crafting the former. The film is certainly watchable; I just wish it were better. Early on, we learn the three rules of improv comedy: 1) say yes; 2) it's all about the group; 3) don't think. Our protagonists break all of these rules, but sadly, so does Birbiglia, the writer, who has spent too much time thinking about the story's structure to step back and worry about its actual appeal. You're funny, Mike. Say yes to that. Please.

Jason Bourne
Jason Bourne(2016)

The last time we saw Matt Damon in an existential crisis was just over 10 months ago, as he struggled to survive on the hostile landscape of Mars, in Ridley Scott's "The Martian." In that film, he projected a jovial confidence and competence that belied the very dire straits of his situation. Now, in Jason Bourne, the fourth Bourne movie to star Damon (the last, "The Bourne Ultimatum," came out in 2007, after "The Bourne Identity," in 2002, and "The Bourne Supremacy," in 2004), Damon is even more competent, but maybe not quite so confident and certainly not jovial. This may, in fact, be the grimmest that either he or his character has ever been. Perhaps it's the stress of doing the same kinds of stunts he performed 14 years ago, when he was but 32, though you would never guess it from his bulked-up physique; more likely, it's the exigencies of a cinematic universe grown ever more used to the pessimistic worldview of post-"Dark Knight" superhero films. Whatever the reason, one of the joys of the Bourne series (launched, in book form, by author Robert Ludlum in 1980) is the combination of seemingly real-world political intrigue and visceral action sequences that feel more dangerous and thrilling than anything on offer in the ever-expanding catalogue of either the Marvel or DC franchises. The new movie, directed - as were the last two - by Paul Greengrass (who also gave us "Captain Phillips," among others), filled with fast-paced car chases and fight scenes, does not disappoint in this regard, unless one minds an appalling level of collateral damage. If the senseless deaths of innocent bystanders - staged for your entertainment - cause you no pangs of conscience, however, then sit back, relax, grab the popcorn, and enjoy the ride.

When first we meet our hero, he is on his way to an illicit boxing match in an undisclosed location. He strips down, wraps his knuckles in tape, then turns his bulging back to the camera, where we see the many scars and bullet wounds. Despite the local crowd's clear preference for his rival, he dispatches him with one punch. Clearly, he hasn't lost his edge. This opening follows an initial series of flashbacks with material from the earlier installations, reminding us of some of the details from Bourne's last adventures, including the discovery of his true name. If you recall, as the series progressed, Bourne came closer and closer to uncovering the secrets behind Treadstone, the top-secret black-ops program that initially recruited and trained him. As this movie begins, he has no intention of further pursuing his inquiries until former fellow government agent Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles, "Blue") tracks him down with new information about an even more dangerous CIA operation just getting off the ground. Her arrival, however, compromises Bourne's cover, and soon they are both running from a deadly CIA assassin - called, simply, the "asset" - played by the charismatically menacing French actor Vincent Cassel ("Eastern Promises"). And so the chase is on.

As is par for the course for the genre, we jump easily around the globe, marveling at the efficiency with which the CIA tracks down our hero. If only it were that simple. Then again, the real-life spy agency doesn't have Alicia Vikander ("Ex Machina"), who runs the cinematic organization's cyber division. Hampered only by an odd accent meant to cover her European origins, this otherwise marvelous Swedish actress is a model of glowering intensity and ambition as she makes the case to her Machiavellian boss, played by the increasingly craggy Tommy Lee Jones ("The Homesman"), that she should be the one to find Bourne. Jones, always ready with a malicious twinkle in his eye, acquiesces, but we know he's playing a dangerous game where he controls the stakes.

Ultimately, the film comes down to the obligatory mano a mano contest of strength and skills between Cassel and Damon, equally matched in muscle and scowl. Greengrass stages the mayhem with his usual dexterity, but exciting as it all is, there's something callous in the massive numbers of incidental deaths this time around. Perhaps the world we live in, where terrorist attacks claim real lives in real places, makes the casual insouciance with which the bodies are dispatched feel somehow particularly indecent. All that grimness, which at first seems to drive Bourne towards stopping his government's madness, finally does nothing more than make him even more single-minded in his own violent vendetta. Still, before the bile may rise from your gut, you'll have to admit that the adrenaline pulsing through your veins intoxicates in a distinctly cinematic way. Good and evil can coexist, no?

Café Society
½

With almost fifty feature films to his name, writer/director Woody Allen is nothing if not extremely prolific. Now 80 years old, he has managed to crank out a movie a year - more or less - since the early 1970s. He is truly a marvel of productivity and endurance. He is also a man with a troubled personal history that can complicate his life's work, for some (as it should, perhaps). Cinematically speaking, the more troubling issue, for me, is that this once-great cineaste no longer creates art that is anything more than a recycling of his past ideas. He's come upon a neat trick, however, which is to each time hire a world-class cinematographer to shoot the affair, thereby guaranteeing that the tired clichés on screen will at least look gorgeous. This time around, it's the legendary Vittorio Storaro ("The Last Emperor") who does the honors, and what aesthetic marvels there are in Café Society owe their existence almost entirely to him. That's not to say that the movie is devoid of any other charm - Allen is too good of a writer to be incapable of not producing some watchable scenes - but the overall affair feels so flat and uninspired that one wonders how long Allen's former (well-earned) reputation as a master of his craft will continue to afford him opportunities to direct. "Annie Hall" and "Hannah and Her Sisters" are two of my favorite films of all time - with many others of his among my runners-up - but even when Allen produces something more original these days, such as "Blue Jasmine," it's still but a pale reflection of the masterpieces of yore.

As with most Allen movies that no longer star Allen, himself, we need a surrogate for the director. Here, that role is fulfilled by the ever-reliable Jesse Eisenberg ("The End of the Tour"), who plays Bobby, a young and bored New Yorker, son of a jeweler, who comes out West, to Hollywood, for something new. The time - though never explicitly stated - appears to be the late 1930s, and Bobby's maternal uncle just happens to be a movie mogul, one Phil Stern (Steve Carell, "The Big Short"). A busy man, Phil puts Bobby off for weeks, but eventually brings him into the studio fold, where Bobby meets Phil's secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart, "Clouds of Sils Maria"), with whom he promptly falls in love. Of course it's a match doomed to failure - since that is so frequently Allen's stock in trade - but the milieu and characters allow the director to indulge his penchant for (here) ostensibly witty banter and movie lore. When the plot switches back to New York - Allen's once-favored stomping grounds before he moved things abroad for a while, starting with "Match Point," in 2005 - we get a different setting and a different woman (Blake Lively, "The Age of Adaline") with some passable moments and others that recall better scenes in earlier films. Fortunately, there's Corey Stoll ("Ant-Man") around, as Ben, Bobby's older brother (and a violent gangster) to steal every scene he's in and provide the movie's best moments, by far, but there is too little of him to justify the rest.

Eisenberg and Stewart deserve better, though I do not, for one minute, buy her in this period drama, since there's something in her elocution and body movements - at least as directed by Allen - that screams 21st century. But she's a fine actress, and otherwise well-paired with her co-star, who brings his trademark intelligence and intensity to the role of a man adrift between cities, coasts and lovers. If only they could leave behind the regurgitated scraps of Allen's tired situations and find a better cuisine on which to feast, their "café society" environment might resonate with greater meaning. As it is, I recommend looking for a better restaurant.

Bad Moms
Bad Moms(2016)
½

As those who read my reviews will know, I did not much like what, until now, had been this summer's highest-profile female-centered comedy, "Ghostbusters." Fortunately, along comes "Bad Moms" but a few weeks later, another film that focuses on women, and this time a very funny one, at that. Starring the ever-watchable Mila Kunis ("Friends with Benefits"), Kristen Bell (Veronica Mars) and, especially, Kathryn Hahn ("The Visit"), it tells the story of three overworked and underappreciated mothers who decide they've had enough of always doing what others consider the right thing. Screw it, they say, and set themselves free to look after number one for a while. The result is a truly wild ride, filled with jokes that land with panache. Often silly and profane, it's also terrific fun, as long as the filmmakers stick to the comedy. Unfortunately, we are also treated to more sentimental moments where we are reassured that our heroines are, in fact, good people. Blah. That aside, so much of the rest is a delight that we can, perhaps, forgive all involved for those moral lessons and enjoy what works.

Kunis plays Amy, a mother of two married to a lazy jerk, who works an ostensibly part-time job where her boss expects her to show up every day. On top of all this, the PTA at her children's school - run by the bossy Gwendolyn (Christina Applegate, "Vacation") - demands ever more of her time. One particularly bad day, she dares say no to Gwendolyn and, liberated, she doesn't stop there. She is soon joined by Carla (Hahn), a hard-drinking single mother, and Kiki (Bell), a stay-at-home mom increasingly drained by her overwhelming lack of a personal life. They form a powerful trio that presents itself as an alternative to the world - we can be good mothers even if we occasionally fail - as they take on deadbeat men and the PTA, where Gwendolyn rules with the support of her two mainstays, Stacy (Jada Pinkett Smith, "Magic Mike XXL") and Vicki (Annie Mumolo, "About a Boy"). Since the thrust of Amy's new campaign for sanity involves reclaiming her sense of self, much of her rebellion revolves, at least initially, around partying. Eventually, however, she and her new friends settle down (a bit) and try to make real changes in their lives.

The film is best when it sticks to raunchy debauchery, although the final payoff is nicely managed. It's wonderful to see these fine actresses get a chance to revel in their comedic chops without playing second fiddle to anyone but their female costars. There are a few men in the mix, but they're mostly underwritten or written off. Co-writers/co-directors Jon Lucas and Scott Moore (who wrote "The Hangover" and its sequels, and wrote/directed "21 and Over") are not going to win any awards for their filmmaking aesthetic - derivative of every other flashy action, comedy, or action-comedy out there these days - but they know a good thing when they see it, and that good thing is their cast (and, let's be fair, much of their script). So see it for the zaniness that these women bring to the screen so effectively, have a good time, and make sure to stay for the end credits, where each of the lead actresses is paired with her real-life mother for a brief, but moving, conversation that was one of my favorite parts of the film.

Star Trek Beyond
½

In our age of endless remakes, reboots and sequels, what makes any particular film fit seamlessly into the continuum of a well-established series? What makes Marvel superheroes uniquely Marvel? What makes today's Bond belong to the pantheon of previous Bonds? What makes James T. Kirk special, whether played by William Shatner or Chris Pine? Why ask the questions, if a movie is a movie is a movie and all that matters is whether it is successful on its own terms? If that were true, however, then perhaps we would see a greater variety of original, non-derivative work, while today's balance is firmly in favor of pre-awareness. So surely we gravitate towards stories that revisit older stories in a context more appropriate to our time. And yet, if the modern take were not, in some way, tied to the past, then there would be no point to a franchise. We go to see Bond because it's exciting to the see the latest iteration of a well-worn character. It's a tricky balance, however. Remain too faithful to the source, and current audiences may be bored; change the material too much, and there's no connection to speak of. In the theater, there is a long tradition of modern updates of classic plays, but the cinema is a younger art form, and we're still figuring out how best to manage its eternal recurrence.

All of this is by way of introduction to the latest entry in the new - updated and improved! - "Star Trek" universe: "Star Trek Beyond." This is the third movie (the first came out in 2009 and the second in 2013) featuring the current crop of actors: Chris Pine ("Into the Woods") as Kirk, Zachary Quinto ("Margin Call") as Spock, Karl Urban ("Dredd") as McCoy, Simon Pegg ("The World's End") - who also co-wrote the script - as Scotty, John Cho ("Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle") as Sulu, Zoe Saldana ("Infinitely Polar Bear") as Uhura and the late Anton Yelchin ("Green Room") as Chekov. Even though many of them are now older than were the actors in the original TV series during its first run, the series still feels as if intended as prequel. Then again, since director J.J. Abrams decided, in his reboot, to insert a destructive plot element that completely negated any and all story lines from every single episode and movie that had previously been made, none of that matters. It's not only a brand new version of the characters, but a complete wiping of the cinematic slate. Which is one way, I suppose, to address the questions I asked, earlier. While I fervently disagree with Abrams's 2009 script choice, maybe it's time to move on.

In any case, we have a new director: Justin Lin ("Fast & Furious 6"). Whatever I thought of the changes wrought by Abrams in "Star Trek" and "Star Trek Into Darkness," I still found the films more than competent as adventure thrillers, and Lin, here, proves a worthy replacement, crafting a high-octane, adrenaline-fueled sci-fi confection that may just be the best action film of the summer, so far (until "Jason Bourne" comes out next week, anyway). Yes, the entire enterprise of the USS Enterprise - traveling into unknown space where, for some reason, all aliens have evolved to be bipedal humanoids, with the only differences from our own species being those of color and facial shape - seems as silly as ever, but if one can suspend one's evolutionary disbelief, there is much fun to be had in this particular yarn.

As the film opens, the Enterprise makes its way to a space station after a failed diplomatic mission. There, a distress call from a stricken Starfleet ship sends them off on another mission to uncharted territory, where they come under attack from a superior adversary, named Krall, played by the ever-reliable Idris Elba ("Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom"). Marooned and imprisoned on a hostile planet, our intrepid heroes must do what they always do, which is to overcome adversity through pluck and courage. Fortunately, they have help from a fellow refugee, Jaylah - played by the very game Sofia Boutella, who wowed us as the deadly Gazelle in "Kingsmen: The Secret Service" - and soon find a way to fight back against Krall. As it so often does, the fate of Starfleet (and, by default, of the known universe) comes down to a personal battle between Kirk and his foe. In this sense, fans of the series - even me! - will not be disappointed. Well-acted and -executed, "Star Trek Beyond" may still bother me for the same reason as did its predecessors (the destruction of Vulcan remains inexcusable), but it's a damn fine effort, otherwise, and a great summer movie.

So what makes this a modern take on an old story? Well, even more than in the 1960s, Uhura is very much an independent woman. Sulu is also revealed to be gay (something not entirely pleasing to the man who incarnated the role, George Takei, though he is gay, himself). Perhaps the best update, however, is the final reading of the famous "Space: The Final Frontier" monologue, which is now no longer a monologue, but spoken by the entire main cast. They're a wonderful multicultural team, representative of the world as it is and should be. "Star Trek" was always, from the beginning, pushing a utopian idealism, and these particular tweaks to the characters are a welcome addition.

Equals
Equals(2016)

We've been here - a dystopian future where citizens are micromanaged by governments wary of an unruly populace - many times before, from literary classics like "We," "A Brave New World" and "1984" (among others) to films like "Logan's Run," "THX 1138" and "12 Monkeys" (and so much more). It's interesting how we so often choose to envision the future as a world where choice and free will have disappeared, given that the history of our species is one of a gradual move (though not for all) towards greater personal liberty, albeit in fits and starts. Certainly, thanks to certain politicians in this country right now, we may, at present, be closer to dystopia than before, and perhaps the fear of disaster is what keeps us properly on guard against fascism, but our fascination with a grim future - "The Terminator" being one of the bleakest such visions - is, itself, intriguing. We never seem to tire of it, though the details of our impending disaster may change.

Now comes director Drake Doremus ("Breathe In") with another such meditation on the horrors that await us. Here, we are in an unnamed city where humans have all been purged of basic emotions. We're not sure of time and place, and at first it almost looks like a hip version of our present, as main protagonist Silas (Nicholas Hoult, "Mad Max: Fury Road") wakes up in what appears to be a sleek bachelor pad with sweeping views of an urban landscape. Soon, however, as he makes his way to work in the same crisp, white suit worn by everyone else, we sense the crushing weight of imposed conformity. Silas works as an illustrator at ATMOS, a corporation in some way devoted to space travel (though we never really learn the details), where he is surrounded by similarly dispassionate souls. Except for a young woman named Nia (Kristen Stewart, "Clouds of Sils Maria"), whose eyes shine with a feeling that awakens a similar response in Silas. Sure enough, he is soon diagnosed with SOS, or "Switched-on Syndrome," which means he has only a limited amount of time before he is shipped off to "The Den," where people with "Defective Emotional Neuropathy" go to die.

Beautifully shot and acted - indeed, Stewart, as the apostle of yearning for her generation, her face and body always vibrating with passion, is perfect as Nia - Equals is almost too minimalist in its construction to be much more than an exercise in design, performance and the intersection of the two. It also borrows heavily from the aesthetic and story of George Lucas's aforementioned "THX 1138." But as a movie about the yearning for connection that defines the human race, that no government control can fully eradicate, it is deeply affecting, nonetheless.

Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie
½

Did the world really need a movie adaptation of Jennifer Saunders' long-running (though on-again, off-again) BBC series "Absolutely Fabulous"? Not only was the show sporadic in its broadcast history, but also in its delivery of wit. When Saunders and her partner in crime, Joanna Lumley, were funny, they were deliriously so, but whenever their comedic muse deserted them, their shenanigans could be painful to endure. Sadly, what comes to the screen today is of the latter variety: extremely short on humor, but long on suffering. Which is too bad, as there are a few truly inspired gags, including one involving a tiny car in the south of France that was delightful in the kind of manic way that only Saunders can manage. There's also an earlier bit involving Jon Hamm ("Mad Men") that is near pitch-perfect. If only the rest of the film were as good.

As always, Saunders (who recently did such a fine job as the voice of the Queen in "Minions") plays Edina Monsoon, a British PR agent who, in spite of her alcohol and drug abuse and general inability to avoid disaster, is always just one step away from phenomenal success (or failure). Her best friend is fashion-magazine editor Patsy Stone (Lumley, DiCaprio's aunt by marriage in "The Wolf of Wall Street"), whose vices make Edina look like a nun. Together, they gleefully court mayhem, much to the horror of Edina's long-suffering (and very sober) daughter Saffron (way back when, the unruly daughter, Lydia, in the 1995 BBC version of "Pride and Prejudice"). This time around, Edina concocts a scheme to seduce fashion model Kate Moss away from her current representation, sure that this will put her back on top. Unfortunately, things go wrong (of course), and soon Edina and Patsy find themselves on the run, with Saffron's teenage daughter along for the fun. Their misadventures take them to Cannes, where they wreak havoc on the French Riviera. And so on and so forth.

We all need silly comedies. And I did laugh in a few (choice) spots. But all too often I marveled at how unfunny it all was. Part of the problem is that veteran TV director Mandie Fletcher ("My So Called Life Sentence") seems incapable of staging the scenes in a way that foregrounds the punchlines. All too often, the jokes get lost in the clutter of messy mise-en-scène. It also doesn't help that the fashion world is already ridiculous enough that it belies parody. And though the movie briefly flirts with the more serious topic of how to handle the challenges of getting older, even those discussions fail to resonate, given that we flit from one frenetic episode to another. Perhaps what Patsy appears to be snorting was the actual drug of choice on set. All of which would be somewhat forgivable if we could laugh more than once every thirty minutes. All things must pass, and this "Absolutely Fabulous" is mostly just absolutely dreadful.

Ghostbusters
Ghostbusters(2016)
½

I wish I could report that the new Ghostbusters - a reimagining of the beloved 1984 original, this time with an all-female lead cast - was as much of a comic masterpiece as its predecessor, thereby thumbing its cinematic nose at the haters who cried foul at the announcement of its gynocentric production. Why, in the second decade of the 21st century, anyone would object to a new version of the story with women in the main parts, I do not know. May such losers encounter the eternal bad karma that they deserve. Sadly, however, my reasons for not appreciating the film are far more pedestrian: its script is a complete mess, and not that funny. Co-written by Katie Dippold (The Heat) and director Paul Feig (Spy), the screenplay lurches from one under-realized and over-produced situation to another, forgetting such essentials as meaningful character development and the joyful interplay of joke setup vs. payoff. Sure, there are a few genuine laughs, but given who is on screen, that was inevitable. For the most part, it's just a special-effects-driven bore.

Kristen Wiig (The Skeleton Twins) and Melissa McCarthy (St. Vincent) play childhood friends Erin and Abby - scientists (or so we're told) - who once co-authored a book on ghosts before growing apart. Now Erin is on the tenure track at Columbia while Abby labors in an unauthorized lab with Jillian - Kate McKinnon (The Angry Birds Movie), one of the two best things in the movie - perfecting their specialized phantom detectors. When a local haunting (in an unlikely mansion in the middle of Manhattan) brings Erin and Abby reluctantly back together, all three quickly discover that the spirit world is indeed real and, in fact, quite active. Soon they are joined by Patty - Leslie Jones (Top Five), the other reason to see the film - an employee of the MTA who contacts the nascent "ghostbusters" when the subway station she supervises receives an unwelcome spectral visitor (ask yourself why, as in the original, the lone African-American is a working-class stiff, rather than a scientist, like the others). For reasons poorly explained in the script, Patty decides to join the other three, and soon they are all running around New York City, brandishing nuclear-powered weapons they barely understand, capturing ghosts.

All of which is fine, I guess, except that every scene feels as if it were directed by a first-timer and sketched by a writer determined to make as much room for improv as possible. But, for my money, the best improvisational riffs usually emerge out of a decent initial structure, and what passes for plot devices here feel so far-fetched that the jokes mostly fall flat. Chris Hemsworth (Rush), as a dim-witted (but very hunky) secretary is a prime example: he's kind of amusing, but without the support of a well-crafted gag, what comic timing he can muster feels mostly forced. The cameos from the stars of the original movie are also hit or miss. The best ones come later in the film, so stick around if you're tempted to leave. Unfortunately, on top of all of the other misfires, the main villain of the movie is a caricature of a grown-up bullying victim, pasty and overweight, exacting his revenge on the world for its past sins against him. Really? They couldn't do better than make fun of the socially awkward?

It's too bad, as there was a lot of potential, with this cast and the original premise. Inept ghost hunters who somehow stumble into saving the world worked the first time around, and there was no reason to think it wouldn't here. Personally, I would have preferred to see the story set in the same universe as the 1984 movie, rather than in a world where those events never happened, but certainly the choice to start fresh is not the reason this movie fails. Perhaps, as with many contemporary comedies (witness the recent Sisters, or quite a few Will Ferrell films), no one bothered with the story, imagining that the assembly of the cast was enough. Certainly, if you are a diehard fan of any of these actresses, you may enjoy the film for her/their own sake. And more power to you. I, however, was hoping for more than the occasional chuckle.

The Infiltrator

Following his delightful 2011 thriller "The Lincoln Lawyer" - which helped launch the Matthew McConaissance - director Brad Furman decidedly did not return to form with his 2013 follow-up, "Runner Runner." Where the former was taut and masterfully paced, the latter mistook baroque intrigue for meaningful drama, losing itself in the murky depths of what passed for plot. It was a disappointing come-down, but now Furman is back, working off of a script by his mother, Ellen Brown Furman (a type of collaboration which, apparently, is a cinematic first), and I am happy to report that the result, while far from perfect, makes for a reasonably entertaining two-hour undercover procedural that mixes pulpy, stylish fun with a palpable sense of real-life danger. Furman still can't quite escape a penchant for unnecessary melodrama, and all too often allows the intrusive score from composer Chris Hajian ("Welcome to Academia") to ruin otherwise fine moments, but this is still a compulsively watchable tale of derring-do that mostly rises above its flaws.

Based on the true-crime autobiographical account, of the same title, by IRS/U.S. Customs Agent Robert Mazur (still very much with us and still offering his services to those in need), "The Infiltrator" takes place in 1985, in Florida, where the Colombian drug cartels are flourishing in the midst of Reagan-era America's "war on drugs" (a term actually coined in Nixon's time). Government agent Mazur, fresh from a successful drug bust in which he was severely burned by the microphone wire taped to his chest, could retire with a full pension, his work-related injury guaranteeing that no one would think the worst of him. Instead, he decides to go after the big money this time, rather than the low-level pushers, and soon finds himself posing as a New York Mafioso, peddling money-laundering services to the drug kingpins of Pablo Escobar's organization. It's some seriously risky business, the stress of which inevitably takes a toll on Mazur's home life. Still, part of the attraction to this line of work is that one gets to legally live like a gangster, and there's no question that Mazur takes to the part with glee and gusto. Beyond the question of his physical survival, the larger issue is whether or not his soul will remain intact.

Mazur is played by Bryan Cranston ("Breaking Bad") who, at 60, is a perhaps a little old to play a man in his 40s, but whatever the cragginess of his features, he brings his usual commitment to the part, and perfectly represents Mazur's moral dilemma as he plunges deeper into the undercover abyss. He's helped a lot by a stellar supporting cast, which includes John Leguizamo ("American Ultra"), Olympia Dukakis ("7 Chinese Brothers"), Diane Kruger ("Inglourious Basterds") and Benjamin Bratt ("Love in the Time of Cholera"), among others. It's hard not to lament the waste of the likes of Amy Ryan (reprising, to a T, her performance from "Central Intelligence"), Jason Isaacs ("Nine Lives") and Saïd Taghmaoui ("La Haine"), in tiny parts, but at least the film is filled with skilled actors in even the most throw-away of roles. And when the story drags (and it does), there's never a moment where we there isn't at least something, or someone, to hold our interest. So despite some inconsistent plotting - including one scene, involving a tuxedo, that is an egregious example of a screenwriter inventing the implausible for purely dramatic purposes - the film delivers a meaningful payoff at the end, where the at-times Byzantine narrative threads all come together in a satisfying finale. Crime may not pay, here, but competence reaps some solid rewards.

The BFG
The BFG(2016)

Director Steven Spielberg has long been a purveyor of magical fantasies for the silver screen, a joyful fabulist who also ventures into darker, more adult, dramas, as well. From "E.T."  to "Schindler's List," his work truly runs the gamut of cinematic genres. Most recently, last October, he gave us "Bridge of Spies," a finely crafted throwback to the paranoid thrillers of the 1970s (though set in the 1960s), in which he used the little-known (in the States) British thespian Mark Rylance ("Wolf Hall") to great effect. Now, just 8 months later, both Spielberg and Rylance are back, partnered once more, in an adaptation of author Roald Dahl's 1982 "The BFG."

Full confession: though I generally love Dahl's work - "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and "James and the Giant Peach" are my favorites - I do not like this particular source text at all. It tells the story of one orphaned English girl, Sophie, who one night sees a giant through the orphanage window. He then kidnaps her so she won't tell the world what she's seen. She soon discovers that, unlike his gigantic brethren, her abductor does not eat humans. He's the "runt" (as the other giants call him) and prefers to spend his energies catching dreams and delivering them back to other sleepers. He's nothing but a B(ig) F(riendly) G(iant), in other words. Before long, however, the other denizens of giant country catch a whiff of Sophie, and it may just be a matter of time before they find her. At the same time, they loudly announce their intentions to continue returning to England, night after night, since they have there discovered a treasure trove of delicious children, much like Sophie, for the taking. Sophie insists on stopping them, and convinces the BFG to help her.

So what's not to like? Why, the BFG, of course. Perhaps I'm just a curmudgeon, but Dahl managed to create one of the most annoying literary creatures of all time, who cannot speak in anything but mangled syntax. That gets old, and quickly. And then there's the worldview, in which Dahl manages to make clear, intentionally or not, that the most valuable children are the English. The whole affair feels very old-school colonial, which is especially odd given the year of publication.

But what about the movie? Well, I am happy to report that much of what bothered me in the book, ideologically, is gone. Mark Rylance is quite fine as the BFG (at least what we can see of his performance via motion-capture technology), although he is still given far too much gobbledygook dialogue to say by screenwriter Melissa Mathison ("E.T."). Newcomer Ruby Barnhill, as Sophie - all real, all the time, as far as I can tell - is both spunky and adorable. The computer-generated universe feels well-designed and is lovely to see. The real attraction for me, however - and the movie truly comes alive when he's on-screen - is Jemaine Clement ("People Places Things") as the Fleshlumpeater. He's the big bad nasty of a human-chomping giant who serves as the story's main antagonist. We need more of him.

Because what is not so good about the film is how unforgivably dull it is. So much of the story is dreadfully inert and sluggish, as if Spielberg, that master of the action sequence, forgot how to structure a narrative. I appreciate his desire to dwell on the mystical bond that develops between Sophie and the BFG, but the slow pace is generally not supported by particularly meaningful exchanges. I think it's quite possible that fans of the book will respond positively to the sight of a beloved character brought to life, but others may just be bored. I certainly was.

The Neon Demon
½

O beauty! O torpor! O glory! O pain! Has the world ever seen such an example of positive qualities co-existing with their opposite? Is pulchritude but an illusion that decays upon inspection? More importantly, can an aesthetic designed to replicate the sins of the milieu it portrays be any more than a superficial treatment of that milieu?

Pardon the hyperbole, but in "The Neon Demon," Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn ("Drive") seems to beg for such overweening attention. An over-designed objet d'art par excellence, the film is graceful and lovely in every frame, even as the blood flows freely, but ultimately as empty as its thinly drawn characters. If it has a takeaway message (and, unfortunately, it does), it is that beauty - currency of the realm - is only skin deep, yet we are prepared to consume ourselves (and others) to attain it. Women, in particular - those poor, helpless creatures - turn killers when you threaten their status in the beauty chain. Call it Refn's new aesthetic of misogynistic empowerment, if you will.

The problem here - beyond the fact that this is hardly a fresh topic - is that the film is as listless as the models at its center. Gorgeous? Yes. Meaningful? No. Elle Fanning ("Maleficent"), a young actress of substance who is the best part of this experience, plays Jesse, a waif of a 16-year-old who comes to Los Angeles with big dreams. Think David Lynch's "Mulholland Dr.," only without the   quirky intelligence. A fresh face, she soon finds herself both desired and hated, often by the same people. It all points to something awful, and those markers lead us exactly where we think they will.

Despite the utter vacuity on display, there are some fine performances. Jena Malone ("The Rusted"), as the makeup artist who takes young Jesse under her wing, manages to make the combination of passion and lethargy feel compelling. Keanu Reeves ("John Wick"), in an uncharacteristically villainous role as the owner of the squalid motel where Jesse lives, is deeply repellant as a man without virtue, and very watchable. But other than these few standouts, "The Neon Demon" is nothing more than an exercise in production design, where everything is as it seems. Style is substance, in other words, and what you see is what you get, and nothing more.

Dheepan
Dheepan(2016)
½

Dheepan is a man out of place and out of time, adrift in a world not his own. Like a gunfighter in a classic Hollywood Western - "Shane" comes to mind, most obviously - he does his best to fit in to his new and alien surroundings, but there's always the looming threat of his past catching up to him. Will he succumb to the weight of history, or rise above it?

This is the central dramatic question of the new film from French director Jacques Audiard ("Rust and Bone"), whose films often combine violent gangster-genre elements with serious meditations on identity and otherness. His heroes frequently live on the margins of society, yet fight to find a way towards the center. In "Dheepan," his protagonist is not just other, but alien, a Sri Lankan refugee in Paris escaping the civil war back home.

Dheepan, it turns out, is not even his real name. As the film begins, we see our hero in a group of men - Tamil Tigers - burning corpses; whether of their comrades or victims, we do not know. Immediately afterwards, we watch as he changes to civilian clothes and throws his uniform on the bonfire. We find him next in a refugee camp, where he joins forces with a woman he doesn't know, who has just recruited an orphan girl from within the camp, to form a fake family, adopting names on the passports of dead fellow Sri Lankans. Families make for less threatening immigrants than single people. From now on, he will be Dheepan. Their destination? France.

Once arrived, Dheepan and his new "wife" - Yalini - and "daughter"- Illayaal - find themselves in a housing project outside Paris, where Dheepan, barely able to speak the language, is the new superintendent. They strive for normalcy, but it's more than hard, especially since Yalini has family in England, where she'd rather go. Further complicating matters is the fact that the local drug gangs rule the roost. If the new immigrants - this is a community of immigrants, mostly from North Africa - can just keep their heads down, perhaps they'll get by. Or not.

Antonythasan Jesuthasan, who plays Dheepan, doesn't so much play the part as live it. Much like the man he portrays, he was drafted into the Tamil Tigers as a young man and did his fair share of killing before escaping and coming to France. This is only his second film. A natural, he avoids excessive externalization, allowing his brooding eyes to reveal the depths of his feeling. His co-stars Kalieaswari Srinivasan - who plays Yalini - and Claudine Vinasithamby - who plays Illayaal - are both first-time actors, yet equally as present. They form a brilliant trio, at first three separate individuals each in it for their own survival, but eventually - maybe - a real family.

"Dheepan" won the Palme d'Or at last year's Cannes Film Festival, and it certainly packs a powerful punch. It's not without its flaws, however. As with most other Audiard films, it's the plot that gets in the way, rather than the metaphysics; a little too much contrivance towards the end mars the perfection of the middle section. The violence of the film may also be too much for some, mistaking arthouse pedigree for purely intellectual adventures; Audiard, however, always goes for the literal jugular. Still, whatever its ultimate shortcomings, "Dheepan" offers a visceral ride in which real-world problems join with cinematic conventions to form a powerful tale of survival.

Finding Dory
Finding Dory(2016)

Last year, Pixar gave us two new films, both original scripts: "Inside Out" and "The Good Dinosaur." The first was a sublime example of what that company does best, which is to combine drama, comedy, nostalgia and genuine sentiment into a heady mix of powerful emotion where we laugh and cry in equal measure. The second was an unholy mess, which just goes to show that not all coming-of-age stories are created equal, even if they both come from the same family. This year, Pixar comes to us with "Finding Dory," the (long-awaited?) sequel to its 2003 hit "Finding Nemo." It's lovely and sweet, with the same primary cast of characters we grew to love last time, with laughter and tears for all. Still, unlike in Pixar's best work - which includes, in addition to "Inside Out" and "Finding Nemo," "Monsters, Inc.," "Ratatouille," "Toy Story," "Toy Story 2," "Toy Story 3" and "Up" - here the sentimental parts of the story feel, upon occasion, forced, as if certain boxes need to be checked to guarantee this or that reaction. If, then, it is not as bracingly fresh as "Inside Out," it is still far better than a film like "The Good Dinosaur."

Last time, if you remember, the plot revolved around a frantic chase across the ocean to rescue a young clown fish named Nemo from an uncertain fate. This time, one of those rescuers, a blue tang fish named Dory, moves from the wings to center stage. We begin with a flashback to her childhood, when she already suffered from short-term memory loss (her signature issue, source of comedy and tragedy, both). We see her with her parents, who struggle to find ways to help her survive when she so constantly forgets just about everything. And then, the inevitable happens, and she loses not only her way, but her parents, and herself, and in a quick montage we watch as she swims from sea to shining sea, aging into the Dory we know from last time, with the voice of Ellen DeGeneres. And then she runs smack into Marlin (Albert Brooks, "A Most Violent Year"), Nemo's father, looking for Nemo, and we are back to the start of the previous film.

Flash forward a year, and Nemo, Marlin and Dory all live peaceably on a reef together. Life is good, until a combination of events evoke certain memories in Dory's jumbled cerebral cortex, and suddenly she remembers her parents, and insists on trying to find them. Inevitably, Marlin and Nemo (voiced, this time, by newcomer Hayden Rolence) insist on coming along, and before too long the misadventures begin. It's a journey wherein Dory must reach deep inside to find the best part of herself and motivate others to do the same; in other words, a Pixar film. Beautifully animated (the technology just keeps on getting better), the film features wonderful vocal cameos from the likes of Sigourney Weaver ("Avatar") - my favorite, by far - as well as Ed O'Neill ("Modern Family"), Ty Burrell (also "Modern Family"), Idris Elba ("The Jungle Book"), Diane Keaton ("And So It Goes") and Eugene Levy ("Schitt's Creek"), among others. If the big emotional moments feel a little too obvious to make me love the film, I still like it a lot, and the laughs are more than genuine. Whether you agree with me or not - like it more or like it less - it's a charming movie that's perfect for all ages.

Central Intelligence

Dwayne Johnson - the former pro wrestler once known as "The Rock" - has, since his film debut, demonstrated a compelling screen presence, which should come as no surprise, given that the world of wrestling is as much about performance as musculature. Not only does he always hold our attention, but he is also blessed with a fine sense of comic timing. In fact, he's often better in comedic roles ("Pain & Gain") than in his more serious fare ("San Andreas"), as the seeming disconnect between his hulking form and perfect delivery of bon mots makes the laughs that follow doubly special. In "Central Intelligence," paired with Kevin Hart ("The Wedding Ringer") - whose manic energy makes him the perfect foil for Johnson's gentle-giant routine - Johnson shines once more. Hart's a funny man, as well, but it's the chemistry of the two, together, that makes the film work as well as it does. Otherwise, it's just another improbably silly buddy flick.

Johnson plays Bob Stone and Hart plays Calvin Joyner. They're both in their late thirties now, but the film begins with a flashback to the final weeks of high school, when Bob was an overweight nerd mercilessly picked on by bullies, and Calvin was the big man on campus (though not one of the bullies). In that opening, we watch as Bob - a CGI creation with an obese body and Johnson's face - is humiliated in front of the entire school. As everyone, including teachers, laughs at Bob's predicament, Calvin is the only who shows him any kindness.

Flash forward to the present, where we meet Calvin who, on the verge of his 20th high-school reunion, feels like his life has never lived up to its full potential. Voted "most likely to succeed," he is now an accountant, married to his high-school sweetheart, and deeply dissatisfied. When Bob friends him on Facebook, out of the blue, he agrees to meet him in a bar, not expecting the muscled behemoth that Bob has become. And so the fun begins, since Bob is much more than just a workout freak, but some kind of super-agent. The bullied has become the protector, and Calvin, once the alpha, now finds himself following the former beta's lead as gunfire and explosions erupt around them.

Does the world need more dumb comedies? Why not? This one's not particularly memorable, scriptwise, but there are genuine laughs to be had, and that's no small feat. Other folks drop by for a quick visit - Amy Ryan ("Bridge of Spies"), Aaron Paul ("Breaking Bad"), Jason Bateman ("This Is Where I Leave You") and Melissa McCarthy ("Spy"), among them - but this is all about Johnson and Hart, and how much fun they are having together, and how much fun we have watching them. True, it's a comedy with its share of cartoonish violence (hence the PG-13 rating), but it's still a welcome reprieve from the tragedies of our day. I won't remember it next week, but I'm not unhappy to have seen it.

The Conjuring 2
½

Three years ago, Australian director James Wan ("Saw") served up "The Conjuring," a somewhat tasty - if also deeply silly - morsel of haunted horrordom, starring Patrick Wilson ("Fargo," Season 2), Vera Farmiga ("At Middleton") and Lili Taylor ("The Cold Lands"). On a reported budget of only $20 million, it went on to make over $300 million at the global box office. A year later, we got a prequel, of sorts, about the possessed doll at the center of that first film. Now, we have a proper sequel (money begets a franchise, including a sequel to the prequel, due out in 2017), starring Wilson and Farmiga, again, as Ed and Lorraine Warren, the real-life ghost hunters whose case files serve as the basis for all of these movies. If you believe in the supernatural, then the "based-on-a-true-story" source matters, I guess. If, like me, you believe in no such thing, then all you're looking for is a thrill-ride. The first film mostly delivered what was expected, though it was far from perfect; this time, it's mostly the imperfections we notice, though there are some (unintentional?) laughs, as well.

Speaking of source texts, The Conjuring 2 begins with "The Amityville Horror" - or rather, with the actual house, in Amityville, NY, where the original events that inspired book and movie ostensibly took place. It is 1976, and Ed and Lorraine have been called to investigate that house's haunting. While there, Lorraine sees, in a self-induced hypnotic trance, a demonic figure who will chase her and her husband for the rest of the movie. For even though the bulk of the story in "The Conjuring 2" takes place in England, Wan and his screenwriters are here trying to set up more than just a single new case. The Warrens' livelihood and very lives are at stake, and so we require this needlessly long prologue before the action can begin. Which is too bad, for though much of the film is risible, with obvious jump scares far too easy to predict, it would all be much more palatable at a shorter length. At 2 hours and 14 minutes, however, the movie long overstays its welcome. 

Soon after Amityville, we begin to cut back and forth between the Warrens' hardships at home - plagued by accusations of charlatanry and visions of evil spirits, both - and the beginnings of a new haunting across the Atlantic, in what looks like a working-class suburb of London. There, the Hodgson family (of five) - led by overwhelmed single mum Peggy (Frances O'Connor, "Mr. Selfridge") - must contend not only with a nasty poltergeist, but with the demonic possession of child #2, Janet (an excellent Madison Wolfe, "Home Sweet Hell"). All looks bleak, until the local clergy becomes involved, and they reach out to the Warrens. Help is on its way.

Director Wan more than knows his way around cameras and atmospheric lighting, and has a fine way with his actors. Wilson and Farmiga are always watchable, and O'Connor more than holds her own. What makes the film far less than its imperfect predecessor is the obviousness of the frights, and the over-the-top obsessive use of Christian iconography. True, most films about possession involve crucifixes and exorcisms - including, but not limited to, William Friedkin's brilliant 1973 "The Exorcist" - yet in "The Conjuring 2" these religious symbols feel needlessly excessive (a room full of upside down crosses presented as a horrible sight, as an example) and exclusionary. Are there really no other ways to fight off evil than through Christ? In 2016? How you feel about that, as well as how you feel about techniques derived from better movies, will determine how you feel about this movie. 

Me Before You

Thirtysomething Will Traynor has everything going for him: he's handsome, athletic, insanely rich and gives off that healthy glow that only the best skin products and organic foods can provide. As played by Sam Claflin (Finnick Odair in "The Hunger Games" series), he may be a little too prone to a pout, but no matter, as even the most perfect among us need a flaw. And just in case his inexplicable orneriness becomes a downer, there's always perky Louisa Clark - played by Emilia Clarke (no relation), so marvelously dour in "Terminator Genisys," and so relentlessly upbeat here - to enliven the proceedings. Seriously, though, what's wrong with this guy? Why can't he just enjoy life?

Ah, well, there's the rub. You see, Will is a C3 quadriplegic, unable to move much of anything other than his head and a little bit of one hand. At the start of our tale, he is a master London financier, getting out of the bed where he has just spent the night with an attractive woman, walking out into the rain, and stepping into the path of an oncoming motorcycle. Cut to black, and two years later, we now find Will living in his family mansion in a small English village dominated by a castle, tended to by his parents and a male nurse. Meanwhile, down the road, twentysomething Louisa (or Lou, as she is called) loses the one job she's ever really had (waitressing in a coffee shop), and as an important breadwinner for her for, oddly (read: inexplicably) unemployable family, she needs to find another job, and quickly. The Traynors are hoping to go the non-traditional route in terms of hospice care and find someone more companion than additional nurse, since Will is depressed, and so they hire Lou.

I do not mean to make light of the plight of people with spinal-cord injuries. Unfortunately, the casting of Mr. Claflin, the refusal to make him look anything less than a stud (albeit a stud in a wheelchair) and the direction of his performance (by first-time feature director Thea Sharrock) towards the occasional pained grimace as a marker of torment all serve to make a joke out of the premise. This is not a man who suffers; this is a man about whom many tragic things are said, but for whose integrity of character no one on the production team seems to have cared. At one point, shorn of his shirt, the buff Claflin ripples in the sun. Sad fate, indeed. Not to mention all that money.

This is too bad, as the source text (a book of the same title, by JoJo Moyes), despite many flaws, did, at least, spend a significant amount of time establishing some sense of verisimilitude as far as Will Traynor is concerned. The movie is too concerned with glib romance and easy tears to do even that, despite the fact that Ms. Moyes has adapted her own novel. Indeed, most of the plot details not concerned with the central romance (that's right, Lou finds herself drawn to Will, and vice versa) have been shorn, something I would normally admire in a novelist refusing to treat her baby as sacred. Here, however, that proverbial baby is completely thrown out with the bathwater, and so what strengths the book had are excised. What remains is unbearable pablum that makes a mockery of injury and resultant disabilities, and worse, of life and death struggles. I like a good cathartic weep as much as the next man (no comment), but cannot abide unearned sentimentality. Better luck next cry.

The Lobster
The Lobster(2016)

"The Lobster" is Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos's fifth theatrical feature. Prior to this, perhaps his best known work was his third film, "Dogtooth," in 2009, which won the "Un Certain Regard" prize - an award given to bold, visionary work - at the Cannes Film Festival that year. This new film won the Jury Prize at that same festival last year, which is effectively third place, after the top two awards, the Palme d'Or and the Grand Prize. The Lobster is Lanthimos's first English-language work, and follows his move to London to pursue greater creative opportunities and funding. If you pay attention to the opening credits, you will see that, in spite of this relocation, this latest effort still required many different funders. And so goes the world of European cinema, although American indie cinema is not always that different.

The movie is filmed in Ireland, on the Southwest coast, mostly in the Parknasilla Hotel and Resort and environs. Among others, it stars Colin Farrell ("In Bruges") - who gained 40 pounds for the part - Rachel Weisz ("Youth"), John C. Reilly ("Guardians of the Galaxy"), Ben Whishaw ("In the Heart of the Sea"), Léa Seydoux ("Blue Is the Warmest Color"), Ariane Labed ("Fidelio: Alice's Odyssey," and the director's wife, as the hotel maid), and Angeliki Papoulia, who played the eldest daughter in "Dogtooth." As in that film, the tone is bone-dry deadpan, mixing dark humor with deadly serious topics, and sometimes shocking the audience with sudden cuts to images of striking violence.

Lanthimos and his co-writer Efthymis Filippou, with whom he also wrote "Dogtooth" and his follow-up, "Alps" - and Filippou also co-wrote "Chevalier," another Greek film which played at this year's Maryland Film Festival - take on many issues of great relevance to contemporary life, but do so in a style and manner that distances us from immediately direct comparisons, much as does the best science fiction. The movie can be seen as either taking place in a futuristic dystopia or in a parallel-universe gone very wrong. Farrell plays David - one of only three named characters in the movie - a recent divorcé who is required, like all single people in this time and place, to go to a special hotel where he has 45 days to find a new life partner, after which, match unmade, he will be turned into an animal of his choosing (by which means he will ostensibly have another chance to find love). The human world is not for single people, not here.

The film offers metaphor upon metaphor on the nature of human relationships and the pressure that society places on people to find a partner. It's also about the way in which we seem to look for people who share common interests through online dating sites. As in "Dogtooth," Lanthimos creates a world in which people live by arcane rules and suffer awful punishments should they break those rules. Always, there is the human tendency toward bureaucracy and regimentation. Flee one group, and the next one in which you find yourself may have an even more bizarre set of proscribed behaviors in place. Such is the human condition.

The film may not be to everyone's liking, especially since the somewhat light tone of the trailer, if you've seen it, only gives away half the story. That's a good thing if you hate knowing the full plot ahead of time, but bad if you feel betrayed when the film switches gears halfway through. And it does. It's all so carefully photographed, however - by the same cinematographer, Thimios Bakatakis, who shot "Dogtooth" - that you will always have intriguing images to look at, no matter your thoughts on the story. And though I am still, myself, making up my mind about how, exactly, I feel about this strange little tale, the fact is that I can't stop thinking about it, and enjoyed it even more the second time I saw it. There appears to be brilliant method to Lanthimos' quirky madness, and in a world filled with Marvel film after Marvel film, I say, "Hear! Hear!"

X-Men: Apocalypse
½

As the film begins, we hear a familiar, English-accented voice (James McAvoy, aka the younger version of Charles Xavier/Professor X) intone the history of mutants on our planet. Is it possible, after 8 previous movies featuring various members of the X-Men universe, that we still have more to learn about how we got here? Apparently so, though as the tale progresses we discover that the (here, slightly altered) old adage holds very much true: plus ça change, plus c'est le même film ("the more things change, the more it's the same movie"). There may be a new villain, introduced in this opening (set in 3600 BCE, although accompanied by medieval chants), but ultimately the outcome is no different than in most of these many iterations of the superhero genre: the fate of the world will be at stake; cities will be reduced to rubble; at the last minute, our protagonists will get their act together and triumph.

I have recently written, on this blog, about my increasing fatigue with the current state of the blockbuster universe, and this new entry into the X-Men canon changes nothing in my attitude. That said, as tiring as it may be to see the same ideas and dramatic arcs (and flying debris) recycled ad nauseum, this particular movie offers up a particularly appealing cast, thereby rising (slightly) above the maelstrom of deafening sameness that rules the day. Unfortunately, it's the new player in the game - Oscar Isaacs ("Ex Machina"), as Apocalypse, our baddie, normally such a dynamic presence - who gets most lost in the madness of CGI and makeup, thereby adding nothing to the proceedings. He's also hampered by a script that leaves him nothing to do but glower menacingly. It's a good thing, then, that McAvoy and company are as fun to spend time with as ever.

After that first sequence, in which it turns out that the fate of the world has always been in the balance, and cities have always been on the verge of destruction, we flash-forward to 1983, where none of the mutants we met in "X-Men: First Class" (set in the early 1960s, during the Cuban Missile Crisis) look a day older than they did back then. I'll have what they're having, please! After the events of "X-Men: Days of Future Past," Professor X and Magneto have once more gone their separate ways, the one to manage a school for the gifted (read: mutants), and the other to live incognito in his native Poland. Both McAvoy ("The Last King of Scotland"), as X, and Michael Fassbender ("Macbeth"), as Magneto, bring their usual energy to the screen, and are as watchable as ever. Soon, they will each have to choose a side in the battle of good and evil about to erupt when Apocalypse is resurrected from his 5600-year-old grave.

Along for the fun, games and mayhem are many familiar faces, including Jennifer Lawrence ("American Hustle"), Rose Byrne ("Spy"), Nicholas Hoult ("Mad Max: Fury Road") and, my favorite, Evan Peters ("Elvis & Nixon") as the wise-ass Quicksilver. Some new faces - young actors playing characters we first encountered in "X-Men," director Bryan Singer's first turn at the helm, back in 2000 (this is his fourth X-Men movie) - include Tye Sheridan ("Joe") as Cyclops, Sophie Turner ("Barely Lethal") as Jean Grey, and Kodi Smit-McPhee ("Slow West") as Nightcrawler. They're good, and help make up for the waste of Isaacs. All in all, then, though I would never make the claim that this is anything other than pro forma big-budget filmmaking, it has its occasional charms, and is not entirely without wit. The impending end of the world (yet again) may be a snooze-fest, but along the way we can at least share a few moments of (occasional) interest.

The Nice Guys

Writer/director Shane Black - known for penning the 1980s blockbuster "Lethal Weapon" and the 1990s flop "The Long Kiss Goodnight" (a favorite of mine), among other scripts, before jumping into the director's chair, in 2005, with "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" (another flop, and another favorite) - clearly has a thing for buddy movies. Whether pairing Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, Geena Davis and Samuel L. Jackson, or Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer, Black has long exhibited a real knack for witty banter that has served him well (artistically, anyway, if not always financially), time and again. Now, with his third theatrical feature as director (his second was "Iron Man 3"), Black returns, yet again, to the format he loves, this time matching Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling in a pulpy private-eye tale set in 1978 Hollywood. It's loads of fun, even if a complete mess.

Crowe ("Les Misérables") plays Jackson Healy, a detective-cum-enforcer (unlicensed) who meets Holland March - Gosling ("The Big Short") - a real (as in, licensed) private detective when he  tracks him down for a client and breaks his arm. That's this movie's version of meeting cute ... and it actually works. This is Los Angeles at its seediest, back in a period when much of the city, including the Hollywood sign, was in decay, and the larger metropolitan area suffered from a serious smog problem. The film opens on that sign, in fact, setting the tone and look of all that is to come. The (mis)adventures of Healy and March will take them through the lives of porn stars and corrupt government officials, stand-ins for a society on the brink of collapse. They may crack wise while cracking skulls, but the subtext underlining their actions is that of a serious misalignment of national priorities. No wonder that the subtitle of the 1982 documentary "Koyaanisqatsi" was "Life out of Balance."

And crack wise they do, which is where the film is at its strongest. Crowe and Gosling have a wonderful rapport, proving that the ease with which Black generated bromance sparks between Downey and Kilmer was no fluke. Unfortunately, as the movie progresses, the underlying story becomes increasingly ridiculous, making the dramatic stakes almost meaningless. This would be less painful if the set-up and actors were less strong. As it is. I could not shake the plaintive cry of "Come back, Shane" on auto-loop in my head, starting somewhere in the second act. Such a shame. Still, there is much to love, including the performances and production design. 

The plot revolves around a central mystery of a missing young woman, whose starring role in a porn film may or may not be related to the auto industry's plot to derail government mandates to install catalytic converters in all new cars. Cool and crazy idea, right? Emphasis on the crazy, for better and for worse. Healy and March, (gentle) brute and (alcoholic) dandy, pursue bad guys while tackling their own internal demons, March's tween daughter in tow (which makes for some uncomfortable moments of a young girl placed in sexual and violent situations, however much they are played for comedy). Along for the ride are Keith David ("Cloud Atlas"), Yaya DaCosta ("Lee Daniels' The Butler"), Matt Bomer ("Magic Mike XXL"), and even Jack Kilmer ("Palo Alto"), son of Val - all very good - and Kim Basinger ("L.A. Confidential"), who is not (sorry, Kim, but you nearly ruin the film). Then again, poor Ms. Basinger is given some extremely expositional dialogue to spout at the end, so the problem may not be all hers. In any case, failures of plotting aside, if the film is ultimately a muddle, at least it's an entertaining one. I'd watch this any day over another "Iron Man."

The Angry Birds Movie

I have a confession to make: I have never played Angry Birds. Does this disqualify me from judging the film based on it? I have avoided all kinds of video games since college, ever since I found myself losing entire nights of sleep completing games on my roommate's first-generation Game Boy. I am, it seems, rather prone to addiction. The solution is simple: do not play. About 5 or 6 years ago, I tried Second Life, thinking that was enough of a departure from gaming to allow for dabbling. Next thing I knew, it was 3 in the morning, and I had gotten no work done. Account deleted. However, while my game phobia means I am not the target audience for "The Angry Birds Movie," it does mean I can judge it purely on how well it tells an entertaining story. Perhaps this makes me the ideal critic (just for this movie, as you can ignore all of my other reviews). Whatever the truth (or not) of that, here are my thoughts.

"The Angry Birds Movie" - the first directorial outing from animator Clay Kaytis ("Frozen") and storyboard artist Feral Reilly ("Hotel Transylvania"), with a script by Jon Vitti ("Alvin and the Chipmunks") - is a beautifully animated (in 3D) confection that is a lot more engaging and sweet than I thought it would be. It tackles big themes in perhaps only the most superficial of ways (this is no "Inside Out"), yet is a harmless enough bit of entertainment that the whole family can enjoy. True, the sole purpose of the story is probably just to sell you on more games, or to further brand awareness, but at least the filmmakers try hard to hide their mercenary impulse and spin a good yarn. It's decent fun, and wonderful to look at it. I couldn't stand the music (treacly versions of songs that deserved better), but that fact did not ruin the experience for me.

The plot? There's an island, with birds who cannot fly. Why? It's actually a clever way to justify the later use of a slingshot to launch flight, which is a signature aspect of the original game. Some of these otherwise peaceful creatures have anger issues, which makes them pariah's in their community, but which will help them later when a horde of egg-loving green pigs arrive from a different island. One thing leads to another, the pigs depart with their treasure trove of eggs, and soon the birds must launch a counter-attack (involving the slingshot). It all fits together rather nicely, even if it's also silly. Jason Sudeikis ("Sleeping with Other People"), Bill Hader ("Trainwreck"), Maya Rudolph ("Sisters"), Peter Dinklage ("X-Men: Days of Future Past"), Kate McKinnon ("Ted 2"), Danny McBride ("This Is the End") and Keegan-Michael Key ("Keanu"), among others, lend their vocal talents to the mix, and an amusing time appears to have been had by all. If you can keep yourself from asking for too much, then you can also join the party for a few laughs.

A Bigger Splash
½

It's all so interesting ... until it isn't. Italian director Luca Guadagnino, in his first narrative feature since "I Am Love," in 2009, has crafted a sumptuously photographed meditation on celebrity, addiction, love and betrayal that, for about two thirds of its 125-minute length, mesmerizes even as its meanders through a minimalist plot. Once tragedy strikes, however, that escalation of stakes only serves to invalidate much of what had come before, reducing it to banal set-up , rather than intricate character study. Based on French director Jacques Deray's 1969 "La piscine," this new film similarly uses a love quadrangle as the emotional backdrop for a larger discussion on the human condition. Unfortunately, not all sides of that square are equally drawn, and so it becomes increasingly hard to invest energy in the outcome. 

And yet it all works for quite some time, thanks to a trio of great performances from Tilda Swinton ("Only Lovers Left Alive"), Ralph Fiennes ("The Grand Budapest Hotel") and Matthias Schoenarts ("Far from the Madding Crowd"). Swinton plays Marianne, a world-famous rock star taking a break as she recovers from a throat operation. Part of that recovery involves naked sunbathing and sexual romps in the pool with her younger lover Paul (Schoenarts), an idyll interrupted when her former lover and producer, Harry (Fiennes), calls from the airplane that is in the process of landing on their vacation island (Pantelleria, off the coast of Sicily). As we will learn in flashbacks, Harry is the one who brought Marianne and Paul together, 6 years prior, when he thought she needed a boost after their own breakup. When he disembarks, he has his daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson, "50 Shades of Grey") in tow. They've only just recently connected, as Penelope - now, apparently, in her early 2os - grew up without knowing the identity of her father. Unfortunately, then, for Marianne and Paul, what had been a peaceful duo is suddenly a crowd, especially since Harry cannot be alone, or quiet. It's as if a tidal wave just washed away paradise.

Except that Marianne - who is not supposed to speak as she recovers - may enjoy Harry's manic shenanigans more than she lets on. But what, exactly, is his game? For a while, it's not entirely clear, but the wonderful rapport between the three leads - and gorgeous location - proves enough of a distraction from the usual demands of story that it's a delight just to bask in their presence. Fiennes, in particular, holds our attention with his characterization of a funny, sad and incredibly needy megalomaniac, though both Swinton and Schoenarts shine as they provide the necessary oppositional gravitas. Johnson is a bit of a drag, but perhaps her part is underwritten on purpose, to keep us guessing as to her own motivation. On the one hand, we know what (or who) she wants, but beyond that it's not clear why we should care. And the later, unexpected details revealed about her in the final act do not add appreciably to the interest of her character. Still, despite the mess that is the end, what happens earlier is well worth watching, even if the bloated ending needs saving.

Captain America: Civil War

My favorite superhero film in the current age of the ever-expanding Marvelverse - other than the delightfully irreverent variants like "Ant-Man," "Deadpool," and "Guardians of the Galaxy" - has been "Captain America: The Winter Soldier." In that movie, the fantastical comic-book elements that normally numb the brain through ceaseless (and expanding) repetition were, for once, grounded in details relevant to the world in which we live. Suddenly, the titular character was fighting for a cause in which the stakes were high - preventing an NSA-like entity from excessive data-mining - yet comprehensible in human terms, and therefore meaningful. In both Avengers films - the second one even more so than the first - extra-terrestrial (and -dimensional) forces threatened our world with domination and destruction; how many times can global disaster be averted before it feels boring, rather than frightening? In that sense, though the final Dark Knight film was a bit tiresome, as well, Christopher Nolan's series was, to me, more palatable, as the director kept the stakes earthbound (unlike this year's "Batman v Superman"). If every time it's the end of the world, and we know it, then I don't feel that fine, in cinematic terms, anyway.

This is the age of the tentpole franchise! What can you do? Stop going to the movies? That's an option, but if the reason you go to the multiplex is for spectacle, then "Captain America: Civil War" delivers the goods as well as could be hoped. In fact, to be fair, it's better than most of the competition (and in IMAX 3D, to boot!). It has a decent cast and a compelling enough story (unless one is just exhausted by all the mayhem). What it is not, however, is a film solely about Captain America, that square-jawed, genetically modified refugee from a time gone by, frozen in ice at the end of his first adventure and then defrosted in our modern era at the start of his second. Though this new film is directed by the same brothers Anthony and Joe Russo) who gave us "Winter Soldier," and though Captain America's particular moral dilemma is the one that (mostly) drives the plot, this is really "Avengers 3: Battle of the Brawn." One wonders if perhaps the Russos were not working out their personal demons, as the plot pits (spiritual) brother against brother (and one sister), as the fate of ... yes, the world ... hangs in the balance.

The movie begins with an Avengers mission that leaves many civilians dead. This time, the governments of the planet decide that the collateral damage is not acceptable, and heads of state gather to formulate a series of accords to check the use of power and might by these super-powered agents of ostensible good. The "civil war" refers to the fact that not all erstwhile partners agree on whether to sign these accords or not. Into this mix comes Bucky Barnes - aka, the "winter soldier" of the previous film - Captain America's childhood friend whom our hero tried to de-program last time around. Bucky's in hiding, but when he supposedly carries out a terrorist attack, the Avengers have one more issue that tears them further apart, since some think him guilty, while others support the Cap. Along the way, there are some attempts at weighty dialogue about the nature of good and evil, and shades in between, as well as some philosophizing about how power should be used responsibly. The movie works best in some of its action sequences, however - the simpler ones, like a brilliant car chase in Bucharest - than when it tries too hard to be consequential, since ultimately it sheds any relevance to our actual world when it morphs into a slugfest between former friends.

Chris Evans is back as Captain America/Steve Rogers, joined by Robert Downey, Jr., as Iron Man/Tony Stark, Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff, and most of the rest of the gang from previous Avengers films. But not Thor and not the Hulk. We do get a new superhero, Black Panther, played by Chadwick Boseman ("42") - very good - and a new Spider-Man, played by Tom Holland ("In the Heart of the Sea"), who is not bad, except that he is the third iteration of that character in the last 15 years. Talk about repetition! Paul Rudd shows up once more, as Ant-Man, in my favorite cameo of the movie, and the list goes on. It's a cornucopia of super-riches, and if that's your thing, then this is your movie. And even if this is no longer really my thing, the movie was by no means unentertaining. Call that a (very) qualified recommendation, then, and go throw your dollars at the screen to ensure that we never escape from Marvel martyrdom.

Keanu
Keanu(2016)

Who doesn't love the sketch-comedy duo Key & Peele (that's Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele), hosts of a now-retired Comedy Central show of the same name? Witty, funny, brilliant - both together and alone - these guys know how to mine the sublime and the ridiculous for a great laugh. They are, however, veterans of ... sketch comedy, which immediately begs the question of how their humor will translate to a 90-minute-plus movie. The answer is quite well, thank you, but not without problems. As a work of sustained narrative fiction, the story is weak; as a collection of mostly hilarious short bits, it's terrific fun, mixed bag though it may be.

Key and Peele play cousins Clarence and Rell, respectively, quiet types who enjoy a middle-class existence until one extremely cute little kitty comes into it. In an opening sequence that spoofs every action-movie cliché in the book, that cat escapes from a drug-den massacre, but not before charming the assassins, who then embark on a quest to find him again. The intrepid critter, after a mad dash across Los Angeles, shows up at the home of Rell, who has just broken up with his girlfriend and taken depressive refuge in his bong. It's love at first sight, and Rell quickly names the cat Keanu - for no reason, except that it's funny and allows for a throwaway joke about Keanu Reeves, later - and decides to get on with his life. But then, the drug world of the first scene crashes into this peaceful idyll, and our blerd heroes spend the rest of the movie finding their inner gangstas in order to save little Keanu.

If many of the scenes go on for too long, many of them zip along quite well. There's a running gag about Clarence's love of George Michael that I couldn't get enough of, and Will Forte ("Nebraska") as Rell's pot dealer - a white guy talking "black" while our black protagonists talk "white" - is a hoot. Anna Faris ("Scary Movie") shows up in a sharp cameo as herself that is wonderful until it isn't, and so the movie goes, back and forth fun mixed with groans (but mostly fun). The cat is cute, and the supporting cast, including Tiffany Haddish ("The Carmichael Show"), rapper Method Man ("Red Tails") and Luis Guzmán ("Two Men in Town") do a fine job backing up the stars. For a dumb comedy, it offers a lot of smart jokes and a fair amount of laughs. It may (slightly) overstay its welcome, but until then it offers a pleasant enough diversion.

Sing Street
Sing Street(2016)

Even though "Sing Street" - the latest musical confection from John Carney ("Once," "Begin Again") - may not ultimately be a particularly good movie, for a while it is quite uniquely engaging. Set in Dublin in 1985, the film follows the (mis)adventures of 15-year-old Conor, the youngest son of a clan in crisis, where the once-successful parents are now short of cash and at each other's throats. Older brother Brendan may a layabout college-dropout stoner (there's a sister, too, but her part is so underwritten that we wonder what she's even doing here), but Conor shows some promise. The only problem is that there's no more money for his posh private academy, and so it's off to the free state-run Christian Brothers' Synge Street school for Conor. On day one, he's forced to take off his non-regulation brown shoes (black is the only color permitted) and walk around in his socks by the strict Catholic-priest principal. And then there are the working-class bullies who see him as an easy target.

But all is not bleak. A maiden fair sits on a stoop across the way, and her beauty motivates Conor - soon re-dubbed Cosm0 - to form a band to entice her to act in its music videos. These are the 1980s, after all, and the dawn of MTV, as well as of the British New Wave, including such then-hip bands like Duran Duran, a major obsession of our heroes. Before long, Cosmo and his new Synge-Street mates are dyeing their hair and dressing in frock coats as they stage a series of hilarious riffs on the music of the day. They call themselves "Sing Street," appropriating the name of the school they hate and lending it a more personal meaning.

As fun and clever as the first half may be, by the end the story runs out of steam, unsure of how to resolve some impossible plot threads other than in the most improbable way. The music, too, descends into banality, leaving the purposeful (and brilliantly spoofed) clichés behind for generically unironic chords. This was a weakness of both "Once" and "Begin Again," as well, but the opening of "Sing Street" is so promising that it's a real shame this time around. Still, for all that, the strength of the early scenes - particularly between newcomer Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, as Conor/Cosmo, and Jack Reynor (Malcolm in the most recent "Macbeth") as Brendan, and Walsh-Peelo and Lucy Boynton ("The Blackcoat's Daughter") as Raphina, the object of his affection - propel the film along until the energy finally dissipates. Before the narrative song is played out, however, its harmonies resonate most agreeably.

Green Room
Green Room(2016)

If you like horror films that embrace their gore with viscous close-ups, yet also long for the blood to flow from a well-scripted set-up where consequences follow initial actions, then "Green Room" is the film for you. From director Jeremy Saulnier ("Blue Ruin") - formerly a cinematographer ("Putty Hill," "Septien") - the movie is meticulously shot and acted, as fine a piece of cinematic craftsmanship as there is. Still, by the end of its 90 minutes, I couldn't shake the feeling that, for all of its flourishes, it doesn't quite rise above the limitations of its genre. With a stellar cast, headlined by Patrick Stewart ("Star Trek: The Next Generation") and including Imogen Poots ("Need for Speed"), Alia Shawkat ("Pee-wee's Big Holiday") and Anton Yelchin ("Only Lovers Left Alive"), the carnage is delivered with great dramatic chops, so there's that. Did I mention that horror is not really my thing?

The four members of an ultra-indie hardcore rock band, on tour in the Pacific Northwest, find themselves strapped for cash and without a gig. We've seen them, straight off, syphon gas from cars to make it to their next destination, so we know they've only got a canister to piss in. When the DJ in whose pad they've crashed - who promised them a concert that never panned out - comes up with a make-up show off somewhere in the woods at a relative's bar, they jump at it, no matter that it's for a bunch of skinheads. Money is money, after all. Smartasses that they are, though, they can't help tweaking the audience with their first song, "Nazi punks, f*** 'em." Yes, as the trailer promises, there's trouble ahead.

What follows is a series of reversals, and reversals of reversals, that throw our protagonists into a situation of quickly escalating mayhem. Guns, machetes and dogs are involved, and the effects of each of these weapons on fragile human flesh is shown again and again. Gurgle. Fortunately, even if that bubbling plasma grosses you out, the seeming impossibility of survival for those we root for will hold your interest, since it seems unlikely that not one main character will survive (the question is, will he/she/they survive un-maimed?). When all is done, and the triumphant few remain, "Green Room" may not be particularly memorable (though, certainly, queasy), but at least it isn't a bore.

Everybody Wants Some!!
½

College boys cruise down the street, singing and rapping along to "Rapper's Delight," the 1979 hit by the Sugarhill Gang. The time is 1980. This perfect little scene, showing young men in their prime, looking to score some action in the days before the semester begins, sets the entire tone of director Richard Linklater's "spiritual sequel" to his 1993 "Dazed and Confused." Where that film gave us a group of high-school (football) athletes in their final moments before ostensible adulthood, here we pick up an entirely new batch of (baseball) jocks as they navigate the next step on life's ladder. The concerns are the same - getting laid, getting drunk, getting high - but the faces are different. A lot of fun is had watching them, but to what end? If your answer to that question is a resounding "who cares," then this could be the perfect little gem of a movie for you. If you were hoping for something a little more profound from the director of "Boyhood," then you may be disappointed. But you'll still have a good time. So there's that.

I saw the film at the recent SXSW Film Festival, part of a double feature with a documentary about Linklater, himself, which played first. That film, imperfect though it was, nevertheless provided enough of a fine retrospective on the man's life and career to raise my expectations for his latest creation. Peopled with engaging characters portrayed by extremely charismatic young actors - Blake Jenner ("Glee"), Glen Powell ("Scream Queens") and Tyler Hoechin ("Teen Wolf"), among them - "Everybody Wants Some!!" is like a superbly crafted version of party films of yore ("Animal House," made two years before the plot timeline of this new movie, comes to mind). We find ourselves at a small Texas college, where our main characters - all members of the baseball team - are moving into their new off-campus house. Jake (Jenner) is one of the freshmen, and we see the next three days primarily through his eyes as he takes the measure of his teammates and the local female talent.

If this sounds like a guy's movie, that's because it is. Most of the women here exist as objects of male desire, willing participants in the debauchery, for sure, but hardly full characters in their own right. Except for one, sort of. Zoey Deutch ("Vampire Academy") - daughter of Lea Thompson (star of a number of 1980s teen movies, herself) - as a vivacious actress who catches Jake's eye when she rejects the advances of his more boorish friends, is given enough screen time to rise above the two-dimensional fate of her gender peers. She more than holds her own, but is really there just to show that Jake is less superficial than the rest of the guys. Their scenes are lovely and sweet - especially a final romantic moment spent floating in a lazy river - and perhaps there is hope that Jake will grow into a man who sees women as more than meat; however, Linklater isn't out to explore such trajectories here. "Everybody Wants Some!!" (the title taken from Van Halen's 1980 hit of the same name, though the song only plays once, in the distant background) is, instead, about living in the moment, taking one day at a time.

That's not to say that the movie is solely a boorish beer-soaked celebration of male chauvinism. Sure, it could be read that way, but Linklater has such a light touch and such a great way with his actors that the movie never feels nasty, even when the men have but sex on the brains. Filled with great period music (it opens with The Knack's "My Sharona"), hair and clothes, it's much more of a gentle (and very funny) nostalgia piece, looking back at the halcyon days of the director's own youth. My advice to you, if you otherwise like Linklater, is to relax and let the vibe win you over. If, as I did, you leave your critical faculties on full alert, you'll be in danger of missing the genuine joys this lightweight (and minor) film has to offer.

Miles Ahead
Miles Ahead(2016)

In his directorial debut, actor Don Cheadle ("Traitor") mostly avoids the clichés of the biographical picture and takes genuine creative risks, choosing to focus on a particular moment in time rather than an entire lifespan. His subject? Jazz musician Miles Davis (1926-1991). Cheadle's approach leads to something much more impressionistic and elliptical than your standard-issue Hollywood biopic; it's an improvisatory riff that would no doubt make Davis proud. Flashing back and forth between different eras of Davis's life - yet grounded in the late 1970s, when Davis was going through a particularly bad cocaine-fueled depression - Cheadle keeps us as disoriented as Davis most likely was at that time. He also uses and blends the conventions of other genres - the action thriller, buddy movie and gangster drama - to lend "Miles Ahead" a texture and feel uniquely its own.

Cheadle, himself, plays Davis, and is riveting in the role. When we first meet our hero, he is deep into booze and drugs at the end of a self-imposed exile that began in the mid-1970s. Ewan McGregor ("The Impossible") - a completely fictional free-lance journalist from "Rolling Stone" - is interviewing him, and just as we settle into a montage of images on a vibrating television screen, we smash-cut back to a car chase and gunfire. And so the film goes, jumping around in a style that initially confuses but eventually brings all the disparate elements together at the end to show us, warts and all, what made Davis both great and awful. Human beings are complex, and a monster can still be a genius. This is a movie to be watched by those who love both movies and music.

If the film has one major weakness, it is that addition of fiction to the proceedings (which Cheadle says he did because he couldn't get financial backing without a white co-star). McGregor's character becomes a significant part of the plot, beyond that opening interview. We tune into biopics because they purport to show us the real man/woman behind the myth. Yet how much truth can really survive a compressed version of any human being's life? Perhaps it is not the worst sin in the world to take overt liberties, if the underlying narrative arc still reveals something honest about that person's trajectory. Still, while I enjoyed the energy and panache with which Cheadle tells his story, his approach may not be for all. However, even if you cannot abide fiction in your docudrama, I think you'll still have to admire Cheadle's command of craft. If nothing else, "Miles Ahead" reveals the birth of a true director.

Elvis & Nixon
½

Michael Shannon, like him or not, is an actor who brings an almost violent intensity to every performance. Roiling emotions vibrate from within, his large frame barely able to control a bubbling rage. I, for one, have generally found him a bit much, his manic posturing spoiling films like "Premium Rush" and "Man of Steel" (which, to be fair, didn't need much spoiling). Still, in smaller, quieter films, like those by indie director Jeff Nichols ("Take Shelter," "Mud," "Midnight Special"), Shannon has been restrained and therefore palatable, his excess reduced to a manageable (and very watchable) simmer. I am growing to like him more than I once thought possible. Even so, I would never consider him for a quirky comedy.

And yet, director Liza Johnson ("Hateship Loveship") has cast Shannon in the role of Elvis Presley in "Elvis & Nixon," a movie that mixes genres in an often perplexing way, yet is mostly going for laughs. Based on the real-life meeting, in 1970, between President Richard Nixon and Presley (a meeting initiated by Presley), the film lurches from scene to scene like a Frankensteinian monster that can't quite find the right footing. Sometimes, the pacing is perfect and the jokes land; at other moments, the whole venture falls flat, tumbling into an abyss of poor timing and sloppy editing. All the while, we have Shannon trying especially hard to relax in the role of "The King," and only partially succeeding. To add to the oddness, Kevin Spacey ("House of Cards") shows up as Nixon, playing him as a jowlier, more happy-go-lucky Frank Underwood. It's Nixon, that Machiavellian paranoiac, as comic foil. Who knew?

Then again, Dan Hedaya did pretty much the same riff on our 37th President in Andrew Fleming's "Dick," and that worked well enough, The difference is that that film knew what it wanted to be and went for it with gusto. Here, director Johnson never finds her groove. The actual story - that Presley, growing strange in his mid-thirties, sought to become a "Federal Agent-at-Large" to keep the commies and hippies from destroying the United States - is so bizarre as to lend itself to either twisted psychological thriller or crazy comedy, but you have to choose one, unless you're really clever at juggling disparate tones. Based on the evidence at hand, neither Johnson nor her screenwriters - who include, of all people, the actor Cary Elwes - are quite up to that challenge. Which is not to say that the film is a disaster. Some of its moments are delightfully rendered, and Shannon, miscast though he is, nevertheless holds our attention throughout.

The story follows Presley from an opening in which he shoots his television after watching protests against the Vietnam war. Next, he gathers a couple of sidekicks - Alex Pettyfer ("Magic Mike") and  Johnny Knoxville ("Bad Grandpa") - to help him reach the White House, where the real shenanigans (often funny) occur. Colin Hanks ("Fargo," Season 1) shows up as Nixon aide Egil Krogh, and holds his own, but too much of what follows is hit or miss, often marred by unnecessary exposition. If, despite these criticisms, any of the above sounds appealing, my advice is to keep your expectations low, thereby allowing the successful parts to work and their opposite numbers to disappoint ... less. It's far from perfect, but not without interest.

City Of Gold
City Of Gold(2016)

Jonathan Gold prowls the streets of Los Angeles and environs in search of culinary delights, leaving a trail of well-chewed crumbs in his wake. As the food critic for "The Los Angeles Times" - and winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in criticism - he has a better excuse than most to feast his way through the city. What makes him special is not that he eats, nor even that he writes about what he eats, but that he makes it his mission to eat at, and write about, the kinds of places that mainstream food critics usually avoid: the food trucks and neighborhood diners, trendy and ordinary, alike. A favorable review from him can transform a restaurant's (or truck's) fortunes. Los Angeles really is the "City of Gold," in other words.

Director Laura Gabbert ("No Impact Man: The Documentary") has crafted a compelling documentary portrait of a man whose work over the past 20 years and more has truly made a difference to those around him. A man devoted to the art of good writing - trained as a cellist, he started out as a music critic - Gold makes a convincing case for the value that thoughtful criticism brings to its subject. Indeed, especially as it concerns food, he claims that it is the very act of dissecting cuisine through words that elevates it to the status of an art form; otherwise, it's just nourishment. Given that Gold's column, read by both celebrities and working stiffs, has the power to draw a crowd to a heretofore unknown café, it is abundantly clear how many folks are hungry for this intersection of food and art. Feed me, for sure, but do so with style.

But style need not mean pretension, or even expense. In the course of the film, we visit many a taco truck (fairly ubiquitous in Los Angeles, as in much of the American Southwest), as well as a hot-dog truck and a fair amount of Korean places in strip malls. Gold has a real yen for Korean food (which I share), and for finding gems in malls (also ubiquitous in Los Angeles). And that's the secret of his charm and his success. He does the work for the masses, scouring the city for hidden treasures in unlikely places. As one might expect from someone who spends his days eating, Gold is now a fairly heavy man - we see his transformation from slender youth to middle-aged thickness through archival photos - but an extremely happy one, married to a charming woman (an editor at "The Los Angeles Times"), who remains his best friend, and with two kids who clearly adore him.

If there is one (minor) negative in Gold's life, it is his ongoing writer's block. True, he publishes many thousands of words a week, but is a chronic procrastinator with an inability to get started. We see many shots of him not doing what he is supposed to be doing, interspersed with interviews with his various editors who praise the quality of his writing while lamenting how hard it is to get it on time. I am sure there are many writers out there, perhaps this one, included, who can relate.

The director's own peppy style is a nice complement to Gold's ambling ways, though I do wish that she were less prone to dividing the film into so many short scenes where music drives the action, creating a plethora of episodic divides where fewer would perhaps serve the story better. Given, however, that she had no traditional narrative arc to work with - there is no competition or tragedy or any other major set of stakes at risk - Gabbert does a fine job setting up the delivery of information in an engaging way. By the end, we have learned not only about the life of one fascinating individual, but also about how cultivating - and appreciating - an aesthetic approach to everyday activities like eating can lend meaning to our existence. After all, as Gold mentions, what makes us human is the fact that we cook our food. By all means, then, go and watch this celebration of the human animal.

The Jungle Book
½

Here's a question for you: would you be as excited - if excited you are - for the new live-action (so called) version of Disney's 1967 animated classic, "The Jungle Book," if that previous movie did not exist? Were this but an adaptation of the stories of Rudyard Kipling - as listed in the final "based on" credits - would there be that thrilling frisson when first we lay eyes on Baloo, the bear, knowing that his signature song, "The Bare Necessities," is just around the cinematic corner? Given our penchant, as a species, to tell the same stories over and over again - to re-stage plays, re-orchestrate melodies, remake films, etc. - a modern reboot of a 49-year-old film should surprise no one. Is it enough, however, to merely take a beloved tale and give it a (somewhat) fresh spin with new technologies and new actors? I'm still not sure where I stand.

Truth be told, I had a lot of fun watching this 3D, CGI-laden take on the tale, from director Jon Favreau ("Iron Man"). The design of the picture is a marvel, recalling that other masterful use of 3D, from 2012, Ang Lee's "Life of Pi", and the voice talent - which includes Idris Elba (?"Beasts of No Nation"), Scarlett Johansson ("Under the Skin"), Ben Kingsley ("The Walk"), Lupita Nyong'o ("12 Years a Slave"), Bill Murray ("St. Vincent"), and Christopher Walken ("Seven Psychopaths") - is more than up to the challenge of developing character and entertaining the audience. The script is solid, sticking remarkably close to Disney's original (even if credited to an entirely new screenwriter, curiously enough), though with some notable changes that actually improve the narrative and remove some of its egregiously racist elements. The new King Louie (Walken), ruler of the monkeys, may still sing "I Wanna Be Like You," but he does so without the exaggerated mannerisms of a jazz trumpeter, a classic Disney moment perhaps not as painful as the crows in "Dumbo," but unfortunate, nevertheless. So there is much to love and appreciate in this millennial "Jungle Book."

For those who have never read Kipling nor seen the first movie, the story takes place in what looks to be someplace on the Indian subcontinent, though the animal inhabitants of the jungle, as designed by the visual effects specialists, may or may not belong there, geographically speaking. Our hero is one Mowgli - newcomer Neel Sethi, the one actual "live-action" performer on screen, who is perfect and holds his own against all of the digital wizardry - an orphaned human boy raised by wolves after a black panther, Bagheera (Kingsley), finds him and brings him to them. As the film begins, Mowgli is happily playing with his canid brothers - though disappointed that he cannot run like a wolf - and doted on by his wolf mother, Raksha (Nyong'o), when a drought brings a long-absent tiger, Shere Khan (Elba), to the local watering hole. Shere Khan - his face scarred by human-made fire - hates men, and issues a warning to all that, once the drought is over, he will return to kill Mowgli. Since no one can match the tiger's strength, Bagheera agrees to guide Mowgli to a human village, where he will ostensibly be safe. The boy, at home in the jungle, reluctantly agrees to follow Bagheera, but along the way, Shere Khan tracks them down, and in the ensuing scramble Mowgli and Bagheera are separated. Lost, Mowgli is saved from the clutches of Kaa (Johansson), a lovely, if deadly, cobra, by Baloo (Murray), a happy-go-lucky bear who makes the young boy his food-gathering partner. The ensuing idyll cannot last forever, however, and so Mowgli is faced with the choice of what to do next: rejoin the human race, or fight back against Shere Khan and make a true home for himself in the jungle. Along the way, he must decide if he is more animal or man, or find a way to reconcile and combine both elements.

In many ways, the new film is a significant improvement on its predecessor (I am conveniently ignoring the 1994 live-action bomb). So what, exactly, is my problem? Why do I not wax more rapturous? Perhaps it is merely my increasing fatigue with Hollywood's continual recycling - cannibalizing, if you will - of its past. Granted, if one is to feast on one's own flesh, then let the seasoning be as piquant as it is here. But wouldn't a fresh kill - or harvest, for the vegans in the audience - be even more appetizing? I'm not sure if this is a vain hope, or even a hypocritical one, given how much enjoyable sustenance I took from the experience. Yet when it was all over, there was still an emptiness within me, a feeling that something - some nourishing inspiration - was missing. The good news for all of you is that this could just be my issue. I suspect I am overthinking the movie. As a piece of thrilling well-made entertainment, appropriate for the whole family, it is at the top of its class. So see it, and if you can avoid my kind of metaphysical musings on the fate of storytelling in our day, then you should have a great time.

Demolition
Demolition(2016)
½

The last few years have been good to Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée, with "Dallas Buyers Club," in 2013 (nominated for 6 Oscars and winner of 3), and "Wild," in 2014 (nominated for 2 Oscars, though winner of none), both bringing him well-deserved acclaim. Though each a little heavy in their respective melodramas, they feature solid performances and fine cinematic touches. Vallée may be in need of a lesson in nuance, but he is most definitely a strong director of actors who knows where to put the camera when and why. My favorite of his films, so far, was "Young Victoria," in 2009, which provided lead actress Emily Blunt with a terrific showcase for her prodigious talent minus the plodding narrative devices of Vallée's later work.

And now we have "Demolition," starring Jake Gyllenhaal ("Nightcrawler"), Naomi Watts ("While We're Young") and young newcomer Judah Lewis (last year's "Point Break" remake), among others, all of whom shine, as actors do with Vallée. Gyllenhaal plays Davis, a successful investment banker whose life is turned upside down when his wife, Julia, is killed in a car accident that leaves him without a scratch (she was driving, and they were arguing). His father-in-law, Phil (Chris Cooper, "August: Osage County"), is also his boss, and is surprised when Davis shows up at work the next day (Phil is at home, stricken). Everyone grieves in their own way, it seems, and Davis is so unhinged in the aftermath of Julia's death that he can only cope by forging ahead as if nothing has happened.

Which only gets him so far. Soon, as he slowly begins to unpack his grief, he finds himself surrounded by the trappings of a life he never truly understood: nice house, nice clothes, nice car. Now he wants none of it, and his only way to freedom is to destroy everything. Before he gets there, though, he unburdens himself in a series of long confessional letters to the company whose vending machine malfunctioned in the hospital where Julia had just died, depriving him of Peanut M&Ms. That company's lone customer-service representative, Karen (Watts), is profoundly moved by these sweet, inappropriate (and inappropriately funny) missives, and soon their respective lives become intertwined. She's a single mother with a troubled son, Chris (Lewis), and Davis - with his myriad problems - may be just the crazy mentor that the boy needs.

First, though, the mallet. And here's where the film falters. Davis' desire to rid himself of his materialistic past leads him on an odyssey of demolition (hence the title), that is both actual (breaking down walls) and metaphorical (breaking down his life). The problem is that it's an obvious metaphor, and not easy to sustain in any sort of interesting way over the 100-minute running time of the movie. We get it, you see, and long for a novel treatment of Davis' pain halfway through. Still, each and every actor is compellingly watchable, and there are many genuinely touching moments between them. In spite of the clunky script, I found myself deeply affected by the final scenes. Overall, then, I would recommend the film, even with its strained central conceit.

Hardcore Henry

I saw "Hardcore Henry" at the recent 2016 SXSW Festival, and my initial reaction to the film has not mellowed in the weeks since. If you like first-person point-of-view video games, then it may be just your ticket. On the other hand, if you do enjoy such experiences, then you may perhaps feel frustrated that the film - though mimicking their perspective - offers you no choice but to sit and accept the director's idea of what you should see. That idea - such as it is - is carnage layered upon carnage, with a body count so high that the guts and gore all blend together in a blurry miasma of bloody viscera. While I, myself, have no experience with these games - "Call of Duty" is but one example - I imagine that their appeal lies very much in the adrenaline rush that comes from placing oneself at the center of the story. With the arrival of virtual-reality rigs like the Oculus Rift, such experiences will only become more intense for the user. Whatever one thinks of immersive games or the future of entertainment, however, in the present here and now, "Hardcore Henry" is the opposite of immersive. It's one-trick-pony of a gimmick - that we never see the protagonist because we are, in effect, the protagonist - backfires after the first 15 minutes, for want of a compelling narrative, and then is but a repellent device that merely serves to remind us of the absence of screenplay. A must miss, for sure.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
½

In the end, it all comes down to good old Mom. With the fate of the world in the balance, with the forces of good and evil arrayed on either side of the fence (or, in this case, of the shattered skyscraper), with all of the destruction wrought on our planet, is it not reassuring to know that the love of one's mother can still hold sway? For when Batman faces off against Superman - each presented as morally complicated heroes, with both good and evil within them - it turns out that the mere mention of matricide is enough to stay his hand. What next? A two-man baseball match? An apple-pie-eating contest? What fun could be had!

Sadly, however, fun is the furthest thing from the mind of director Zack Snyder ("Man of Steel"). Which shouldn't surprise, given his previous work. From "Dawn of the Dead" (a remake of George Romero's original) to "300" to "Watchmen," and beyond, Snyder has specialized in an aesthetic - such as it is - that combines ornate comic-inspired visuals with a bone-crunchingly gloomy worldview that manages to be both stimulating (for the eyes) and utterly boring (for the brain). I must confess to enjoying that first feature of his (his take on Romero), but perhaps that is because zombie films actually work well when there is no glimmer of anything but destruction. By now, however, his style has played out, and though we get a strange CGI zombie (of sorts) at the end of "Batman v Superman" (note the "v" versus "vs," like a battle between litigants, which might have actually been more interesting ...), as if to recall what once worked, it's a case of excess piled upon excess, and a reminder, instead, of the dearth of genuine human characters, the actual actors notwithstanding.

Which is unfortunate, because there is at least one good performance in this movie, and that is by Ben Affleck ("Gone Girl"), who does a fine job stepping into Christian Bale's world-weary shoes as Bruce Wayne. Affleck is by far the best thing here, though Amy Adams ("American Hustle") - as Lois Lane, star reporter and Superman's love interest - is always compulsively watchable, and Gal Gadot ("Triple 9"), as Wonder Woman - whoops (plot spoiler, though not really), I mean Diana Prince - makes for one kickass superheroine. It's too bad there isn't more of the women, as the film is otherwise one big testosterone-laden glowering contest followed by an endless slugfest. Throw a manic Jesse Eisenberg ("The End of the Tour") into the mix as Lex Luthor, and it really is all about who's got the biggest balls. To which I say, who cares?

The plot, such as it is, begins at the end of "Man of Steel," during the climactic battle between Superman and General Zod that nearly destroys Metropolis. Bruce Wayne - not in costume as Batman - watches in horror as two extraterrestrials fight without apparent concern over collateral damage. Flash forward 18 months, and Wayne is now intent on laying waste to he who laid waste. Meanwhile, Clark Kent/Superman - Henry Cavill ("The Man from U.N.C.L.E."), reprising the role from last time, and fine if unremarkable - has his own concerns about Batman's vigilante tactics, and is similarly seeking a way to put Gotham's caped crusader out of business. Luther, on his end, wants to play the two sides against each other, and with the help of some Kryptonite (mineral residue from Superman's home planet that can destroy him) and a well-intentioned U.S. Senator (Holly Hunter, "Saving Grace," good if little-used), is poised to step in as evil overlord once the ostensible good guys are gone. Hence, "Batman v Superman." And he almost succeeds; he did not, however, count on Mom.

That's Diane Lane ("Trumbo," another underused fine actress), who is back as Ma Kent, the adoptive mother of Kal-El (aka Superman, aka Clark Kent). She's not on screen for very long, except as a pawn in the plans of men, but her role is pivotal. At least as far as understanding Snyder's approach to storytelling. When you write yourself into a corner, where all you can do is show one more interminable fight scene after another, what better way to solve the plot conundrum than to use a hokey contrivance like a son's love for his mother. Add a bit of coincidence involving that mother's first name - hey, why stop when you're hacking your way through a screenplay? - and voilà, problem solved! At least until the zombie - excuse me, Doomsday - shows up. Mom's not much help there, I'm afraid.

I am sure that there are many in this world who will watch this movie and enjoy it. It tackles big themes - life and death, good and evil - in big ways. But those ways are also so repetitively obvious that one quickly begins to long for some nuance. The heroes may be presented as morally complicated (they are not, really), but the movie is constructed with such bombast that there is nothing complex about its approach to the material. Perhaps most disturbing - in this and all of the other over-exposed superhero films of our day - is the neo-fascist acceptance that we, mere non-billionaire mortals, are all helpless in the face of the decisions of our betters. At least with the more irreverent Marvelverse films like "Guardians of the Galaxy," "Ant-Man" and "Deadpool" (and even the more serious "Captain America: The Winter Soldier"), there is a sense that real people matter, and that the stakes are high because actual lives are at stake; here, we viewers can only cower in our seats like the helpless spectators in the film, urged to worship at the altar of our superiors. "Please, Sir, I want some more"? Next time, I'll pass.

Baskin
Baskin(2016)
½

If you like your blood and guts spoken in a foreign language, with some genuinely fresh takes on the genre, than "Baskin" could be the movie for you. Based on director Can Evrenol's 2013 short of the same name, this strange and (at times) compellingly repulsive movie offers some genuine (albeit vomitous) thrills, even while being unable to surmount some significant script issues. In other words, this is not a good film, but is a sometimes entertaining one.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I do not hold great love for horror, particularly of the gory variety. So there is a high threshold for me to overcome before I will find anything to like in a movie filled with severed body parts and spurting arteries. What I do appreciate, however, is an eerie mood and setting, and the occasional high-concept twist. Here, that twist takes the form of a character who is able to shift time and place in a moment of crisis. The fact that he can't really control this ability makes it all the more interesting, since we never know how much this skill will ultimately help.

In "Baskin" (title never explained), we find ourselves in the company of a (mostly) deeply unsympathetic group of policemen. They eat dinner in an isolated restaurant while a hooded figure prowls outside, unseen, eventually delivering mysterious meat to the cook. Soon, we begin to wish that the hooded figure would enter the fray earlier, rather than later, as all these guys talk about is sex and their abuse of power. But no, it's all just set-up, and we can only wonder why. Dinner done, they leave, but not before one of them has had a strange psychotic moment in the bathroom (frog involved) and another has picked a fight with the waiter. Good riddance to them, I say. Which is good, because soon my wish will be granted.

Once on the road, our friends hear a call for help on the police radio that brings them to one of those dark and creepy places that anyone who has ever seen a horror film knows not to go into (but isn't that why fans of the genre watch?). What awaits them, inside, though fairly disgusting, is, at the very least, not entirely expected, and that almost redeems the whole affair. The Black Mass they stumble upon - and of which they inadvertently become a part - has some well-rendered sequences that are hard not admire. And then there's that character who keeps flashing back in time to liven up the proceedings. So while I would not recommend this film to the casual viewer of horror films, anyone looking for something even a little new in the genre should check it out, and weather its screenplay flaws.

10 Cloverfield Lane
½

Just because you're paranoid, it doesn't mean they're not out to get you. Such is the set-up for 10 "Cloverfield Lane," an extremely clever sort-of-sequel to the 2008 hit "Cloverfield," itself a nifty little gem of a found-footage mockumentary in which a monstrous alien destroyed New York (and maybe more). That film had no stars and was shot in a shaky-cam home-video style; here, there are no such cinematography tricks, with a much more traditional use of camera. What we get, instead, are three very strong (and relatively well-known) actors - Mary Elizabeth Winstead ("Faults"), John Goodman ("Inside Llewyn Davis") and John Gallagher, Jr. ("Short Term 12") - plus a super-smart script and some superb lighting and editing techniques worthy of the best horror films. Eventually, there are also some splendid visual effects, but perhaps the best effect of all is the site of John Goodman boogying to the jukebox in his bunker.

Goodman plays Howard, a survivalist nut who may (or may not) be as crazy as we think. When first we meet him, it is after a catchy opening in which we watch Michelle (Winstead) pack up her life, leave an engagement ring on the table, drive off, and then tumble off the road in an accident. She wakes up with an IV in her arm and her leg bandaged and shackled. The heavy door to her cell opens, and there's Howard, looming over her with a fiery gleam in his eye. He tells her that he saved her life, and that everyone in the world above is dead. The cause? Some kind of attack - maybe the Russians or the North Koreans, or even extraterrestrials - that has contaminated the air. Better to get used to life in his custom-made shelter. Michelle, who earlier had wanted nothing more than to flee her life, now wants back in. But how?

Trapped underground with her is Emmett, who helped build the place and fought his way through the exterior hatch as Howard was closing it. He's sweet, but injured. Good company, perhaps (he's much closer in age to Michelle than is Howard), but not much protection. For a while, however, they all make do. Howard has loaded the bunker with games, puzzles and movies. Not entirely satisfied that he's not insane, Michelle, leg injury and all, does try to break out (they hear noises above), but what she sees on the threshold stops her cold. Perhaps there is method to Howard's madness, after all.

What first-time feature-director Dan Trachtenberg has crafted here is a film that takes its time, yet is utterly gripping. There are true surprises in store - even if you have seen the previous film - and a very satisfying ending (which concludes the story while pointing, of course, to future installments). All three actors, at the peak of their game, hold our attention; we feel their mounting claustrophobia even as they do their best to deal with it. If you're looking for a movie that is both a great psychological thriller and great science fiction, then "10 Cloverfield Lane" is just the ticket.

London Has Fallen

Secret Service Agent Mike Banning, like "Die Hard"'s John McLane before him, always seems to find himself at the center of a whirlwind of violence. Just three years ago, in "Olympus Has Fallen," he executed a brilliant rescue of the President of the United States - against impossible odds! - trapped in a White House under siege, and executed dozens of terrorists in the process. His methods were varied: some he shot, some he stabbed, some he manhandled to death; all deserved their fates, of course. In that film, they were North Korean, hoping to force the Americans off of their peninsula so they could reunify North and South. The movie was not ineffective, with imperfectly drawn but still interesting characters. It was nice that the screenwriters didn't just assume that an attack on our nation's capital would be story enough; they actually tried to create multiple layers of conflict (making it slightly better, for me, than "White House Down," which was released a few months later with a very similar premise). "Olympus Has Fallen" was by no means a masterpiece, but it was an enjoyable enough action thriller.

And now Banning - and the President - are back. Played, again, by Gerard Butler ("300") and Aaron Eckhart ("Battle: Los Angeles"), they seem to have nicely recovered from their ordeal of a few years prior. By the time we meet them in this new film, however, we have already seen a teaser opener in which a man who is set up as THE WORLD'S MOST EVIL TERRORIST is killed by U.S. drone. Or is he . . . ? Soon, the sudden death of the British Prime Minister draws them (and every other major power's president and security detail) to London for the funeral, where all hell predictably breaks loose (see poster, above, as well as the first movie and/or just say the title, slowly, to yourself). Will Banning be able to save the President once more? Perhaps the bigger question should be: who/what will be the collateral damage this time?

The answer to that is: everything and everyone. Especially if they look Middle-Eastern or Pakistani, the villains in installment #2. Yes, it's that kind of film, even though the director, Babak Najafi ("Easy Money II: Hard to Kill") was born in Tehran. One would think that moving to progressive Sweden when he was 11 would have mellowed him out, or at least given him some nuanced racial perspective on the world, but one would be wrong. For nuance is a territory unknown to Mr. Najafi and his screenwriters, at least as far as this film is concerned. There's good and evil in this world, and if one is good, then all is permitted to defeat evil, even torture. It's not that I think that terrorist acts should be tolerated or terrorists allowed to go free, but in the worldview here on display - via a raging Banning - the killing of foreign-accented brown people is not just a survival tactic, but something to be celebrated. After one particularly gruesome death-by-knife-twist, played to the max for the victim's brother (listening in on a cell phone), the President turns to Banning and croaks, "Was that absolutely necessary?" Banning replies, gleefully, "No!" And that's all you need to know. Dick Cheney and Donald Trump would love it.

Touched With Fire
½

Is manic depression a prerequisite for artistic genius? That is one of the questions posed by "Touched with Fire" (formerly known as "Mania Days"). Or rather, it is posed by Marco, the male lead (an excellent Luke Kirby, from "Take This Waltz"). He's a street poet and rapper who hates taking his medication because it douses that burning flame of creativity within. The same holds true for Carla (Katie Holmes - "Miss Meadows" - a little less good), an actual published poet who doesn't have quite the same pride in her condition as does Marco, but similarly quits her meds to feel more alive. At the end of their resultant manic episodes, they both end up in the same mental institution, where they meet and, eventually, fall in love.

First-time feature-director Paul Dalio, himself diagnosed with bipolar disorder as a young man, exerts enormous efforts to externalize a condition that, though it includes many outward physical behaviors, mainly takes place in the inner confines of one's mind. Beautifully shot by Dalio's wife, Kristina Nikolova (director, "Faith, Love and Whiskey"), "Touched with Fire" includes powerful images framed as if from the point of view of Carla and Marco, fully engaging us, for a while, in their downward and then, finally, upward trajectory. Unfortunately, while it may or may not be true that there is a link between manic depression and creativity - Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison, whose book on the subject lends its title to this movie, certainly believes so - the poetry and raps spoken and performed by our main characters are so disappointingly banal - and, at times, just plain terrible - that they undercut much of the argument, since neither Marco nor Carla are, in fact, good at what they do.

Leaving that question aside, they are not without interest, however. We do care what happens to them, and we want them to get better. So, too, do their families, as represented by Christine Lahti ("Petunia"), on Carla's side, and Griffin Dunne ("Dallas Buyers Club"), on Marco's side. The problem is that no one seems to think that Carla and Marco are good for each other, and so much of the film is about two struggles: the one against their disorder, and the other against those who would keep them apart. It's an engaging story, but one that sometimes seems confused about the argument it's making. Carla and Marco so clearly need their pills, lest they pose a threat to themselves and others, yet half the movie seems to want them to be free to write (bad) verse. I would say that seems like a schizophrenic approach, but that's a whole other condition.

Triple 9
Triple 9(2016)

"The code on the street is never black and white," reads the tagline on one of this movie's posters. It would seem that we are in for a psychologically complex thriller, then, where neither good guys nor bad rule the day, and where the very concept of one or the other may, in fact, be meaningless. I like these kinds of stories, where shades of grey predominate the (here, urban) landscape. Corrupt cops and decent criminals, and all of the permutations in between, are what give so many thrillers their narrative drive, the conflict erupting from a clash of opposing forces. Sadly, "Triple 9" does not live up to its promise (nor its premise), despite a few good action sequences. It's a movie as out of control as the morally bankrupt police officers within it.

Chiwetel Ejiofor ("12 Years a Slave"), Kate Winslet ("Steve Jobs"), Casey Affleck ("The Finest Hours"), Anthony Mackie ("Captain America: The Winter Soldier"), Woody Harrelson ("The Hunger Games") and Aaron Paul ("Breaking Bad") star, among others, as the assortment of cops and robbers. John Hillcoat ("Lawless") directs, and though the script (by newcomer Matt Cook) is a mess, he does a decent job, in the beginning, setting up character, location and pacing. The opening bank heist - and its bloody aftermath - is well staged, with a nice payoff at the end. We feel we're in good hands, right before things spin into mediocrity.

Ejiofor plays Michael, a former army explosives man, involved now with a Russian-Jewish mob headed by Kate Winslet's Irina, with whose younger sister he has a child. Winslet doesn't look particularly Russian or Jewish, but all of her evil henchmen wear yarmulkes, just in case we doubt her background. In fact, there is so much emphasis on the mob's Jewish roots - and they're a nasty bunch - that I couldn't help wonder if either director or screenwriter (or both) had an antisemitic ax to grind. Irrespective of this, Winslet sure tries hard, accent and all, in a dreadfully underwritten part (well, the whole movie is underwritten), to make us believe that she is, indeed, Satan's wife. Using Michael's boy as bait, Irina refuses payment on the first job (that bank heist), demanding, instead, that he go for one more score. Just one! I think we know the drill by now, no?

Not only does this development not please Michael, but it really pisses off his crew, made up of another former military guy, that guy's brother, and two dirty cops. To complicate matters, one of those police officers, Marcus (Mackie), gets stuck with a new partner, Chris (Affleck), who - despite a little bit of racial profiling here and there - is what passes for this movie's hero. Harrelson shows up straight from the set of "Bad Lieutenant" as Chris's uncle, Jeffrey, a police commander with a serious drug habit. Soon, all of these various elements collide in what could be interesting ways if the situations were novel (they are not), yet so much feels recycled from better movies (including "Training Day") that at some point I just began to tune out the noise. Yes, blood is spilled and people die, but so what?

About that title. Apparently, 999 in official police-radio lingo means that an officer is down. Our friends in the force decide that the only way to pull off the second job is to divert the entire Atlanta (thank you, Georgia film incentives!) police force by shooting a fellow officer (not one of their crew). Of course, they choose Affleck's honest cop as the target. If you wonder whether they'll succeed or not, then you clearly haven't seen enough of these kinds of movies, in which case I wish you well, and hope you have a good time.

The Witch
The Witch(2016)
½

Even having done no research on the film beforehand, watching "The Witch" I could tell that the director had a strong background in design. Indeed, Robert Eggers - whose debut feature this is - has previously directed a few short films, but mainly worked as a Production Designer, Art Director and Costume Designer on the films and theater productions of others. Here, every inch of every frame feels carefully constructed, as does the score and overall sound design. There is not one element on screen that has not emerged from the mind of a man with a plan. All the while scaring the breeches and petticoats off of his 17th-century characters, Eggers fully intends to scare the pants off of us, his 21st-century viewers. That he mostly succeeds is a mark of his genuine artistry. That he ultimately fails is due to his script (which he also wrote), which breaks down in its final climax. The concluding man-behind-the-curtain payoff reveals too much; the eerie, abstract mystery, once concretized in the expected supernatural, feels pedestrian, because expected. Better to have kept us guessing.

According to the press kit (I don't remember a date listed on screen), we are in 1630, in New England. When the film opens, we find ourselves at some kind of a trial, where patriarch William - a very good Ralph Ineson ("The Selfish Giant") - defends himself against charges of heresy. His punishment? Banishment from the colony (which looks very much like Plymouth Plantation). And so he takes his family of six (wife and five children) out to the edge of a dark forest, away from what passes for civilization, to make their own way in the world. They look hardy, but we soon discover that they are but recent arrivals from England, without much in the way of backwoods smarts. As eldest daughter Thomasin - newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy, also very good - gazes warily at the dense trees, we hear a rising chorus of women's voices crescendo on the soundtrack, hinting at the hysteria that awaits.

Which is not long in coming. First one child disappears, then another, and the family members soon turn on one another, blaming each other for bringing the devil. Indeed, from that very first scene in Plymouth, we are plunged into a world of dread and superstition, where the speech of loose tongues can be used as evidence in future accusations. As the situation goes from bad to terrifying, the most suspicions fall on Thomasin, whose desperate attempts to please her increasingly unsettled parents only make her more culpable in their eyes. All the while, Eggers ups the nightmarish ante through sound, color and composition. And goats.

Never have simple farm animals seemed so scary. One, a billy goat whom the children have nicknamed Black Phillip, may or may not be Satan, himself. Or so they think. And that's where the film is strongest. Eggers weaves so much disquiet and unease into the ordinary that you will never be able to look at a goat (or even a rabbit, as there's one particularly awful one that appears at frequent intervals) again without fear. Which doesn't mean that there are not also genuine shocks, as well. After the disappearance of the first child, we encounter an old naked woman - what, in an un-PC world, we would call "a crone" - who is most definitely up to no good. Later, we meet her again. Is she real? Is she actually a witch?

Ah, would that the director had left more unanswered. His film is otherwise a beautifully experimental horror film, where his aesthetic - through an innovative use of lighting and music - keeps us on our toes, both from terror and confusion. But then, at the end, we sadly arrive at an ending that is both conventional in its horror-movie bloodshed and unfortunate in its detailed revelation. Furthermore, it is not clear (to me, anyway), what Eggers is trying to say with that conclusion. In the late 1690s, actual women suffered devastating consequences when their communities accused them of witchcraft. In "The Witch," it's as if Eggers is saying that those overzealous inquisitors might have been on to something. That's certainly not a cause that I'm willing to sign up for, but I will gladly agree that Eggers has loads of talent and should keep on making movies, even if this one is less than perfect. It's certainly a worthy first effort.

Where to Invade Next

Where to invade next? Where to start . . . ? Filmmaker Michael Moore begins with a mildly funny satirical construct: travel the world as a representative of the United States, interview citizens of other countries, and then, once their superior (to ours) social systems are revealed, plant the American flag and claim that country as our own. In this way, Moore hopes to shine a light on those aspects of his native land that are in need of improving, which include, but are not limited to: education, health care, work hours and prisons. As a good progressive, I am, in fact, in favor of such comparisons ... where they are valid and can teach us something. I am not, however, in favor of using one or two examples from each (randomly) chosen country as a stand-in for the whole culture, with no supporting data to back up the claims Moore makes. It's an unsatisfactory argument, and far too easy to puncture. It relies on an audience that both already agrees with the filmmaker and sees no need to delve deeper. It's like an internet meme that is comforting because it tells you what you think you know but may or may not be true. We're all guilty of clicking "like" on our favorites without further investigation, and so be it. But when we're talking about a documentary film masquerading as journalism, the standards should be higher.

Michael Moore did us all a favor in 1989 when he released his first feature, "Roger & Me." It was a brilliant takedown of Roger Smith, then-CEO of General Motors, who had downsized his company's activities in its traditional home base of Flint, MI, thereby throwing the local economy into disarray. Moore tracked Smith relentlessly until he was able to confront him at a GM shareholders' meeting. Even though his microphone was cut off, his camera caught the whole thing, and the result was an embarrassing cinematic exposé of corporate greed at its worst. This was fantastic activist journalism, and the film rightly propelled Moore into the public eye as a director to watch. I wish he would go back to Flint, now, to make a movie about their water crisis.

Since that time, Moore's output has been steady but uneven, as both filmmaker and author (I loved his book "Stupid White Men," but found "Dude, Where's My Country" tiresome). For every brilliant "Bowling for Columbine," there has been a more obvious and strident "Fahrenheit 9/11"; for every moving "Sicko," there has been an obnoxiously vapid "Capitalism: A Love Story." And now we have this new film, which panders to Moore's worst tendencies as a showman without his better qualities as an investigator. In the course of the movie, we visit Italy, France, Finland, Slovenia, Germany, Portugal, Norway, Tunisia and Iceland - with no explanation as to why these countries were chosen - meet a few folks here and there, and then listen to Moore's grandiloquent sermons about how much we can learn from our (mostly European) neighbors across the Atlantic. I, too, want universal health care and education, better prisons, and stronger unions (which I agree are not incompatible with capitalism). But I also do not imagine that the one happy Italian couple I see are representative of all Italians, nor that the two factories I visit, where unions and bosses work in harmony, tell me the whole story. Would the film not make its point stronger with more facts at hand? Ah, but that would require actual work, and here, at least, Moore demonstrates a consistent intellectual laziness that is breathtaking to behold. This is not only one of the worst films of 2015, but one of the worst films I have ever seen. To be avoided at all costs. No one should be rewarded for such drivel.

Deadpool
Deadpool(2016)
½

As I feel obliged to mention every time I write a review of a new film from the Marvel universe, I am not an aficionado of any comic-book series, anywhere or anyhow. Except for one brief period in my life, in my early twenties, when I desperately wanted to do anything but write my M.A. thesis and just happened to live with roommates who owned a very large comic collection, I have generally stayed away from the stuff. It's not that it's uninteresting - some of the characters are quite compelling - but rather that, much like video games (which I also avoid), it can prove addictive without providing much in the way of substance, entertaining me on the surface while leaving me hungry for more, like binging on junk food. Graphic novels are something different (or can be, in the right hands), but your average comic book, even if beautifully illustrated, just doesn't fill me up (unless, again, I have something else that I should be doing). Now that I've lost the comic-reading audience, let me proceed.

All of this means that certain segments of our current blockbuster world are fast becoming ever-more monotonous, as we see superhero (or, heroes) battle super villain (or, villains) in a CGI landscape where the conflict is spelled out in bold letters. The oft-simplistic dialogue rests atop an impenetrably baroque visual design where gazillions of pixels rush through our 3D glasses with every explosion and punch. It can be a lot of fun, but after the nth installment, also mind-numbing. Occasionally, there's a character that I like so much, and a script that manages to be topical, as in "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," that my ennui is dispelled, and a rollicking good time is had. At other times, if it's clear that the filmmakers, themselves, might be as bored with the "same old same old" as I am, and are trying something new and irreverent, as with "Guardians of the Galaxy" and "Ant-Man," I take great pleasure in the discovery that the genre can still hold surprises (though I am not looking forward to the sequels of these last two, where I am sure to be disappointed). And then there's "Deadpool."
All I knew about this new Marvel hero (or, as it turns out, anti-hero), I learned from talking to my fellow film attendees before the movie started. Since I arrived close to the start time, that means I knew very little. That, plus the above opinions about Marvel that I just vented, means that my expectations were extremely low. As it turns out, that was a great thing, because "Deadpool" takes the notion of genre-reinvigoration to new heights. Though extremely violent - and jokey about that violence - and often extremely vulgar, with the usual comic misogyny (you know, hot girlfriend is a stripper/whore kind of thing), "Deadpool" is a delightfully in-your-face examination of the superhero movie that chews up the worst clichés of stories past and spits out their remains in a bloody mess that is one extraordinarily fun ride. Like the wonderful first "Kick-Ass" (but not the terrible second), it manages to have its cake and vomit it, too. If that sounds appealing, then this is the movie for you!

Ryan Reynolds ("Self/less") is Wade Wilson, our protagonist, and if ever a wannabe big star needed a hit, it's Reynolds. A highly appealing - if somewhat limited - actor, Reynolds has tried before to make it big, with the abominable "Green Lantern," which tanked. Since then, he's struggled in mediocre fare, though not without the occasional serious effort, as in last year's "Woman in Gold," opposite Helen Mirren. Perhaps, all this time, what he's needed is a little more shock-jock, because he inhabits the role of the wise-cracking Wilson - who becomes Deadpool after a cancer-cure treatment leaves him disfigured but immortal - with such brazen braggadocio that we wonder where this side of Reynolds has been all along. If the movie's well-deserved R-rating doesn't keep it from being a big hit, this could be Reynold's movement. And justly so.

Right from the beginning, in a lengthy digitized tracking shot through a freeze frame of a car accident, the camera slowly working its way through the details of mayhem while a sappy pop song plays on the soundtrack, we know we're in for something different. Post-credits, we flash back to what led us there, meeting Wilson, pre-transformation, as he works as a small-time mercenary. Cutting back and forth between the events immediately preceding the opening accident and Wilson's back story, we see him meet Vanessa - Morena Baccarin (Dr. Thompkins on "Gotham"), who is terrific here, but deserves to play more three-dimensional characters - that stripper/hooker (of course), fall in love, and then get his cancer diagnosis. Too bad. But then a mysterious doctor shows up, offers him the chance at a live-saving treatment, and the plot is set in motion. That treatment will save his life, but also alter his good looks, and, bien sûr, grant him super powers. Along the way, Reynolds constantly breaks the fourth wall and severs heads, laughing most of the time. Some members of the X-Men show up, and there is, of course, the mandatory final showdown between good (sort of) guys and bad. It's not, after all, a complete reinvention of the genre. But it is one hell of a fun riff on it. And for it's worth, it's not in 3D.

45 Years
45 Years(2015)

Pity the poor Tom Courtenay ("Quartet"). He's a marvelous actor, yet paired opposite the grand Charlotte Rampling ("Never Let Me Go") - Oscar-nominated for this film - he cannot help but pale in comparison. He's very good; she's brilliant. Of course, his role here is to play the more doddering member of a long-married couple, while hers is to simmer in a long burn that erupts in flame in the final moments of the movie. The cause of that upset? A long-buried memory - the ghost of a long-lost love - that surfaces just as Geoff (Courtenay) and Kate (Rampling) are about to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary.

If that's not a usually noted marker (unlike the 40th and the 50th), that's kind of the point. It's a symbol of how much these two have tried, without perhaps even being conscious of it, to remind themselves that their life together has meant something. There's clearly love - or a lot of familiar comfort, anyway - but is there passion? In any case, Geoff, it turns out, was undergoing heart-bypass surgery at the time of the 40th, and so Kate has decided to make a big deal out of the 45th. From the start, it's clear that she is the one who wants this; Geoff can take it or leave it.

I haven't seen any of director Andrew Haigh's other work, but in movies like "Weekend" and "Greek Pete" he explored relationships between gay men, and according to this movie's press kit, he sees "45 Years" as an extension of his interest in intimacy (or lack thereof) within couples. After seeing 45 Years, I feel the need to check out his earlier work, as I found the new film both beautiful and devastating in its portrayal of the way in which a single (perceived) betrayal can undo a lifetime of shared experience. Haigh adapted the screenplay from a short story by British writer David Constantine, entitled "In Another Country," and while the source text is a brief gem (at just 11 pages), what he adds to it - including the setting of the anniversary - makes it truly profound. 

For what we see is nothing less than the details of a life, as it is revisited, parsed and redefined. The greater the specificity of Kate and Geoff's shared (and unshared) secrets, the more universal their distress. Rampling, especially, gives much with very little, the restrained emotions of the years finally breaking free in an almost-stifled whimper of distress. It's an amazing performance, and it makes me wish that this year's crop of best-actress nominees were not so strong (the smart money, apparently, is on either Brie Larson or Saoirse Ronan to win). Rampling didn't help her chances recently by claiming that the #OscarsSoWhite controversy was "racist to whites" (uh, really?). But no matter: let's judge the work. "45 Years" is a movie that must be seen by anyone who has ever been in a relationship, which is (I hope) most, if not all, of us. Two fine actors at the top of their respective games, working off of a smart script, take us on a journey through time and memory where past sins - in this case, of careful omission - haunt present-day realities. One of the best films of 2015.

Hail, Caesar!

I sometimes struggle over what to make of the films of Joel and Ethan Coen. Certain ones, I adore. These include: "Barton Fink," "The Hudsucker Proxy" (hardly a popular choice, but I love it just the same), "Fargo," "A Serious Man" and "True Grit." In others, while I may enjoy parts, I do not find the completed whole particularly satisfying. In this category we find: "Raising Arizona," "The Big Lebowski," "O Brother, Where Art Thou?," "No Country for Old Men," "Inside Llewyn Davis," and now ... "Hail, Caesar!" (we won't discuss the films I do not like at all, which are but few). Filled with scenes of great brilliance, with equally brilliant performances, "Hail, Caesar!" somehow manages to be less than the sum of its (un)equal parts. Still, when it succeeds, it does so with panache. Whatever my opinion of the entire movie, I had a great time watching (most of) it.

Loosely based on the life of real-life Hollywood "fixer" Eddie Mannix, the movie immerses us in the world of the late studio era, when each production house was a universe unto itself, with laws set by the moguls that Could. Not. Be. Broken. Mannix was one of the men tasked with keeping stars in line, lest their shenanigans end up in the gossip columns, ruining their public image and jeopardizing profits. The Coens have terrific fun with the setting, just as they did with their previous (twisted) love letter to Hollywood, "Barton Fink." Here, their affection for a bygone age feels less cynical and more genuine, which is good in that we get many more delightful pastiches of their thoughts on what it must have been like, but bad in that the film has much less bite. What, exactly, is it all for? Every time I feel this way at the end of one of their movies, I sense that they spent too much time laughing at their own jokes (but what great jokes!) and forgot about the need for an ultimate punch line.

Josh Brolin ("Inherent Vice") plays Mannix as a tough drill sergeant who loves what he does. He sees himself as the pillar that supports the entire studio edifice. As always, Brolin is very good; it's a shame the movie doesn't quite do justice to his performance. Others shine as well. There's Scarlett Johansson ("Under the Skin") as a pregnant starlet in the mode of Esther Williams, mermaid suit and all; Channing Tatum ("Magic Mike") as a Gene Kelly-esque dancer; Ralph Fiennes ("The Grand Budapest Hotel") as a temperamental director; and, almost best of all, relative newcomer Alden Ehrenreich ("Beautiful Creatures") as a young Western star whom the studio has (oddly) decided to recast in a drawing-room drama. George Clooney ("The Monuments Men") is around, as well, playing the fatuous leading man of the biblical epic that Mannix is shepherding, but his attempts at stupid feel too obvious, and he ends up being the least interesting member of the cast.

The plot centers around ... a plot! And this being the 1950s, the Communists are behind it. A cabal of disgruntled writers plans a kidnapping which stops Mannix's production cold, with money on the line. The gossip columnists start circling, like vultures, to figure out what's going on, and before too long Mannix has a real mess on his hands. Meanwhile, here and there, we get diverting scenes of this and that -  as if the Coens wanted to shoehorn every story element that would sense in that time period into the script. The Esther Williams and Gene Kelly numbers are wonderful, as is the "Ben-Hur"-like movie within the movie; the Communists, less so. The period details are all exquisitely rendered, and any film aficionado or lover of film history should get a kick out of so much of what is on screen. But when the credits come up, we have to ask to what end all that effort?

The Finest Hours

Based on the daring 1952 rescue of the oil tanker Pendleton by a Massachusetts-based Coast-Guard crew - or, rather, based on the book about that rescue - "The Finest Hours" does its best to immerse the audience in the derring-do of its heroes - and succeeds for a while - before merely submerging us in the overflow of its melodramatic waters. Directed by Craig Gillespie ("Million Dollar Arm") and starring Chris Pine ("Star Trek: Into Darkness"), Casey Affleck ("Gone Baby Gone") and Holliday Grainger ("Cinderella"), among others, the film is not without its qualities, and is, in fact, quite gripping in its first half. Unfortunately, like some of the ships in its story, it loses its way in an attempt to take the already harrowing events and prolong the agony of their unfolding for the sake of (failed) tension. Still, while it works, it works quite well.

When we first meet Bernie Webber (Pine), it is just before a date with Miriam (Grainger), a young woman with whom he has frequently spoken (on the phone), but never met. We are told that he is extremely handsome (and he is Chris Pine, after all), but his manner is not that of a ladies' man; quite the contrary. He's all shyness to her brash confidence. Later, she is even the one who proposes. Interesting. Will this film - ostensibly about a true-life drama - offer a revisionist take on 1950s sexual politics? Sadly, that is not to be, as Miriam eventually finds her way - quite literally - to the kitchen, like a good little girl, and all is right with the world (I'm kidding, but she is in the kitchen).

But enough about that part of the story. You came here for adventure! And so we get it. It's February, and a nasty winter storm breaks apart a large oil tanker. Make that two oil tankers, one of which is unable to signal its position. That would be the Pendleton. Its bow section sinks rapidly, but its stern still has power, and ship's engineer Ray Sybert (Affleck, giving the best performance in the film) thinks he can keep them afloat long enough for the Coast Guard to arrive (if they're even coming). Back on shore, Webber is told to head out to sea to save the Pendleton after all the other ships go in pursuit of the other tanker. It's a suicide mission, but he agrees to go, since, as we've learned by this point, he always does his duty. And so, with a crew of three other unlucky sailors, off he goes, in a 36-foot boat, into the waves and the wind.

So far, so good; well, mostly, as we have to wonder what Eric Bana ("Hulk") is doing here as Webber's commanding officer, since he almost singlehandedly ruins the film. As we cut between Webber and his mates and the seemingly doomed crew of the Pendleton, the truth is that it is a thrilling ride. But then, at some point, Gillespie begins to mishandle the story. I think the score is a major part of the problem - although I normally love the composer, Carter Burwell (who is Oscar-nominated this year, for "Carol") - as we do not need its swelling chords; the swelling waves are enough. But it's not just the music; we also must deal with what begins to feel like endless and manipulative dramatic pauses in the action on both vessels, as well in what happens on land (remember Miriam?). And so it goes. It's not a total wash, but it never lives up to the promise of its initial set-up.

Kung Fu Panda 3

In the interest of full disclosure, I must announce that I went to college with one of the two screenwriters - Jonathan Aibel - of this new DreamWorks Animation picture. He and his longtime writing partner, Glenn Berger (whom I have never met), after first making a name for themselves collaborating on scripts for the FOX TV show "King of the Hill," and then anonymously script-doctoring on feature films, finally received their first on-screen movie credit for "Kung Fu Panda." They did not originate that screenplay, but changed enough of it that the WGA, in arbitration, determined that they should share credit with the original screenwriters. That film was a success, and they were then contracted for the sequel (along with other films for DreamWorks, and other studios, such as "Monsters vs. Aliens," "Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked," "The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water" and the upcoming "Trolls"). Whatever conflict of interest that may present for yours truly (check out my review of "SpongeBob" to see that I am capable of mixing praise with criticism, however mild, to a friend), I am happy to report that the latest installment in the adventures of Po, the Panda, is a winner, even if not quite as sublime as its predecessor. If you enjoyed the first two films, you must see this one, as it offers what feels like the perfect conclusion to a lovely trilogy. Of course, if it makes money, there might be another one, but let's pretend, for now, that the series ends here. After all, how many times can Aibel and Berger (sorry, Aibel & Berger*) work their considerable magic to create yet one more interesting journey of self-discovery for their main character?

The first "Kung Fu Panda" was released in 2008; the second in 2011. When we last we saw Po, he had come more into his own - after embracing his destiny as an unlikely kung fu master in the first movie - defeating a powerful enemy of China and saving his friends, the "Furious Five." He had also discovered that he was adopted (i.e., not the son of his goose dad), and we had seen, in the final scene, that his biological father was alive and well, living in a secret village of fellow pandas. "Kung Fu Panda 2" confirmed that it is possible for a sequel to enrich an established world and add a profound backstory to its characters ("Aliens" and "The Godfather: Part II" also stand out, for me). All the while enjoying the witty banter, amusing antics and beautiful animation, I found myself quite sincerely moved by the tale of Po's origins in that second installment. It was a masterpiece of family entertainment, good for kids and adults, alike.

Here, we pick up that family thread, and learn much more about the power of pandas. But don't worry, all of our old friends are back, with Jack Black ("Bernie") as Po, Dustin Hoffman ("Chef") as Shifu and character actor James Hong ("R.I.P.D.") as Mr. Ping (the goose), as well as the Furious Five, all of whom have various well-known actors voicing them, even if they have few lines, including Angelina Jolie ("Maleficent") and Lucy Liu ("Elementary"). Bryan Cranston ("Trumbo") joins the cast as Li, Po's father, as does J.K. Simmons ("Whiplash") as Kai, this movie's villain. To complement that considerable array of vocal talent, DreamWorks has pulled out all the stops and given its animation department enormous artistic freedom, allowing them to create a gorgeous world of carefully designed landscapes that surround the characters and immerse us in a truly cinematic experience. I have always been impressed with what DreamWorks can do ("How to Train Your Dragon 2" was especially beautiful) - they are, for me, the only animation studio that can rival Pixar in loving attention to visual detail - but here they have outdone themselves. Not only is the 3D animation a delight, but the way they mix in 2D and multiple-panel storytelling, as occasionally befits the narrative, feels truly inspired.

As the movie opens, Po is satisfied with the place he has found among his friends, happy to be recognized for his previous accomplishments. Of course, this contentment cannot last (or we'd have no movie), and the unraveling begins first with the arrival of General Kai, freshly returned from the land of dead, ready to reconquer China, and second with the arrival of Li, who wants Po to reconnect with his panda roots. Just as his country needs him, in other words, Po stands torn between his duty to the cause and his duty to family. It's a good dual conflict, with high stakes for all. Along the way, despite the threats to peace and prosperity, there are plenty of jokes, most of which land, and a good time is had by all (of us). Skadoosh, indeed!

[*Here's an interesting bit of trivia, in case you have ever wondered about the difference between "and" and "&" in screenwriting credits. An "and" means that people have worked separately, as in you did your draft and I did mine. An "&" means that they have worked together, in collaboration, as in Jonathan Aibel & Glenn Berger always work as partners. If you see both both, that means that there were multiple drafts credited, and at least one of those drafts was written by a pair or group of people, together.]

Mojave
Mojave(2016)

The best I can say about "Mojave" is that it improves significantly as it proceeds. However, since its opening is a dismal dramatic wasteland, that is scant praise, indeed. Starring Garrett Hedlund ("On the Road") and Oscar Isaac ("Inside Llewyn Davis"), and written and directed by William Monahan (Oscar-winning screenwriter of "The Departed," with one previous feature as a director - "London Boulevard" - under his belt), the film is a showcase for ostensibly fine talent wasted in the service of self-indulgence. No one emerges from the exercise unscathed; in fact, the beatings suffered by the main characters, the one upon the other, are a perfect metaphor for the movie's effect on our view of their skills. The vapid dialogue forced through the mouths of Hedlund and Isaac by Monahan reduces all three of them to mostly amateurish beginners. Here's hoping the actors, anyway, recover.

Hedlund plays Thomas, whom we will eventually discover to be a Hollywood star (or director, or producer ... we're never quite sure). As the film opens, he talks to the camera (in what will later turn out to be footage from a documentary of which he is the subject). Cut to him leaving a bedroom where a semi-conscious woman lounges. It almost looks like he's robbing her, since he slips off her watch and is dressed in ragged clothes. Next we know, he's off in a jeep, headed towards the desert, grabbing alcohol along the way. As the sun sets, he drinks himself silly, yipping away at the local coyotes off in the distance. The following morning, we watch as he wrecks the jeep and heads off on foot into the wilderness. Is he suicidal? On a walkabout? Before we can dwell too long on these questions, Thomas runs into Jack (Isaac), who looks even shabbier than does he. We're about 10 minutes into the film, and so far the mystery has not been unpleasant, but now we're in for a rude surprise, once the dialogue starts. The two strangers face off across the fire and trade pseudo-metaphysical musings about life and ... Shakespeare. And then they fight, a battle which sets in motion a cycle of revenge that can only end with one of them left alive. This fireside chat is the nadir of the movie, but though things get better, we never quite escape the initial clumsy and forced set-up.

Along for the career-damaging ride are Walton Goggins ("The Hateful Eight"), Mark Wahlberg ("Ted 2") and French actress Louise Bourgoin ("The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec") - whose strong accent makes her English-language lines near indecipherable - none of whom are better served by the screenplay than are the leads. This is the kind of movie where no one behaves in a way that makes sense, except to justify the next plot development. There's something to be said for the existence of smaller films like "Mojave" as alternatives to the excess and explosive violence of so many of today's blockbusters, but since, ultimately, we get no less violence here than there - and without the craft that makes some of the big movies palatable - then what, exactly is the point? None that I can see.

Anomalisa
Anomalisa(2015)
½

As a screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman has been responsible for some of the most inventive scripts of the past two decades, starting with "Being John Malkovich," in 1999, and continuing through such superior examples as "Adaptation." (the period is in the title) and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" in the early aughts, to name my favorites. Then, in 2008, he finally directed his first feature, "Synecdoche, New York" (which he also wrote). In each of these films, Kaufman explores similar topics, which include: the alienation of modern life; the banality of that same modern life; the fear of losing one's individuality amongst said banality; and the struggle to remain true to whatever one's particular individuality may be. Sometimes, even in his most brilliant moments, he can be almost a little too clever by half, with a screenplay that weaves its story threads into such perfectly constructed knots that unwrapping the whole can be tiresome for those who just want a simple tale well told. But the rewards are always great, and the intrepid viewer, hungry for liberation from the banal blockbusters of our day, will find much to love in a Kaufman film.

Now, with "Anomalisa" - which Kaufman wrote (based on his "sound play" of the same title) and co-directed with stop-motion animation specialist Duke Johnson (for whom this is the first feature, though he has previously made short films and TV episodes) - we have a continuation of the same themes and story styles that manages to feel simultaneously old and new (if also tedious, at times, much as was "Synecdoche, New York"). Or maybe a better way to describe it is to say it is extraordinarily ordinary, much as the central female character, Lisa, appears to the protagonist, Michael. There's nothing special about her, and yet she is the most unusual person he meets. Similarly, nothing much seems to happen here, yet the film is about momentous events in a man's life. That paradox is at the heart of Kaufman's appeal, and also part of the problem. Even after seeing the film twice, I wonder whether it is really about that much at all. Which may be the point. All I do know is that the film remains a vivid memory, and probably will for some time.

When we first meet Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis, Duncan in the recent "Macbeth"), it is only after we have first been surrounded by voices, all of which sound the same, even though they appear to be conversing. Then we see a cloudy sky, into which a plane flies. That must be where the voices are coming from, we think. But no: one of the voices remarks on the appearance of the plane, and then the camera pulls back, revealing that we are, in fact, in another plane, where Michael sits, watching the sky. It's a lovely hint at Kaufman's technique of revealing layers beyond the obvious. Soon afterwards, Michael lands in Cincinnati, grabs his bag and hails a taxi. By this time, we have begun to notice that everyone but Michael not only sounds the same, but looks the same. They also all - including Michael - have seams showing at the eyeline (a deliberate choice by the directors, since these seams are what allow one to manipulate the facial expressions of the puppets, yet they chose not to mask them in post-production).

By the time we get to the hotel, we have learned that Michael is here to give a talk (he lives in Los Angeles). We will soon also learn that he is a well-known author and "customer service" specialist and married with a child. And we will confirm that everyone else is, in fact, voiced by the same actor (Tom Noonan, Sammy in "Synecdoche, New York"), and decorated with the same face, no matter their age, size or gender. In other words, this is Michael's world, where everyone blends together (including his wife and child). Until he meets Lisa, a middle-aged woman staying in the same hotel, whose voice (Jennifer Jason Leigh, currently also starring in "The Hateful Eight") rings out in the midst of all the homogeneity. Can she save Michael? Is Michael capable of being saved?

This is a film about a 50-something man going through a nervous breakdown, and whatever you think of the often depressive reality of his life as represented on screen, it is hard to argue against the brilliance of the visual and aural conceits of the film. Noonan is a wonder, and much of the humor (it is often quite funny) of "Anomalisa" comes from him, though Ms. Leigh is also delightful. It's a beautiful film to look at, too, as the animation stands out from the plastic sameness of so many studio releases. If I can't quite make up my mind about how I feel about the whole, that doesn't mind I didn't enjoy the experience of watching it. At only 90 minutes, it's a brief affair, and will hopefully stay with you as it has with me.

The Revenant
The Revenant(2015)
½

"The Revenant," based on Michael Punke's true-life novel of the same name, is the latest film of human torment from (now, Oscar-winning) director Alejandro González Iñárritu. Ever since his marvelous turn-of-the-millennium feature debut, "Amores Perros," González Iñárritu has specialized in visually stark and emotionally baroque epics of pain and suffering, some of which achieve - or nearly achieve - their lofty ambitions of grandeur, while others seem to enjoy their misery a little too much to tell a meaningful story beyond the presentation of despair. Among the former successes, I would place his first film, as well as "Babel" (flawed as it is) and "Birdman"; among the latter failures - none of which are without interest, however - I would place "21 Grams," "Biutiful" and now "The Revenant." As if to emphasize his obsession with trauma above all other concerns, the director has spent a lot of time, pre-release, discussing the difficulties of the actual shoot, made even more arduous by his decision to shoot most of the film in natural light. There's nothing wrong with such a commitment to verisimilitude and artistic integrity. The question, however, is whether or not the trials and tribulations depicted on screen amount to the kind of transcendent spiritual movie-going experience sought by González Iñárritu, or whether it's all just blood and guts, a more serious version of the other winter Western out in theaters right now, Quentin Tarantino's "The Hateful Eight."

It's a beautiful film to behold, though very bleak, shot by (also, Oscar-winning, twice) cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki ("Gravity," "Birdman"). "The Revenant" is set in 1823 and tells the story of mountain man Hugh Glass - played by Leonardo DiCaprio ("The Great Gatsby") in an Oscar-buzzy performance - as he is left for dead by his party of fellow fur trappers after a near-lethal bear attack, only to make his way back (hence his status as a "revenant") and exact revenge on the one of them who did him a particular wrong. Along the way he encounters a variety of obstacles, including his persistent injury, hostile Arikara natives and rival French trappers, not to mention the vast expanse of harsh and indifferent nature, at its most dangerous in the coldest months of the year. We watch him time and time again escape certain death, and after a while begin to wonder less at his supernatural powers of survival than at the director's insistence on prolonging his (and our) torture. How many times must this man (almost) die? And to what purpose?

Still, there are many breathtaking sequences, including an opening attack by the aforementioned Arikara that is filmed as one long single take (shades of "Birdman"?). The savage bear mauling is a masterful combination of CGI and real-world elements. And on and on. DiCaprio, to be fair, is quite good, and if he does (finally) win his Oscar, you won't hear me complain. He is well supported, too, with the likes of Tom Hardy ("Mad Max: Fury Road"), Domhnall Gleeson ("Brooklyn," fast outgrowing his position as my least favorite actor with a series of fine supporting roles like this one) and Will Poulter ("The Maze Runner"), in what may be the best performance of the film as a young boy racked with guilt over leaving Glass behind. I didn't really buy the pseudo-mystical dream sequences and flashbacks where Glass recalls his past life among the Pawnee, as they felt like a weak attempt by González Iñárritu to inject spiritual qualities into his viscerally violent narrative, but they are, like the rest of the film, stunningly shot. And there you have the film in a nutshell: a series of extraordinary set pieces, aided by strong actors, that ultimately amounts to ... a series of set pieces, imperfectly strung together without the weight of meaning the director intends them to have. You can hit us over the head as much as you want, but that pain we feel is not enlightenment; it's just pain.

The Hateful Eight
½

Writer/director Quentin Tarantino - since his debut, Reservoir Dogs, one of the United States' noted auteurs - released his eighth feature, "The Hateful Eight" (or "The H8ful Eight," as it is also known) for a "70mm Roadshow" on December 25, 2015. It opens in Baltimore in wide (non-70mm) release on Friday, January 8, 2016. I saw it two days after the roadshow started, and have been puzzling it over ever since, since a lot of good people lent their talents to the enterprise, and I'm not quite sure what to make of it, myself. On the acting side, we have Tarantino regular Samuel L. Jackson ("Django Unchained"); Tarantino "occasionals" like Kurt Russell ("Death Proof"), Tim Roth ("Pulp Fiction") and Michael Madsen ("Reservoir Dogs"); as well as Tarantino newbies Jennifer Jason Leigh ("Margot at the Wedding") and Bruce Dern (here, as in "Nebraska," in full curmudgeon mode), among others. On the production side, we have the great Robert Richardson on camera. He's a regular, too, having previously shot "Kill Bill, Vol. 1" and "Vol. 2," "Inglourious Basterds" and "Django Unchained," for Tarantino, along with many films for the likes of Oliver Stone (including "JFK," for which he won an Oscar, and "Natural Born Killers") and Martin Scorsese (including "The Aviator" and "Hugo," for both of which he won Oscars). On art direction, we have Japanese production designer Yohei Taneda ("Kill Bill, Vol. 1"), art director Richard L. Johnson ("The Truman Show") and set decorator Rosemary Brandenburg ("Public Enemies"). Fred Raskin is back as editor, having done "Guardians of the Galaxy" since his last (and first) for Tarantino, Django Unchained. And then there is the revered composer of Western scores, Ennio Morricone ("The Good, the Bad and the Ugly"), along for the ride, though this being a Tarantino film, there's plenty of other (anachronistic) music on the soundtrack, as well. What's the point of this lengthy list? Well, it's about as frenetically busy as the movie, itself, with about the same amount of overall meaning. In other words, the whole is less than the sum of its parts, however interesting some of those individual parts may be. It's important to note that until the half-time break, I felt very differently.

In the roadshow version, the film is divided into two halves separated by a 12-minute intermission (with that short overture to start). It is my understanding that though the structure will be the same in the non-70mm version, there will be some shortened scenes and no intermission. I'm not sure how this will affect the experience. What I do know is that, in the roadshow version, I felt as if a spell had been broken when I returned from the break. I mostly loved the first half, which seemed headed to a similar takedown of America's history of violence and racial exploitation that the director had explored so effectively in "Django Unchained." Well scripted, acted and shot, and with that excellent musical theme from Morricone, "The Hateful Eight," pre-intermission, succeeded in wrapping me in its seductive mix of vulgar pastiche (Tarantino's specialty) and clever mystery. But then it all went to bloody hell.

Written as six chapters - not all of which make clear divisional sense, as if Tarantino is just toying with our expectations that they do so - "The Hateful Eight" starts on a snowy ridge, where Major Marquis Warren (a.k.a. "The Bounty Hunter," and played by Jackson) stops a stagecoach for a ride. His horse has died, and he has a cargo of human corpses to transport to town. The passenger on that stagecoach is one John Ruth (a.k.a. "The Hangman," and played by Russell), who has a (live) cargo of his own, Daisy Domergue (a.k.a. "The Prisoner," and played by Leigh). I should stop to point out that the main characters all have cute little monikers - not all mentioned in the film - that serve as their identities in the "H8ful Eight" pantheon (whatever that ultimately means). Anyway, Ruth is in no mood to slow down his progress, but when he realizes that he and Warren have met before, and that they're (mostly) in the same business, he reluctantly allows the man (and his cargo) on board. Soon, they meet another wayward traveler, and the suspicious stakes are raised. All the while, a blizzard chases them, and so they take refuge in Minnie's Haberdashery - a lonely outpost far from town - where a strange group awaits them (the rest of the "H8ful Eight," we assume). Are they there randomly, or does everyone have some design on Ruth's prisoner, as he fears?

So far, so good. The mood is simultaneously chilling and funny. Tarantino is a master of the mixed tone, and he deftly alternates between wit and menace with great skill. Jackson's presence as the sole African-American quickly makes him a target, and before long it seems as if this might just be the de facto sequel to "Django Unchained," with that movie's bounty hunter now an older man, a lifetime of killing white people behind him. Unfortunately, Tarantino has other plans, most of which mystify me, most of which mystify me, since I am no longer 12 years old.

When we come back from the break for the final three chapters, we're suddenly in a different movie. Tarantino brings himself in as a jokey narrator (absent from the first half), and the tone shifts away from gravitas towards juvenilia. Along with that comes a sudden explosion of blood - hardly surprising, given Tarantino's previous work - and a diminishing of the racial politics of the beginning. Dramatically, the film morphs into something both dumber and more conventional, though it keeps the same visual palette. It's as if Sergio Leone ("The Good, the Bad and the Ugly") directed Part 1, and Eli Roth ("Hostel") directed Part 2, otherwise keeping the same cast and crew. Who knows? Since Roth played the "Bear Jew" (Tarantino and his nicknames ...) in "Inglourious Basterds," perhaps they had a deal. Whatever the intent, the result is a splatterfest without resonance, where good actors and craftspeople spend a lot of time externalizing viscera, rather than internalizing actual visceral emotions. By the time the movie ended, I had long forgotten the brilliance of Part 1, lost in the sophomoric wasteland of Part 2. If you go, I recommend you take off after chapter 3, in which case you'll walk away dazzled by a great movie.

Carol
Carol(2015)

I have read two books by Patricia Highsmith - "The Talented Mr. Ripley" and "Strangers on a Train" - both of which I found thoroughly unsettling (or, less formally, they creeped me out). Highsmith has a way with vivid detail that allows her to plunder the depths of human despair and depravity and make it accessible to those of us not inclined to unleash our inner psychopath.  Given his own creative output, it makes sense that Alfred Hitchcock would have been attracted to Highsmith's writing, but though his screen version of "Strangers on a Train" is wickedly entertaining and a worthy homage to the novel, it cannot approach the source text's sharp insights into the evil motivations that lurk within all of us. Highsmith truly was one of a kind, and a masterful writer of the macabre.

But not only of the macabre. In 1952, Highsmith published "The Price of Salt," about a lesbian love affair between a young shop clerk (and aspiring artist) and a married sophisticate. Highsmith, herself, was gay, but not eager to announce this fact, given the times, and so the book came out under a pseudonym, Claire Morgan. Sadly, I have not (yet) read the work, but imagine that it contains the same vibrant characters as her other books, with an equally powerful understanding of human desires (but without the violence). It certainly has given filmmaker Todd Haynes ("Far from Heaven," where he similarly explored 1950s sexual mores) an apparently rich blueprint for his latest film, adapted from the novel by screenwriter Phyllis Nagy ("Mrs. Harris"). Starring two fine actresses at the top of their game - Cate Blanchett ("Blue Jasmine") and Rooney Mara ("The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo") - "Carol" is a brilliant meditation on passion and its repression, and the consequences of both. It's also a beautiful love story. Transgressive in the 1950s, the tale it tells is especially timely today, given the recent Supreme Court decision on legalizing gay marriage. Opening nationally on Christmas, it's the perfect carol for the season of peace and joy.

When we first we meet Carol (Blanchett) and Therese (Mara), they are sitting in a hotel bar, deep in conversation. A male friend of Therese's comes up, thinking nothing of interrupting them, and whatever spell they were seemingly under is immediately broken. Carol excuses herself, and Therese leaves with the man. As the taxi drives through the streets of New York, we catch flashes of the past - and Carol's and Therese's first meeting - as the camera holds on the latter's melancholy face. And then, just like that, with no announcement, we ease into that past. This is a film for adults, where nothing is spelled out, and we just have to keep up. 

And so the story really begins. Carol is married - soon to be divorced, however - to Haige (Kyle Chandler, "The Spectacular Now"), a paragon of masculine virtues. They have a young daughter. Carol, it turns out, can never be made happy by a man, and has a previous history with at least one other female lover, "Aunt" Abby (Sarah Paulson, "12 Years a Slave"). One day, she walks into a department store where young Therese is working, and the two women immediately connect, though Therese, completely inexperienced, is unsure of what that spark means. She has a beau (Jake Lacy, "Obvious Child"), but avoids physical contact with him as much as possible. Every moment she spends with Carol awakens something new in her, and when the older woman leaves her gloves in the store, this allows Therese the chance she needs to further their acquaintance. 

As the film progresses, we watch the slow dance of seduction between the two, the one (Carol's) knowing, the other (Therese's) innocent ... but maybe not so much. Mara gives Therese pursed lips and clenched shoulders, until the moment when Carol's attentions finally allow her to be herself. In their first lunch date together, Haynes chooses to compose the over-the-shoulder conversation shots with the women at the extreme edges of the frame, showing not only how marginalized lesbians are in this world, but women, as well. As Carol and Therese each fight for control of their destiny, they more and more claim that center part of the frame. Blanchett is a commanding presence, as always, an actress capable of projecting simultaneous warmth and frigidity (though the latter is here a measure of the repression of that natural warmth). Mara is easily her match, and at the end of the film, after they have battled society's (and men's) expectations, they can finally exchange perfectly balanced gazes, equals in tragedy and love. With beautiful cinematography and top-notch period production design to complement the glorious acting and moving story, "Carol" is a marvel, and I highly recommend.

Daddy's Home
Daddy's Home(2015)

"Daddy's Home" is directed by Sean Anders ("Horrible Bosses 2") and stars Will Ferrell ("Get Hard"), Mark Wahlberg ("Broken City") and Linda Cardellini ("Bloodline"). In it, Ferrell plays Cardellini's second husband, adoptive father to her two kids, who must deal with the unexpected visit of husband #1 (Wahlberg), back from a mysterious overseas (possibly mercenary) job. If the prospect of seeing flabby Ferrell go mano a mano with well-muscled Wahlberg strikes you as funny, don't be fooled. The jokes are stale and the filmmaking is pedestrian. I haven't seen it, but a friend just recommend "The Other Guys" to me - also starring Ferrell and Wahlberg - given my love of its director's latest film, "The Big Short." My advice? Watch that, instead. 

The Danish Girl
½

A biopic gone wrong, "The Danish Girl" is based on the life of Danish transgender pioneer Lili Elbe (1882-1931) - born Einar Wegener - and features a performance by Eddie Redmayne ("The Theory of Everything") that is so mannered and filled with telegraphed emotions that it must surely be an insult to trans people everywhere. If I had to watch Redmayne twitch his cheek muscles one more time while raising a trembling hand to his face in an agony of actorly discomfort, I was going to scream. Given the resultant complete void at the center of the story, we focus far more attention on the actual Scandinavian in the film -  Swedish actress Alicia Vikander ("Ex Machina") - who plays Einar/Lili's long-suffering wife, Gerda. When hunky Matthias Schoenaerts ("Far from the Madding Crowd") shows up, it's all we can do not to root for him to get it on with Gerda. Which is too bad, since this is an important story, and Elbe an important historical figure. Then again, it should come as little surprise, given that the director, Tom Hooper, maker of "Les Miserables" (and, to be fair, the eminently watchable "The King's Speech"), demonstrated, with that musical melodrama, a tendency towards extremities of overwrought emotion here given far too free rein. To be avoided.

Joy
Joy(2015)
½

Based on the life of Joy Mangano and the development of her Miracle Mop (which she sold, initially, on television), directed by David O. Russell ("American Hustle") and starring Jennifer Lawrence ("The Hunger Games") as Joy, this movie should have been good. Russell is the master of the unorthodox, frequently mixing tones and styles to great effect. Here, he just creates a mismatched mish-mash, where 90% of the story is a maudlin treatise on what is wrong with Ms. Mangano's family (possibly the worst one in the world), and the other 10% is a lively portrayal of the workings of the then-nascent (in the 1980s) QVC Network. Sadly, there is no connection between those two parts, though the oddity of the details presented in the family section promises one, making the lack thereof even more frustrating. Many good actors - Diane Ladd ("Rambling Rose"), Virginia Madsen ("Sideways"), Robert De Niro ("Silver Linings Playbook"), Édgar Ramirez ("Carlos"), Dascha Polanco ("Orange is the New Black"), Bradley Cooper ("American Sniper") and Isabella Rossellini ("Enemy") - lend their considerable talents to this mess, all to no avail.

The Big Short

What is it about Michael Lewis? He's an author of nonfiction bestsellers whose books keep on being optioned for fiction films (not counting "Next: The Future Just Happened," an actual documentary): first came "The Blind Side," then "Moneyball" and now "The Big Short." Lewis is a great journalist and an excellent writer, and his works are filled with vivid details about their subjects; I can see why Hollywood would keep calling. I'm just surprised that we haven't seen more documentary filmmakers attracted to his stories. Then again, sometimes the tales he tells are so outlandish that they seem like something only a screenwriter could invent. Still, if truth is stranger than fiction, then what is lost in its translation to a conventional dramatic form? In the case of "The Blind Side," quite a lot (though the film was a hit), since the cloying three-act structure imposed in the name of inspirational narrative diluted the power of the unadulterated original. "Moneyball," however, made with greater restraint (and much less of a hit), approached the fine nuance of its source. And what of "The Big Short"? It's a giant whale of a story: the global financial meltdown of 2008, rooted in the housing crisis. What will work best? Restraint or excess?

It turns out both, though they work wonderfully in tandem. When I first heard that the film was co-written and directed by Adam McKay - who gave us "Anchorman," "Talladega Nights," "Step Brothers," "The Other Guys" and "Anchorman 2," all films marked by outrageous comedy, subtlety be damned - I feared the movie would make a mockery of its theme and devolve into caricatures and pastiche. I was wrong. McKay takes a difficult topic - including CDOs, CDSs and other toxic assets - makes it eminently understandable to the layperson, and has a terrific amount of fun with it in the process (embracing, rather than ignoring, his roots in broad comedy). He also elicits fine performances from a strong ensemble cast that includes Christian Bale ("American Hustle"), Ryan Gosling ("Drive") and Brad Pitt ("Fury"). Steve Carell ("Foxcatcher") is better than he has been in many of his recent roles, but still can't tone it down enough to suit me. He doesn't, however, ruin the movie. Nor does McKay's decision to switch tones in the last 15 minutes and preach at the audience about the sins of the financial sector. The previous almost-two hours are strong enough to leave an impeccably favorable impression.

If you've read the book, all of the major players are here. One by one, we meet a group of men (there are no women) who start to see that the housing bubble of the mid-2000s is built on corruption and lies. They all, at different times and in different places (though some do meet and collaborate), decide to "short" the system by betting against the housing market. They're the smartest guys in the room, and our heroes. They're also, in many ways, no better than the bankers who brought down the world's economy, since they're in it for their own gain. In fact, if you lost money back then, a lot of it could be in their pockets. But for much of the movie's running time, the morality of who did what and for what reason is immaterial. McKay opts, instead, to revel in the utter ridiculousness of how the clearly fraudulent housing market could have thrived, in the first place. Brisk and flashy - though quiet when it needs to be - the movie frequently cuts away from the plot to real-life celebrities - Margot Robbie (in a hot tub), Selena Gomez - who stop the action by addressing the audience directly to explain this or that bit of financial mumbo-jumbo. They're not the only ones to break the fourth wall: even the characters within the story sometimes stop what they're doing to talk to us, as well. In short, there's a delightful spirit of cleverness and fun that endlessly animates Lewis' splendid research. You won't win your money back by watching "The Big Short," but you will have the consolation prize of a great time, and learn a ton about why you lost your money in the first place.

Youth
Youth(2015)
½

Italian director Paolo Sorrentino - winner of the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2014 for his marvelous epic "The Great Beauty" - is back with a new film, his first in English, entitled "Youth." It shares many themes with its predecessor - aging, nostalgia for the past, the importance of art and and the appreciation of it - and aspires to offer the same profound meditations on the meaning of life. Sorrentino is clearly fascinated with the films of Fellini: where "The Great Beauty" felt like an homage to "La Dolce Vita," this latest one clearly evokes "8 1/2." As before, Sorrentino works with the wonderful cinematographer Luca Bigazzi to create images of unparalleled beauty. Unfortunately, whereas the previous film was a profound study of life's greatest questions, this latest is neither profound nor great. It's not without interest, but mostly feels like a series of sketches in search of a script.

We are at a luxurious spa hotel in Switzerland (in real life a combination of both the Schatzalp in Davos and the Waldhaus in Sils Maria), where the wealthy - in particular, wealthy artists - go for peace and relaxation. Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine, "Interstellar") is a retired British conductor/composer, in attendance with his lifelong best friend, Mick (Harvey Keitel, "The Grand Budapest Hotel"), an American filmmaker a little past his prime, and flanked by his assistant/daughter, Lena (Rachel Weisz, "Oz the Great and Powerful"). Also at the hotel are Hollywood star Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano, "Love & Mercy"), Miss Universe (Madalina Diana Ghenea, "Dom Hemingway") and the gaggle of young screenwriters that Mick has brought to help fine-tune his next script. Jane Fonda ("Grace and Frankie") shows up towards the end, as well, as an aging tyrant of an actress on whom Mick has pinned his hopes for that script. There are also the many staff, including one masseuse (Luna Zimic Mijovic, "Traumland") with whom we spend an especially long amount of time in a thread that looks like it might lead to some interesting "Upstairs, Downstairs" kind of moment, but doesn't. 

As the film begins, an emissary from the Queen of England is begging Fred to come out of retirement to conduct a concert for Prince Philip's birthday. In return, he will receive a knighthood. Fred's not buying. It turns out that the requested music selection is a series of "simple songs" he composed years earlier that he no longer - for reasons of his own - wishes to perform. End of story. Jimmy Tree watches, nearby, amused. He, too, is frustrated for being known primarily for a blockbuster hit - Mr. Q, in which he played a robot - rather than for his edgier work. He's here to prepare for his next big role - to be shot in Germany - and when we discover what that role is, it provides one of the best gags in the movie. Sadly, though, it is just a gag, with no meaningful connection to the larger story.

Fred and Mick take long walks in the beautiful countryside, sometimes together, sometimes with others: Fred with his daughter, whose marriage is falling apart, a fact which leads to many accusations from her to him about his infidelity to his own wife, her mother; Mick with his young cohorts; Fred with Jimmy, who is fascinated by the older man and his relationship to his own success. It's a genuine pleasure to spend time with these fine actors as they discuss their receding youth and passions, and individual scenes are brilliant. The landscapes are stunning - anyone who saw "Clouds of Sils Maria," earlier this year, will know what to expect - and the grandeur of the visuals is a lovely backdrop to the sometimes mundane problems of everyday life that even the rich and famous must face. But none of this ever feels connected to a significant higher purpose. It just is. And that is a greater tragedy than any of the onscreen drama: that so much talent should be spent on something that falls so short of the greatness it clearly seeks. "Youth" is a gorgeous mediocrity, and nothing more.

Sisters
Sisters(2015)

With my deepest apologies to Eurythmics and Aretha Franklin, but Sisters, the new film from Jason Moore ("Pitch Perfect") - starring frequent partners Tina Fey ("30 Rock") and Amy Poehler ("Parks and Recreation") - exists as a vehicle for the two veteran comic performers to get together and hang out with their friends: in other words, they're doin' it for themselves. If you enjoy these (usually) fine and entertaining actresses no matter what they do, then there's a good chance you will find plenty to love in their present collaboration. If you like a (somewhat) coherent narrative to go along with your mayhem, and want even familiar faces to offer more than just the comfort of their familiarity, then you may tune out as you watch or, worse (like me), begin to loathe every second of the experience. At nearly two hours, it is certainly not a short comedy, so you'd better hope you really like Tina and Amy.

The story, such as it is, revolves around two sisters - Kate (Fey), the elder, and Maura (Poehler) - who find themselves back in their childhood home, on the eve of its being sold by their parents, and decide to throw one last party. To explain why these two 40-somethings would want to behave so recklessly requires more effort than the movie deserves, so l'll stop there. Expect to find alums from "Saturday Night Live" - one of the many shows where Fey and Poehler have previously worked - including Maya Rudolph ("Bridesmaids"), Rachel Dratch ("Spring Breakdown"), Bobby Moynihan ("Adult Beginners") and John Lutz ("Sleepwalk with Me"). Expect other recognizable comedic supporting players like Samantha Bee ("The Daily Show"), Ike Barinholtz ("The Mindy Project") and John Cena (Trainwreck). It's nice that James Brolin ("The Reagans"), Dianne Wiest ("Hannah and Her Sisters") and John Leguizamo ("John Wick") show up, too, but their talents are largely wasted, so it doesn't matter. It's not that working with the same people over and over again is a bad thing - in the old Hollywood studio system, that happened all the time, and the comedies of Preston Sturges, to name just one director, are filled with the same repeating cast - it's that there is a danger that your friends may not push you to make something interesting. 

That, unfortunately, is very much the case here. As the party goes from bad to worse, the jokes and performances are pushed to the limits of stupidity. And then, as so often happens in these kinds of movies, everyone reconciles at the end in scenes of unearned sentimentality. I like dumb comedies as much as the next person, but most successful dumb comedies are actually pretty smart in how they dish out the craziness. And when will Hollywood stop with the offensive stereotyping of non-white/non-American characters? In this film, it's Koreans who come in for caricature. I normally enjoy the two leads, but wanted out of this mess within 20 minutes. See it if you really must, but I suspect you'll be at "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," instead. Good call.

Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens
½

Approximately halfway through the new "Star Wars," when Han Solo and Princess - now General - Leia meet for the first time in this film, they proceed to tell each other (for our benefit), everything that has happened since we last saw them, 32 years ago, in "The Return of the Jedi." This is called exposition, folks, and when it exists for no other reason than to provide story information to the audience, it feels clumsy. As it does here. Rarely, except in weak screenplays, do actual living and breathing human beings state things openly: when you share history, you don't have to. And we don't need to be told all of the reasons for which these two beloved characters of the original franchise have become estranged. That's what was so wonderful about the second film (my favorite) in the series, "The Empire Strikes Back": Han and Leia had full conversations where they either didn't say much, or said the opposite of what they meant.

So that's part of what doesn't work. What does work, I am happy to say, is much of the rest of the film. Unlike the three prequels, this new film is mostly well acted and coherently told. Perhaps it's time to take a moment for a little (appropriate, of course!) exposition of our own, just to catch everyone up on the "Star Wars" universe, though if you haven't seen the previous six films, then "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" is probably not for you ... yet.

"A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away" ... that would be California in the 1970s ... a young filmmaker named George Lucas, fresh off the success of his second feature, "American Graffiti" (his first one, "THX 1138," had bombed), wrote and directed "Star Wars," a film inspired by Lucas' love of the sci-fi films of his 1950s youth and Joseph Campbell's seminal text about narrative storytelling, "The Hero with a Thousand Faces." The movie was not just a hit, but a blockbuster. Indeed, along with "Jaws" - directed by Lucas' buddy Steven Spielberg - the film helped launch our current blockbuster era. It told the story of young Luke Skywalker, an orphan living on a desert planet, who finds himself swept up in the rebellion against the evil "Empire." At the tale's center lies "the force," a mystic energy that only some trained adepts - known as Jedi Knights - can use to its full potential. Young Skywalker is befriended by one such Jedi - Obi-Wan Kenobi - who trains him so he can confront a former Jedi - Darth Vader - who was once trained by Kenobi, as well, before he went over to "the dark side" and pledged allegiance to the Empire. Along the way, Skywalker joins forces with Princess Leia, a leader of the rebellion; Han Solo, a swashbuckling smuggler; Chewbacca, Solo's "Wookie" (like Bigfoot, only slightly friendlier) sidekick; and two droids (as in, robots) named C-3PO and R2-D2, as well as assorted others.

At the time - 1977-1983, the release period of the first three films - we just called the films by their original titles. Now, we have to refer to them as Episode IV, Episode V and Episode VI, since their place in the overall chronology sits in the middle. In 1999, Lucas released "Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace" - the first of three prequels - forever changing the nomenclature of the series. That film was followed by "Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones," in 2002, and "Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith," in 2005. In these films, we discover the young Anakin Skywalker - Luke's father - as he meets and is trained by a much younger Obi-Wan Kenobi before going over to the "dark side" and becoming part of the nascent Empire. The prequels, as they are now known, were not nearly as beloved as the first trilogy, because, well, they weren't very good. While the arc of each story was compelling, the actual screenplays were exposition-laden and wooden, and the central character of Anakin - whether as a boy or a young man - was never played by an actor up to the challenge.

And now here we are. Lucas, himself, directed the prequels (he had relinquished directing duties after "Star Wars," allowing others to tackle the first two sequels), but he has wisely allowed someone else to take the reigns for this latest entry (he's not even credited on the script). J.J. Abrams ("Super 8") is in charge, and we sense from the start that we are in good hands, much as we did when he took on the "Star Trek" franchise. We still have the signature blue "long time ago" title, and then the crash of John Williams' iconic score as the yellow-outlined "Star Wars" splashes onto the screen, receding into the distance to make way for the expected introductory text crawl. Welcome to Episode VII.

So what do we learn in this opening (the perfect - and only - place for straight-up exposition)? It turns out that a new and sinister replacement to the Empire - defeated in Episode VI - called the "First Order," has arisen, and is slowly reconquering the galaxy. Luke Skywalker, lead Jedi of the Republic, has been missing for years (which answers all of the fan questions about his absence from the promotional materials), having fled into exile for mysterious reasons of his own (sure to be answered - don't worry - in the film to follow). His sister, Leia, has mobilized forces to find him, knowing that there is no way the Republic can resist the First Order without Jedi help. "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," in other words, could just as well be entitled "Star Wars: The Search for Luke" (and this way, Abrams could combine both "Star" franchises ...).

Very quickly, this explanatory history over, we launch right into action. And very quickly, we find that we are in a film rich with visual and narrative echoes of the original "Star Wars." It's not an out-and-out copy, but it has no compunction about cannibalizing its own past. We're on a desert planet again - Jakku, this time - where we meet a young orphan - a woman, Rey, this time - who suddenly finds herself part of the rebellion - against the First Order, this time - in large part due to a droid - BB-8, this time. Rey is played by newcomer Daisy Ridley ("Scrawl"), and she is quite good, immediately allaying our fears about another Anakin disaster. Soon she is joined by another excellent new recruit, Finn - or FN-2187, as he is originally known, since he starts out as an imperial stormtrooper - played by John Boyega ("Attack the Block"). Their scenes together are a delightful combination of comedy and action, taking what was old and making it fresh and new.

Speaking of old, it is not long before we meet up with our good friends Han Solo - played, as always, by Harrison Ford (so great in recent years as a grizzled veteran in films like "42") - and Chewbacca - played, as always, by Peter Mayhew - and soon, when the aforementioned reunion happens between Han and Leia - played, as always, by Carrie Fisher (now as much of a writer as actress) - the gang is almost all together again. Except for Luke, whose whereabouts the frantic members of the fractured Republic still seek. The First Order, you see, has developed a new planet-destroying weapon that will mean the end of all resistance unless the rebel fighters can find a way to destroy it first (again, "echoes" of film #1 with its Death Star).

And who is the face of evil here? First and foremost is Kylo Ren, a black-clad figure meant to he Darth Vader 2.0 - he even keeps his fallen idol's old helmet as a keepsake - who has a connection to the Republic which I will not spoil here, but which I wish the filmmakers had held off on revealing until the big climax. Once we discover his origins, it's not hard to guess what the main tragedy of this film will be. I was sad when it happened, but not surprised. In general, Kylo Ren is the other part of the film that doesn't quite work for me. As played by Adam Driver ("While We're Young"), he's a mess - sorry, mass - of contradictory impulses that leaves him more neurotic than frightening. It's too easy to see the trajectory the writers are building for him. One of the things I loved about Darth Vader in films 1-3 (now 4-6) was the slow way we got to know him and understand the complexity of his narrative. Here, we're told everything about Kylo Ren, diminishing his mystery. Still, the climactic battle - predictable though it was - is a marvel of production design, special effects and cinematography, so there's always that.

Where Abrams and his co-writers do a far better job with mystery is in Rey's story. Who is she, and why is she important? You may guess - again, I won't spoil anything here - but not until the end of the film do we know - sort of, maybe - where she comes from. Finn, too, is a cypher, and though he shares a lot of motivations with the original Han Solo, he can still surprise us. Other new actors pop up, as well - Oscar Isaac (Ex Machina) and Domnhall Gleeson (also Ex Machina) among them - and acquit themselves honorably - but this is really the story of Rey's and Finn's awakening, and they more than hold their own and earn a place in the Star Wars canon. Thanks largely to them - and to the joy in seeing our favorite characters back in fine form - Star Wars: The Force Awakens is, overall, a success. There are plot holes and inconsistencies, for sure, but they recede as quickly as the opening crawl as we revel in the speed and excitement of a dazzling sci-fi adventure that promises more delights to come.

Macbeth
Macbeth(2015)
½

If Mel Gibson (director/star of "Braveheart") and Nicolas Winding Refn (director, "Drive") met, bonded over mutual admiration of Shakespeare and had a love child, it might look like this new "Macbeth." Gibson, of course, knows how to stage a battle or two and is the master at making his protagonist (often himself) suffer masochistic slings and arrows; no one does stylized sadism quite like Refn (well, maybe Tarantino - imagine him as the godfather, then). Visceral in the best way that cinema can be, though also completely nonsensical at times, it may be far from perfect, but is utterly compelling. Starring Michael Fassbender ("12 Years a Slave") as the titular psychopath and Marion Cotillard ("Two Days, One Night") as his lady fair and foul, this adaptation of the "Scottish Play" offers startling visuals and brutal violence as complements to the great Bard's already evocative text in a boiling broth of madness that is ultimately be a hot mess, but a gorgeous one (or, at least, one gorged with blood).

Fassbender and Cotillard are both terrific: his Macbeth is a brooding action hero, strongest when he is in motion; her Lady Macbeth is a serpentine sybarite, best when using her sex appeal to urge her husband to regicide. Together they are quite the power couple - simultaneously beautiful and creepy, like the film - until things go wrong. There is a deep note of sadness behind their power grab, however, as we open on the funeral of their dead child. Director Justin Kurzel ("Snowtown"), remarkably sure-handed though this be but his second feature, gives us, right away - in a departure from the source - the core tragedy of the terrible twosome: even if they were to succeed, what would it all be for? Or maybe he wants to motivate the insanity that follows. Out of death, more death. Perhaps that's why Kurzel so often slows his footage down almost to the point of freezing the frame, creating not-quite-still tableaux that presage our final demise.

And death we get! Rather than worrying about seeing a dagger in front of us, we should look to our entrails, from which the blade may sprout. There are two color palettes here: gray and red. Scotland has never looked so beautiful nor so grim. Soot covers everything and everyone, with blood oozing out from underneath. It makes sense, given that this is the tale of a man who kills his king, seizes power, and then watches it slip away as the ghosts of his victims refuse to grant him pace. The spot on the conscience will not go out, and the hands will ne'er be clean, indeed. 
So where do things go wrong? At some point, Kurzel - cutting and twisting the material to suit his needs - forgets to motivate Macbeth's increasing lunacy. Why would anyone follow this man? And having set the bar so high with his wondrous opening, he leaves us suddenly weary when we depart the field of battle for the realm of politics. True, Macbeth succumbs to depression as well as madness, but that doesn't mean the film has to, as well. By the time we reach the end, never has it felt truer that "twere well it were done quickly." Instead, the final fight between Macbeth and Macduff (an excellent Sean Harris, "Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation") drags on (in the play, "they fight"), and by this time the visual aesthetic and gore have worn a bit thin. Despite this, I would not only recommend this fresh take on the well-known drama, but recommend that one see it on the big screen, to better appreciate Kurzel's ambitious - and mostly successful - vision.

Chi-Raq
Chi-Raq(2015)

It has now been a week since I saw the latest film by Spike Lee, and I have been unsure of what to write. Rarely have I felt such a disconnect from my desire to like a movie and my intense dislike of that movie upon viewing. Mr. Lee has always been a problematic filmmaker for me - his artistic ambitions sometimes outstripping his vision or even abilities - and yet he has managed to create some of the best films about race, American urban environments, gender and social class ever made. Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury, I submit as evidence for my claim such movies as "She's Gotta Have It," "School Daze," "Do the Right Thing," "Mo' Better Blues," "Jungle Fever," "Malcolm X," on the fiction side of things, and "4 Little Girls" and "When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts," on the documentary side. If the selection of fiction films betrays my preference for the younger Lee, that's because I see issues arising - during the 1990s - in his storytelling as the acclaim grew. For every "Inside Man" (a terrific bank-heist thriller that eschews Lee's usual ideological mission), there's a mess of a movie like "Bamboozled," the closest thing "Chi-Raq" has to a stylistic cousin from within the Lee canon. Both that film and this new one mistake burlesque for insight, coming close to saying something important before devolving into an over-the-top caricature of broad satire.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that I have met Spike Lee - while I was in graduate school at NYU, where he taught a third-year seminar in the MFA filmmaking program - and found him perfectly charming, if not always a discerning critic of his own work (but who is?). I consider him one of the great (if flawed) living American filmmakers, and in spite of my bias for the early stuff, I still always hold out hope that the next Spike Lee film will move me as much as did "Do the Right Thing" (to me, his undisputed masterpiece). So I went into "Chi-Raq" with a certain amount of positive expectation. Set in a Chicago riven by gun violence, it's a timely film, if there ever was one, with the current political crisis in Chicago over the shooting, by police, of an unarmed African-American man as he lay on the ground. Unfortunately, despite a very promising opening, the movie, with its uneven pacing, acting and screenplay, quickly alienated me from its characters and premise.

The film is an adaptation of the satirical ancient Greek comedy "Lysistrata," written around 400 BCE by Aristophanes, in which the womenfolk of warring armies decide to withhold sex form their men in order to broker a peace. Here, we are in gangland Chicago, and as our story begins, a rapper/gangster named Chi-Raq (rapper/producer Nick Cannon)  - his name comes from the pejorative moniker for his hometown - performs on stage while rival gang members plot his demise. Suddenly, the performance freezes, allowing Samuel L. Jackson (soon to be seen again in Quentin Tarantino's "The Hateful Eight") to address us, the audience, as the effective Greek chorus of the proceedings. He'll be with us throughout, as our guide, and in this way he plays much the same role as he did in "Do the Right Thing," as the radio DJ Mister Señor Love Daddy. In fact, not content to allow this allusion to remain just that, Lee even has Jackson say, "Wake up!" at one point (Love Daddy's signature line). And thus we have the main problem with the film exposed in full: nothing is subtext; all is in-your-face mega-text, with no reprieve.

And yet ... the themes of the film matter so much. After a failed attempt on his life, Chi-Raq goes ballistic, shooting up a street corner where he accidentally kills a young girl. Gun violence is a blight on our country - especially in our cities, mass shootings elsewhere notwithstanding - and Lee's outrage at our inability or unwillingness to solve the issue is much needed. It's just too bad that he couldn't channel this outrage into a more effective instrument.

But there is one excellent reason to see the movie, and that is Teyonah Parris ("Dear White People"). She plays Lysistrata - Chi-Raq's girlfriend - and after that little girl is killed, she gathers the women from both sides and convinces them to withhold sex from the menfolk. There's a great liveliness to these initial sceness that is terrific fun, in spite of the tragedies on screen, and before the film goes off the rails. Everyone speaks in verse, which is both an homage to Aristophanes and a nice mirroring of the hip-hop on the soundtrack. Paris - unlike Cannon, sadly - is a magnetic screen presence, and even in the later sequences where the obvious points are made, and then made again, and then made once more, she is always a pleasure to watch. 

The rest of the cast is barely up to her level, unfortunately: John Cusack ("Love & Mercy"), for example, is horribly miscast as an emoting street priest; the background extras often look like they don't know what they're doing, the worst among them Felicia Pearson (Snoop on "The Wire"), who keeps looking at the camera as if no one will notice; poor Isiah Whitlock Jr., in a small role, is made to look directly at the camera and say an extensively drawn out SH*T, in a direct reference to his portrayal of State Sen. R. Clayton 'Clay' Davis on "The Wire." There's no question that Lee needed someone in his corner to help rein in the excess. Only Jackson and Angela Bassett ("Black Nativity") - and she's always good - emerge unscathed. For the rest, it's an embarrassment, including for composer Terence Blanchard ("Red Tails"), whose music is one of the most intrusive scores I have heard in a while.

So I cannot recommend, although I wish I could. We need more films that tackle the toll of guns and violence on our society. I therefore applaud and admire Lee's intentions. But I could not stand the movie.

In the Heart of the Sea

In 1819, the Essex, a whaling ship out of Nantucket (then the whaling capital of the world), left on what would be its final journey. After over a year chasing its precious quarry halfway around the globe, it was attacked by a giant sperm whale and sunk. The survivors gathered in the remaining lighter-weight whaleboats and did their best to sail to habited shores. Very few of them made it back home, as most succumbed to dehydration, hunger, madness ... or being eaten by their peers. Author Nathaniel Philbrick ("Mayflower" - does the man like ships ... ?) told the tale in his 2001 book "In the Heart of the Sea," and now director Ron Howard ("Rush") has brought that book to the screen from a script by Charles Leavitt ("Seventh Son"). If the details of the story sound vaguely familiar, it's because Herman Melville used the tragedy of the Essex as the basis for his 1851 masterpiece "Moby-Dick."

I have read neither Melville's nor Philbrick's books, and so can lay no claim to knowledge of the facts. I do, however, perhaps have some familiarity with works of crafted drama, and can say that Howard's new film has neither craft nor drama. It's a mess. Any time one feels nothing for the characters on screen, even as they undergo trials and tribulations galore, it's a bad day at the multiplex. The most interesting creature up there is the leviathan, himself, but despite his place of honor front and center on all the posters, Mr. Sperm Whale gets his five minutes and is then gone. For the rest of the time, we're left with an ensemble cast of little collective charisma. Cannibalism? Make sure to bring your own spices.

We know we're in trouble early on, when the film begins - years after the action it is about to depict - with an 1850 visit to Nantucket by Melville, himself (Ben Whishaw, the new Q, wasted here). He's come to meet with the now aged former cabin boy of the Essex (Brendan Gleeson, "Calvary," also wasted), in search of inspiration for his next book, which he hopes will place him among the ranks of writers like his (older) contemporary Nathaniel Hawthorne. Do we really need to have Melville here? Is not the story of a crazed whale out for revenge enough, even without reminding us of its subsequent literary pedigree? Perhaps if these scenes weren't so reverently maudlin ...

Eventually we work our way back in time to the Essex, where we meet our not-so-merry band of sailors - including Chris Hemsworth ("Thor," himself), Benjamin Walker ("Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter") and Cillian Murphy (always and forever the hero of "28 Days Later") - all of whom seem to have had different dialect coaches at different moments, as their "period" accents crash and collide not only with each other, but also with themselves, scene to scene. The usual internecine ship's politics ensue - captain against first mate - but at least we're finally off to the sea. Unfortunately, that also means we're treated to whale slaughter, something far less palatable to us now than it was then. Fortunately, this means we're primed for the big moment of vengeance, when Mr. Sperm Whale decides to right the wrongs done to an entire species. Apparently, however, our not-so-gentle giant likes spicier food, as well, and swims away far too quickly, abandoning the film to its insufferably bland humans, and us to another hour or so of drab storytelling.

Trumbo
Trumbo(2015)

Who was Dalton Trumbo? Do you know? If not, you should. A somewhat arrogant, self-important cuss, he was nevertheless one of the most important Hollywood screenwriters of the middle of the 20th century, made immortal by his leading position among the "Hollywood Ten" (as well as by his penning of films like "Kitty Foyle," "Our Vines Have Tender Grapes" and "Spartacus," among others), those left-leaning writers and directors (9 former, 1 latter) called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) in 1947 to answer questions about their political affiliations past and present. "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?" barked Committee Chairman J. Parnell Thomas (soon to be indicted on financial corruption charges). When they refused to answer, citing their First Amendment rights to believe and say whatever they so chose, they were cited for contempt of Congress. Many would later serve jail sentences. "How could that be?" you may ask. "Aren't we a free country?" Well, yes, you're right, but keep in mind the vagaries of human nature and remember that this was the start of the Cold War, in which our erstwhile allies, the Soviets, were now morphing into our enemies, and anything deemed ideologically similar to their professed views was suspect. As we see today, humans are never immune from fear of difference, so Trumbo's story offers lessons just as valid in 2015 as they were in the 1950s.

This is by no means a perfect film. It has the usual pitfalls of the biopic: it elides historical events, creates composite characters out of multiple real ones, and oversimplifies many of the issues it portrays in its attempt to fit the whole story within the demands of the Hollywood three-act structure template. That said, Trumbo does a wonderful job with the big picture, clearly presenting the reasons behind the blacklist that resulted from the HUAC hearings; a blacklist which denied many in the film industry the chance to work, tarnished as they were by the Communist label. As written by John McNamara (with many TV credits to his name, including "Aquarius") and directed by Jay Roach (with credits from "Austin Powers" to "Meet the Parents" to "Game Change"), the movie offers a combination of light satirical humor and hard-hitting political critique. It may, in fact, be the best mainstream dramatic retelling of this period in Hollywood history ("The Front," with Woody Allen, notwithstanding), warts and all.

Much of the credit for the film's success lies with its lead, Bryan Cranston ("Breaking Bad"), who brings Dalton Trumbo's signature bluster and stubbornness to vivid life. He's assisted by a fine ensemble cast that includes Diane Lane ("Man of Steel"), Helen Mirren ("Hitchcock"), Alan Tudyk ("42"), Elle Fanning ("Maleficent"), Michael Stuhlbarg ("Steve Jobs"), Louis C.K. ("Blue Jasmine") and many more. We believe in all of Trumbo's qualities as a human being, both good and bad. He was a clever son of a gun, and as we watch him slowly write himself out of post-prison penury, taking work on the sly to avoid the scrutiny of nosy gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Mirren), we believe that only this man could really have beaten the blacklist through sheer force of will. It's a terrific performance in a film not always worthy of it - with one too many scenes of purely expositional dialogue - and it holds our attention as the real Trumbo must have held that of his peers. See it for him and for an easy primer on a terrible period in American history. Just don't take it as actual history. It's a movie, after all.

Creed
Creed(2015)
½

Back in 2013, first-time feature director Ryan Coogler wowed the independent film world with his harrowing and extraordinarily thoughtful movie about the 2009 murder of Oscar Grant III by Oakland transit police, entitled "Fruitvale Station" (after the Bay Area Rapid Transit, or BART, station where Grant was killed). Born in 1986, Coogler is not yet 30, and here he comes with a second - much bigger - movie, "Creed," about the son of the great fictional boxer Apollo Creed (from the "Rocky" films). Starring Michael B. Jordan (Grant in "Fruitvale Station"), the film treads much the same territory as that of every other boxing film ever made (you know, stuff about how your most dangerous opponent is YOU), recycling materials (and character arcs) from the original "Rocky," as well, yet has such heart and spirit that in spite of its lack of originality is terrific fun to watch. Unless you don't like boxing movies. In which case, what are you doing in the theater?

It's an unusual step for a relatively young and untested director to take, for sure. "Creed" is not quite a franchise film, yet does qualify as a spin-off, even bringing Sylvester Stallone back as Rocky; quite a feat, considering how happy the Italian Stallion was with the way "Rocky Balboa," in 2006, had concluded the series (according to "The New York Times," anyway). At first it may seem far-fetched to imagine the filmmaker behind such an intimate drama like "Fruitvale Station" tackling well-known universe, but as the film progresses, it quickly becomes clear that the protagonists of both stories share a lot in common, and not just because they're played by the same actor. Adonis Creed - Apollo's son - is a boy in a man's body, struggling to mentally grow into his physical size and join the adult world. Where Jordan's Oscar Grant has his mother as a needed mentor, his Creed has Rocky; both need guidance to navigate the pitfalls of responsibility. And both have a supportive woman (of course, what successful cinematic man doesn't?) by their side (as did Rocky). Anyone who doesn't know how this particular film is going to end has not been paying attention to the signpost markers. 

Just as in the first "Rocky" film, there's a preening self-involved antagonist for our hero, who refuses to acknowledge the underdog's validity as a contender. Just as in the first "Rocky" film, there's the woman urging her man to be better. And just as in the first Rocky film, there's a trainer doing his best to get the young wannabe ready for the big fight. There's no question that it's a great twist that Rocky is now the grizzled veteran, but lay the first film side by side with "Creed" and it's hard to distinguish the two. Except, you know, that now our main guy is African-American, which could have allowed Coogler - African-American, himself - to discuss issues of race in the boxing world. But he doesn't. So what we're left with is an entertaining riff on a popular boxing legend, but a riff compromised by formula (aren't riffs usually more improvisatory?). Coogler and Jordan (and even Stallone) most definitely confirm their talents here (though poor Tessa Thompson, from "Dear White People," has nothing to work with); I just wish that talent had been used in service of something truly new and fresh, upholding the promise of their first collaboration. Here's hoping for Round 3!

The Good Dinosaur

The cleverest moment in "The Good Dinosaur," the new animated confection from Disney/Pixar, comes within the first few minutes. It's 65 million years ago, and dinosaurs walk the Earth. We're in deep space, where an asteroid separates itself from a field of fellow asteroids and spins toward its rendez-vous with Earth. It approaches, and we know what's about to happen. Cut to our planet, verdant with lush vegetation, as unsuspecting creatures graze and hunt. Suddenly, there's a flash in the sky: the asteroid has hit the atmosphere. And then? It bounces off and heads back into space. The dinosaurs raise their heads at the momentary celestial brilliance, then go back to their affairs. No extinction, apparently. The next title card brings us forward to the "present."

Sadly, the rest of the movie does not come close to this level of wit. As a big fan of the Pixar uvre (I loved this summer's "Inside Out"), I had high hopes. That was my undoing. "The Good Dinosau"r rewards low expectations. It offers all of the (sometimes cloying) cuteness we have come to expect from both Disney and Pixar over the years, with none of the originality. If "Bambi," "The Lion King" and "Cars" got together and had a script baby, this is what it would look like. Also, be forewarned if you plan to bring young children: there is a fair amount of trauma on screen, more than usual for this kind of movie. If you have sensitive kids, they may be unhappy.

Worse than the recycled coming-of-age plot is the nonsensical world building. What would dinosaurs be like if they had lived on and developed sentience? Apparently, even without opposable thumbs, they would be like us, only green. They would live in houses and till the land. How much more interesting this movie would have been had the writers exercised their imaginations and developed reasons for their story choices. Remember "Monsters, Inc"? There, the filmmakers created an entire alternate universe where new rules of logic applied, explained those terms early on, and then created a movie which mined this unexpected new world for much of its humor. Here, we meet Arlo, young misfit who must learn to be a man - excuse me - adult male dinosaur - by finding his way home once lost. As happens in these kinds of stories, he picks up a sidekick along the way - a human, as it turns out (who behaves, for some reason, like a canid) - who helps him learn important life lessons. Sound familiar? Exactly. "Inside Out," in contrast, was so much more brilliant in its plotting, and it just came out on disc on November 3. Here's an idea: this Friday - the day after Thanksgiving - treat yourself to a Black Friday purchase of the Blu-ray or DVD of THAT film while avoiding this NEW one.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2
½

It has now long become de rigueur to take successful book series and prolong their cash-cow (or golden-goose ... pick your animal metaphor) cinematic adaptations by splitting the final volume into two movies (to say nothing of Peter Jackson's slicing and dicing of the slim "Hobbit" into three movies): this process began with "Harry Potter," continued with "Twilight," is perpetuated with the "Hunger Games," and will no doubt live on with the next installment of the "Divergent" series. There's nothing wrong with Hollywood wishing to make money; after all, movies are expensive to make, and there's nothing like pre-awareness to bring the audiences to the megaplex. Unfortunately, though, if their raison d'être is purely mercenary, then it's unlikely that these films will possess the dynamic narrative drive needed to sustain tales of derring-do and adventure. It is no surprise, therefore, that the latest (and, we hope, final) installment in the "Hunger Games" series is mired in bog and bloat. That is not to say, however, that there are not strong passages within. But at 137 minutes, this is not a lean machine (though, dark in tone as it is, it sure is mean).

Do you remember how the last film ended? If not, I recommend you bone up - if you care - by watching it again or reading a plot summary, as "Mockingjay - Part 2" begins in medias res, expecting us to know what just happened ... last year. Here's a friendly reminder: Peeta Mellark, brainwashed by the Capitol, tried to kill the erstwhile love of his life, Katniss Everdeen, by strangulation. Peeta has been played by Josh Hutcherson ("The Kids Are All Right"), since the series began, with an appealing combination of vulnerability and resolve. Katniss is played, of course, by Jennifer Lawrence ("Silver Linings Playbook"), also with vulnerability and resolve (and arrows). After surviving a series of unspeakable ordeals - including participating in winner-kills-all games for the entertainment of the country's elite - Katniss and Peeta are ready, with the same faithful companions of the previous films, to take the fight all the way to President Snow (Donald Sutherland, "Pride & Prejudice," consistently one of the best parts of these films). Much blood will be shed, but freedom comes at a cost.

What I liked about the previous installment - "Mockingjay - Part 1" - was how the filmmakers played with the idea of film-as-propaganda to both market their movie and draw attention to those very marketing techniques. The same logos that we saw on the posters and trailers in our (real) world were used on the rebels' own "propos" (promotional trailers for the resistance) in the world of the film. In a franchise that had shown real fire and energy in its second entry (appropriately entitled "Catching Fire") after a dismal start, but was already showing signs of fatigue within the first hour of its third segment, this clever self-reflexive device made the enterprise more bearable. In "Part 2," it would be nice to see that idea advanced in some new direction. Instead, it's just more of the same.

Individual set pieces entertain and thrill - I particularly enjoyed a sequence with a flood of oily water that hardens into blade-like shapes when touched - but there's no sense of urgency to the overall mix, in spite of repeated claims to the contrary by the characters. Visually, there's very little new, as well: I sighed when the "mutts" (hybrid human-canine creations) appeared, only to look like a cross between the alien of "Alien" and the zombies of, well, everything since "28 Days Later." And then there's the fact that the movie refused to end. True, the final (weakest) book offered multiple conclusions, as well, but over only a few pages; here, we get at least 15 minutes of false resolutions, including one not in the original text that led to groans amongst the audience of the screening I attended. By no means is this a terrible film; there is far worse out there, franchise-wise ("Fantastic Four," anyone?). It is not, however, particularly good, though I suspect that fans of the series will, overall, have little to complain about. "The fire will burn forever," reads the tagline. Perhaps, but remember that peat fires burn the longest of any, to no great result.

Brooklyn
Brooklyn(2015)

Even in the times when "Brooklyn" - a new film by Irish director John Crowley ("Closed Circuit"), based on the 2009 best-selling novel of the same name, by Irish author Colm Tóibín - doesn't quite work, it still firmly holds our attention, thanks to the mesmerizing central performance by lead (also Irish - Erin go bragh!) actress Saoirse Ronan ("Atonement"). And those times are few and far between, since this lovely period piece about a young woman's migration from the Emerald Isle to the Big Apple in the early 1950s tackles big, universal issues about the human condition in small, concrete ways that make the tale accessible to all. Who hasn't left home to find their way in the world, only to wonder at one's place in it? Beautifully photographed and (mostly) brilliantly acted, the movie is a gentle coming-of-age story that showcases a young star on the rise.

I have not read Tóibín's book, so I do not know how faithful is this adaptation - written by novelist-turned-screenwriter Nick Hornby ("Wild") - but I can say that the script moves along briskly, starting first in Ireland, where twenty-something Eilis (Ronan) lives with her widowed mother and older sister. That sister, Rose, has arranged for Eilis (pronounced "Aye-lish") to emigrate to America (New York, specifically). There's nothing for her at home, and Rose insists on a better life for Eilis than what she has for herself. We move quickly past the tearful goodbyes, on to the boat, and then before we know it we're on Ellis Island, and then in Brooklyn, where Eilis finds herself in an Irish-run boarding house, homesick beyond belief. By day, she works in a department store, doing her best not to cry in front of customers. The kindly Irish ex-pat priest (Jim Broadbent, "Le Week-End") who organized her travel realizes that Eilis needs a calling, and sets her up in night classes at Brooklyn College, where she studies to become an accountant. Slowly, Eilis acclimates to her new life. And then one day, she meets a young man, Tony (Emory Cohen, "Smash") - not Irish, but Italian - and things improve even more. Perhaps Brooklyn will offer Eilis the opportunities of which her sister dreamed.

But this is a far more complex tale than that, and soon a tragedy at home calls Eilis back to her native land, where she is forced to confront big questions of what constitutes "home." Thanks to Ronan's beautifully nuanced rendering of Eilis' central conflict - should I stay or should I go? - we are completely drawn to her struggle. Director Crowley shoots the Ireland of these later scenes in warm, orange hues that are in sharp contrast to the washed-out grays and blues of the opening, further complicating the push and pull of old vs. new. With the arrival of an unexpected - Irish - suitor (Domhnall Gleeson, "Ex Machina"), Eilis' situation is made even trickier. Is the life she has made for herself in Brooklyn - with Tony - enough to overcome the nostalgic allures of her birthplace? Well, if I told you, there'd be no reason to see the movie ...

The film features an impressive ensemble cast, especially in scenes in the boarding house, where an array of new Irish immigrants is overseen by the delightfully prickly Mrs. Kehoe (Julie Walters, Mrs. Weasley in the "Harry Potter" films). While everyone in the film - Irish and Italian, alike - is somewhat of an ethnic caricature, these portrayals make sense as evocations of how foreign ethnicities might be seen through the eyes of other new immigrants. Unfortunately, the one performance of which I am (slightly) less of a fan is Cohen's. While his Tony is sweet and loving, and perhaps just what Eilis needs to soothe her loneliness, I never for one moment buy him as an adult male about to make his way in the world. Plus, his adoption of "Eye-tal-ian" mannerisms - in contrast to the more subtle behaviors of the actors playing the other members of his family - is a bit much. And though I am usually no fan of Gleeson's, his restrained lovesick (and manly) rival to Tony, back in Ireland, creates an imbalance in favor of a return to Eire, which is not, I believe, the filmmakers' intent. That issue, aside, however, the film is superbly done, and a powerful portrait of a strong female protagonist coming into her own.

Spotlight
Spotlight(2015)
½

In January, 2002, journalists at the "Boston Globe" published a lengthy exposé of the long-term abuse of children by Catholic priests in the Boston Archdiocese. Though the Catholic Church had long denied that it had a problem with pedophiles, claiming that the occasional molestation cases were merely the results of actions by individual priests, the depth of the reporting in the "Globe"'s series proved otherwise, and led to a global realization that the Church had long covered up a culture of sexual abuse of minors, spawning articles in publications far and wide. Dawning horror rightly followed, and we have seen, since then, a lessening of the prestige and infallibility at the root of the Church's power. Less than a year after the first article ran in the "Globe," Boston's Cardinal Law - once seen as infallible, himself - resigned. True, he quickly found a home at the Vatican, but for him to step down in disgrace in a majority Catholic city speaks to the power of the press ... at that time, anyway (ah, 2001 was so long ago ...).

And now we have a film about this epic piece of journalism, directed by master independent filmmaker Tom McCarthy ("The Station Agent"), who actually starred as a reporter, himself (albeit an unscrupulous one), in Season 5 of HBO's "The Wire." With great patience and attention to detail, McCarthy chronicles the hard work done by the four-person investigative team known as "Spotlight." The look and feel of the film mirrors the day-to-day drudgery of the research these men (and one woman) needed to go through in order to dig up the necessary materials for the piece. The procedural nature of McCarthy's direction is almost pedestrian - this is unsexy stuff, folks - which would qualify as a negative if that aesthetic weren't so essential to this particular movie. From the way the journalists dress to the no-nonsense camera work that refuses to draw attention to itself, this is quality filmmaking that places the facts and emotions of the story front and center. The only thing I didn't like was Howard Shore's score, which was mostly distracting and not at all needed; these scenes require no soundtrack.

The ensemble cast is excellent. Michael Keaton ("Birdman"), Mark Ruffalo ("Infinitely Polar Bear"), Rachel McAdams ("Southpaw") and Brian d'Arcy James ("Smash") all star as the members of the Spotlight team, while John Slattery ("Mad Men") and Liev Schreiber ("Ray Donovan") are the editors. Schreiber is Marty Baron, the first Jewish editor of the "Globe," a fact stated a few times in the film and used to imply (by his detractors) that, of course, this man would have it in for the Church (it's Baron's idea to pursue the topic in the first place). Boston, like most big cities, merely masquerades as a cosmopolitan place; at its heart, it's as insular as any small town, and as protective of its own. Stanley Tucci ("Julie and Julia") shows up as a lawyer representing the victims, and, as an ethnic Armenian, drives this point home again: only an outsider would be able to take such a hard look at the facts.

"Spotlight" is a movie that not only tells us the important story of how one driven group of people took down a major institution, but also makes the case for why journalism matters in a democracy. As we have seen since 2001, our major newspapers have suffered major decreases in subscriptions and have yet to find a truly new way forward - in terms of earning revenue - in the digital age of the internet and social media. Clickbait is the word of our day, and while the Church's abuse scandal is just as lurid as any headline you might see in your Facebook "trending" feed, the reason why the "Globe"'s reporters were able to make such a difference is because they had the full support of their superiors, who at that time could afford to pay the salaries of four people dedicated, over many months, to uncovering the truth about one topic. As we move forward, it's worth considering the price we pay, as a society, for the free content we access every day online. Truth is worth paying for.

Spectre
Spectre(2015)
½

Back in 2006, when the folks at EON Productions released "Casino Royale" and introduced the world to Daniel Craig's version of James Bond, it felt like a much-needed shot of adrenaline to the long-running 007 series, which periodically, over the years, grows tired and needs reviving. Craig, all sinewy muscle and killer fiber, bursting through his tuxedo, made us feel like Bond was dangerous again, all the while delivering the emotional goods where it counted. Not since Sean Connery had we seen a Bond who looked like he had more than just a license to kill, but the will to do it when necessary. Director Martin Campbell (who had also introduced Pierce Brosnan in "GoldenEye") even had fun with classic Bond tropes, reversing the famous moment from "Dr. No" where Ursula Andress emerges from the ocean by now giving us a half-naked Craig in the water. That movie revitalized the franchise and gave hope that the famous British agent would successfully make the transition into the 21st century.

Then came "Quantum of Solace" - a disappointing sophomore effort - in 2008, followed by "Skyfall," in 2012, which turned things around again, registering the highest-ever box office totals of any film in the series. I was not as much a fan of the movie as everyone else, but there was much to love in the craft of the filmmaking and Craig's performance. What bothered me was that the elements that felt new and fresh for a Bond film - a darker color color palette, the exploration into Bond's past - were simply borrowed from another popular franchise of the moment, Christopher Nolan's "Dark Knight" trilogy. What's so innovative about copying someone else's work? Then again, the Bond films have been self-cannibalizing since their inception, so perhaps choosing different cinematic flesh on which to feed was the only way to go. In any case, "Skyfall" was a superbly made action thriller with a climactic finale that was truly unexpected, and audiences responded.

Now we have "Spectre." Directed by Sam Mendes - Oscar-winning helmer of "American Beauty" and the man behind "Skyfall" - this latest (#24) entry in the Bond pantheon picks up where the last film ended and leads us further into the history of its protagonist, filling in missing pieces of the puzzle first revealed in 2012. Until Craig's turn as 007, we never asked where Bond came from (which, to be honest, was fine by me); by the end of "Spectre," we know far more about the man than even his creator, Ian Fleming, may have. Is this good? You be the judge. Along the way, we get some very fine action sequences (my favorite is a car chase through Rome) - which is what we pay for - but, sadly, also a lot of bloat. At almost 150 minutes, this is not a briskly paced film.

Still, it is hard not to admire the attempt to add three-dimensionality to Bond through the character arc begun in "Casino Royale" and really developed in "Skyfall." I may not have wanted "The Dark Spy," but I respect the effort at something new. Here, though, Mendes and his four credited screenwriters try to tie the various story threads into too-perfect little knots, all the while trafficking in imagery and plots from previous films, creating a strange hybrid of old and new that was, indeed, most likely their intent, but which results in a bit of an unwieldy mess. Some of the allusions to Bond films past are fun - we have a train scene straight out of "From Russia with Love" that I enjoyed almost as much as the car chase - while others fall flat (such as Daniel Kleinman's boring title sequence). And though they spend a lot of time explaining more of Bond's origins, they neglect the basics of other characters' developments, so that when one "Bond girl" says "I love you," the result is a major disconnect. She loves him? Really? But she's only known him for 20 minutes ... In the past, when it was all caricature, such unmotivated sentiments mattered less; if you're going to pursue a more dramatic vein, however, then you'd better get it right.

Spectre opens with Bond in Mexico. In an almost too-ostentatious opening single-shot sequence (though, after "Birdman," who knows what is actually a single take anymore), Bond pursues an assassin through collapsing buildings and panicking crowds, eventually throwing him out of a helicopter above a crowded plaza (such disregard for the safety of the general public!). The consequences of this dirty deed lead him to SPECTRE (Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion), a shadowy international criminal organization which was once the bogeyman of all Bond films, but from which we have heard neither hide nor hair since "Diamonds Are Forever," in 1971 (though its leader, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, made an uncredited appearance at the start of "For Your Eyes Only," 10 years later). Meanwhile, back in London, MI-6 - Britain's equivalent of the CIA - the intelligence organization for which Bond (ostensibly) works, is about to merge with MI-5 - Britain's equivalent of the FBI - to form one single super-security apparatus. The leader - known as C - of this new entity is played, unfortunately, by Andrew Scott, and anyone who has seen his Moriarty on "Sherlock" will know how much that actor oozes duplicity. We do not need to wonder at his nefarious agenda (with shades of another recent film series, "Captain America"). All we have to do is look at him.

For the rest of the movie, Bond pursues the leader of SPECTRE, Hans Oberhauser - played by the usually reliable Christoph Waltz ("Django Unchained"), hampered here by a poor script - while good old M - now played by Ralph Fiennes ("The Invisible Woman"), after Judi Dench's departure - battles C for control of Britain's future. Monica Bellucci ("Irreversible") and Léa Seydoux ("Blue Is the Warmest Color") show up as love interests (it's Seydoux who's saddled with that unfortunate amorous declaration), while Naomie Harris ("28 Days Later") does her best in the thankless role of Miss Moneypenny. She's a terrific actress, and deserves better (maybe she should be the next Bond). Dave Bautista ("Guardians of the Galaxy") makes an imposing henchman for Bond to fight, but doesn't get enough screen time to be truly frightening. A lot of good people and good material spend copious amounts of effort to propel the story forward, but there's no denying that fatigue has once more set into the Bond series. The good news is that the way this story concludes sets up the series to either end completely, once and for all, or to once again reboot itself with a new team (and new lead actor) in another few years. Here's hoping, either way.

Room
Room(2015)

Based on the best-selling book of the same title, by Emma Donoghue, "Room" tells the harrowing tale of one woman's survival through abduction, imprisonment, rape, motherhood and post-traumatic stress. Sound grim? Well, it is, but it is also beautifully life-affirming. As played by the marvelous young actress Brie Larson ("Short Term 12"), Ma - the only name by which we know her, spoken by her 5-year-old son, Jack - is a model of strength and resilience, though prone to occasional (and very understandable) fits of despair. Her universe is limited to a single room, which she shares with Jack - played by the extremely talented (and relative newcomer) Jacob Tremblay - through whose point of view the book is told, a device mostly replicated in the film (for which Donoghue also wrote the script). The first images we see are from Jack's perspective: abstract close-ups of furniture and other objects in the tiny space, which slowly morph into shots of Ma. This is the only world that Jack has ever known, and curious sort that he is, he makes the most of it with his imagination. Mother and son have a deeply intimate bond, soon to be tested. We sense, from the opening, that we are in for a riveting and overwhelming experience, a promise to which Room more than lives up.

The director, Lenny Abrahamson, last made a movie about a man trapped by his own psychoses, "Frank." There, the self-imposed prison was a papier-mâché head, inside of which actor Michael Fassbender spent most of the movie. Here, the jail may offer more room to maneuver, but it's far more solid. What are the effects of a seven-year kidnapping? How does one cope without hope? Jack, an originally unwanted product of violent sexual assault, is now far less albatross than life preserver. With him, Ma's life has structure and meaning. Without him, she might possibly have long ago surrendered to defeat. In this way, Donoghue weaves a complex tale where good can come from bad, and bad from good. If it comes, the long hoped-for liberation may joyfully unlock one set of doors, only to lead Ma and Jack into a new form of captivity.

I haven't read the book, so a great surprise for me was how the film doesn't end where you'd expect it to. In fact, what starts out feeling like the third act turns out to be but an extension of the central conflict. It's a tribute to both author and director that they never allow their story a pure happy end. That would be disrespectful to the experience. True, most wounds heal over time, but some leave deep scars. Both Ma and Jack will forever be marked by their years in "room" (that's how they refer to their space), no matter what good comes later. The film does leave us with a strong sense of mother-child love, which overrides most of the horrors. And thanks to the exceptional performances from Larson and Tremblay - and other members of a fine ensemble cast that includes Joan Allen ("Georgia O'Keeffe") and William H. Macy ("The Sessions") - the bond between Ma and Jack is a beautiful salve that can, at least, heal the wounds we suffer while watching their plight. 

The Peanuts Movie

Thank God for Snoopy and his little pal Woodstock. Without them, this fiasco of an homage to the legacy of Charles Schulz - brought to the big screen in part by Schulz's son, Craig, and grandson, Bryan - would be irredeemably dull and without purpose. As it is, the film still lacks a raison d'être beyond the mercenary, and only the prospect of seeing Snoopy chase the Red Baron once more, Woodstock in tow, should motivate anyone to see it. For my money, if you want a decent cinematic adaptation of the adventures of Charlie Brown and his faithful canine companion, watch "Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit" again. Better yet, check out the "Peanuts" TV shows of yore, referenced throughout this new film (slow plot moment? cue Vince Guaraldi). All we get here is stale recycling of old plot lines, now rendered in 3D. Sadly, this brief review is all the movie deserves.

Our Brand is Crisis
½

Though politics is always crooked, there are some genuinely good things in "Our Brand Is Crisis," the new film from David Gordon Green, a director who, with films as varied as "Pineapple Express" and "Joe," has demonstrated a remarkable ability to shift between absurdist comedy and gritty drama with nary a beat missed. Here, working off a script by Peter Straughan ("Frank") - adapted from the 2005 documentary of the same title, by Rachel Boynton - he tackles a little bit of both genres. This is sometimes successful, and sometimes not. Fortunately, he has cast his film well. Count Sandra Bullock ("Gravity") and Joaquim de Almeida ("The Gilded Cage"), as political consultant and political client, as among the stuff that works. If the film is ultimately a mixed bad, it is no fault of their own.

Bullock plays Jane - that's "Calamity Jane," a moniker earned from her years doing dirty work on political campaigns. She's a seasoned operative, who when the film begins has been 6 years out of the game, having eventually succumbed to depression, substance abuse and disaffection. Ensconced in a mountain cabin, surrounded by nature, she's made a new life for herself, though one that is apparently not so blissful that she doesn't respond to the pitch made by former colleague Nell (Ann Dowd, "Compliance"). Nell shows up one day with a new colleague of hers, Ben (Anthony Mackie, "The Hurt Locker"), to invite Jane to Bolivia, where the presidential candidate they represent is trailing badly in the polls. Their guy is actually the former leader, whose rule was marked by bloody popular protests, and his chances seem slim. So why not bring in the seasoned pro with a reputation for rough play and the ability to get the job done?

So down they all go, where we meet other members of the team, including Buckley ("Monsters"), the very odd LeBlanc (Zoe Kazan, "Ruby Sparks"), and the candidate, himself, Castillo (de Almeida). There's also Eddie (Reynaldo Pacheco, "The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernandez"), an idealistic young Bolivian who works for the campaign because his working-class father loved Castillo when he was president the first time. Finally, Jane's longtime rival, Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton, "Fargo," in full James Carville mode) shows up, and the cast is complete. Once Jane gets used to the lack of oxygen in La Paz (it's the highest capital in the world), she girds herself for battle and kicks the campaign into high gear. It's a whole new game.

Which is all for the good, and Bullock is a joy to watch, as are, occasionally, some of her supporting players, de Almeida, especially. Unfortunately, what doesn't always work so well is the script. Filled with self-evident truths spoken, without irony, about the state of politics, the movie trumpets its revelations about campaigns as if it's breaking new ground. But this is well-trod territory. In addition to this movie's source material, we've heard and seen the same cynical facts in films from "The Candidate" to "Wag the Dog" (to name just two) and beyond. So, there's nothing new here - other than geography, which adds variety, for sure - and the obviousness of the dialogue is not helped by the fact that it's spoken out loud, rather than inferred. Sometimes, subtext is more powerful than text.

One of the most interesting aspects of the movie, for me, is the fact that the producers agreed to flip the gender of the main character. In real life, it was James Carville who worked for the former dictator. Bullock, however, is a big enough star that she can make a request for a tailor-made role and have someone listen. And since she (along with de Almeida) is the best part of the film, then we should all be grateful that she commands that clout. As for the writer, I would recommend that he do one more pass on his screenplay, and then ask for reshoots.

7 Chinese Brothers

From actor ("The Color Wheel") and writer/director ("Tuna") Bob Byington comes this charming off-beat dramedy, starring Jason Schwartzman ("The Darjeeling Limited"). The film premiered at the 2015 SXSW Film Festival, which is where I saw it, and is now finally coming out on disc (on October 27) after a limited end-of-August release. Though not beloved by all critics, the film features a winning performance from Schwartzman and an (almost) even more compelling turn from Schwartzman's real-life French bulldog, Arrow (making it a must-see for dog lovers). In spite of its minimalist plot and simple (but beautiful) aesthetic, "7 Chinese Brothers" tackles big life issues in an original and cinematic way, and deserves a wide audience (it can also be purchased on iTunes).

Schwartzman plays Larry, a child-man weighed down by depression and alcoholism who can't quite rise to the expectations of his elderly grandmother - played by Olympia Dukakis ("Away from Her") - his only living relative, who supports Larry financially. By contrast, his best friend, Major - played by Tunde Adebimpe ("Rachel Getting Married") - is sharp as a tack and far more successful, which doesn't help Larry's sense of himself. As the film begins, Larry finds himself jobless, and wanders into a Quick-Lube auto shop where, though he is unqualified, his mopey persistence wins over the manager, Lupe (Eleanore Pienta of "Stinking Heaven"). Soon, Larry develops a crush on Lupe, but so does Major. Will this new situation force Larry to grow and become a better man? Maybe. But maybe not.

With an overall appealing cast, including the usual supporting players we see these days in many an indie film - actor/writer/director Alex Karpovsky ("Girls") and actor/writer/director Alex Ross Perry ("Listen Up Philip") among them - 7 Chinese Brothers feels both familiar and unique, thanks in large part to the charisma of Schwartzman and his tender interactions with Arrow. Byington has wisely decided to let Arrow be himself and allow his lead actor to act without artifice in the presence of his dog. Though Larry is in all other respects something of a loser, with Arrow we see the man he could be if only he could escape the oppression of his funk. At the end, when the plot takes an expected turn with an unexpected twist, we feel that there's hope for Larry, after all, thanks to the hidden adult revealed through his relationship with the one being he cares for more than himself. I highly recommend.

A note about the title: it's never explained, but most of us know, from childhood, the story of "The Seven Chinese Brothers" (an adaptation of the almost-identical tale "The Five Chinese Brothers"), in which 7 (or 5) identical-twin brothers work together to subvert an autocrat's decree of execution. The fantastic nature of the tale perhaps refers to Larry's passive magical thinking that somehow life will work itself out. When it doesn't, it's time for him to put childish things behind him. That's my take, anyway. I'd be curious to know yours.

Rock the Kasbah
½

Let me start by saying that I love the work of the great Baltimore-born-and-raised Barry Levinson, from his first feature "Diner," through "Tin Men" (my personal favorite), "Good Morning, Vietnam," Oscar-winner "Rain Man," "Wag the Dog" and beyond. He's not only a superb director, but an active producer, as well, responsible for bringing the wonderful NBC 1990s drama "Homicide: Life on the Street" to our fair city. So I always look forward to seeing his films. Unfortunately, "Rock the Kasbah," though well-intentioned and with a strong cast - Bill Murray ("St. Vincent"), Zooey Deschanel ("?(500) Days of Summer"), Kate Hudson ("Almost Famous") and Bruce Willis ("Looper"), among others - does not compare favorably to his earlier triumphs. It tells the inspirational (here, fictionalized) story of Setara Hussainzada, a young Afghan woman who risked her life to sing on her country's nationally televised talent show. Given the power of that narrative, I would have preferred that Levinson lend his talents to a documentary about her, rather than to this. Sadly, the script, by Mitch Glazer ("Passion Play"), never quite rises above the tired tropes in which it traffics - women in burkas played for laughs (funny foreigners) and the "hooker with a heart of gold" being just two of them - and ultimately ends up as an occasionally mildly funny satire on mercenaries (military and otherwise) abroad. Still, though it lacks the sharp bite of Levinson's best work, it is not a total loss, and has a few moments of genuine cinematic pleasure, courtesy of Murray. He's definitely one major reason to see the film.

Labyrinth Of Lies
½

"The only response to Auschwitz is to do the right thing, yourself." - Johann Radmann (Alexander Fehling, Jonas Happich on "Homeland"), fictional protagonist of "Labyrinth of Lies"

By the late 1950s, in Germany, life appeared to have finally returned to normal for a country twice defeated in 20th-century global conflicts. The Nazis were vanquished, the Americans were still on site, and peace and prosperity ruled once again. Except it didn't, not really, for a nation that refuses to fully expiate the sins of its past is doomed to repeat them (hence the recurring cycle of violence to which all of humanity succumbs). The Nazis hadn't gone anywhere; they were merely hiding in plain site, in the guise of the ordinary citizens which they had always been. It took a new set of prosecutions, in Frankfurt, almost two decades after the end of World War II (the Nuremberg Trials had taken place in 1945 and 1946), to finally open the closet door on the skeletons of the Holocaust. "Labyrinth of Lies," Germany's submission for this coming year's foreign-language film Oscar, chronicles the difficult and sluggish process - led by real-life Frankfurt prosecutor Fritz Bauer - by which these court cases came to pass. It's a strong - if imperfect - film, with fine performances, that would be better if it avoided some of the overtly manipulative techniques of the Hollywood docudrama: occasionally overwrought music, slow-motion dropping of objects, conflation of multiple historical figures into one fictional composite. Then again, this is the first feature from Giulio Ricciarelli, a German actor with a few short films to his directing credit before this, so we'll allow for some overuse of shopworn clichés, and look forward to what he does next time.

Bridge of Spies

This movie had somehow slipped under my radar before its release. I didn't even realize it was a new Steven Spielberg film. Perhaps its terribly generic poster pushed my thoughts towards dismissal. That would have been a shame, as ?Bridge of Spies,? poster notwithstanding, is quite a fine espionage thriller. If it gets a bit unfocused in its final act, that doesn't take away from the solid filmmaking of the first two thirds. What's particularly refreshing about the way Spielberg and his screenwriters (two of whom are Ethan and Joel Coen!) present the material is that the government spies at work within the story are anything but Bondian. Instead, it's an insurance lawyer who saves the day. The film is also a wonderful meditation on the meaning of ostensible American values: what good is liberty and justice if we ignore them when times get tough?

The film opens with a big unknown. A man looks in the mirror, painting his self-portrait. At first, even though a title card had just announced that this was a movie about the Cold War, I thought it might be Norman Rockwell, but when the phone rang and he ran out without a word, jumping into a New York subway car, I thought otherwise. This mystery man is played by Mark Rylance (?Angels & Insects?), and though he has done more British TV and stage work than Hollywood films, he is an extraordinary presence in front of the camera. Which is good, because it turns out that he is a Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel, and so needs all of the sympathy that a great actor can give him. In a bit that recalls the great 1953 communist-paranoia thriller ?Pickup on South Street,? Abel is pursued by the FBI on that subway, and then home, where he has taken a secret bit of possibly classified information he surreptitiously picked up on his journey. The G-men bust in, grab him, and that's the end of it.

Or not. We then meet James B. Donovan - played by Tom Hanks (?Saving Mr. Banks?) with his usual folksy charm - a star insurance lawyer whose firm has been asked by the U.S. government to defend Abel, to show the rest of the world that the Americans offer justice even to those who would destroy us. Donovan gets the short straw, and like a good boy scout is soon annoying those very forces that wanted him to put on a good show. To him, that means offering the best defense possible. To his superiors, that means doing the bare minimum. We sense a showdown.

Meanwhile, Spielberg starts cutting back and forth between scenes of Donovan and Abel and scenes of Francis Gary Powers - stoically played by Austin Stowell (Miles Teller's drum rival in ?Whiplash?) - as he is first selected, and then trained, to fly a high-altitude spy plane over the Soviet Union. As history tells us (kind of hard to ignore it), he is shot down on his first mission and taken captive, and soon we have parallel captured-spy scenarios. Before long, we find ourselves in East Berlin, where a new wall is going up, as Donovan - reviled at home for defending a "Russkie" but now freelancing for the CIA - tries to negotiate a prisoner exchange. As a cloak and dagger procedural, it's fascinating stuff, until it all gets just a little too long.

No matter the length, though, this is good storytelling. The terrific actress Amy Ryan (?Gone Baby Gone?) may be relegated to the role of "the wife" - shame, Hollywood, shame! - and there may be nary a face of color in sight - shame, Hollywood, shame! - but otherwise this is a very fine historical thriller that reminds us of our best moments as a country. A good lesson for the upcoming election year!

Crimson Peak
Crimson Peak(2015)

Billed as a gothic romance, "Crimson Peak" spurts forth today, fresh from the pulsating blood vessels of director Guillermo del Toro's fevered cerebral cortex. Is that gruesome enough an image for you? No, well then you will definitely want to watch this movie so you can see even bloodier images, beautifully rendered. Through previous films such as "Cronos," "The Devil's Backbone," "Hellboy" and "Pan's Labyrinth," del Toro has proven himself deft at combining pop sensibilities with meaningful storytelling, often creating vivid works of powerful entertainment that serve as parables of larger issues (such as the Spanish Civil War). You get your kicks and feel elevated by the story all at the same. True, he also made "Pacific Rim" - and that remains inexplicable to me - but nobody's perfect.

"Crimson Peak," however, is not at the level of del Toro's best output. It's exquisitely acted and solidly diverting, but ultimately not nearly as consequential as it seems to take itself, and pretty obviously derivative of previous work by other artists. In particular, del Toro and his co-screenwriter Matthew Robbins ("Mimic") seem to have taken A.S. Byatt's 1993 book "Angels & Insects" - or its 1995 cinematic adaptation - reversed the genders of the main characters, and added elements of the supernatural. And lots of blood. Other influences include "The Shining" and every Japanese horror film ever made, to name just . . . some.

Mia Wasikowska ("Stoker") plays Edith Cushing, a young woman whose mother's funeral - and later apparition as a ghost - opens the movie. As do her spoken lines, "Ghosts are real. This much I know." She lives in turn-of-the-20th-century Buffalo, New York, where her father, Carter Cushing - played by the excellent Jim Beaver (Whitney Ellsworth in "Deadwood") - is an extremely successful up-from-his-bootstraps tycoon. She's an aspiring writer, dreaming of excitement, when one day a mysterious pair of English aristocrats - brother and sister - arrive. Though initially put off at the idea of unearned privilege, Edith is soon infatuated with Sir Thomas Sharpe - Tom Hiddleston ("Thor: The Dark World"), in full seduction mode - though little love is lost between her and his sister. Lady Sharpe is played by Jessica Chastain ("The Martian") as a cross between Lady Macbeth and the witches who open that very same play, all bile and venom housed in an attractive exterior. Together, the three leads have a lot of fun jousting with themselves and the ridiculously over-the-top plot. You may have fun, too, unless you find the recycled ideas too much to take.

I far preferred the first half, where actions were shrouded in dim candlelight and half-revealed motivations. Once we travel to England, the machinations of brother and sister became a little too obvious - and I saw an ostensibly big reveal coming from far off - and the film begins to bore just as we settle in to watch the big set pieces. Why do the Sharpes need Edith? What is in the basement? Is that crimson clay beneath the ruined mansion really just red dirt? And what is it that goes bump in the night? Well, ghosts are real. This much we know. So who made the ghosts? These and more questions will be answered - perhaps by you prior to their on-screen explanation - by the end. I did enjoy one particularly inventive visual, however. Clearly something is rotten at the core of the Sharpes' being, so when we arrive at their estate and there's a big hole in the roof, though which moisture falls onto the decaying wooden interior, it's a perfect metaphor for who they are. Then again, it's hardly subtle. Nor is the film. But it is mostly enjoyable, if a bloody mess.

Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs(2015)

Aaron Sorkin has made a career writing clever scripts in which characters speak brilliantly conceived (if unrealistically articulate) lines of dialogue in well-structured dramas. Think "A Few Good Men," "The American President" (which led directly to the 7-season television series "The West Wing") and "The Social Network." That last one is a perfect model for "Steve Jobs," since it concerns a man deemed both an irrefutable genius and problematic human being. Sorkin got the equation just right there, showing us the virtues and vices of Mark Zuckerberg in a world that, though clearly a dramatist's construct, felt as if it got the essence of the story right ... or at the very least made it interesting. Director David Fincher ("Gone Girl") moved things along briskly, and a good time was had by all (well, maybe not by Zuckerberg). Unfortunately, in Sorkin's new script about another flawed technology pioneer, the construct overshadows the story, and we are left wondering why, as represented by this movie, anyone would want to make a movie about Jobs.

Divided into three distinct acts, "Steve Jobs" is a triptych aiming for a Hieronymus Bosch take on morality that ends up, instead, as a Margaret Keane air-brushed "big eyes" portrait: poster art, in other words, instead of grand painting. There's no shame in superficiality when that is your intention - some of my favorite movies are dumb pleasures - but when you aim high and fall short, the result is a mess. Or, in this case, a shame, since so many good artists give of their sweat and toil. First, we have Danny Boyle ("28 Days Later"), the director, usually so deft, who can do nothing with the story but light it dramatically and hope for the best; then, there's Michael Fassbender ("Frank"), great as always, who quickly makes you forget that he looks and sounds nothing like Jobs; Kate Winslet ("The Reader") plays Joanna Hoffman, Jobs' loyal assistant, the only person capable of standing up to the mercurial founder of Apple, and she is quite fine, too; Jeff Daniels ("The Newsroom") is here, as well, as John Sculley, the "man who fired Steve Jobs," and holds his own. There's talent to spare, but it doesn't help the script feel any less schematic.

The three sections each focus on a different product launch, first in 1984, then 1988, and finally in 1998: the original Macintosh; Steve Jobs' post-Apple venture, the NeXT cube; and his triumphant return with the blue and white iMac. If you know nothing about the man's life and accomplishments (where have you been the last 40 years?), I recommend Walter Isaacson's excellent biography, the likewise eponymous "Steve Jobs," on which Boyle's and Sorkin's film is ostensibly based. The idea of comparing launches makes sense, initially, since Jobs was a master showman, known for putting together impressive introductions to new products. However, what sounds good as an idea doesn't work in practice, since Sorkin populates each event with the exact same group of people revolving around Jobs, hoping to reveal truths through their changing interactions over time, straining credulity with clunky coincidence. Worse, he pares down Jobs' personal life to a single relationship, that with his daughter, Lisa, whom he refused to acknowledge as his for many years. That story is worth telling, but it can hardly be the only point of entry into the man's mind.

I think this may be the worst thing I have ever seen written by Sorkin. Forced, packed with artifice, with the engineering more visible than the design, the film is more PC than Mac. We feel like we're being lectured to, rather than being shepherded towards something new and fresh. I didn't like Alex Gibney's documentary about Jobs, released earlier this year, but by comparison it looks like the far superior film.

Freeheld
Freeheld(2015)

I have met Peter Sollett a few times, and had him Skype with my students once. He is a very nice man. I am a big fan of his Award-winning short film "Five Feet High and Rising," from 2000, and his debut feature, "Raising Victor Vargas," which he adapted from that source in 2002. He has not been the most prolific of directors, but his 2008 "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist" was enjoyable enough and showed a periodic flash of cinematic wit, holding out hope of potential treasures to come. Though Mr. Sollett has directed the occasional TV episode since then, "Freeheld" is his first feature in seven years. I wish I could announce that it had been worth the wait. Sadly, it contains little of the verve or grit of the director's earlier work; instead, it is generic enough in tone that one can't help wonder what happened. Who is responsible for this well-intentioned - but ultimately bland - exercise in middlebrow storytelling? With a script by Ron Nyswaner (Oscar-nominated for "Philadelphia"), it should be a lot better than it is. Instead, it's a Lifetime movie with all of its hard edges scrubbed off.

Julianne Moore ("Still Alice") plays Laurel Hester, a real-life New Jersey policewoman who, when diagnosed with cancer in 2005, tried to assign her county pension to her female domestic partner. Though New Jersey had just recently passed the Domestic Partnership Act, the Ocean County Freeholders (like a town council) denied Hester's request, setting off a legal battle that presaged our current age - just 10 years later - of strife over gay marriage. Ellen Page ("Inception") plays Stacie Andree, Hester's girlfriend. Both women are fine, though better earlier in the film than later, when they are each required to emote on cue, tears streaming down their faces as we marvel over how a film about something so important can feel so denuded of real drama. Why is that? Because everyone else is so broadly caricatured. We know who will do what, and when, and there are no surprises.

The broadest caricature of all belongs to Steve Carell, a man who singlehandedly ruins this film as he did "Foxcatcher" (Oscar nomination notwithstanding). As Steven Goldstein, a self-proclaimed loud and proud gay activist, he is just that: loud. Barreling into a movie in which a woman is dying of cancer, Carrell does Michael Scott on steroids. I loved him in "The Office," where his manic self-regard made sense, and I'm all for leavening tragedy with comedy - or comedy with tragedy (Charlie Chaplin's stock in trade) - but here, it just feels like Sollett lost control of his actor. It's too bad, as the facts of the case deserve telling. Fortunately, there is a 2007 documentary, of the same title, that pays due homage to Hester, Andree and their supporters. Watch that one, sit this one out, and hope that Sollett one day regains his mojo.

He Named Me Malala
½

At the age of 15, Malala Yousafzai was shot by a Taliban gunman in her hometown in Pakistan's Swat Valley. The reason? She was a champion of young women's education, and deemed a threat to the patriarchy. She survived, went to the United Kingdom for treatment, accompanied by her family, and made a home in Birmingham. She continued speaking out on behalf of women everywhere, traveling to parts of the globe where female education is still viewed with hostility, and in 2014 was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. It's a powerful story, some of which is told in "I Am Malala," a 2013 book that Ms. Yousafzai co-wrote with journalist Christina Lamb. Unfortunately, it is given the Davis Guggenheim ("An Inconvenient Truth," "Waiting for 'Superman'") treatment, which means that pedestrian filmmaking - including unexamined assumptions/assertions and distracting non-diegetic music - threatens to overwhelm the beauty of the tale. Still, Malala has proven resilient beyond all measure, and will, I am sure, pull through this.

The movie opens well, with voices under the opening titles (Guggenheim's and Malala's) that lead into the first of many animated sequences (one was enough). This first scene tells the story of the mythic Malala, a 19th-century teenage girl who rallied retreating Afghan forces (against the British) with the cry, "It is better to live like a lion for one day than to live like a slave for 100 years." It's a beautiful beginning, and the animated Malala's red outfit mirrors that worn by her modern-day counterpart. We then move to Birmingham, England, where we meet our Malala and her family. The first thing that strikes us is Malala's youth: she may be an internationally known activist, but she is still an adolescent.

It's in the family moments that the film begins to break down. They are sweet, but overlong. Instead of spending so much time with the brothers, I wish that Guggenheim had spent more time examining, in greater detail, the motivations of the father, Ziauddin Yousafzai. He clearly loves his daughter deeply, but has also been quite willing to put her in the way of danger from an early age. We learn that he sees himself as an inspirational speaker - his father was also a great leader - and sees Malala as following directly in his footsteps. We also learn that his wife, Khushal - Malala's mother - is virtually illiterate, raising troubling questions about his own motivations in educating Malala. Guggenheim does explore this territory, but only at a distance. It is far easier to focus on the inspirational story of Malala's phoenix-like rise and globe-trotting activism. To his credit, he did title the film "HE Named Me Malala" - a noted shift from the book's "I Am Malala" - but he skirts the full implications of that alteration's meaning.

Overall, however, as with "An Inconvenient Truth," the subject matter is ultimately more important than the (lack of) artistry. Malala's story deserves to be told (though not everyone in the Swat Valley agrees), however ineptly, and if this is the only documentary out there, then it should be seen. Keep in mind, though, that as with "Waiting for 'Superman'," Guggenheim is better at asking easy questions than providing complicated answers.

Pan
Pan(2015)

Never having been a particular fan of Peter Pan growing up, I was unaware of the shifting origins of the character (changes in age, personality, motivation) or of the fact that the play, "Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up," came before the novel, "Peter and Wendy" (1904 and 1911, respectively). I had seen (I think) the 1953 Walt Disney animated version, and that was it. Yet somehow, the flying boy created by Scottish writer J.M. Barrie was such a part of popular culture by the time I came into the world that I have always felt as if I knew of him, if not about him (with many adaptations beyond Disney's).

And now comes a new film, entitled simply Pan. Directed by Joe Wright ("Pride & Prejudice," "Atonement," "Anna Karenina") - no stranger to bold interpretations of established texts - the film promised (at least from its trailer) visual delights and a fresh take on the 100+-year-old story. Would that it were so, Joe. Instead, what we have is a movie with nary an original thought in its director's head. A pastiche of virtually every action/adventure/fantasy/sci-fi trope ever created, Pan is almost worth watching for the spectacle of the chutzpah of it all. It turns out, however, that stealing from better (or, just previously made) work does not a quality production make. If I were pitching this to studio executives, I'd frame it as a mashup of "Avatar," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Star Wars," "Oliver!," "Harry Potter," "Mad Max" ("Beyond Thunderdome" and "Fury Road") and even Pixar's "Up" (you'll get it when you see the big birds). And those are just the ones I can remember. I lost track after a while.

Ostensibly a prequel to Barrie's tales, Pan introduces us to baby Peter as his mother (Amanda Seyfried, "Ted 2") abandons him on the steps of a London orphanage. Flash forward 12 years, and we're in the middle of World War II, with the Battle of Britain raging above the orphanage, where Peter (bland newcomer Levi Miller) and his mates try their best to live under the care of some obese and nasty nuns. Mother Superior is a real piece of work, and her charges have a tendency to disappear at night. It turns out she's made a deal with space pirates (or are they just magical ... I'm not sure), who come in the dark to kidnap orphaned boys. Sure enough, Peter is caught in the latest roundup, and soon finds himself aboard a flying schooner, first in the middle of an aerial dogfight and then in sudden near- (and then far-) earth orbit. Strange and incomprehensible (and also, I'll admit, oddly beautiful)? Just wait until we get to Neverland.

Ah, Neverland, home of floating islands (that's where Avatar comes in) and the brutal pirate dictator Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman, "Prisoners," in a performance about as broad as it gets). He's a mean one, and perhaps his cruelty is best exemplified by his insistence that his minions join him in a chorus of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit." I know you think I'm joking, but I'm not. From there, it's steadily more absurd. Garret Hedlund ("On the Road") shows up as Captain Hook (before he and Peter become enemies), doing his best Harrison Ford imitation (as both Han Solo and Indiana Jones), and Rooney Mara ("The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo") is on hand as Tiger Lily to remind us how Hollywood always gets ethnic casting wrong (although I think the overall "ethnic" portrayal of the "natives" of Netherland to be more problematic than Rooney's casting, alone). Add some fairies and mermaids to the mix, and you have an overstuffed mess. That's also not without the occasional flash of mild interest. Mild.

The Martian
The Martian(2015)
½

It's another beautiful day on Mars, our closest planetary neighbor. As far as the eye can see stretches a reddish landscape reminiscent of Monument Valley in the great Westerns of John Ford. Given how science-fiction films supplanted the Western almost 40 years ago, with the release of "Star Wars" (a process that Western author John Jakes eloquently describes in his introduction to the anthology "A Century of Great Western Stories"), there is something plaintively beautiful about these vistas. As the film progresses, our lone hero stranded in a hostile environment, riding through the dusty desert in his dune-buggy rover, the elegiac power of the images stems from this simultaneous invocation of past and future, combined.

Who is this man, lost on the 4th rock from the sun? It's Mark Watney, played with wry humor and physical grit by Matt Damon ("The Bourne Identity"). As the film opens, he and the other members of his six-person interplanetary crew are on "sol 18" of a planned month-long stay on Mars (a sol is a Mars solar day, 3% shorter than an Earth day). Into the raw majesty of their work site comes a sudden violent dust storm, and their commander calls to abort the mission, lest their MAV (Mars Ascent Vehicle) tip over, leaving them with no way to reach their orbiting spaceship for the return journey. As they make their way through the whirling clouds of particulate matter, a loose satellite disc strikes Watney, pierces his EVA suit and sends him spiraling into the dark. Search as they might, his colleagues can't find him, and with the MAV about to topple and Watney's on-suit vital-sign reader registering a zero, they leave the surface, abandoning what they think is Watney's corpse.

But he is not dead, and once the storm passes, he regains consciousness and makes his way back to the Hab (or Habitat Station). In a gruesome scene of self-stitching, Watney is able to clean and close the wound in his side. That's all good, but it doesn't take long for him to realize that, alive though he may be, he's alone on a planet 54.6 million kilometers from Earth, with limited rations and no way of communicating with NASA. Fortunately, he's a man of great scientific ingenuity (as we would hope an astronaut would be). As he says in the video log he keeps, he's going to have to "science the sh** out of this." And that he does.

Based on the bestselling book of the same title by Andy Weir, the movie is a brisk adaptation (even at 140 minutes, which go by quickly) of what was already a brisk novel. The screenplay is by Drew Goddard, the showrunner of Netflix's "Daredevil" (and one of the credited writers on "World War Z"), and it doesn't waste a lot of time with elements that don't advance the narrative. This is a classic "man with a problem" story, and since that problem is of rather epic proportions, in a world we haven't seen before, every physical detail feels fresh. Directed by Ridley Scott - whose 1979 "Alien" is still one of the best films about space exploration to date - the movie is a marvel of an action thriller in which there isn't a whole lot of action. There are the occasional explosions, and a final sequence worthy of the best parts of Alfonso Cuarón's "Gravity," but the real "action" - and real hero of the film - is the science. It's wonderful to see a movie in which nerds are celebrated.

Watney may be far from home, but he is not, ultimately, alone. Once NASA figures out he is alive, they get on the case, sometimes effectively, sometimes not. Though it may be mostly Damon's movie, it's also a nice ensemble piece, as we cut back and forth between Watney, the folks on Earth working to save him, and the crew on their way back from Mars. Not only does the film celebrate scientists, it also celebrates gender and racial diversity (as much as a Hollywood film can), even making a few changes to the source text to allow the mission commander played by Jessica Chastain ("Interstellar") her own heroic moment. Other noteworthy performances include Chiwetel Ejiofor ("12 Years a Slave"), Michael Peña ("Ant-Man"), Kate Mara ("Fantastic Four"), Donald Glover ("Magic Mike XXL") and Jeff Daniels ("The Newsroom"), among others. The dramatic stakes are high, as is the tension, but the film never loses site of the fact that it is here to entertain, and that it does, marvelously. Even if - in strictly narrative terms - no one goes through great character development, there is more than enough conflict and resolution to satisfy even the strictest adherents of Aristotelian three-act structure.

It's nice to see Ridley Scott in such fine creative fettle once more. After the one-two miserable punch of "The Counselor" and "Exodus: Gods and Kings," I was getting worried. Shooting in 3D - a format not strictly necessary for this story, but one that adds to the majesty of the images - he has created a visually stunning work that marries science and fiction in the best possible way. A lot of reviewers have already expressed the hope that the film could reinvigorate interest in space exploration. Here's hoping.

Sicario
Sicario(2015)
½

"Sicario" opens with a text-on-screen definition of its title, explaining the word's Latin roots and current, Latin American meaning: a hitman. All the time, we hear a low bass beat that, to me, at first, sounded annoyingly like music from the theater next door. It's persistent and grating, and then suddenly we are in the bright sunlight of Arizona, along for the ride as an FBI squad prepares to take down some drug dealers. They burst into a generic house, exchange gunfire, and then, once the dust settles, discover, within the walls of that house, the stuff of nightmares. Our guide throughout this tight, masterful adrenaline-fueled sequence is Kate Macer, the leader of the federal team, and tough as she is, even she can't comprehend the horrors they discover. The guys they're dealing with make Gus Fring in "Breaking Bad" look like an amateur.

So far, so terrifying. Kate is played by the terrific English actress (and new American citizen) Emily Blunt ("Edge of Tomorrow"), who, ever since "The Young Victoria," in 2009, has proven, time and again, that she is worthy of our undivided attention when on screen. Here her character holds all of the promise of her earlier dynamic roles: she's smart, fearless, and extremely capable. She's also driven by a powerful internal force to catch the men creating havoc in her border town.

But then the movie gets in the way, and we lose sight of the great qualities of Blunt, the actress, and Kate, the FBI agent. I've seen two previous films by Denis Villeneuve: "Incendies" and "Prisoners." I found the former to be a brilliant meditation on the cycle of violence in the Middle East; the latter attempted to be a film about the cycle of violence within each of us, but ended up just being an exercise in violence. Villeneuve has bold ideas, and is a fine visualist, but sometimes cannot control his impulses towards quasi-torture porn. Sadly, here we are more in the territory of "Prisoners" than "Incendies."

That is not to say that the film has nothing going for it. Shortly after that terrific opening, Kate is recruited by a shadowy upper-government organization, headed by the always watchable Josh Brolin (starring right now in "Everest," as well), and before long finds herself across the border, in Mexico, on the Bridge of the Americas with her new team, bringing a drug lord back into the United States for questioning. She doesn't know why she's there or what she's supposed to do. But when all hell breaks loose - in another solid bit of mise-en-scène - she acts, saving herself and at least one other member of the group, Alejandro - a man of mysterious origin - played by Benicio Del Toro ("Savages") with initial gravitas and wit that, sadly, evaporates later in the movie.

We have a great setup: idealistic young agent, recruited to catch the "real bad guys," finds herself asked to commit acts she deems illegal. Will she sell her soul for the higher purpose (as it's put to her)? Will that be the central conflict, the war within herself? That would have been interesting. Instead, what we get for two hours is Kate's constant naïveté about the nature of the work that governments do to fight crime. She is shocked - SHOCKED - to find lawbreaking here. And shocked again. And again! To which I answer: really? What a bore you are. Instead, then, of an evenly matched duel between her and Alejandro (who turns out to have very specific motivations of his own), we get a rabbit facing off against a tiger. No contest. And very little drama. Such initial promised squandered.

Sleeping with Other People

Alison Brie (Trudy Campbell on "Mad Men") and Jason Sudeikis (lots of characters on "Saturday Night Live," since 2003) are both such likable performers with natural chemistry - with the audience and with each other - that it seems a shame they don't have a better movie in which to flaunt their charisma. They play Lainey and Jake, two thirty-somethings who first meet in college and then run into each other - after years of no contact - outside of a sex addict 12-step meeting. Since they lost their respective virginities to each other, it's meant to be an especially poignant and/or ironic encounter. It's neither, really, but forms an excuse for them to become friends again, which they do with the caveat that they will not sleep together, since, you know, sex ruins things. The problem is that they are so obviously meant to be together - and even they know it - that the conceit of their abstinence (from each other, since they still have sex with others) makes very little sense. I am hardly the first person to notice the overt resemblance to Rob Reiner's 1989 "When Harry Met Sally," but it bears mentioning again, if only to note that it is possible to make people avoid commitment and have it seem natural. You just need an interesting (and witty) script to pull it off.

That's not to say that writer/director Leslye Headland ("Bachelorette") has no talent for sketch comedy - some of the individual scenes work - but rather that the movie, overall, falls flat. Headland seems to want to reinvent the romantic-comedy genre with her in-your-face raunchiness, but never pulls off more than a weak imitation of better movies. More disturbingly - for me - this is the second film directed by a woman I have seen, in as many weeks, which spends as much time trafficking in the worst stereotypes about male-female dynamics as ostensibly attempting to subvert them (the first was "The Intern"). Jake is a classic womanizer - and chicks sure do dig him! - while Lainey is hung up on the one guy who consistently ignores her, a gynecologist (really?) played by Adam Scott (wearing the same unappealing mustache he sported a few weeks ago in "Black Mass"). Jake never talks about his feelings; Lainey cries a lot. There is one very sweet scene between the two protagonists, in which Jake is finally able to express why he is so afraid to sleep with Lainey, but it exists in its own bubble, outside of the world of the rest of the movie.

Perhaps the best part of the film - again going back to Headland's apparent talent for sketch writing - are the scenes that involve Jake's business partner/only friend Xander, played by a very funny Jason Mantzoukas ("Neighbors"), and Xander's wife, Naomi, played by the equally hilarious Andrea Savage (Ivanka Silversan on "The Hotwives of Las Vegas"). In their moments together, we sense a wonderfully quirky shared history that gives us the character development so sorely lacking in the two leads. Theirs is the clever take on romance that this movie's premise promises.

A final, special note to filmmakers everywhere:

1. Slo-mo is not a shortcut for dramatic tension
2. Taking drugs in a movie is not funny for its own sake
3. A man teaching a woman how to orgasm is, well, kind of insulting to women, no? Then again, here I am, a man, lecturing female directors on their portrayal of women, so ... maybe not.

The Walk
The Walk(2015)
½

Have you seen James Marsh's Oscar-winning documentary, "Man on Wire" (2008)? It tells the story of famed French tightrope walker Philippe Petit, who, in August 1974, hung - somehow - a solid wire between the (at that time) almost-completed World Trade Center towers in lower Manhattan and then, for almost 45 minutes, performed the impossibly dangerous feat of walking back and forth along its length. That film was a marvel of cinematic portraiture and historical journalism, giving us the incredible details of the caper-like plotting that allowed Petit and his cohorts to pull off their coup, and allowing us great insight into the mind of the man who would risk his life for such a stunt. What that film couldn't do was recreate the thrill of the actual walk along the tightrope, though I hardly noticed the lack, so caught up was I in the intrigue.

And now along comes Robert Zemeckis ("Back to the Future," "Forrest Gump," "Contact, "Castaway," "Flight") - entertainer and technological pioneer - with his own dramatized telling of the same story. Zemeckis is not always the subtlest of filmmakers - his beats are often heavy - but he believes in cinematic spectacle, and this new film delivers the goods ... on that end. Filmed in IMAX and 3D (at the screening I attended, it was just in 3D, with no IMAX), the movie is a testament to the power of the moving-image medium to transport us to great heights of narrative grandeur. In this case, those heights are, in fact, literal.

Where the film (mostly) fails is in its initial one-hour set up of the actual climb. Joseph Gordon-Levitt ("Premium Rush") plays Petit, and when we first meet him, he is standing on a platform at the top of the Statue of Liberty, looking over the Hudson River at the Twin Towers. It is from this vantage point that Petit narrates the film with French-accented expositional commentary to tell us, time and again, what we are already seeing on screen. As you can no doubt tell, I find this device irritating, as I do Gordon-Levitt's Manic Pixie Gallic Guy. The secondary characters (including Charlotte Le Bon, of "The Hundred-Foot Journey," and Ben Kingsley, of well, everything) - so richly drawn in Marsh's documentary - are there (barely) to support Zemeckis' vision of the mercurial artist at work. Although, even then, we hardly get to know the man, Petit, himself. Fortunately, Gordon-Levitt is a charismatic enough performer that he can hold your attention, accent and all, with nary a screenplay to back him up.

Despite these problems, what happens once we arrive in New York for the main event makes up for (almost) all of these defects. Not only does Petit soar over the cityscape; so, too, does the film. I have not heretofore suffered from excessive vertigo, yet I was on the edge of my seat for much of the second hour, sometimes scarcely able to look at the screen. What Zemeckis, cinematographer Dariusz Wolski ("Prometheus") and the visual effects team have accomplished is simply a wonder. Without a single gunshot or violent act, the filmmakers have created one of the most visceral cinematic experiences of the year. I can only imagine what the movie feels like in IMAX, but I don't know if I could survived that additional level of filmic envelopment. So I recommend it, but with the caveat that it is not for the vertiginous and/or faint of heart, or for those who cannot forgive its weaker first half.

The Intern
The Intern(2015)

Ah, Nancy! For years now (in films like "What Women Want," "The Holiday" and "It's Complicated"), you have been writing and directing films that put women front and center - professional women, with impressive credentials - only to undermine the power of that image with a strange brand of (unintentional?) misogyny. On the surface, your films look, at first, like feminist confections, but then you always end up trafficking in the worst kind of feminine stereotypes. No matter what their strengths and achievements, your protagonists are inevitably emotional, irrational, and in need of a man to make things right. Even a career woman needs love, no matter what the cost, you always remind us. At least in "Something's Gotta Give" - my favorite of yours - you bring the man down a peg as much as the woman. How broadminded of you ...

In "The Intern," Meyers turns things around (a bit), taking the perfect man and turning him into good ole Dad - or, at least, a father figure - in the form of Robert De Niro, who once wowed the world with his kinetic energy in films like "Taxi Driver," and now spends his time mugging for the camera in films like "Last Vegas" (and "The Intern"). De Niro plays 70-ish Ben, who was once an executive at a phonebook (remember those?) company and is now a retired widower in need of something to fill his days. When he sees a flyer advertising a "senior intern" program at a local (Brooklyn, NY) e-commerce company, he jumps at the chance to apply, just to have something to do. The movie opens with Ben recording his application video, intercut with a montage of his present-day life, which includes a trip to San Francisco to see his son and grandchildren and, back home, an awkward exchange with a local widow - played by a very funny, if under-utilized, Linda Lavin (of "Alice" fame) - who has her own plan for how to cure Ben's loneliness. Lo and behold, the company - an internet fashion retailer called "About the Fit" - calls Ben in, and he gets the gig. If it all seems a bit easy, it is, helped along by the usual easy-listening soundtrack of composer Theodore Shapiro ("We're the Millers"). Still, De Niro, hamminess aside, is pleasant enough to watch, and there are a few gags that score.

So what is a "senior intern" to do? Well, no one knows, really, least of all the founder and CEO of the company, 30-ish Jules - played by Anne Hathaway ("Interstellar") with her usual spunk - but Ben is assigned to her, anyway. She ignores him, until Ben makes himself so indispensable to the entire office (he's that just that kind of guy) that she just has to take notice, and before long he is driving her to and from work, watching her kid, and spending time in her (amazing) Brooklyn brownstone with house-husband (sorry, "stay-at-home dad," as Jules corrects Ben) Matt - a very forgettable Anders Holm ("Unexpected"). And why does Jules - successful internet mogul that she is - need and respond to this new older masculine presence? Well, it turns out that all is not perfect at home or at work: she never sees hubby, and when she does, they're both too tired to talk or get it on; she can't spend even the minimal time with her daughter that she should; and her investors think she should take on a "real" (male) CEO to allow her to work less and focus on the company's vision. Since what we see on the screen kind of supports these facts and assessments of her performance (maybe not the male CEO part), it's hard not to agree that, yes, she needs help. And with Ben so competent, he's just the fellow to save the day.

It's all relatively harmless, and occasionally touching and funny, but all to often it's just a little regressive for my taste. Ben even finds a more appropriate - for Meyers' taste - love interest in the form of the beautiful office masseuse played by Rene Russo (Nightcrawler), charming as ever, and, of course, 11 years younger than Ben (Lavin's character is just too old and pushy). If the film were 30 minutes shorter and with all of the exposition cut out - Ben to Jules, "You can do it on your own" - it might be more watchable and I might forgive it its faults in the breezy rush to the finish line. But so often, it's a bit of a slog. Then again, if you've loved every other Nancy Meyers film, then you might be used to her aesthetic and not mind any of it. If so, then go see it in the full confidence that the director is true to her own legacy. 

Everest
Everest(2015)

Back in 1996, an IMAX crew filmed sequences on and around Mt. Everest for a 44-minute documentary, released in 1998 - entitled "Everest" - that profiled a successful climbing expedition to the top (and back) of the world's highest peak. You may have seen that film at the time, as it traveled far and wide to most science museums and IMAX theaters. This is not that movie (though it was also filmed with IMAX cameras). True, they share the same main subject and title, but only one of them gets the human story right. This is also not that movie.

Filmed in 3D (because IMAX is not enough), 2015's "Everest" - from Icelandic action director Baltasar Kormákur ("2 Guns") - does do some things very well. Based on the ill-fated expedition about which Jon Krakauer wrote in his nonfiction bestseller "Into Thin Air," the new movie dramatizes, in harrowing detail, the brutal conditions on the mountain. The wide vistas and three-dimensional depth of the frame serve this part of the story perfectly. We feel the cold blasts of wind in a particularly visceral way, and marvel that anyone would attempt the ascent. The film also presents a compelling case for the dangers of commercializing extreme sports: according to its narrative, people died, at least in part, because excess competition to make it to the peak during optimal weather led experienced guides to make poor decisions. Again, the screen format is the ideal choice for this topic, since a crowded IMAX frame feels very full, indeed.

Unfortunately, the elements with which we do not engage, dramatically, are the people. There is a very large ensemble cast - including Jason Clarke ("Terminator Genisys"), Jake Gyllenhaal ("Nightcrawler"), Josh Brolin ("Inherent Vice"), John Hawkes ("The Sessions"), Michael Kelly (Doug Stamper on "House of Cards") and Keira Knightley ("Begin Again"), among others - and none of them are allowed enough screen time to anchor the story. Yes, people die, and death is tragic, but at the end of this particular movie, I was left wondering why I should care that much about the fate of (mostly) wealthy people who chose to voluntarily climb Everest because of the very dangers (for the adrenaline rush that comes with risking one's life) that led some of them to die. No, I'm not a cold fish (though I felt chilled to the bone watching the film), but I am someone who demands three-dimensional, interesting people about whom to care. Shooting in 3D is not the same was writing in 3D.

By no means is "Everest" a total loss. The cinematography is stunning, and the movie thrills in many parts. It's just not particularly memorable beyond that.

Black Mass
Black Mass(2015)

In 2014, documentary director Joe Berlinger ("Under African Skies") released a movie about the notorious Boston gangster James "Whitey" Bulger, entitled "Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger." I saw it at the Maryland Film Festival that year, and found it to be both a comprehensive look at the life of a career criminal and utterly riveting. Made while Bulger was on trial, in 2013 (he was captured in 2011 after 15 years on the run), and finished after he was sentenced, the film used first-hand accounts of accomplices, victims and witnesses to tell the chilling tale of a brutal psychopath's rise and fall. We never saw Bulger, but did hear his voice from the courthouse tapes. You know what his main concern was? To make sure that no one thought him a "rat" (he was on file as a former FBI informant). Murderer? No problem. But not a rat. Chilling, indeed.

In 2015, narrative (fiction) director Scott Cooper ("Crazy Heart") has released a new movie, also about Bulger, in which we see the man quite a bit. Only here he's played by Johnny Depp ("The Lone Ranger"), who is so physically transformed that many news outlets have been calling him "unrecognizable." I would agree with that statement. Both his makeup artist and dialect coach deserve an award (as do his blue contact lenses). Whether or not the actor, himself, turns in a particularly memorable performance is up for debate. I enjoyed watching Depp - but then, I always do, as the man has had, has, and probably always will have, a commanding screen presence - but I did not find his characterization of the man he plays especially nuanced. He's a violent creep who can turn on the charm when he wants to (which isn't that often), but who never has much to say that isn't a threat (direct, veiled or otherwise).

His FBI handler, John Connolly, however - played by Joel Edgerton ("The Great Gatsby") - can't stop talking. Connolly grew up with the Bulger boys, both Whitey and his younger brother Billy - played by Benedict Cumberbatch ("The Imitation Game") - who, for many years, was the most powerful politician in Massachusetts, and as "Black Mass" begins Connolly is freshly returned to Boston and looking for a way to make a name for himself by taking down the Italian mafia that runs the North End neighborhood of the city. Whitey - a childhood nickname, but he prefers Jimmy - a former convict with time in Leavenworth and Alcatraz behind him, is moving up in the Irish-dominated Winter Hill Gang. Connolly makes a pitch to his superiors that they can use Jimmy Bulger as an informant against the Italians and thereby "clean up the city." Unfortunately, this arrangement works primarily in Bulger's favor, as, for many years, he does what he likes, when he likes, under the protection of the FBI. It's a sweet deal for a very sour man.

Most of the folks involved in the film are professionals - Kevin Bacon ("X-Men: First Class"), Adam Scott ("The Overnight"), Peter Sarsgaard ("Blue Jasmine") and even (a very good) Dakota Johnson ("Fifty Shades of Grey"), among them - and deliver adequate to fine performances. The film looks great: cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi ("Silver Linings Playbook") knows when to keep the images light and when to make them go very dark. But at the script level, there's a big gaping three-pointed knife wound at the center of the story:

1. Who is Bulger and why does he do what he do?
2. Why would anyone in the FBI take Connolly seriously, since he is so obviously in bed (though not literally) with Bulger?
3. What does Billy really think about his brother, since their fates are intertwined?

All of that said, the film is frequently entertaining - if grim - and if you like your mob violence in your face, you'll get it here. If you want a truly mesmerizing account of Jimmy Bulger's life, however, you're in the wrong place. For that, there's always Berlinger's documentary.

The Visit
The Visit(2015)
½

Ask yourself this: if not for "The Sixth Sense," would you still care about M. Night Shyamalan? In spite of significant flashes of talent (diminishing with each effort) evident in his four subsequent films - "Unbreakable," "Signs," "The Village" and even the atrocious "Lady in the Water" - nothing the man has done since that third feature of his, in 1999, has come close to its cinematic grandeur and promise of further greatness to come. He has morphed into a running joke - the man whose films always feature a (supposedly) shocking twist of some sort - rather than the auteur of thrilling nightmares he, once, long ago, seemed destined to become. For me, he reached his nadir with "After Earth," but, to be fair, that was the first film of his I had seen in years (so others could have been worse). All of this is by way of preamble that my expectations going in to "The Visit" - Shyamalan's latest - were extremely low.

It was with very pleasant surprise, then, that I found myself enjoying the opening. Was this the beneficial consequence of my complete lack of faith in the director, or was there something good actually happening on screen? I rubbed my eyes, pinched my arms, and kept watching. And laughing. That's right: the wannabe master of suspense seemed to be indulging in his funny side. There's a hint of that in the trailer, but nothing to prepare the viewer that, for much of its duration, "The Visit" is presented as comedy. With, oh, a twist . . .

So what's the story? We meet 15-year-old Becca and her 13-year-old brother, Tyler - played by newcomers Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould, both, interestingly, Australian - as they are about to leave for a week-long stay with their never-before-seen grandparents, Nana and Pop Pop. It appears that, years ago, their mother - played by the ever-convincing Kathryn Hahn (Rabbi Fein on "Transparent") - had broken off with her parents over her elopement with the older man whom she married. As the film begins, it seems that said husband has packed his bags and left both wife and kids, and now Becca and Tyler have planned this reconciliation with the grandparents to allow Mom to take a cruise with her new beau. So off they go, leaving Philadelphia, by train, to head west to the tiny hamlet where Mom grew up.

So far, so boring. What makes it not is that Becca is a budding documentary filmmaker working on a personal film about saving her family, and though the trope of found footage is a tired one, by now, this device is what saves the movie. Most of these kinds of movies present the material as if it has been discovered and edited after the events of the story have unfolded, but here we see Becca's creative process as she shoots and cuts the film "live" (so to speak). She has brought two cameras - one for her and one for Tyler - and so we see her in action as she plans her mise-en-scène. Even better, we hear her self-serious explanations of cinematic language and shot construction as she instructs her brother on how to "create tension in the frame." Whatever its eventual flaws, the movie is a wonderful primer for young filmmakers on the mechanics of camera placement, and I recommend it to all my students.

The kids are great. DeJonge and Oxenbould not only look like they belong to the same gene pool (and to that of their mother), but share an easy rapport that makes their relationship entirely believable. Shyamalan - witness Haley Joel Osment in "The Sixth Sense" - clearly has a fine way with young actors, and elicits nuanced performances that combine vulnerability, cockiness and naïveté in equal measure.

Of course, the trip does not go as planned. Becca and Tyler arrive safely in Masonville, PA, and are picked up by Nana and Pop Pop - played by a very good Deanna Dunagan ("The Cherokee Word for Water") and Peter McRobbie (the priest in Netflix's "Daredevil") - but very soon the plot takes a turn for the creepy and weird. It seems that after 9:30pm the sweet grandparents turn into creatures reminiscent of Japanese horror films. And since Becca and Tyler have, apparently, never taken the lessons of such films to heart - that you should run from scary monsters, rather than towards them - we see this nightly transformation, recorded for the benefit of Becca's documentary.

Slowly, while still retaining some of its initial humor and charm, the movie begins to sour. As Nana and Pop Pop become stranger and stranger, much is made of the fact that their behavior can be explained by the travails of old age. Funny (perhaps), at first, this notion quickly becomes offensive. Then, once the final (patented) Shyamalan twist comes out, many of the film's strengths (its lighthearted, easy humor among them) seem out of sync with the very real tragedy at the center of the plot. It's a disconnect which I cannot entirely accept. It seems that while some of Shyamalan's fine directing skills are back, there still lurks within him the immature brat who cast himself in the Jesus role in "Lady in the Water" and, in that same film, made Bob Balaban a film critic who gets eaten by the monster (because, you see, critics had by then turned against Shyamalan and so deserved to die). Despite these significant weaknesses, however, it's still the best thing the director has done since "Signs," which is a noteworthy achievement.

Grandma
Grandma(2015)
½

How I wanted to like this movie (despite its lackluster trailer). I love Lily Tomlin (most recently seen on Netflix's "Grace and Frankie"). Not long ago, she appeared on Public Radio International's Studio 360 to discuss her long career (born in 1939, she made her initial mark on "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" in 1970), and I was reminded of all of the quirky humor she brings to most of her performances. Unfortunately, Grandma - though by no means terrible - does not allow much room for her to perform, at all. I blame director Paul Weitz ("About a Boy"), since most of the actors give lazy turns, with one notable exception: Sam Elliott ("I'll See You in My Dreams"). And when he's on screen, Tomlin ups her game, as well.

Grandma tells the story of young high-school student Sage - played by Julia Garner ("The Perks of Being a Wallflower"), not up to the task - who shows up on her grandmother's doorstep on the day when Grandma (Tomlin) has just broken up with her much younger girlfriend, Olivia - played by Judy Greer ("Archer"), who is always good, no matter what. Grandma - otherwise known as Elle - is a once-well-known poet who has just paid off all medical debts from her longtime - now deceased - partner's illness. As a consequence, she has no money, and Sage needs over $600 for an abortion. She won't go to her mother, Judy - played, eventually, by a very strident Marcia Gay Harden ("Pollock") - since Mom is everything Grandma is not: uptight, moralistic and structured. It's too bad, though, because Mom also has money.

So off Sage and Elle go, in search of friends-of-Grandma to shake down for long-ago debts owed, stopping off at the boyfriend's house first, where said lunkhead threatens the old lady and gets his butt kicked for his pains. In scene after scene, we find occasionally witty bits of sketch comedy and drama that are just as often weighed down by pedestrian direction. There is very little life on screen. It's as if Weitz were content to have scored Tomlin as his star, only to then forget that a director must guide the actors. So it comes as a sudden surprise when, in a last-ditch effort, Elle drags Sage to an old (male) flame of her own, and we meet Karl (Elliott), who bears a huge grudge towards Elle for how she left him and then wrote about him in a poem. In their scene together, we see what might have been. We feel their history, and actual emotions flow between two human beings. It's a wonder.

The rest of the film - divided into six parts, each labelled as if in a poem by Elle (1. endings, 2. ink, 3. apes, etc.) - has its few moments of spark, but mostly it fizzles. When Elle and Judy reach their reconciliation - of sorts - at the end, it has long been expected, and so fails to pack an emotional punch. I wish there were more to recommend here, but at least there's "Grace and Frankie" available for binge-watching at home. That's not exactly an amazing series, itself, but Tomlin is much better in it than she is here.

Mistress America
½

Much of "Mistress America" is all a blur - at least in terms of coherence - much like its poster. Greta Gerwig ("Frances Ha") plays Brooke, the future step-sister of our protagonist, Tracy (played by relative newcomer Lola Kirke - sister of "Girls" co-star Jemima Kirke - and most recently of "Free the Nipple"), a lonely first-year Barnard College student. Since Tracy has (for some reason) trouble making friends - though she sort of connects with fellow writing nerd Tony (a funny, heretofore unknown Matthew Shear) - she decides to call up the daughter of the man her mother is about to marry. She's heard that Brooke is something of a free spirit, and that turns out to be an understatement: manically unstable would be a better description. Tracy is both mesmerized by, and skeptical of, Brooke's bubbly babble. She decides to use Brooke's (mis)adventures as fodder for the story (entitled "Mistress America") she hopes will gain her access to Barnard's prestigious literary society. Soon, though, she finds herself caught up in a Connecticut-bound road trip with Brooke, Tony (he's the one with the car) and Tony's very unwilling girlfriend Nicolette (an also funny, also heretofore unknown Jasmine Cephas Jones). The ostensible goal of the trip is to allow Brooke to reconnect with an old flame and the woman who stole him (Brooke claims), so that said ex can give her money for a restaurant development (the latest in a series of failed ventures) she has planned. Things don't go anyone's way, but many lessons are learned. Some fun is had. The end.

If you liked "Frances Ha" - the last collaboration between writer/director Noah Baumbach ("While We're Young") and Gerwig - and/or enjoy movies about "manic pixie dream girls," then chances are you'll like this movie more than I did. If, on the other hand, you find Gerwig to be as much of a blight on current independent cinema as do I, then stay away. What's wrong with Gerwig? Only the fact that there's nothing new or fresh in her performances that Diane Keaton ("Annie Hall") didn't already show us in the 1970s. It was funny then; less so, now.

But "Mistress America is not an entire loss. The younger actors are quite appealing, and some of the writing in those college scenes does, in fact, surprise. But when co-scenarists Gerwig and Baumbach turn their attention to the character who is supposed to be the creative heart of the movie, their imagination fails and they recycle tired tropes. This is especially ironic given the constant press about how Gerwig - the director's real-life paramour - is Baumbach's muse. In their particular case, I would avoid mixing business and pleasure.

The Diary Of A Teenage Girl

Be forewarned, O faint of heart, that this movie features inappropriate sex between an adult male and a teenage girl. Even more alarming, that girl craves the sex, and more. Sure, she may be underage, and he may be taking advantage of her, but that doesn't stop young Minnie Goetze, our fearless protagonist, from going for what she wants and wanting what she gets (for the most part). "The Diary of a Teenage Girl," adapted from the 2002 text/graphic novel hybrid of the same title by Phoebe Gloeckner - and already previously adapted as a stage play by the same writer/director of this new cinematic edition, Marielle Heller - is a bold work that cares not one iota about our prudishness and/or potential shock at its taboo subject matter. It's all about Minnie and her peculiar coming of age in 1976 San Francisco. As she slowly grows from child to woman (in ways far beyond the physical), we watch as she unashamedly proclaims her desires and follows through on them, consequences be damned. Conceived by women, produced by women, and firmly about women, "The Diary of a Teenage Girl" is a masterful feminist tour de force that eschews polemical talking points and focuses instead on the highly entertaining - if at times alarming - journey of one very special young person.

Before watching the film, I first read the book, which I recommend to any and all, regardless of whether or not you see the movie. In it, Minnie sometimes recounts her adventures in comic form (she's an aspiring graphic artist), but most often through the text in her diary. I was curious to see how Heller would handle both elements in the film. For the diary, she chooses to have Minnie record her thoughts on tape. In some ways, this is unfortunate, since it makes Minnie much less of a writer - an integral part of the source material - but it does thereby make the resultant voiceover flow logically from the action (I routinely dislike unmotivated voiceover in film). After my initial disappointment in this device, I quickly forgot about it, and just sat back to enjoy. As for the comics, Heller chooses to animate them, and thus creates many a magical moment where hand-drawn images wash over the screen, blurring the line between Minnie's imagination and reality. I particularly like the way that Heller has additional animations hover around Minnie at crucial points (such as after sex) in the narrative. Make no mistake, this is a truly cinematic adaptation of the book. Heller has thought long and hard about how to handle the story in its new medium.

The marvelous - and relatively unknown - young British actress Bel Powley ("Side by Side") plays Minnie. She's in her early 20s, but easily looks 15 (maybe even 14). We meet her at the very start of the movie as she utters the words that set the tone for the entire enterprise: "I had sex today." It turns out that her lover is a man 20 years her senior, Monroe, who also happens to be involved with her mother, Charlotte. The Swedish actor Alexander Skarsgård ("The East") plays the former with a wonderfully vague dopiness that recalls the young Bill Pullman in "Ruthless People," while American comic-turned-now-serious actress Kristen Wiig ("The Skeleton Twins") plays the latter as a doped-up narcissist too intent on her own good time to see what's going on in her own apartment. Both provide adequate support, along with the rest of the cast, but this is really Powley's film, her "coming out," so to speak. She owns every frame, and helps us stay focused on her, rather than on the criminal neglect and abuse of the adults in her life. And in spite of the sex, and the eventual drugs and threats of rape, Powley helps us see that Minnie's story is also filled with wonder and a fair amount of humor.

Truth be told, though, I was the only one laughing at my screening, perhaps because, having read the book, I knew what to expect; but trust me, it's funny. And ask yourself: how often do you get to see a movie where the sexual desires of a woman (of any age) are front and center? What's even better is that this is ultimately not about sex, but about Minnie learning to love herself. I would recommend to all parents of teenage girls, but given the R rating (there's plenty of nudity, alcohol and drugs, beyond the sex) and tricky subject matter, I think it better that parents see it first, then bring their daughters. Marylanders, especially, should see the movie, since its development was partially funded by a grant from the Maryland Film Festival. But really, everyone should see it.

Listen To Me Marlon
½

This is not the first documentary about the great American actor Marlon Brando (there have been quite a few, in fact, including the comprehensive made-for-TV "Brando" in 2007), who died in 2004 at the age of 80, but it's the first to feature so many words straight from the mouth of the notoriously private thespian. Director Stevan Riley (maker of the excellent "Everything or Nothing: The Untold Story of 007") gained access to the home tapes that Brando recorded over the years, mostly (but not exclusively) for self-hypnosis exercises, on which he ruminates on his life and his career. Combined with archival footage, these recordings allow Brando to narrate his own story, as if from the grave, guiding us on his journey from youth to old age. It's a fascinating film that clearly intends to be the definitive account of Brando the man, and which comes awfully close to achieving that goal.

We open on the moment in 1990 when Christian, Brando's son with actress Anna Kashfi, shot and killed the boyfriend of his half-sister Cheyenne. From this nadir, guided by Brando's vocal palliatives ("Listen to me, Marlon," he urges), we jump back to the 1940s and the actor's arrival in New York, where he met Stella Adler, who would become his teacher and launch him into the career that made him famous the world over. As most people who were alive in the 20th century should already know, Brando revolutionized acting for both stage and screen in the 1940s and 1950s, taking the then-fresh ideas of the method school of acting and popularizing them through his success. As a restless and somewhat introverted soul, however, Brando was never at ease with his fame, and as this film makes abundantly clear, struggled throughout his life to reconcile what he saw as the silliness of his profession with a desire for a life of meaning. Those of us who love and admire many of his screen performances - his two Oscar wins, for "On the Waterfront" and "The Godfather" among them - can attest to just how meaningful Brando was to us, but to the man, himself, acting frequently left him feeling depleted and subsequently aimless. This film chronicles all of Brando's misgivings, coming full circle back to 1990 and the aftermath of Christian's crime (followed, 5 years later, by Cheyenne's suicide). It's an unhappy end, but not exclusively so. For in his final days, Brandon seemed to be more at peace with the importance of acting and how his own films may have touched others.

Riley constructs his movie with great care, and many of his own "methods" work wonderfully. I love the fact that there are no talking heads, leaving Brando as our (mostly) sole narrator. I also love the footage he found of Brando's digitized head, which speaks to us as if from inside "The Matrix." Unfortunately, some of the audio on the tapes is difficult to understand, at first (at least until our ears adjust to the hiss), and this fact is not helped by Riley's misguided insistence on the use of intrusive non-diegetic music (most distracting during the sequences on "The Godfather" and "Last Tango in Paris"). Despite these weaknesses, however, the film is, overall, extremely successful at painting a clear and moving portrait of a very complex human being. It is a must-see for all Brando fans, as well as anyone who likes biographical documentaries.

American Ultra
½

He's a stoner! But wait, he might be so much more. What's that spoon doing stuck in the throat of the man in front of him? Who knew that dopey, hapless Mike Howell was so handy with cutlery? That about sums up "American Ultra": jokey and ultra-violent. It's too bad that it's not enough of either to entirely work as entertaining pop culture. It's fun, at times, and so not completely without merit, but it's so often not even successful on its own terms that it hardly warrants a trip to the theater. I'd wait for it to come out to come to the home-viewing option of your choice. And then I'd see if there are other options, first.

Jesse Eisenberg ("The End of the Tour") plays Mike, and he's by the far the best thing about the film. All awkward gawkiness, Mike is so consumed by anxiety that he can only really interact with the world if he's stoned. He lives with his extraordinarily understanding girlfriend Phoebe - played by a perfectly acceptable Kristen Stewart ("Clouds of Sils Maria") - and as the film opens (after an opening scene that hints at the mayhem to come before flashing back to three days earlier), the two of them are trying to take a vacation to Hawaii. Unfortunately, Mike (yet again) is too panicked to fly, and so back home they go, to their normal humdrum life. And then, without warning, we get a satellite shot of mopey Mike, smoking weed outside, and learn that he may be more than he seemed (which we already knew, given that opening scene).

Soon, warring CIA agents Connie Britton "(Me and Earl and the Dying Girl") and Topher Grace (remember him?) and their surrogates are battling over Mike's fate, some wanting to kill him, some to rescue him. Except that Mike may not need any rescuing, since he's got mad skills, as it turns out. With shades of "The Bourne Identity" and "The Long Kiss Goodnight" - among other sources - the film soon tells us what we've long since figured out for ourselves, and we're on our way to the blood-soaked craziness promised in the film's first few minutes. Most of the action is incomprehensible, but there are those moments where Eisenberg gets to deliver a line or two that shows how much he can do with very little. It's quite a fine performance, stuck in the middle of a very mediocre film.

Straight Outta Compton
½

Before the screening of "Straight Outta Compton" began, the theater played the trailer for "Ride Along 2," in which rapper-turned-actor Ice Cube (once known as O'Shea Jackson) plays a cop. How the world turns! As the movie as I was about to see reveals, Ice Cube - along with his N.W.A. colleagues - was responsible for that late 1980s rap anthem of urban discontent, "F*** tha Police." Long since turned respectable citizen (and a very funny one at that), Ice Cube has nonetheless never quite lost all of his angry edge, honed in the streets of Compton (shown this summer, as violent as ever, in the great teen comedy "Dope"), where this new movie, from director F. Gary Gray (who directed Ice Cube in one of his first films, "Friday," which he also co-wrote, back in 1995), begins. I have always liked Ice Cube, and I remember well the impact of N.W.A.'s 1988 debut album on the hysterical white establishment, and had high hopes that Gray's new effort would prove both informative and entertaining.

What it turned out to be is two-thirds of a really good movie burdened with a messy and interminable final act. Expertly acted, with a powerful O'Shea Jackson Jr. (Ice Cube's son) as Ice Cube - ably assisted by a cast of rising African-American performers that includes Corey Hawkins ("Romeo and Juliet"), Jason Mitchell ("Dragon Eyes"), Neil Brown Jr. ("Battle Los Angeles") and Aldis Hodge ("The East"), as well as by journeyman character actor Paul Giamatti ("Love & Mercy") - the film starts off with energy and a strong sense of purpose, promising a greatness that dissipates by the end. But while it lasts, this drive gives us an extremely timely medita
tion on poverty, race, police brutality and the intersection of all three. The five rappers who formed N.W.A. used their respective experiences as black men in America to speak truth to power, and given the traumatic events of the past year, the need for such truths has clearly not gone away. Unfortunately, the film also traffics in grotesque misogyny, with many a naked woman treated as nothing more than a sex object. You can't have everything, I guess. It's too bad, though, because when the movie is good, it is very good, making its failures greater for the disappointment of frustrated expectations. Still, a good flawed movie is better than a perfect mediocrity, and "Straight Outta Compton" is definitely worth seeing.

Best Of Enemies

How you feel about this new documentary co-directed by the helmer of the Oscar-winning "Twenty Feet from Stardom" may well boil down to whether or not you were alive in 1968, when the events it recounts took place. Barring that, if you have a strong interest in that time period and/or in the evolution of television punditry, you may well find yourself fascinated, regardless of age. Finally, even if the subject matter leaves you cold, both William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal - the two subjects of the film - each have enough reptilian charisma to keep you watching in spite of the heavy hand of the filmmakers, who underline their points in bold ink at every turn (they also add intrusive music that leaves no moment unscored). For my money, it's a compelling story given a pedestrian treatment that sometimes rises above its aesthetic limitations.

To summarize: before the 1968 political conventions, ABC - the #3 network of the time (behind NBC and CBS) - decided on the Hail Mary move of hiring two intellectuals, each from an opposing ideological camp, to comment on both parties' presidential nominations. Buckley was a well-known conservative writer, founder of "National Review," and Vidal was an equally well-known novelist ("Myra Breckenridge") and screenwriter ("Suddenly Last Summer"), far to the left of Buckley. The network first asked Buckley to sign on and when they asked him for ideas on whom to hire as his on-screen partner, he indicated no preference, save that it not be Gore Vidal. So, of course, that's who ABC hired. Audiences of the time responded by giving the struggling network the ratings it desperately craved - especially once Buckley lost his cool and threatened to punch Vidal - and voilà: the stage was set for all bloviating talking-head faux news to follow. What these gentlemen had, however, that many of their successors do not, was a firm command of the issues and a marvelous way with the English language. It's too bad that we can't just watch them without the constant editorializing of the directors (although I very much liked most of the expert interview subjects, including Buckley's surviving brother, Reid, who help provide historical context). Still, the filmmaking is only occasionally truly distracting, and we learn so much about our present in this story about our past that I still have no problem recommending the movie to all.

The End Of The Tour
½

Full confession: I have never read any works by David Foster Wallace. The author, best known for his 1996 "Infinite Jest," killed himself in 2008 after a long battle with depression. This movie, by James Ponsoldt ("The Spectacular Now"), tells the story of the end of the "Infinite Jest" book tour, when David Lipsky - failed novelist-turned-"Rolling Stones" columnist - flew out to Indiana to interview the reclusive author over the course of five days. The screenplay, by Donald Margulies ("Dinner with Friends"), is based on Lipsky's account of that trip, published after Wallace's suicide. If you're a fan of Wallace and like movies in which big ideas - life, love, the pursuit of happiness (i.e., sex) - are discussed in passages of broad exposition, then this might just be the film for you. Since I am unfamiliar with Wallace as a writer, however, I have no way of knowing how accurate a portrayal of the man the movie creates, or whether or not the screenplay does justice to his intellect.

What I can say is that, in spite of some issues, the film (mostly) held my interest. Which is a good thing, because I found the trailer to be a snooze. But the jury in my brain is still out: this is either a good movie about a pretentious conversation or a pretentious movie about a good conversation. Jason Segel ("Sex Tape") plays Wallace with quiet conviction, proving that he is more than just his usual on-screen buffoon. Jesse Eisenberg ("The Social Network") plays Lipsky, and brings his usual shallow inexpressiveness (not always a bad thing) in service of a shallow, envious man, who learns some hard truths about himself in the course of the multi-day conversation. It's a fine pairing, and the two actors work well together, helping us past the occasionally glaringly obvious BOLD MOMENTS OF REVELATION in the script. Ponsoldt brings his usual low-key direction to bear, which has the charm and distinction - and sometime limitation - of feeling like no direction at all. We're intimately present as these two smart guys go at it, and if you like what they have to say, then you'll like the film.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

The original "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." television series ran from 1964 to 1968 on NBC. I have only a vague memory of watching some of it during rebroadcasts in the 1970s. I often get it confused with actor David McCallum's short-lived 1975-76 series "The Invisible Man" - which I am old enough to have watched in its original run - and as result, since on that show McCallum frequently removed the latex mask covering his invisible face, for a long time I mistakenly believed that McCallum had starred on that other 1960s TV espionage series "Mission: Impossible," in which masks play such an indelible part. More fool me. All of this serves to point out that I am absolutely no expert in the source material of this new movie by British director Guy Ritchie ("Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels"). All I can judge is what I saw on this particular screen at this particular time.

The verdict? It's a hell of a lot of fun, if completely vacuous. Set during the 1960s - shortly after the building of the Berlin Wall - the film stars Henry Cavill (our modern-day Superman) as CIA agent Napoleon Solo; Armie Hammer (our modern-day Lone Ranger) as KGB agent Ilya (spelled, for some reason, as "Illya" in the credits) Kuryakin; and Alicia Vikander (our modern-day replacement - see "Ex Machina") as Gaby Teller, daughter of a missing Nazi scientist. Forced to work together on a joint American-Soviet operation, the men prance and strut their stuff with great panache, while Vikander mostly just sits around and looks pretty. That's Hollywood. But what a good time we have on our way to nothing. Ritchie is in flamboyant high spirits here, starting with an opening sequence that will have you on the edge of your seat: he certainly knows how to stage a car chase. Sometimes his editing style overwhelms any sense of narrative coherence - as if, by confusing us, he hopes to hide the fact that he didn't stage everything as well as that opening - but for the most part the modish titles and split screens, evocative of the era of the story, serve as pleasingly entertaining devices. There's not a lot of there, there, but emptiness has rarely gone down so easily.

Fantastic Four

Where to begin? Perhaps with the question, not unique to this particular movie, of why. In a world where "The Amazing Spider-Man" comes out just ten years after the critically and commercially successful - and therefore not in apparent need of an immediate reimagining - "Spider-Man" (and only five years after the third film in that Tobey Maguire series), it should no longer surprise us that stories are recycled and rebooted with increasing frequency. Ten years is the 21st-century Hollywood standard for ancient. For the record, I actually liked "The Amazing Spider-Man" (more, even, than "Spider-Man"), yet I still don't understand its raison d'être (beyond the mercenary).

Now comes "Fantastic Four," just - again - ten years after the 2005 film of the exact same tile. Unlike its web-slinger counterpart, that original film took a serious critical drubbing upon its release (though it did turn a profit, leading to its 2007 sequel, "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer"). Despite the stupidity, I enjoyed it, finding it content to be the silly superhero film that it was, and populated by actors who didn't take themselves too seriously. Chris Evans was especially fine as Johnny Storm (aka "The Human Torch") back then, and has since gone on to better movies, including "Captain America: The First Avenger" and its sequel, in which he plays the titular role. Still, dumb fun though it may have been, the original Fantastic Four was not a good movie. I could see how some smart writer/director might envision a more interesting way to approach the story. Josh Trank, who wrote and directed the intriguing found-footage sci-fi thriller "Chronicle," seemed like a good choice to take on the reboot (if reboot were needed).

And for the first ten (maybe twenty) minutes of Trank's film, I was rooting for him. I loved his approach. We meet two of the main characters - Reed Richards (later to become Mr. Fantastic) and Ben Grimm (later to become The Thing) - as children, and watch their friendship grow over a shared sense of being outcasts. No one understands them but them. Richards is the scientific wunderkind; Grimm, the devoted sidekick. Richards, all of 10 years old, has developed a matter transporter (laughed at by his teachers). Grimm's family owns a scrapyard, and so Richards, through his friend, has an unlimited supply of materials for his experiments. Flash forward 7 years (the movie begins in 2007), and Richards - now played by Miles Teller ("Whiplash") - and Grimm - now played by Jamie Bell ("Snowpiercer") - are discovered at a high-school science fair by Dr. Franklin Storm - played by Reg E. Cathey (Freddy on "House of Cards") - and his adopted daughter, Sue - played by Kate Mara (Zoe Barnes on, yet again, "House of Cards") - who will soon enough become the Invisible Girl. It turns out that Storm runs a special magnet school for geniuses, and wants Richards as a student. He particularly wants Richards' transportation device, which, it turns out, actually works, sending matter (so far, inorganic only) back and forth between our world and another dimension. If they can but build a larger, human-sized unit, perhaps they can travel to this new world and find renewable sources of energy to save the Earth.

So far, so good. But once we're in the school and the device-building begins, the movie goes south. Deep South. The script takes a turn for the terminally stupid and, even worse, for self-seriousness. Musical montages replace character development. Good actors - we also get the usually wonderful Michael B. Jordan ("Fruitvale Station") as the new Johnny Storm (Dr. Storm's biological child) - turn in terrible performances, but who could possibly do much of anything with the inane dialogue with which they are saddled? Equally disturbing - for a sci-fi superhero film - the special effects and world design look cheap (amazingly, Johnny Storm's flying stunts looked better in 2005). Plot spoiler: there's a villain (telegraphed from the first time we meet him), and our four protagonists - now physically transformed because of an accident involving radiation from that other dimension - must learn to work as a team to destroy him. The real villain, however, is the script, itself, and if we can all work together as our own team and prevent people from seeing this movie, perhaps there will never be a sequel. More likely, of course, is that there will be a reboot next year.

Shaun the Sheep Movie

The English animation studio Aardman Animations - best known for its "Wallace and Gromit" short films, television series and one feature - has long been a favorite of mine, producing delightful absurdist confections that I can watch multiple times without losing interest. Still, while I almost always marvel at their stop-motion ingenuity (and love the very British teeth with which they design all of their animals), I have not loved all of their work equally: their first feature-length movie, "Chicken Run," was a winner; "The Pirates! Band of Misfits" (in spite of its Oscar nomination) was a dud. In some ways I prefer their earlier, more raw work, in which the animation may not be up to today's standards, but the ideas shine with sparkling mischief, such as Peter Lord's wonderful setting of Nina Simone's "My Baby Just Cares for Me" or Nick Parks' playful mockumentary "Creature Comforts."

Now we have a new feature, directed by neither Lord nor Park - stalwarts of Aardman's past - which follows the adventures of Shaun the Sheep, who has had his own BBC television series since 2007, and is apparently a character who first appeared in the 1995 Wallace and Gromit short "A Close Shave." I knew nothing about Shaun going into the film, but I went hoping for something at least as fun as "Chicken Run." What I got was not quite up to that standard, but still (mostly) entertaining, and a movie that is sure to appeal to young kids, making it the perfect cinematic destination for families now that everyone has seen "Minions" and "Inside Out."

Shaun and his ovine brethren live in relative harmony with their farmer master - the movie opens with a home-movie montage of their earlier happy days on the farm - but long for just one day off from the quotidian routine. Inspired by a bus-side billboard urging them to just get away, they come up with what should be a harmless plan to lure the farmer back to bed (what puts people to sleep? counting sheep!) so they can run off and frolic ... somewhere else. Things go dreadfully wrong, however, and soon Shaun and company - accompanied by a most unhappy guard dog - are adrift in the big city, looking for the lost farmer. Will they find him before a villainous animal control representative finds them and locks them up? Watch and find out.

There are plenty of very funny moments in the movie - including the sleepy sheep counting - but also passages where the story drags. Unfortunately, when that happens, the filmmakers often choose to create pop-music montages that feel more about marketing that particular song than about furthering the plot. Indeed, the music, overall, is the weakest part of the film (except for one delightful "baaa-baaa-shop" scene which is actually quite cute). I loved every aspect of the animal containment center, though: it's designed to look like a prison, complete with an "Orange Is the New Black" "Crazy Eyes" character. Overall, the plusses outweigh the minuses, even if the sum total never quite comes close to the masterpieces of yore. 

Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation

Christopher McQuarrie, the Oscar-winning writer of Bryan Singer's terrific 1995 "The Usual Suspects" - as well as of last year's (mostly) equally smart Tom Cruise vehicle "Edge of Tomorrow" - but also the director of the terrible Tom Cruise vehicle "Jack Reacher" - clearly has a thing for action thrillers (be they of the gangster or sci-fi variety). On paper, based on his previous work, he could be a great person (not counting "Jack Reacher") to take on the most recent incarnation of the "Mission: Impossible" series, which originated in 1966, on CBS. The first movie in the Tom Cruise era was helmed by Brian De Palma in 1996 - almost twenty years ago, when its star was only 34. The last entry with Cruise was in 2011, entitled "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol" (otherwise known as "Mission: Impossible 4"), and was directed by Brad Bird, he of such animated gems as (especially) "The Iron Giant" and (a little less so) "The Incredibles." That film did well enough (and was pretty fun, I must say, if dumb) to revive the franchise after the comparatively dismal showing of "Mission: Impossible III." And now, 4 years later, with a now-53-year-old leading man, Ethan Hunt, lead agent of the IMF, is back. Look up at the poster, above. That should tell you all you need to know about the kind of film this is. Action-packed and completely unbelievable. So how do McQuarrie and Cruise do?

Wonderfully. Suspend your disbelief. Forgive (for 131 minutes of the movie) Tom Cruise his association with Scientology (if that's possible, though some reports indicate he may be leaving the cult). Sit back, relax, and let this perfectly plotted jocular espionage romp take you for a ride. Well, perhaps "relax" is the wrong word, since this movie never stops, just as its star never stops running. There are a few moments of down time, to be sure, but otherwise this is mostly one powerful energy drink of a film. Even the opening sequence - the one involving that image on the poster - somehow works, probably because all of the actors involved seem to be having such a good time. Indeed, in spite of his crazy on-screen stunts, even Cruise seems in on the joke, which is pretty spectacular, given how self-serious he can so often appear. He's helped by a very entertaining cohort of co-stars which include holdovers from the previous films like Ving Rhames ("Pulp Fiction"), Simon Pegg ("Shaun of the Dead") and Jeremy Renner ("Kill the Messenger"), and newcomers like Alec Baldwin ("Still Alice"), Sean Harris ("Harry Brown") and Rebecca Ferguson ("The White Queen"). The latter two particularly shine, he as the villain and she as a lethal super-agent femme fatale who may be friend, foe or some combination of both.

To share the plot would spoil it. Also, to be honest, I no longer remember all the details. Let's just say that this is a movie made in the vein of the long-running "24" television series, in which Jack Bauer is eventually cast out of his organization and hunted by his own government. The "rogue," in other words, refers to more than just the terrorist organization that Ethan Hunt tracks with his usual tenacity. Hunt is hunted, too.

What I most remember, however, is that opening airplane, and a later motorcycle chase, featuring Ms. Ferguson, that took my breath away. Ms. Ferguson can also fight pretty convincingly, and one of the additional pleasures of the film is seeing a woman on screen who is fit and thin, but certainly no waif (in other words, she's normal, if in shape), more than holding her own with the men. So hats off to all involved. May they all return to the fray again in another 4 years or so. Let's see how long Tom Cruise can go before running no longer suits him. He certainly still looks good doing it. Maybe there is something to Scientology after all (just kidding). If you're looking for a good mid-summer adrenaline rush, then look no further. This is it.

Southpaw
Southpaw(2015)

I can pinpoint the exact moment that this dreary film lost me. A terrible tragedy occurs towards the end of Act I - something that, in screenwriting terms is called a "plot point" or "inciting incident" - and all I could think was, "Really? You did that?" From then on, I was unable to pay attention to anything but the architecture of the script - written by Kurt Sutter, who did such fine work on "Sons of Anarchy" (and, full confession, the uncle of a former student of mine who will now probably never speak to me again) - rather than the story. The overtly manipulative direction by Antoine Fuqua - whose one near-masterpiece remains "Training Day" (but keep in mind that he also gave us "The Equalizer" and "Olympus Has Fallen") - does not help. And try as he might, Jake Gyllenhaal ("Nightcrawler") - all tough sinew and crazy eyes, straining under the weight of the melodrama - can't save the picture. To make matters worse, if you're here for the boxing, it's not even engaging on that level.

Still, some good people signed on for the movie. We've got Rachel McAdams ("About Time") - wasted - Naomie Harris ("Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom") - wasted - and Forest Whitaker ("Lee Daniels' The Butler") - less wasted (but Hollywood is usually crueler to its female characters). Whitaker is also one of the producers (a role he plays a lot these days, including on the terrific "Fruitvale Station"). The participation of these otherwise talented actors matters not (would that the women had real parts!). At every point of the film, we feel the filmmakers raising the stakes, yet the stakes ultimately remain a construct, rather than a reality. Telegraphing the emotions we should be feeling through the soggy score by late film composer James Horner (I really feel like a jerk for not liking it more - sorry, James!) only serves to underline the paucity of genuine sentiment on the screen. Nothing is believable and nothing counts. It's time for a rematch.

Mr. Holmes
Mr. Holmes(2015)
½

On a recent episode of WNYC's "Studio 360," actor Ian McKellen (best known, to mainstream audiences, for his roles as Gandalf in "The Lord of the Rings" series and Magneto in the "X-Men" films, but also a very accomplished stage actor) stated that, ever since working with director Bill Condon on "Gods and Monsters," he has always been prepared to say "yes" to anything that Condon might propose. And so we now find him starring as an aged (over 90!) Sherlock Holmes in the director's new project. One can certainly understand McKellen's attraction to the part - it's such an iconic character, and what actor wouldn't relish the opportunity to portray Holmes as his vaunted powers of deduction are fading? - and he most certainly does shine. It's a shame that the movie, itself, however, is not better. Perhaps it's Condon's experience working on the final two "Twilight" films that have reduced his appreciation for complexity, or maybe the terrific "Gods and Monsters" was a one-off. Who knows? What we do know is that while "Mr. Holmes" offers a wonderful showcase for McKellen, it doesn't offer much else.

Which is too bad, as the premise offers such promise. We meet Holmes in 1947, as he returns from a trip to Japan, where he had hoped to discover a cure for his memory loss. Imagine Holmes - the great detective - unable to hold on to the simplest of details, such as the names of the people he knows! He returns to his estate, to which he retired after World War I, after a tragic end to what would be his final case left him traumatized. Now he just takes cares of his bees, and is a burden to his housekeeper, Mrs. Munro - played by the usually reliable Laura Linney ("Hyde Park on Hudson"), who here, unlike her co-star, does not, sadly, shine - who wishes she didn't have to play nursemaid on her meager salary. But she has a young son - played by the excellent newcomer Milo Parker - and the boy's interest in what the famous, if decrepit, sleuth has to teach him provides a way in (or back) into Holmes's memories, allowing the old man to finally solve the one mystery that eluded him. As I said, it's a great premise.

Unfortunately, the story is told in an extremely heavy-handed fashion, with the director constantly underlining every single emotional beat. The flashbacks are clunky, and we see the truth of the failed case long before Holmes does. What works, however, is the marvelous interplay between the detective and his apprentice, and some great surprises lurk inside that storyline. I wouldn't call it a complete wash, then - and fans of McKellen should enjoy - but it so often painfully misses its mark that we can't help but regret the film that might have been.

Ant-Man
Ant-Man(2015)
½

Tired of big, bombastic studio superhero films such as "Avengers: Age of Ultron"? That movie may have grossed over $1,000,000,000 at the world box office, but I, for one, was bored silly. The genre is tired. How many times can the world be almost destroyed, and then saved at the last minute, before audiences across the globe demand a different story? Time will tell. For now, however, we can take heart that the folks at Marvel occasionally come out with gems like "Guardians of the Galaxy" and "Ant-Man" that have as much fun subverting the genre as playing into it. True, some of the self-serious films like "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" rise far above the rest, as well, but the refreshing cheekiness of Marvel's new pint-sized hero is a much-needed breath of fresh air in a universe of stale sameness.

That's not to say that "Ant-Man" exists outside of the Marvel Universe. Au contraire; all of these stories are linked. We start in 1989, where Michael Douglas ("Behind the Candelabra") - as Hank Pym, inventor of an-as-yet-mysterious technology (to play a big role later in the movie) - walks out of a meeting with Howard Stark (father of "Iron Man"'s Tony Stark), declaring that his life's work will never be used by the military (a sure sign, of course, that come the start of the main story, someone will have made sure that it will). Flash-forward 26 years to our present, and we meet Paul Rudd ("This Is 40") as Scott Lang, a convicted cyber-hacker on his last day in prison. Michael Peña ("Cesar Chavez"), as his former cellmate Luis, greets him at the gates and takes him back to an apartment where he and two other ex-cons try to bring him in on another score. Scott's have none of it, as he wants to rebuild his life and reconnect with his young daughter. It's tough to get a job as a convicted felon, however, and things look bleak. So far, so boring. Rudd is a charismatic screen presence, and Peña is fun, but other than the fact that our main character is a crook, this looks and sounds fairly conventional.

Meanwhile, back at Pym Industries, Corey Stoll (Peter Russo in Season 1 of "House of Cards") - as Daren Cross, Hank's former protégé - has almost replicated that mysterious technology. Hank's estranged daughter, Hope - played by Evangeline Lilly (Kate on "Lost") - has helped him do it, but without Hank's involvement, some major glitches remain. At the same time, Rudd, fired from yet another dead-end job, agrees to go in on a heist with his new roommates, and this is where the film finally picks up steam and becomes the irreverent wonder that it remains for the rest of its duration. In a brilliantly funny montage that showcases a manic Peña, Luis spins the yarn of how he learned about the score, convincing both Scott, and us, that we're on to something special. So the team breaks into the house in question, where, in the vault, they find something that looks very much like a motorcycle suit (see poster, above, with tiny guy on Peña's shoulder). Disappointed, Scott nevertheless packs up the suit, goes home, and then can't resist trying on his new find. Which is when the film kicks up into an even higher gear.

For, you guessed it, this suit can shrink the man wearing it to ant-sized proportions, and this is also that mysterious technology which Hank has tried to hide from the military-industrial complex all these years. Before he knows it, Scott (and his roommates) are involved in a scheme to defeat the forces of evil (OK, that part is nothing new), working with Hank to stop Darren from finally completing his own research. Along the way, in spite of certain necessary genre tropes, we get a superhero movie unlike any we've seen in a bit (even more smart-alecky than the first "Iron Man" film), filled with gags both verbal and visual that keep us laughing even while the action scenes go at full tilt. My favorite moments remain the ones where we cut to a wide shot in the middle of a battle between diminutive participants, revealing the tiny size of the high stakes. The film is a delight, with all actors at the top of their game, and a fast pace that keeps us engaged even when the plot makes almost no sense. "Ant-Man" is a winner.

Trainwreck
Trainwreck(2015)

Since I first saw "Trainwreck" at the 2015 SXSW Film Festival, two things have happened. First, the good: much to my delight, I have finally discovered Amy Schumer's body of work. Second, the bad: I have soured a bit on her debut feature, as - at this week's press screening - I did not like it as much as I did four months ago. Based on my experiences with Schumer's television show, I would have to say that she is an extremely talented sketch-comedy writer and performer. Based on my experiences with "Trainwreck," I would have to say that though she remains a talented sketch-comedy writer, she is a rather pedestrian long-form storyteller. Director Judd Apatow's typical loose and soggy pacing (think "This Is 40") doesn't help much. I laughed a lot in places, but was also bored and frustrated through many an overlong passage. You can't have everything, I guess.

Schumer plays Amy Townsend, a thirty-something writer (for the fictional "S'Nuff Magazine") with relationship issues. Like many a male movie protagonist before her, she boozes it up and sleeps around, taking her pleasure when and how she wants it. She isn't what one would call happy, but she makes her own choices and that's the end of it. In the brief flashback that opens the film, we see at least one of the reasons why she is the way she is: 20 years or so earlier, her parents split, and her father explains to Amy and her younger sister how monogamy just isn't for everyone. The scene is derivative of the opening of "Shallow Hal" (thanks to my friend Michael Angelella for pointing that out), but it's also hilarious (and sad). We sense we're in good hands.

The good humor continues for a while, as we meet an engaging and hilarious cast of characters, including many celebrities not heretofore known for their acting. There's the great Tilda Swinton ("Only Lovers Left Alive") as "S'Nuff"'s editor-in-chief; Colin Quinn ("Grown Ups") as the philandering father; Vanessa Bayer (from the "Saturday Night Live" of the past five years) as Amy's best friend and fellow S'Nuff writer, Nikki; Randall Park ("The Interview") as another (very funny) co-worker; WWE champion John Cena as Amy's muscle-bound (sort of) boyfriend, who is one of the best things in the early part of the film; Bill Hader ("The Skeleton Twins") as Dr. Aaron Conners, an orthopedic surgeon specializing in sports medicine, about whom Amy is assigned to write a story; and a very funny LeBron James (yes, that LeBron James) as a version of himself who is both Conners' former patient and best friend. Daniel Radcliffe ("Kill Your Darlings") and Marisa Tomei ("The Lincoln Lawyer") - in a movie-within-the-movie entitled "The Dogwalker" (which almost feels ripped off from my own short "All About George") - are also extremely funny. Rounding out the cast are the ever-reliable Brie Larson ("Short Term 12") as Amy's younger sister, Kim, and comedian Mike Birbiglia ("Sleepwalk with Me") as Kim's husband, but they are as much a part of what works in the film as a part of the problem. They're enjoyable, but so underwritten as to feel almost superfluous through much of the proceedings.

Researching her next story, Amy meets Aaron, they hook up (no surprise), and then the rest of the film consists of Amy avoiding the commitment to which we know she will succumb by the end. And that's where the fun stops. For this is a movie that, though it at first appears to subvert the traditional rom-com genre with its embrace of liberated female sexuality, eventually transforms itself into a rather conventional and conservative example of that genre. Amy must grow up and give up the drinking and sex to be with her one true love. There's nothing wrong with that trajectory - it's the foundation upon which civilization is built - but it's also not that interesting. Along the way, the filmmakers stretch many otherwise good sketches to the breaking point, and add many additional filler scenes, all to bring the final movie in at over two hours. "Trainwreck" is a lot of fun at times, but begs for additional edits, a brisker pace and a more original script.

Self/less
Self/less(2015)
½

Poor Ryan Reynolds. He's a charming enough screen presence, yet so often chooses projects of such mediocrity that he just can't quite rise into the Hollywood A-List. In big-budget flops like "Green Lantern," "RIPD" and now (I predict) "Self/less," the problem is not him. He's fine. As always, he's extremely likable and capable. It's the script that's terrible.

Imagine "All of Me" meets "Face/Off" (that forward slash is the key!),* only not as good or interesting as either (and "Face/Off" was hardly terrific), and you'll have some idea as to what this new movie is about. Late-60s New-York business tycoon Damian - played by Ben Kingsley ("Sexy Beast") doing some kind of working-class Brooklyn accent that makes him sound like Elmer Fudd - is dying of cancer; he has six months to live. Desperate, he signs up for a risky (and secretive) procedure - called "shedding" - in which his consciousness and memories will be transferred into a new lab-grown body by the unctuous Dr. Albright, played by the ever-charismatic Matthew Goode ("Stoker"). He settles his affairs, fakes his own death, and voilà! He now looks and sounds (the accent is gone!) just like Ryan Reynolds. He's given a new identity and sent off to New Orleans to party, which he does like it's 1976 (that's my approximation of the year in which Damian would have been the age of the body he now inhabits), drinking a lot and sleeping with many attractive young women. All is good until he starts having flashbacks (making this also a bit like the original "Robocop") that belong, perhaps, to his new host, who may not, in fact, be lab-grown. Whoops. At this point, the film transitions from attempted high-concept thriller to straight-up action movie, with chase scenes galore (some of which are not bad, I'll admit). Will Damian uncover the mystery behind the new him? Guess ...

Briefly, at the start, the movie flirts with some interesting ideas about our fear of death and desire for immortality. But then, all too quickly, it descends into ridiculousness, as we are struck, time and again, by the improbabilities of the science fiction concept as it is executed. There are some cute scenes involving a kid, but that doesn't help. Whatever entertainment value there is, at first, quickly finds itself overwhelmed by stupidity. Sorry, Ryan. Next time.

*[Note from 7/11/15: Since writing my review, I have learned that Self/less is almost directly inspired by John Frankenheimer's Seconds, even though that earlier - and by all accounts, far superior film - receives no mention in the credits. My next task? Watch Seconds ... ]

Minions
Minions(2015)

If you're looking for a new family film to which to bring the little ones, look no further than "Minions," a prequel (of sorts) to "Despicable Me" and "Despicable Me 2." If you remember, the "minions" are those little yellow creatures - some one-eyed, some two-eyed, all with goggles - who serve the villain (of sorts) Gru. They speak in an Esperanto-like language in which certain phrases and words are distinguishable, but which otherwise sounds like gibberish (and they're all voiced by co-director Pierre Coffin, who also co-directed the first two films). Ever wonder where they came from? No? Then don't bother with this movie, unless you're really bored. Yes? Then this is the flick for you!

Actually, you could see this film without knowing anything about its universe and still pass a relatively enjoyable 90 minutes. Though hardly a work of genius, it's entertaining enough, and has one or two good jokes that made me laugh out loud, rather than just chuckle (my response to 95% of the proceedings). Other than the brilliant "Inside Out" (which you could always go see again), there's not a whole lot out there right now for kids, so why not go see "Minions"? A ringing endorsement, I know!

In an opening sequence narrated by Geoffrey Rush ("The Book Thief"), we learn that the minions evolved to serve evil overlords, beginning back in the Jurassic Era. They have an unfortunate propensity to cause (unintentionally) the demise of their masters, and so are constantly, over the eons, on the lookout for a new "boss." Flash forward to 1968, and they find themselves stuck in an ice cave with no such ruler, bored and listless. A particularly intrepid minion named Kevin (they all have single English names like this) decides that this just won't do, and so gathers two volunteers - Stuart and Bob - to go in search of a new criminal mastermind in need of servants. Once in New York, they learn of a "Villain-con" convention about to happen in Orlando, and head down there, where they meet the baddest of the baddies, a woman named Scarlet Overkill, voiced by Sandra Bullock ("Gravity"). Soon, adventures and misadventures ensue as the proceedings move to London, all so that the film can play an extended joke on the royal family (a great joke, actually, as this is what made me laugh out loud; excuse me, LOL). It's fun. It's just not super fun.

Along for the ride on the voice-talent train are the likes of Jon Hamm ("Mad Men"), Allison Janney ("The West Wing") and Michael Keaton ("Birdman"), though the only one who truly shines is Hamm, exceptionally funny as Scarlet Overkill's hubby. Bullock is fine as the villainess, but nothing special (Angelina Jolie or, even funnier, Scarlett Johansson, as my colleague Linda DeLibero suggested, would have been better). The movie works when it works, and when it doesn't its failure is fairly painless. Bring the children and be done with it.

Amy
Amy(2015)

"Amy" is a brutal documentary about the initial triumphs and ultimate tragedy of the enormously talented British jazz singer Amy Winehouse, who died, in 2011, of alcohol poisoning at only 27 years of age. Blessed with a magnetically sultry voice and the ability to sing just about any kind of music - but cursed with the demons of insecurity and addiction - Winehouse rose to stardom over the course of five years, from the release of her first album, "Frank," in 2003, to the release of her follow-up, "Back to Black," which won five Grammys in 2008. British director Asif Kapadia - whose last feature documentary, "Senna," in 2010, was about the Brazilian Formula One race-car driver Ayrton Senna - who also died young - has fashioned a harrowing no-holds-barred look at the rise and fall of a very troubled young woman whose genius and fame were no protection against the evil spirits - including self-serving family members and hangers-on - that plagued her.

To me, the movie felt very much like a horror film (Max Weiss, at "Baltimore Magazine," wrote an excellent review in which she argued the same point); the first documentary horror film I can recall seeing. Little by little, we see possession - the twin devils of addiction and insecurity, exacerbated by sudden celebrity - destroy this great talent. Thanks to the participation of Winehouse's first manager, Nick Shymanksy, Kapadia had access to many hours of video from Winehouse's early singing days to the beginning of her breakdown (she and Shymansky parted ways when she didn't take to his attempts to help her deal with her addictions), and the director uses the footage to show us his subject on- and off-stage. To round out this impressive archival material, Kapadia also edits in video from her friends: one of the very first things we see in the movie is Winehouse singing "Happy Birthday," at age 14; already, she had impressive pipes.

Unusual for a biographical documentary, there are no traditional talking-head interviews. Instead, we hear the voices of the various actors in Winehouse's life appear underneath moving images of them, with a lower-third title letting us know who is speaking, but never in a formal setting. It helps to make the film feel like a fly-on-the-wall cinéma vérité piece, even though it is clearly carefully crafted and shaped.

Indeed, Kapadia structures his story with great precision, and lays out a clear case against those who took advantage of Winehouse's fame without offering her any protection: the biggest villain is, in fact, her own father. Not surprisingly, the family - even though they participated in the making of the movie - is now vocally opposed to the final product. Too bad. All the filmmaker does is allow them to be damned by their own words and actions. All one has to do is listen to the lyrics of Winehouse's hit song "Rehab" to hear how negative an influence her father could be.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the film is how we see - towards the end of the story - how snarky and scornful the international press is in its coverage of Winehouse's final year (and how many flashbulbs the paparazzi would subject her to!), when she is frequently drunk and dazed in public. They didn't then have the advantage of having seen the film we've just seen. The movie should make us all think about how quick we are to judge the supposed moral failings of others. In the age of viral social media, we often verbalize opinions without regard to consequences. For sure, the media didn't kill Amy (nor did her family, however much they didn't help), but their callousness made her increasing isolation increasingly lonely. This powerful must-see film is a true nightmarish parable for our time.

Dope
Dope(2015)
½

"American Graffiti" meets "Risky Business" meets "Boyz n the Hood" meets "Friday." That's all I have to say. And then some. Director Rick Famuyiwa ("Our Family Wedding") has fashioned a highly entertaining and extremely intelligent comedy about self-professed high-school geeks in the rough gang-infested neighborhood of Inglewood, California, who suddenly find themselves unwittingly involved in the very drugs and crime they have managed to avoid so successfully until their senior year. To use one of the definitions of the movie's title that flashes on the opening title card, "Dope" is dope.

Stylishly shot and edited, this movie moves along so briskly that its occasional narrative nonsense matters not. This is the story of Malcolm, Jib and Diggy, best friends who, every day, not only navigate the usual minefields of high school, but also the very real dangers of the world outside. Played, in order, by Shameik Moore ("The Watsons Go to Birmingham"), Tony Revolori ("The Grand Budapest Hotel") and Kiersey Clemons ("Transparent"), these kids are vibrant three-dimensional characters in a world we normally see portrayed as an urban-nightmare backdrop to larger stories about Los Angeles (such as "Training Day"). It's a joy to watch the three young actors at work; they are at ease with each other, suggesting long friendships forged through common interests and much time spent together.

They're also geeks, which makes them greater misfits in Inglewood than they would be in, say a John Hughes film. The stakes are higher. People actually get shot where they live. Famuyiwa, who grew up in Inglewood, himself, shows us the danger, right away, even if he plays it for comedy. So anything can happen. To make them even greater targets, Malcolm, Jib and Diggy are obsessed with 1990s-era hip-hop. They're out of fashion, and so not cool. But they do have a shot at going to college, and a good one: as the film begins, Malcolm is applying to Harvard. Though his college guidance counselor thinks he's arrogant, we sense it is not an unreasonable dream, for him.

But then Malcolm takes a fancy to the on-again-off-again girlfriend of a local drug dealer, gets himself invited to a club party, and suddenly finds himself in possession of a bag of drugs (Molly) and a gun. Big whoops. At first, he and his friends just want to get rid of the stuff, but the ownership of said property is in dispute, and so begins a crazy odyssey across the city that lands them in the home of a local businessman - born in Inglewood, but now living in a mansion - who, instead of helping them, tells them to move the product and just give him the money. And so our geeks have to become what they've never wanted to be: drug dealers. Except that they know a thing or two about the dark web and Tor browsers, so maybe - just maybe - they'll get away with it. Without, you know, dying.

In spite of the few times when the movie's blend of action thrills and comedy falls just shy of the mark, I loved it. It's witty and smart, with fast-paced dialogue covering topics from the legacy of Ice Cube to Obama's use of drones to the propriety of hip white people saying the n-word to, of course (this is a teen movie, after all), sex. This is a film about people of color - who just happen to live in a dangerous neighborhood - with the same aspirations as everyone else. I know. Surprising. It's also terrific fun. With a strong supporting cast that includes Zoë Kravitz ("Mad Max: Fury Road"), Rakim Mayers (aka rapper A$AP Rocky), model Chanel Iman, Comedy Central's Blake Anderson ("Workaholics") and veteran actor Roger Guenveur Smith ("American Gangster"), "Dope" is filled with quirky and original people who give its narrative true depth. Though the ending may feel a bit too polemical, overall this is a fresh and lively piece of filmmaking, and I highly recommend.

Infinitely Polar Bear

A quick and full disclosure: Maya Forbes and I not only share a college alma mater, but also graduated in the same year from that institution. That said, I never knew her, though we have at least one friend in common. Until this movie was released, I hadn't heard her name mentioned since my student days. Now on to my review.

In "Infinitely Polar Bear," first-time director Maya Forbes tells the moving autobiographical tale of her own childhood. Born to a white father and a black mother in 1968, Forbes - at least according to this film - was not particularly perplexed by any issues of biracial identity. Rather, the big challenge for her, her younger sister and her mother was dealing with poverty and her father's mental illness. Dad was diagnosed with manic depression (now called bipolar disorder) in 1967, but his symptoms didn't become severely problematic until 1978 (again, according to the film). That's where our story begins.

Mark Ruffalo ("Foxcatcher") plays Cameron Stuart (in real life a member of the Boston Brahmin Forbes family), whose family money is tied up in a trust managed by his great-grandmother, who decides, on her own, and often haphazardly, when and how (and how much) and to whom to give funds. Before the start of the main story, we see, in footage made to look like old home movies, his meeting with Maggie, played by Zoe Saldana ("Guardians of the Galaxy"). They marry, have two daughters, and then his breakdowns become more severe. As the movie gets truly underway, Cameron (Cam) has taken the girls out of school for an afternoon and is running around in a bathing suit by a lake in the middle of the winter. He is institutionalized, and then, with the help of medicine and treatment, slowly starts the slow journey back to some semblance of normalcy (and fatherhood), if that is even possible. His kids and wife still love him, but they can't really live with him.

Except that without any income from Cam, Maggie has trouble staying afloat. They don't live in the right neighborhood for the good public school, and both parents fret about the future prospects for their kids if they aren't properly educated. Maggie - smart and capable - applies to business school, and is accepted to Columbia on scholarship. The only problem is that Columbia is in New York, and the only housing she can afford is a one-room sublet. So, since Cam seems to have improved (somewhat), the parents strike a reluctant deal. Cam will move back into the family apartment to supervise the girls, and Maggie will head to New York to earn the MBA that will give her and her family a shot at a better life (in real life, Peggy Woodford Forbes did exactly what she does in the film, and, according to her official bio, became "the first African American woman to establish a registered investment advisory firm in growth equity management in the United States"), with plans to come back to Boston on the weekends. The stage is set for a very interesting family drama, or comedy (much of it is funny), or both.

At first, the film feels scattered, much like Cam's brain. With bits and pieces of scenes strewn like random memories, the narrative lacks coherence. But then, slowly, the story gathers momentum, and then Forbes's earlier aesthetic choices make more sense. Although she puts the two girls front and center, this is most definitely Cam's story, and we need to follow his own journey as he struggles to figure out how to adapt to a world of occasional incoherence. The seeming mess of the opening leads to the more structured middle, which leads, in turn, to the perfect ending. As we watch Cam and Maggie struggle to raise a family, and watch Maggie fight to achieve her laudable goals, and all the while watch the girls grow up with a father who is as much a child as them, and a mother who is so frequently absent, we become increasingly involved in their lives, and wish them success.

Going back to the issue of race, it's actually surprising and quite refreshing that it is treated so incidentally here. Given the time period - the Supreme Court's "Loving vs. Virginia" decision outlawing bans on interracial marriage had come in 1967 - it's amazing that there are only two mentions of race (that I caught) in the entire film. One happens when the older daughter (the director's surrogate) wonders why she doesn't look black, and the other occurs when Maggie, frustrated that her plans may not work, bemoans to Cam how the world views poor whites much differently than poor blacks. And that's it. If for nothing else (and there is so much more), the movie is remarkable in how simply and without drama it shows a black woman and a white man raising a family in America in the 1970s.

The four lead actors help to propel the film forward, even through the occasional moments when the script falters and becomes a little too expositional. Ruffalo is terrific in the showy part, but it's Saldana who is the emotional heart of the film in the vital, but less flashy, role of Maggie. The girls, however, shoulder much of the film's narrative weight, and they are more than up to the challenge. Newcomer Imogene Wolodarsky - who just happens to be the director's daughter (her father is also the film's producer) - plays Amelia, the eldest, and novice though she may be, she shines. Ashley Aufderheide - another relative beginner - plays Faith (who, in real life, grew up to be China Forbes, the lead singer of Pink Martini), the younger daughter, and she is similarly wonderful. In fact, both girls, together, give two of the finest child performances I have seen in a long time, natural and without seeming artifice.


The film is far from perfect. There are those awkward bits where too much is said by characters for the sole purpose of explaining the backstory. And then there's the unfortunate title, which may not help the movie garner the audience it deserves, since it seems to suggest a very different kind of children's story. But otherwise, there is so much to admire and respect and enjoy about "Infinitely Polar Bear" that its occasional flaws recede into the background, leaving, in foreground, a sweet and powerful tale of love and perseverance and resilience. I look forward to Ms. Forbes' next film.

Love & Mercy
Love & Mercy(2015)
½

Much of the credit for the artistic merits of "Love & Mercy," the new biopic about Brian Wilson, co-founder of the Beach Boys, goes to screenwriters Oren Moverman ("I'm Not There") and Michael A. Lerner ("August. Eighth"). Together, they have fashioned a story that ping-pongs back and forth between Wilson's early heyday as the brilliant creative force behind the Beach Boys' success - and his subsequent mental unraveling - and the dark period of the 1980s when he languished under the autocratic care of his guru-like psychologist, Eugene Landy. The result is a masterful portrait of a troubled genius, the tolls of fame, and the virtues of perseverance and love.

The film (which takes its title from a 1988 song by its subject) is as much a portrait of the creative process as it is of Brian Wilson. We learn plenty about the Beach Boys and about Wilson's private life, but some of the great joys of the movie are the scenes in the music studio. In particular, we see how both "God Only Knows" and "Good Vibrations" were recorded - or, at least, how the screenwriters and director imagine they were made - and the sequences reveal how much of an innovator Brian Wilson was, in spite of his growing problems with mental illness. We need to understand the genius in order to mourn his loss (and hope for his recovery).

Much credit should also go to director Bill Pohlad and his cast. This is only Pohlad's second feature film as director: his first, "Old Explorers," was 25 years ago. Since then, Pohlad has worked primarily as a producer, including on "The Tree of Life"; he shared in that film's Best Picture nomination. Here, he has assembled a first-rate group of actors, and made the vital decision to cast two different actors as Wilson, both of them up to the task: Paul Dano ("There Will Be Blood"), as the younger, 1960s Wilson, and John Cusack ("The Paperboy") as the older, 1980s Wilson. Given that Dano is in his early thirties, it's legitimate to wonder why he couldn't have also played the older Wilson, with added makeup. But therein lies part of the brilliance of the film. Casting two such different actors to play the same character at different stages of his life - the one before a major physical and mental cataclysm, the one after - helps to underline that character's significant transformation, and the obstacles in his way as he tries to recover. Cusack has further stated, in a recent interview, how even though he and Dano studied Wilson's life with a similar intensity, neither consulted with the other to make the two performances match in any way. They end up both delivering fully committed portrayals of the same man at vastly different times in his life, and it works perfectly.

The rest of the cast is quite strong, as well. Elizabeth Banks ("Pitch Perfect 2"), as Melinda Ledbetter, the woman who helps Wilson in his struggles to free himself from Landy, is a marvel of warmth and restraint. Paul Giamatti ("Sideways"), as Landy, has the difficult task of playing the villain, but he succeeds in making him three-dimensional, if not sympathetic (which the film doesn't intend him to be). If their final duel is as scary and cathartic as it ultimately is, it's due to the power of these two actors in these roles. It's too bad that not all of the other actors - in particular, the rest of the Beach Boys - are as strong, but at least - with Dano, Cusack, Banks and Giamatti - we have a formidable foursome.

What surprised me most as I watched the film - and made me fall in love with it - was how unconventional it was in its approach to the material. Because we are dealing with a man - Wilson - who suffers from both severe hearing loss in one ear and auditory hallucinations - the soundtrack quite often reveals completely unexpected noises, or sometimes drops out entirely. In fact, the opening of the film almost feels like there's a problem with the projector (be patient), because we start on Dano at the piano, in distress, then cut to black, then land on Cusack, and then slowly begin to discern other sounds as the credits begin. Though the movie settles down, for a while, to tell enough of a story for us to gather salient facts about Wilson in both the 1960s and 1980s, it returns, time and again, to these experimental techniques, reminding us that art - like Wilson - when made with purpose, can seem as it if knows no boundaries. This is a movie with a definite method to its madness.

A Little Chaos
½

Unfortunately, the new film from actor Alan Rickman (Snape in the "Harry Potter" films) - whose only other directing credit was in 1997, with "The Winter Guest" - does not have much of a raison d'être. Neither based on a true story nor based on an idea of merit, the film is a total wash. As expected when a talented actor directs other talented actors, the performances are, individually, mostly a pleasure to watch, though they don't all belong in the same movie. With a cast that includes Kate Winslet ("The Reader"), Matthias Schoenaerts ("Far from the Madding Crowd"), Stanley Tucci ("Margin Call") and Rickman, himself, it's hard to make a total stinker, yet in this case there is nevertheless very little to recommend.

And yet we start with promise. We are in the Paris of 1682, and Louis XIV (Rickman) is preparing to move his court from the Louvre to the as-yet-unfinished Palace of Versailles. His favored landscape architect, André Le Nôtre (Schoenaerts) - a magnificent designer of gardens (Versailles will be his masterpiece) - is struggling with the magnitude of the new project, and is looking to hire additional artists who can help him with some of the details. Along comes Madame Sabine de Barra (Winslet), a widow who has made a name for herself as a garden designer, with plans for an outdoor ballroom that might just help Le Nôtre make Versailles extraordinary. There are immediate sparks between Le Nôtre and Madame de Barra - which manifest themselves initially in argument - but soon the two forge a bond that threatens to become less (or more!) than professional.

That's not a terrible premise, which even holds out the possibility of some feminist take on the past. Unfortunately, since the story of Madame de Barra is entirely fictional, and since her big moment as a designer, later in the film, would not have been possible without the patronage (and romantic inclinations) of her supervisor, one has to wonder about the motivations of the filmmakers. Why tell this story? Why invent a tale of passion (and loss - don't forget that Madame de Barra is a widow and that we will, indeed, discover her backstory) that only serves to diminish Le Nôtre's magnificent achievement at Versailles. Were there no actual women whose story one could borrow and tweak to revisit the past? One of the great joys of "Belle" - that Austenian fable about a biracial young woman raised in late 18th-century England - was knowing that there was an actual person on whom the story was based. It could - maybe, perhaps- have happened as we saw it on screen. Another joy was seeing how the story addressed issues of race, class and gender, weaving them into the time period in a seamless and believable way.

Sadly, there's neither the hint of the real nor the hint of the relevant, except in one delightful scene. When Madame de Barra is invited to court, she spends a precious few moments in the company of the wives and mistresses (and former mistresses) of the nobles. Suddenly, we discover what the film might have been, as we see and hear these women as they speak of their loves and losses. They are not quite as superficial as we have been led to believe. Surely one of them - all based on real historical figures - had a story worth telling, no? Instead, we are left with what remains: gorgeously shot fanciful nonsense.

The Overnight

I saw this film back in March, at the annual SXSW Festival, and loved it. After two documentaries on Day 1 that left me cold, I finally hit the screening jackpot with this raunchy sex comedy from the director of "Creep" (which I had missed at the previous year's festival). Starring Taylor Schilling ("Orange is the New Black"), Adam Scott ("Parks and Recreation"), Jason Schwartzman ("Rushmore") and Judith Godrèche ("Potiche"), "The Overnight" is a delightfully off-beat and unpredictable film about a dinner party to which newly minted Los Angelenos Schilling and Scott are invited by oddly compelling Schwartzman and Godrèche. Featuring alcohol, drugs, some boobs, full-frontal prosthetic penises and paintings of male anuses, the movie is definitely for adults only. But boy is it fun! If it loses energy towards the end, that doesn't mean we haven't laughed outrageously on our way there. What makes the film work is the delightfully charming chemistry between all four leads and the disarmingly laid-back vibe to the whole affair. Do not expect to learn profound truths about the human condition, but do expect to be entertained. It opens this weekend at the Charles. Leave the kids at home.

Terminator Genisys
½

The Gubernator is back, and the good news is that he's as watchable as ever. With his stock-in-trade mix of muscular swagger and tongue-in-cheek delivery, Arnold Schwarzenegger has always been a powerful (if often silly) screen presence, and his return to the "Terminator" series after a 12-year hiatus is a welcome one. Granted, "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines" - his last outing - was a fairly dismal affair, but since the makers of "Terminator" Genisys have chosen to ignore all but the first two films, we can, as well. So sit back, relax, suspend your disbelief and be transported back to the magical era of man-versus-machine doomsday scenarios of 1984 ("The Terminator") and 1991 ("Terminator 2: Judgment Day").

The film opens with a hazy memory of a lost, green world, before Skynet - the sinister artificial intelligence at the heart of the series - launches its nuclear bombs. Jai Courtney ("A Good Day to Die Hard"), as Kyle Reese, is our narrator, and he takes us briskly from the machine-powered apocalypse through to the rise of the human resistance led, as always, by John Connor, here played by Jason Clarke ("Dawn of the Planet of the Apes"). In the year 2029, we follow Connor's battalions as they miraculously defeat Skynet, only to discover that the computer has sent a "terminator" (a cyborg covered in living tissue) back in time to kill Sarah Connor, John's mother. So far, so familiar. We know this tale (and if you don't, then, quite frankly, why are you watching this movie?). Reese, of course, is tasked with going back to 1984 to chase the terminator, where he can save Sarah, sleep with her to father John, and then die.

Except that that is not how it plays out. Instead, though the 1984 to which the terminator and Reese travel looks, initially, like a perfect recreation of the first film, things quickly change. Just as the cyborg - a young Schwarzenegger look-a-like - is about to assault a group of delinquents, we hear a familiar Austrian-accented voice from behind him, and the real deal - Schwarzenegger, himself - appears, straight out of the second film, since he's clearly fighting for humanity. True, he looks significantly older than the last time we saw him, but the film will, eventually, explain this.

So, too, is Reese's arrival back in time tweaked. Just as he is grabbing clothes (time travel is a naked affair) from a homeless man, a cop shows up, only, that's right, it's not a cop. It's the T-1000 from the second film, liquid metal reforming every time he's shot. Just as things look dire for our hero, Sarah Connor - played by Emilia Clarke (Daenerys Targaryen on "Game of Thrones") - shows up, and this time she gets to utter Reese's line from the first film: "Come with me if you want to live." Soon, Sarah, Reese and the good terminator - or "Pops," as Sarah calls him - are on the run together, hunting the T-1000 (as it hunts them) as they plan a new jump in time (forward, for once). It turns out that all of the various plot threads of the first two movies have become so confused through conflicting time loops that a brand new future past has been created for Skynet's online birth, in the year 2017. One has to admire how the clever screenwriters get to indulge our collective nostalgia for the original movies while simultaneously bringing the movie back up to our current era ...

Once we're back to the present, the movie turns into a solid sci-fi action thriller, though some of the fun of the earlier scenes is lost. The actors are all more than competent, including, much to my surprise, Jai Courtney, who heretofore has shown little talent beyond a sneer. Emilia Clarke makes a terrific Sarah, tough and wary, and Jason Clarke (no relation) brings his usual combination of danger and charm. But really, this is Arnold's movie. The filmmakers have a lot of fun with his age (yes, cyborgs do age), as with his new role as Sarah's protector, and he really is the best part of the show.

The problem with "The Terminator" series - as with most sequels - has always been that, no matter how much emotional energy we invest in the story outcomes, by the time the next film rolls around, those outcomes have been discarded in favor of new crises, which never end until the franchise dies. The ending of "Terminator Genisys" provides just such a perfect resolution, followed (of course) by a mid-credit reveal of a new plot point that sets up yet another sequel. Sigh. No matter. It's no masterpiece. But it is good entertainment.

Magic Mike XXL

The women loved it. That is, the largely female audience at the preview screening of "Magic Mike XXL" that I attended were a-whoopin' and a-hollerin' every time the men on screen took their clothes off. Which was often. To which I reply: if that's what you want, watch porn. It's more honest, and you don't have to sit through the pretense of a story. To be fair, I'm sure that there were folks - and not just me and my two fellow (female) film critics sitting next to me - who did not fall under the spell of beefcake, but they were, of course, not so vocal. Judging by the decibel level of the screams, however, this film might just have a shot at a good opening weekend ... among certain demographics.

The problem is that this is an absolutely dreadful movie. The first film, "Magic Mike," directed by Steven Soderbergh ("Traffic"), was actually quite fine: a story about a group of working-class guys who just happen to dance in strip clubs to earn the money they need to support their dreams and aspirations. The conflict revolved around whether or not they would get sucked permanently into the dancing lifestyle - putting their ambitions on hold - because the money (and sex) was so good. The dance numbers were well choreographed, and the stars - including Channing Tatum ("22 Jump Street") as Mike and Matthew McConaughey ("Interstellar") as Dallas, the strip club owner - gave solid performances. It was a gritty well-made drama that offered the additional pleasure of erotic titillation and voyeuristic spectacle.

"Magic Mike XXL" has a different director - though Soderbergh returns as cinematographer and editor, and the screenwriter, Reid Carolin, is the same - and whether or not that is why the sequel lacks all ambition to be anything other than a striptease (and a bad one at that), who knows? Whatever the intentions of those involved, the movie feels like these folks got together and improvised as they went along, forgetting that in order for us to care about the characters, there needs to be a story. There's a nominal plot - most of the guys from the first film have decided that they want to compete, one last time, in an annual stripping contest, and drag the no-longer-dancing Tatum back from retirement - but nothing at stake. If they win, great; if they lose, so what? Would that the contest were simply a MacGuffin to get us into some decent dance scenes. At least we would then have that. Instead, the journey is an excuse to show us legions of sex-starved women - mainly older and overweight - who swoon at the chance to be fondled, groped and humped by muscular men. A character played by Matt Bomer ("White Collar") makes the claim that our stripper friends are "healers," and that these desperate women benefit from the attention, but somehow the whole enterprise feels half-baked, gross, and deeply misogynistic. Then again, let's not forget about the screaming women at the preview . . .

Matthew McConaughey is gone (he seems to be getting more discerning as he gets older), so we don't even get to see him liven up the affair with his cocky insouciance. We do, however, get some new blood: Jada Pinkett Smith ("Gotham") as Rome, the Dallas surrogate (what is it with strip-club owners and city names in this universe?) in a pointless sub-plot; Andie MacDowell ("Four Weddings and a Funeral") as one of those older women yearning to be set free; and Amber Heard ("The Rum Diary") as Mike's jailbait love interest (well, she looks really young, though in real life she's closer to Tatum's age than I thought). None of them matter one iota. Just look at the poster, above. That's what the movie's selling, and if that appeals to you, then it's all yours.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

"Nature here is vile and base ... there's a lot of misery. But it is the same misery that is all around us. The trees here are in misery, and the birds are in misery. I don't think they - they sing. They just screech in pain." - German film director Werner Herzog, interviewed in Les Blank's 1982 documentary "Burden of Dreams," about the making of "Fitzcarraldo"

The first thing you need to know about "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" is that, as the title indicates, there is a young woman who is dying at the center of the story. The second thing you need to know about the film is that it is highly original, very funny and extremely cinematic. Yes, this is a movie comedy (and a damn good one) about cancer. As with the best examples of the (comedy) genre, the film uses humor to remind us why life is worth living in the first place. Art doesn't imitate life here: it nurtures and revitalizes it. Without our ability to express ourselves creatively, who are we?

Based on the book of the same title, the movie adaptation of "Me and Earl" was actually written by the original author, Jesse Andrews. The basic story structure of book and movie are the same, but there are significant differences in the tone and details of the film that make it an even richer approach to its difficult material. As such, for this reader/viewer, the adaptation is superior to its source. Since Andrews penned both, I hope he will forgive me.

At the start of our tale (set in Pittsburgh) we meet Greg Gaines, a severely depressed (though he doesn't realize it) high-school senior who has spent the better part of his life up to now avoiding meaningful human connection, with one notable exception. He has one friend (the exception), named Earl Jackson, though he calls him a "co-worker," because the two of them have grown up making movies together. Greg is white and middle-class, the child of academics, while Earl is black and poor, the child of absent parents, yet the two of them, early on, formed a fast bond over their love of cinema (they have an especial fondness for Werner Herzog). This passion has manifested itself in an unusual way. They remake their favorite films - parodic title included - using whatever materials they have at hand, the results of which include: "Anatomy of a Burger," "Rosemary Baby Carrots," "Ate 1/2 (of my lunch)," and "The 400 Bros." As silly as this enterprise may sound, one of the great joys of the film is seeing clips from the Gaines/Jackson studio, even though Greg, in voiceover, denigrates the work as dumb and derivative. It is clear that these two social outcasts, "screeching in pain," are both highly intuitive and sensitive young souls.

Enter Rachel Kushner, a fellow senior and vague acquaintance, just diagnosed with leukemia. Greg's mother more or less orders her son to go cheer Rachel up. Unwilling - but more unwilling to disobey mom - Greg finally makes the visit, only to be rebuffed by Rachel, who can tell he's being forced, and wants no one's sympathy. Nerdy goofball that he is, however, Greg manages to charm his way past Rachel's defenses and is soon spending a lot more time with her than he thought he would want to. He may think she needs a friend (and she does), but what's even clearer is how much he needs her. Earl joins in, and before too long Rachel is watching their formidable movie output. The only problem is that Greg has long maintained the utmost secrecy about the films, wanting no one to watch them, and so when Earl gives Rachel a stack of DVDs, Greg is resentful and uncomfortable. Still, since Rachel seems to enjoy them - a lot - and since she's dying, what can he do? And so all is (more or less) good until Rachel's friend Madison - who has, much to Greg's mortification, also learned of the films - asks Greg to make a movie for Rachel. That's a lot different than parodying someone else's work, and it's Greg's journey to find his own voice that drives the plot of the film.

"Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" swept the major awards at this past year's Sundance Film Festival, and no wonder. Last year at this time we saw "The Fault in Our Stars," another film about cancer-stricken teens, and while that film was sweet and lovely in many ways, handling its sad subject with decent sensitivity and without excessive sentimentality, there is something about "Me and Earl"'s wildly inventive take on the subject that makes us feel the sadness of the situation even more. Because Greg is such a constantly ironic commentator on his own life and that of his friends, when he is finally forced to confront the realities of life and death - losing his sardonic distanciation coping mechanisms in the process - his loss is our loss and the cathartic release is one of the most powerful emotions I have felt on screen in a long time. Perhaps because we have laughed so hard, earlier, our tears flow that much more freely at the end.

Until then, though (and even while you're crying), the film is a delightful ride. Where else can you see such a wide variety of movie spoofs, along with very funny stop-motion animation interludes (every time Greg talks to a pretty girl in school, we cut to an image of a moose - the girl - stomping on a chipmunk - Greg)? All of it is complemented by Gomez-Rejon's direction of the brilliant ensemble cast, which includes: Thomas Mann ("Project X") as Greg, RJ Cyler ("Second Chances") as Earl, Olivia Cooke ("Bates Motel") as Rachel, Connie Britton ("Friday Night Lights") as Greg's mom, Nick Offerman ("Parks and Recreation") as Greg's dad, Molly Shannon ("Year of the Dog") as Rachel's mom, and Katherine C. Hughes ("Men, Women & Children") as Madison, the "moose" to Greg's chipmunk. This is a very moving, very complex film, which provides a needed antidote to a lot of the mindless (if fun) summer fare currently playing at the multiplexes. It's art as it should be: thoughtful, thought-provoking, gripping and emotionally overwhelming. It's also endlessly entertaining. Go see it now.

Ted 2
Ted 2(2015)
½

Did you see (and like) "Ted," Seth MacFarlane's 2012 box-office hit? If so, the sequel could go either way for you. I hated the original film, in large part because, to me, crudeness and vulgarity, on their own, are not funny. There must be something else, beyond the scatological and obscene, to anchor the grossness in real wit. So it was much to my surprise that I found myself laughing at parts of "Ted 2." MacFarlane was showing restraint! The jokes were landing without constant references to outlandish sexual acts! And then Mark Wahlberg ("The Fighter") knocked over a shelf full of sperm samples, drenching himself in semen in the process, and out went that idea . . .

Still, such moments are few and far between. What we mostly get is a series of sketch-comedy bits - some of which are funny, some of which aren't - that doesn't add up to much of a movie, and that will probably disappoint fans of the first film, but which makes for a fairly watchable 115 minutes worth of passable, though crass (crassable?), entertainment. There's also a rather offensive (or racially insensitive, at the very least, Morgan Freeman's participation notwithstanding) bit of jokey equivalency between the plight of an animated bear and that of 19th-century American slave Dred Scott. Then again, this is Seth MacFarlane, after all, so offensiveness is to be expected.

What's the story? If you remember, in the first film, young John (who would grow up to become Mark Wahlberg), one day wished that his stuffed bear would become real, and - presto! - it happened. Great premise. Squandered by fart jokes. Flash forward 20 years, and John and Ted (voiced by MacFarlane) are still best buds ... and drunkards, potheads and sex fiends (well, Ted, anyway). Mila Kunis ("Jupiter Ascending") was along for the ride in that movie, as John's long-suffering girlfriend who can't compete with the furry friend. After much whore-mongering, Ted finally settled down with fellow cashier Tami-Lynn. John was left sans girlfriend, but he had his bear. You know who rules that relationship ...

"Ted 2" begins with the wedding of Ted and Tami-Lynn, which provides MacFarlane for all the excuse he needs for a (nicely staged and performed) song-and-dance Busby Berkeley homage (MacFarlane loves his musical moments), one of the high points of the movie. Flash forward a year, and the marriage has gone sour, so Ted and Tami-Lynn decide that the best thing for them would be to have a kid (bad idea, obviously, but played for laughs). Ted cannot procreate, since he is, well, a stuffed bear, so the couple heads to an adoption agency, an act which suddenly exposes Ted to all sorts of questions about his legal personhood, which then drives the plot of the rest of the movie (and the awkward parallels to Dred Scott), such as it is.

Really, though, this is a meandering journey through various gags. My favorites - beyond the Berkeley number - include the Liam Neeson "Taken"-like cameo (one of many cameos in the film) and a hilarious bit set in an improv theater where Ted yells inappropriately tragic suggestions to the flailing members of the troupe. Neeson, though, is representative of the real problem with the film, which is that there is little continuity between scenes. Given what transpires between Neeson and Ted in their moment together, it's a missed opportunity when MacFarlane doesn't bring the action star back at the end to save the day. But that would require screenwriting effort, and as pleasant as much of this is, it's also fundamentally lazy.

Amanda Seyfried ("While We're Young") is the love interest (for John) this time, and she is always an agreeable screen presence. Wahlberg brings the same somnambulance to his performance here as he did in the first film, and while that gets old, it's appropriate to the passiveness of his character. Giovanni Ribisi ("Gangster Squad") is back as the villain, Donny, and thank goodness for that, as he is one of the funniest actors in the movie. So, all in all, the film is a mess, but not a failure.

Inside Out
Inside Out(2015)
½

"Inside Out" may not quite rival the first 10 minutes of "Up" (co-director Pete Docter's last film) - then again, for my money, nothing that Pixar has ever done, as good as their movies usually are, comes close to the sublime perfection of the opening of that movie - but it comes awfully close. Here, though, the aesthetic trajectory is reversed. Whereas in "Up" we begin by being overwhelmed with truths about the human condition, then descend into a comparative banality that improves as the film goes on, ending in a close approximation of the beauty of the prologue, in "Inside Out" we start with silly fun that threatens to go nowhere interesting, and then slowly move towards profound meditations on the meaning of life. It's a very satisfying journey and by far the most complex and multi-layered piece of commercial entertainment available at the multiplex right now. When "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" opens in Baltimore next week (at the Senator Theatre), "Inside Out" will then have a rival for a film that best blends comedy and pathos (avoiding bathos, thankfully). For now, if you want to laugh and cry in equal measure - and be able to bring the kids! - then go see "Inside Out" immediately.

"Inside Out" begins with twin births, of Riley and Joy. Riley is a human baby girl, and Joy is a yellow-dressed blue-haired female humanoid (voiced by Amy Poehler, of "Parks and Recreation"), who appears inside of the newly-formed control room at the center of Riley's brain at the very moment 0f her host's birth. Joy is so-named because her role is to ensure Riley's constant happiness. Suddenly, as she manipulates the various buttons and levers on her control panel, another pair of hands appear - as blue as Joy's hair - and trigger a massive Riley crying fit. These hands belong to Sadness (voiced by Phyllis Smith, of "The Office"), and for the next 11 years, they will do (mostly) gentle battle over Riley's moods. They are not alone, though, for they are soon joined by Fear (Bill Hader, "The Skeleton Twins"), Anger (Lewis Black, "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart") and Disgust (Mindy Kaling, also of "The Office"). Why only five emotions? Well, it turns out that Docter consulted with a noted psychologist, and that these - plus surprise (which Docter and his team deemed too similar to fear) - really are the six main emotions of the brain (at least according to current psychological research). So there you go.

Until Riley turns 11, all is more or less good. Her three-person family (no siblings) lives happily in Minnesota, where she is a hockey star (how nice to see a mainstream film promoting such an active and athletic young woman) and spends her leisure moments with her best friend. But then they pack up and head to San Francisco, where her father is involved in what appears to be some sort of start-up venture (this is Riley's story, so we never really learn the details). This violent rupture from the up-until-then idyllic days of youth requires extra effort from Joy (the de facto leader of the brain) to keep Riley's emotional ship balanced, especially as mishap piles upon mishap: the city townhouse into which they move is drab compared to the Minnesota digs they just left; the family's moving van has taken a detour to parts unknown; and the first day at Riley's new school is a disaster. Joy's task is made all the harder because Sadness, inexplicably (to herself, as well), keeps touching the globes that store Riley's core memories (heretofore all yellow with joy), tainting (and tinting) them with her blue melancholy. In a tussle over these globes, Joy and Sadness are accidentally sucked out of the control room and thrown into the nether regions of Riley's brain, leaving Fear, Anger and Disgust in charge (whoops). In the outside world, this means that Riley is no longer herself, a perfect metaphor for the hormonal changes that come over all of us as puberty approaches. In the inside world, this means that the movie turns into a quest story, as Joy and Sadness must find their way back to the control room as they travel through the now unsettled and collapsing territory of Riley's brain. Will they make it back before Riley does something drastic? Watch and see . . .

So far, so good, and modestly entertaining, though hardly profound. As the film progresses, however, following Joy and Sadness on their odyssey, what emerges is a complex narrative about the nature of happiness and the role that sadness plays in our ability to feel the full range of our emotions. There is a direct link between joy and sorrow: in every happy memory there is embedded a nostalgia for time past, which tinges it (the memory) with melancholy (in the color scheme of "Inside Out," it colors it blue) and this is what makes us human. The two emotions can co-exist within the same sphere, and to deny the one in favor of the other is to deny our basic humanity. As this realization dawns on Joy (perhaps explaining why her hair has always been blue, though her clothes are yellow), so does it give new energy to the story, and raise "Inside Out" far above the usual summer fare.

There is plenty of goofy fun along the way, and plenty of delightful vocal cameos, too (for you to recognize). For film aficionados, especially, the dream center of the brain made up as a Hollywood studio (Hollywood as dream factory) is very clever, and that is only one of many similarly smart set pieces (just wait until you go briefly inside other people's brains). As is typical with Pixar (and its parent company, Disney), as much of the humor is accessible to adults as it is for children (though the stuff meant for the former will be far over the heads of the latter), making this a film for all. If you don't mind a good cry to go along with your laughs - the film should prompt the same joy tinged with melancholy in you as it does in the main characters - then you you'll love "Inside Out" and emerge reminded of the very reasons why being alive and human is such a special and wondrous thing.

Gemma Bovery
Gemma Bovery(2015)
½

Are you familiar with a British graphic novel entitled "Gemma Bovery"? No? Neither was I. When I saw the name of this new film by French filmmaker Anne Fontaine ("Coco Before Chanel"), I automatically assumed it was an allusion to Gustave Flaubert's great 19th-century novel of adultery and consequence, "Emma Bovary" (which it is, for sure). It's more than that, however, as it's an adaptation of an adaptation (of a sort). At its center is an English couple living in Normandy - last name Bovery, wife's first name Gemma - who, in the eyes of local baker Martin Joubert, come to resemble the ill-fated couple of homonymous appellation. Does life actually imitate art, or is it Martin's obstinate belief in a metaphysical connection between art and life that is the root cause of all that follows? These are the questions posed by Fontaine's well-made, entertaining and fascinating, if ultimately slight, movie.

The wonderful Fabrice Luchini ("Beaumarchais the Scoundrel") plays the middle-aged Martin, who narrates the film in world-weary tones that become a little more animated after the Boverys move in next door. Charles - played by Jason Flemyng ("The Curious Case of Benjamin Button") - is a man not far from Martin's own age, married to the much younger Gemma - who, in a nice art-imitating-life twist, is played by Gemma Arterton ("Runner Runner"). He restores furniture; she is a painter. They're very much in love, until they cease to be, slowly. As Martin - a married man, himself, and a father, though hardly a happy one - inserts himself into their story through a will to interfere motivated by his own boredom (and Gemma's luscious curves), we can't help wonder how Gemma and Charles would have fared without his intrusive meddling. Luchini is a master at showing the warring emotions on Martin's face as he hesitates, then goes one step too far.

Shot in beautiful golden hues, highlighting Gemma's sexual allure, the film tackles head-on the (older) male tendency to fixate on (younger) women as objects of desire that can make the world right, if only they would give in. Throughout the movie, Gemma is largely denied personal agency, almost passively giving in to her preordained status as a tragic heroine. But it's important to always keep in mind that this is Martin Joubert's story. He acts as our guide, and it is through his point of view that we access the characters. We will never truly know Gemma, only Martin's version of her.

It's a very clever movie, and despite the unhappy conclusion (not a plot spoiler, if you have any idea how Madame Bovary ends), it is also very funny, filled with delightfully contentious conversations between French and English people about the nature and meaning of life. One of my favorite characters is Wizzy, the French wife of a British ex-pat, played by the great Elsa Zylberstein ("I've Loved You So Long"), who spends most of the film advising the younger Gemma on what to eat and how to exercise ("I've got the ass of a 20-year-old stripper," she coos). The absurdity of Martin's obsession with the Bovary-Bovery connection is also played mostly for laughs. So what's not to like? Nothing, really. If I just liked it, rather than loved it, it's only because by the end of the film I had grown a little weary of its artifice. If art imitates life, then I was Charles, rather than Martin, tired of the game and ready to move on.

Jurassic World
½

In "Jurassic World," dinosaurs rule. Brought back from extinction by the machinations of mad scientists and businessmen, they are not only formidable enemies of the human race, but also much more interesting. As they chomp, stomp and eat their way through Isla Nubar - an island off the coast of Costa Rica that houses the new "Jurassic World" theme park - we, the audience, find ourselves in the odd position of rooting for our destroyers. The whole movie may be in 3D, but only the dinosaurs are truly three-dimensional.

Which, you may point out, is not necessarily a bad thing, nor a reason not to see the film. After all, we watch monster movies for the ... monsters. Still, in the original "Jurassic Park" - directed by Steven Spielberg in 1993, adapted from the original novel by Michael Crichton - our on-screen surrogates were worth rooting for. Not so here. It is fortunate, then, that both the design and characterization of the monsters is as good as it is, for that, at least, makes half a movie.

And that half can be (mostly) very entertaining. Here's the deal: 20 years after the first theme park went bust after its creatures - a pack of Velociraptors and one ornery Tyrannosaurus Rex, in particular - escaped and made a dinner out of their handlers, a new park has opened, in the same location, with all of the safety kinks (ostensibly) worked out. Owned by "the world's seventh richest man," Simon Masrani (Irffan Khan of "Life of Pi"), the reboot of the world's most dangerous pleasure garden is both popular and ever in peril of losing its popularity (the 'raptors and T-Rex are so yesterday). So the team of genetic engineers led by the same brilliant whacko we met in 1993, Dr. Henry Wu (BD Wong, most recently of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" fame), has been busy creating new (and improved) dinosaurs, using secret bits of DNA from here and there. The result? The "Indominus Rex," a terrifying Frankensaur that Masrani plans to unveil soon ... after a few precautionary tests have been run.

So what happens with the I-Rex? Not so fast! First we have to meet the dumb humans. This being a film targeted to young folks (despite the PG-13 rating), we need children. We get two brothers, one a surly teen played by the surly Nick Robinson ("The Kings of Summer"), and one an alternately bouncy and whiny kid played by blank-faced Ty Simpkins ("Insidious"). Plot spoiler (not really): at the end of the film they are both still alive. This is unfortunate. We also meet their Aunt Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard, "The Help"), who manages the park, and has agreed to host her nephews on a vacation away from their divorcing parents. All suit, heels, lipstick and hairdo, Claire is an ice princess straight out of my next book, "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace Misogyny." With a phone glued to her ear, she has time for neither the boys nor for ... boys. She is clearly due for a comeuppance. Which comes in the form of hunky dinosaur trainer Owen (Chris Pratt, fresh off a great year 2014 with "The Lego Movie" and "Guardians of the Galaxy"). All grime to her glam, he's meant to be Gable to her Colbert. The only problem is that while he might be up to it, she is not.

Wait ... did I just write "dinosaur trainer," above? Yep. Owen, you see, has been working with a pack of four Velociraptors, acting as their Alpha, under the aegis of an island security program created by an (obviously evil) corporation called InGen headed by Vincent D'Onofrio (toning it down only slightly from his recent turn as Wilson Fisk on the Netflix series "Daredevil"). An ex-Navy guy, Owen is a real hombre - or "badass" as Claire's nephews dub him - and since he can tame actual savage beasts, how hard can an ice princess be?

As retrograde as the sexual politics of the film may be, at least most of the action sequences are fairly exciting. Especially once InGen puts into place a plan to use the 'raptors to track the I-Rex (which has, predictably, escaped). And Claire even gets one good moment where she rises above her role as stuffy screamer, rescuing Owen by shooting a Pterodactyl in the head. But it's the interactions between the dinosaurs that make the film work, when it works. Transcending their ephemeral CG status, they are fully realized creatures whose life-and-death fate matters to us. It means something at the end when they are not all dead (sorry, another plot spoiler, though, again, not really).

At times excruciatingly boring and at other times riveting, "Jurassic World" should enchant as many viewers as it repels. Colin Trevorrow, the director, has only one other feature credit to his name: the 2012 indie sci-fi dramedy "Safety Not Guaranteed." We'll see if the Velociraptors are as good to him as they are to this movie.

Spy
Spy(2015)

How do you solve a problem like Melissa? She's not exactly a conventional leading lady, and yet ever since "Bridesmaids" - for which she was nominated for an Oscar, after a long career in television on such shows as "Gilmore Girls" and "Mike & Molly" - she's been on something of a roll. How long can it last? In films like "The Heat" and "Tammy," she has continued with the vulgar shtick that made her famous, and it's getting (for this guy, anyway) old, and fast. But then, in the recent "St. Vincent," she showed that she was capable of delivering a real - yet still funny - performance (albeit in a supporting role, once more). Now, in "Spy" (from Paul Feig, who directed both "Bridesmaids" and "The Heat"), she lands in a nice middle ground between the grotesquerie of her first big success and the restraint of her last film, and is delightful as the lead, Susan Cooper, a female support analyst, working for the CIA, who gets her big break when the agency's top spy goes missing.

Behind every great man is a great woman, they used to say. In the opening of "Spy," we see this outdated maxim played out in literal terms. Jude Law ("Black Sea") - bedecked in quite a toupee - plays 007 look-a-like Bradley Fine. He's on a mission in a Balkan country, breaking into a compound filled with gunmen. Communicating with Fine via earpiece is McCarthy's Cooper who, thanks to (amazingly improbable) satellite imagery, sees all of his surroundings, and so directs him on his every move, letting him know who and what is beyond which door. That Fine completes his mission (sort of) and escapes alive is due only to Cooper's brilliance. He knows it - and is duly grateful, if arrogant - but Cooper is too insecure and smitten with him to realize that she truly completes him. But then, shortly after beginning a new case, Fine vanishes, presumed dead, and the CIA must send an agent without a known profile out into the field. Of course, the only one who qualifies is Cooper, and so begins our fish-out-of-water/fish-discovers-she's-a-damn-competent-amphibian comedy-action-adventure tale.

Fans of both McCarthy and James Bond films should love it. And with a fine supporting cast that includes Rose Byrne ("Annie"), Jason Statham ("The Transporter"), Bobby Cannavale ("Blue Jasmine") and Allison Janney ("The West Wing") - not to mention British comedienne Miranda Hart ("Miranda"), largely unknown in the States - there is plenty of talent on the screen beyond McCarthy, giving as good as they get. Devoid of much of McCarthy's trademark excess, the movie - though unquestionably dumb, dumb, dumb - offers plenty of jokes that hit their mark, and fits nicely into the recent string of big movies featuring strong central female protagonists (such as "Mad Max: Fury Road" and "Pitch Perfect 2"). I saw the film at this year's SXSW Film Festival, and laughed so hard that my belly ached. Go see it.

Entourage
Entourage(2015)

In "Entourage," the boys are back in town (apologies to Thin Lizzy), and, as before, it's bros before hoes all the way. Which should come as no surprise to anyone who watched even one episode of HBO's long-running series (2004-2011) of the same name. I watched far more than that, making it all the way through five seasons before I gave up on the gleefully drunken, stoned and unapologetically misogynistic romp through the (not so) fictionalized life of a male movie star and his friends (the "entourage"). It was a guilty pleasure for me until it became a guilty bore. Executive-produced by Mark Wahlberg ("Broken City"), the series was originally intended to be an entertaining and (only mildly) exaggerated look at someone very much like Wahlberg, himself, to whom celebrity had come after a not-so-privileged upbringing. Over eight seasons, we watched the rise and fall and rise again of actor Vincent Chase (Adrian Grenier, "The Devil Wears Prada"); his best friend and manager, Eric, or "E" (Kevin Connolly, "The Notebook"); his half-brother, Johnny "Drama" Chase (Kevin Dillon, "Poseidon"); his driver (and everyone's sidekick), "Turtle" (Jerry Ferrara, "Think Like a Man Too"); and mercurial super-agent Ari Gold (Jeremy Piven, in a career-making role). It was a blast, until it wasn't.

Now, in a 104-minute feature film, we meet Vince and his friends again. For those who may know little or nothing about the original series, fear not, for we are offered, early on, a recap of the lives of the characters, courtesy of a Piers Morgan profile (it's an alternate universe, then, since his show is long off the air). Before that, however, we meet the bunch in Ibiza, where Vince is partying on a yacht (cue female nudity) in celebration of the end of his 9-day marriage to ... I don't know, actually, since I never got to Season 8. No matter: the women have always been incidental to these guys. Except for (maybe) Mrs. Gold (much stronger than Eric's on-again-off-again girlfriend Sloan), who wields enough influence over her husband that she was able to force him to quit agenting (a word I just made up). Except that Ari minus work is not that exciting, so as the film begins she has grudgingly allowed him to go to back to Hollywood, albeit as a studio head (which she and he mistakenly believe will be a calmer job than the one he had before). In that role, Ari approaches Vince to star in a new movie entitled "Hyde" (as in "Jekyll and ..."), which Vince agrees to do, as long as he gets to direct.

Flash forward a year (more or less), and Piers Morgan brings us up to date not only on what's happened in Seasons 1-8, but also on what has happened with "Hyde." Turns out it's over budget, and Vince needs more money. Count this financial need (or "Hyde," itself) as the MacGuffin, since what this movie (and all of the previous episodes) is about is male bonding and friendship. That's not to say that there isn't a script, and that the movie isn't well structured (writer-director, and series showrunner, Ellin knows his craft). It is. Imagine the film as either an extended episode or a truncated season, and you'll get an idea of the vibe and the pace. We're here to enjoy the actors we've come to love (or not), see them flirt with (and maybe have sex with) beautiful (naked) women, drink too much, smoke some weed, and behave stupidly until the moment of truth, when suddenly they will all get their act together and pull through whatever crisis has developed. It can be crass, but also fun. Take your pick (the two are not mutually exclusive, however). Everyone's here to have a good time. That doesn't mean you will, but I did, for the most part. I was especially excited that "Gaysian Lloyd" (Rex Lee) was not left out, and was even given a significant (and very funny) subplot of his own. Over the course of the seasons I watched, his eternal optimism and resilience in the face of Ari's meanness was one of the most engaging parts of the show.

So - know what you're getting yourself in for, and either go with it, or ask yourself what you're doing in the theater in the first place. If you loathed the series, and aren't Wendy Molyneux, stay home. But if you were a fan, then this is a great way to say goodbye to the boys (until "Entourage 2," anyway). Enjoy!

Pitch Perfect 2
½

Mediocrity notwithstanding, "Pitch Perfect 2" hits a sweet feminist note, though it is not nearly as fun or fresh as its predecessor (released in 2012). Written by Kay Canon (who also wrote the first one) and directed by the actress Elizabeth Banks (making her feature-helmer debut), who also returns in her role as one of the silly competition announcers, the movie brings back the original cast (more or less), with Hailee Steinfeld ("True Grit") as a welcome new addition. We get more singing (both formal concerts and riff-offs) and more intercollegiate drama, as well as some (thin) new plot lines about life after college. It's the same movie as before, only not as good. True, we do meet a very funny new nemesis group - the German "Das Sound Machine" - but that's not enough to make the movie sparkle. Somehow, "Pitch Perfect 2" beat "Mad Max: Fury Road" on their shared opening weekend, even though the latter film was better made and a more exciting cinematic experience (and had equally strong feminist credentials, whatever that means), and both were sequels (of a sort, in the case of "Mad Max"). I don't know why, but I can say that if you liked the first "Pitch Perfect" (which I did), you'll probably find some things to like in the second one. Take your pick of the long-ago published reviews to see where you might stand.

Despite my somewhat lukewarm reaction, what I love is the way in which the movie is all about the female bonding. Yes, there are a couple of male-female romances within (as well as an unfortunate one-joke lesbian), but the spine of the plot is how the central female a cappella group - the Barden Bellas - are always there for each other, no matter what. At the end of the film, we are treated to a delightful (at last, since so many of the musical numbers disappoint!) final competitive performance where generations of Bellas gather around the current group in support. It reminded of the wonderful ethos, of women standing by women, that is at the heart of the great "Hammond Song," by The Roches - or, even more so, of the way that song is performed by the Yale Senior all-women a cappella group Whim 'n Rhythm, which uses it to call up past generations of their membership at their concerts. No matter what else falls flat (like the jokes by the Guatemalan character about her tragic upbringing), the finale is powerful. So there's that.

Slow West
Slow West(2015)

When "Slow West" played at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the World Cinema Jury Prize Dramatic Award, "The Hollywood Reporter" published a review calling the film "a pitch-perfect debut from musician-turned-filmmaker John Maclean." And though I must disagree with both Sundance and "The Hollywood Reporter" (and most critics) about the movie's perfection, I still find "Slow West" to be a fascinating meditation on violence, civilization and the western genre, itself.

"Slow West" takes place in 1870, and centers on a young man from Scotland, Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee, "Let Me In"), who has come to America in search of his lost love, Rose (Caren Pistorius, "Offspring"). We don't find out until later why she left their homeland, though we catch glimpses of her in flashbacks. When we first meet Ray, he is wandering, alone on horseback, through a desolate landscape of burning Native-American dwellings. A male voice, which we will very soon connect to a bounty hunter named Silas (Michael Fassbender, "12 Years a Slave") narrates this stark opening, before the man, himself, shows up and shoots a would-be hold-up artist in the head, thereby effectively taking young Jay under his wing. The violence does not end here: we're only just getting started. And yet, it's a quiet film, with almost no non-diegetic sounds (differentiating itself from its bleak revisionist cousin of the 1990s, "Dead Man," in which the music of Neil Young blared throughout). When guns are fired and blood spilled, there's usually very little warning. Though the film, reflecting both its title and the time in which it's set, meanders, there is nothing slow about the eruptions of brutality. This is how the so-called civilized world tames the wilderness, through mayhem and turbulence.

So why is it less than perfect? Well, it all feels so schematic: no one speaks like a real human being, and very few characters are allowed enough depth to be meaningful. The film is beautifully photographed by Robbie Ryan ("Philomena"), yet the people who inhabit the landscape feel like constructs. When we briefly meet a German writer named Werner (perhaps a reference to the great Herzog?), he utters the memorable line, "In a short time, this will all be a long time ago." That's a brilliant statement, but it merely serves to underline the fundamental artificiality of the set-up, since no one really talks like that (well, except for Werner Herzog). Still, there are a lot of great concepts up on the screen, and Fassbender is always a pleasure to watch. The equally mesmerizing Ben Mendelsohn ("Bloodline"), shows up for a few all-too-brief scenes, too. See it for them, and for the cinematography, and for the idea of the movie. It may not be great cinema, but it's compelling enough.

San Andreas
San Andreas(2015)

In the first 30 minutes of "San Andreas," in spite of the painfully bad expositional dialogue on display, it is possible to believe that the special effects and rescue stunts of this new disaster film will at least provide enough entertainment value to justify the 110 minutes of our time. Dwayne Johnson ("Furious Seven") - formerly known as "The Rock," and usually a pleasure to watch - whose bulging physique is a special effect in and of itself - plays Ray, a rescue pilot for the City of Los Angeles. The film opens with an exciting (if incredibly dumb) set piece where he pulls a scattered young woman out of a ravine, and then moves briskly to Caltech, were the scientist played by Paul Giamatti ("Win Win") is on the brink of discovering how to predict earthquakes. Too late, though, because there's a big one already about to hit California, all along the coast, from Hollywood to San Francisco. And though the first shots of massive widespread destruction look a bit too digitally mastered to feel real, there's an early well-staged sequence, where Ray flies into the collapsing metropolis to save his soon-to-be-ex-wife, Emma - played by Carla Gugino ("Match") - that shoots enough adrenaline into our system to raise our hopes that this won't totally suck.

But then, sadly, the film collapses as easily as the onscreen skyscrapers, proving that no script foundation is strong enough to withstand the dual inanities of terrible characterizations and dialogue. What seems like it could be a good idea - putting our attention squarely on one small group, so that we have actual human beings to care about - backfires when those folks just aren't that interesting. And since the film has issues with tone and is often unintentionally comic (funny? tragic? tragically funny?), I'm choosing to call it "Warner Brothers' Vacation" (sorry, National Lampoon), since the entire movie ends up being about how one broken family mends itself. Though the poster (above) promises that this is the cinematic environmental catastrophe we've been waiting for, by the end, all of Giamatti's grandiose pronouncements about the need to understand nature are forgotten as Ray, Emma and their daughter Blake - played by Alexandra Daddario ("True Detective"), who belongs to a completely different gene pool from her ostensible parents, but no matter - are reunited in the wake of the cataclysm.

Some of my favorite parts of the film - and do not mistake this list as a reason to go see the movie - include, but are not limited to:

Emma's ass of a new developer boyfriend, who actually starts off the film as a not-so-bad guy, but then conveniently transforms into the cad of the century once the script requires him to do so.
Given the divorced (OK, almost divorced) main characters, are the makers of "2012" going to sue? Hope so. That, at least, would be entertaining.
In the first part of the movie, Ray is portrayed as a responsible search-and-rescue guy, but then he just steals a helicopter - one that could be used to rescue hundreds of other people - to go save his wife. Good for him (and her), I guess . . .
Riding up the side of a cresting tsunami! This has to be one the best bad CGI stunts I have ever seen. Bravo!
And then, as I mentioned, there's that odd racial casting. Instead of celebrating the fact that the movie has, in Mr. Johnson, a charismatic actor of multi-racial background, they give him two daughters who look about white as they can be. I. Don't. Get. It.

My advice? Stay home and watch "Earthquake" (1974) instead. It's not great, but it's better than this.

Tomorrowland
Tomorrowland(2015)

In a world, where nothing and no one is interesting ... you will spend over two hours awaiting a meaningful, original story to develop, only to find yourself overwhelmed by bad CGI, flat characters and only tolerable acting. I know, it's dispiriting. Perhaps it's time, for those of you, who, like me, did not go see "Pitch Perfect 2" last weekend (though the film crushed at the box office, so what, exactly, were we doing with ourselves?), to finally watch it. Alternately, the other two films opening - which I also haven't yet seen - are the remake of "Poltergeist" (ugh) and an indie Western, "Slow West" (playing at the Charles Theatre, and looking mighty interesting) along with other, better, previously-opened fare - which I have seen - such as 'Clouds of Sils Maria," "Ex Machina," "Far from the Madding Crowd" and "Mad Max: Fury Road." Choose wisely. It's a long weekend.

About the best that can be said for "Tomorrowland" is that it offers up the enjoyable site of a grumpy George Clooney. True, Clooney has not always played smooth charmers - his best recent (and Oscar-nominated) performance was in "The Descendants," where he was anything but happy - but all too often he coasts on his easy charisma in movies like "Gravity" or "The Monuments Men" (which he also directed). Here, he is all misanthrope, and it's fun to see him act in counterpoint to his familiar screen magnetism. Unfortunately, the rest of the film is not nearly as fun, in spite of the hyperactive efforts of helmer Brad Bird ("The Incredibles") - also a co-screenwriter - and scribe Damon Lindelof (ABC's "Lost") - the other writer. Then again, Lindelof has a record of creating fanciful stories that he expects people to like even without any consistent internal logic (see "Lost" as exhibit A). Sometimes, in the case of movies like "World War Z" or "Star Trek Into Darkness," it mostly works. At other times, we get "Prometheus" (hugely disappointing but watchable) or "Cowboys & Aliens" (blah). Suffice it to say that when I saw, at the end of "Tomorrowland," Lindelof's name appear on the screen, I said to myself, "of course he wrote this" ...

The story begins ... well, we're not sure if it's the present or the future, but we meet George Clooney as an angry someone, talking to us (we're the camera), and arguing with an off-camera female voice that turns out to belong to Britt Robertson ("The Longest Ride"). Very quickly, we're in a flashback to the 1964 New York World's Fair, where we meet young Frank Walker (Clooney's character), played - in one of the best bits of believable gene-pool casting - by Thomas Robinson, whom we completely buy as a boy George. It turns out that Frank, all of 10 years old or so, is an inventor, here to peddle a jetpack that only sort of works. An officious bureaucrat - played, with a maddeningly drifting accent, by Hugh Laurie ("House M.D.") - to whom he shows his marvelous device, does not find it so marvelous. But his daughter (maybe she's his daughter?), Athena - winningly played by Rafey Cassidy ("Snow White and the Hunstman") - takes to young Frank, and gives him a magic pin (see poster, above) that, through a convoluted series of actions (which, I'll admit, we're kind of fun to watch, at this point in the movie), brings him to "Tomorrowland," where the future is now (and where his jetpack is fixed by a robot). It's Frank's idea of paradise. Why, then, is old Frank so miserable? Well, in a better movie, that would be a great story, indeed.

Cut into Frank's tale is that of current-day high-school student Casey, a mechanical genius whose Dad is a NASA engineer about to lose his job. After she is arrested for sabotaging her father's worksite, she finds that same Tomorrowland pin among the effects returned to her on her way out of jail. The pin gives her a vision of the same place we saw earlier, back in 1964. And soon were seeing some other pretty crazy stuff, too, as the movie brings Casey into (angry, older) Frank's orbit, and the two go on a quest to, of course, save the world. It needs saving, you see, because Tomorrowland - the future of yesterday - is sick. Along the way, the movie borrows liberally from sources like "Robocop," "Men in Black," "The Matrix" and even Disney's "Big Hero 6" (not surprisingly, since this is also a Disney film, and features quite a few tie-ins to the company's theme parks), among many others. The film attempts to raise some of the same issues about artificial intelligence we've seen in recent movies like "Ex Machina" and "Avengers: Age of Ultron," but even the latter (a film I did not love) had a more original take on the subject. What can I say? "Tomorrowland" is hokey new age pablum, and not worth your time.

Mad Max: Fury Road

Would there be any anticipation for George Miller's new movie if it didn't have "Mad Max" in its title? In our current universe, it is more than understandable why a filmmaker would want to link a movie like "Mad Max: Fury Road," expensive to make (at $150,000,000+) - though not nearly as expensive as "Avengers: Age of Ultron" (at $250,000,000+) - and market, to a proven property like "Mad Max," even if that series is 30 years old (has it really been that long ...). Simply calling the film "Barren Post-Apocalyptic Wasteland" wouldn't quite cut it. The titular character had his origin in the eponymous 1979 movie, also by Miller, that launched what, until now, had been a trilogy (with "Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior" and "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome" following in 1981 and 1985). With a new actor - Tom Hardy ("Locke"), always good - in the lead role, replacing Mel Gibson, and a plot that is only tangentially related to the original series - though the aesthetics are very similar - it can often feel like a stretch to find continuity between this new film and its predecessors. Fortunately, I fairly quickly gave up trying, and decided to just sit back and enjoy the show.

Wow! What a show it is. From the opening pre-credit sequence to the film's redemptive conclusion (with a few very brief exceptions), the action never stops. Rarely have I seen such a hyperactive, kinetic film. And unlike "Avengers: Age of Ultron" and it's CGI-laden brethren, this movie features stunts and explosions that happen on camera, lending a particularly palpable power to each and every punch. Beautifully choreographed, expertly photographed and production-designed in exquisite detail, "Mad Max: Fury Road" is a masterful collection of set pieces, held together by a mostly well-crafted script that moves quickly enough to leap over what gaping plot potholes there are. It's a summer movie such as we haven't seen since ... the second "Mad Max" film (considered, until now, the best in the series), and my advice is to avoid my problem of trying to figure out how the movie fits in with the other three and to let it entertain you on its own terms. As Miller, himself, has said, it's a revisiting of the world he created all those years ago (call it a reboot, call it what you will), so continuity is not the point. So be it.

We meet Max as a lone figure against a desert backdrop (see poster, above), telling us, in voiceover, how the world as we know it ended. He's troubled by quick-cut visions of his past (which seem to link him to the first 'Mad Max" film, and are the least effective parts of the film, for me), but before he can dwell on his pain, he's attacked and captured. And then he escapes, and then he is captured again. Wham. Bam. Ouch. We soon find ourselves in a medieval community (what's past is prologue ...), ruled by a dysfunctional family, where water is scarce and prisoners like Max are used as "blood bags" to revive injured warriors. Max is "assigned" to one such warrior, Nux - a fine Nicholas Hoult ("Warm Bodies") - and is soon strapped to the front of a souped-up dune buggy as Nux and his "war boy" pals charge out into the wasteland in pursuit of a commander gone rogue. That leader, Furiosa - Charlize Theron ("Young Adult"), tough and rough as sand - has stolen some precious cargo from the community's sclerotic (but still dangerous) leader, and this act of rebellion becomes the MacGuffin that drives (pun intended) the plot, which is really one big car (and truck) chase scene across the Namibian desert.

I'll be honest, I couldn't keep most of the character names straight (other than Max, Furiosa and Nux), but I didn't care. Leave that to the movie geeks (wait, I'm a movie geek ...). I was along for the ride. And though some of the story is confusing, the general meaning of the film resonated: even in the middle of total destruction, there is never reason for despair if we fight back against the evils of tyranny and reclaim our humanity. Powerful stuff, that didn't need to be underlined (double-underlined, in some cases) with the few operatic moments of raw, plaintive emotion we see when the action briefly stops. "Mad Max: Fury Road" is not a perfect movie (and as much as I like Hardy, I actually really missed Gibson), but it's a damn good one, and great popcorn fare. To return to my initial question about franchises, here's my answer: in a world of often-generic blockbuster sameness, if one is going to reconceive a franchise, this is the way to do it. Don't remake it. Don't even reboot it from scratch (as in "The Amazing Spider-Man," as much as I enjoyed that film). Revisit the world and tell a different story within it, blending the old with the new. Past may be prologue, but it doesn't have to repeat itself, and "Mad Max: Fury Road" is both an homage and an original piece of work, and well worth watching (especially in a theater). Go see it.

Far From the Madding Crowd
½

First published in 1874, "Far from the Madding Crowd" was English writer Thomas Hardy's fourth novel and his first big commercial success. The book tells the story of the original Miss Everdene - Bathsheba, not Katniss - and her various male admirers, one of whom is Gabriel Oak, a man who at the start of the tale is a farmer with a promising future, but who in a stunning reversal of fortune ends up becoming Bathsheba's shepherd, never quite losing the torch he carries for her. From Danish director Thomas Vinterberg, who gave us the 1998 Dogme film "The Celebration" and the 2012 Best Foreign Language nominee "The Hunt," "Far from the Madding Crowd" - the fourth cinematic adaptation of Hardy's novel (the most famous of which is the 1967 John Schlesinger version) - is a gorgeously photographed period piece, and one of the fastest-paced films about the 19th century that I have ever seen.

Before seeing the movie, I read the source text (for the first time). One thing that amazed me about Vinterberg's film is how it is both an extremely faithful adaptation of the book, and yet also an extremely brisk version of it, as if screenwriter David Nicholls (the 2012 version of "Great Expectations") had first written out the entire plot of the book and then stripped away everything but the bare essentials. This is both good and bad, as much of Hardy's writing is focused on building up the atmosphere of his fictional "Wessex" (really, Dorset) through many scenes of the local farmers and laborers in pub-based conversations, and while such moments were clearly important to Hardy, I found most of them a chore to get through as I read. They are all gone now. On the other hand, some crucial information at the end of the book is quickly glossed over, and the climactic battle between Bathsheba's lovers is a handled a little too rapidly.

Still, what is on the screen is mostly impressive. Carey Mulligan ("Never Let Me Go") - as Bathsheba - and Belgian actor Matthias Schoenarts ("Rust and Bone") - as Gabriel - are magnificent, and they have a raw, palpable chemistry that is evident to all but Bathsheba. Michael Sheen ("Masters and Johnson") - as Boldwood, Bathsheba's lovelorn neighbor - is also strong, but when is Sheen not good . . . Unfortunately, there is a weak link in the cast, and that is Tom Sturridge ("On the Road") - as Sergeant Troy - who in the book is supposed to be such hot stuff that he causes the independent Bathsheba to lose her head, yet here comes across as a dewy-eyed fop. Comparing Schoenarts to Sturridge, one wonders how Bathsheba could ever be so foolish.

Otherwise, the movie has, actually, an even strong feminist bent than the book. The first voice we hear is Bathsheba's, in a voiceover that is a complete invention of screenwriter Nicholls. This, then, is her story, and it is a pleasure to watch Mulligan's performance as her character rises, falls, and then rises again. It's not a perfect movie, but it is both highly enjoyable and quite beautiful to look at. And oh-so brisk.

Clouds of Sils Maria

Not so long ago, when Kristen Stewart was still turning in listless performances in the unbearable "Twilight" saga, it would have been very hard to imagine her winning a César (the French Oscar) - or any acting award, other than a Razzie - but win one she did,, playing Valentine, personal assistant to Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche, last seen bringing much needed quality to the opening of last year's "Godzilla"), star of stage and screen. It is well deserved. I have not always appreciated the films of Olivier Assayas - his well-regarded "Clean," a movie about overcoming addiction, was particularly off-putting - but I have always admired the ambition of his intentions and his refusal to stay trapped in any one genre. Whether working in period melodrama ("Les destinées"), stylish neo-noir ("Demonlover") or television biopics (his absolutely terrific "Carlos"), Assayas constantly tests the boundaries of visual storytelling. And now, in "Clouds of Sils Maria," with the help of Stewart and Binoche - both at the top of their game - he gives us a profound meditation on time, memory and art.

The movie opens with Valentine and Maria traveling, by train, to Zurich, where Maria is due to accept an award at a tribute to Wilhelm Melchior, the man who, 20 years earlier, launched her career by casting her in the starring role of his play "Maloja Snake" (the title refers to a cloud-based weather phenomenon in the Engadine valley of the Southeastern Swiss Alps), and later in the movie adaptation, which he also directed. Before they arrive at their destination, however, Wilhelm dies, of an apparent heart attack, and so the tribute turns into a memorial service. In Zurich, a young theater director, Klaus, approaches Maria about acting in a new version of "Maloja Snake," but with a twist. The play has two female leads: Sigrid and Helena. Helena is the older woman who hires the much younger Sigrid as her personal assistant, falls in love with her, and then commits suicide when Sigrid abandons her to move on to greener pastures. Maria originated the part of Sigrid, but now Klaus wants her to play Helena, and claims that Wilhelm, at the time of his death, had been working on a sequel to his original play in which Sigrid eventually became Helena. Initially repulsed by the idea, Maria - who we see otherwise being asked to star in Hollywood CGI blockbusters - eventually comes around, and the bulk of the film centers on her rehearsing for the new production, with Valentine doubling for Sigrid as they read lines.

Doubling. That's a big leitmotif here. As Maria and Valentine rehearse the new production, art and life intersect as the intensity of their own relationship begins to mirror that within the play. Life imitates art. Art also imitates life, as Stewart plays a character looking, outside in, at the world of movie stars, including not only Binoche, but also Chloë Grace Moretz ("If I Stay"), who plays Jo-Ann Ellis, the Hollywood ingénue set to star as Sigrid in the new stage show. Jo-Ann's blockbuster movies, as well as her relationship scandals, mirror those of the real-life Stewart. Not only do the boundaries of art and life collide, but the film often seems to suggest that life means nothing to these people unless it is framed by art and artifice: we see them on their iPads and other devices, and even when Maria and Valentine sit in front of majestic alpine views, all they can talk about is the play. The first time we see the actual "maloja snake" phenomenon, it is through a 1924 silent documentary by Arnold Fanck, a copy of which Wilhelm owned and watched repeatedly. Life means so much more when artistically composed.

Time and memory are also major themes. Past and present converge as Valentine and Maria hike the mountains of Sils Maria - they are staying in Wilhelm's house, which his widow has vacated to allow them to perhaps feel his spirit as they rehearse - walking paths, both literal and metaphorical, that Maria once trod as a younger woman. We're never sure how much of Maria's feelings for Valentine - mostly platonic - come from her own experience playing Sigrid; from her new relationship, as Helena, to the text; or from the actual dynamic of boss to employee, friend to friend. It doesn't matter. What does matter are the constant echoes of time past, present and future (and we're in the Alps, so there are literal echoes, as well). Stewart, as the repository of all of this projection, holds her own against Binoche, and then some. She still has those awkward gangly movements that made her such an unlikely love interest for vampires in the "Twilight" films, but here, combined with the burning intelligence of her eyes, that awkwardness serves to showcase a young woman on the verge of finding (and asserting) herself. In another universe, she might have even been Maria, taking a different path.

And speaking of other universes and recurring time, Sils Maria just happens to be where Friedrich Nietzsche came up with his seminal idea of the eternal recurrence (is it just a coincidence that Maria Enders takes her first name from here?), which adds yet another layer of meaning to deconstruct. It's an extraordinarily rich film, a meta-text ripe for analysis. I highly recommend.

Avengers: Age of Ultron

The new film about the Marvel universe - sequel, of sorts, to the 2012 "The Avengers" - manages to be both busy and inert, as if an angry bee had gotten itself stuck in molasses: there's much mayhem and destruction, and the appearance of action, but no forward motion. What, you say? An entire country is levitated by a Transformers-like robot (or AI - for artificial intelligence), leaving the fate of the earth in the hands of our superhero friends! How could that be nothing? Yes, but, how is that any different than the basic plot and outcome of this movie's predecessor, or many of the other Marvel films? And while we're watching all of this mind-numbing on-screen destruction (so much debris!), are we actually witnessing any real change in the lives of the characters? I think not. Ridiculous of me to want that, I suppose, but I need meaningful story to ground my appreciation of the action and CGI. For every "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" - a model, for me, of how these kinds of films should work - we get two or three of these muddled messes.

If I were to try and pinpoint the moment when my interest in the on-screen proceedings dwindled to a virtual zero, I'd be hard-pressed to find just one. Was it the terrible CGI fight sequence that opened the film? The silly staged slow-motion group shot of the Avengers within that opening? The expositional dialogue between all characters throughout the movie? The nonsensical design and characterization of the main villain (Ultron)? Or the waste of the very fine actress Linda Cardellini ("Bloodline") in the role of the world's most supportive spouse? Take your pick!

That's not to say that some of the individual stories are without interest. It's always nice to see Chris Evans ("Snowpiercer") as Captain America, and Scarlett Johansson ("Under the Skin") - as Black Widow - and Mark Ruffalo ("Foxcatcher") - as the Hulk - have some nice scenes together that hint at what might have been a nice alternative movie were we not stuck in an ensemble piece that allows no time for such things as drama. But then along comes Robert Downey, Jr. ("Iron Man 3"), with his now-usual smart-alecky shtick, to make sure that nothing of consequence actually happens. Two other actors - Jeremy Renner ("Kill the Messenger"), as Hawkeye, and Chris Hemsworth ("Rush"), as Thor - inhabit the roles of the final two Avengers, but barely.

So on to the plot, such as it is. Writer/director Joss Whedon - who, before he became the anchor of the Marvel ship, was mostly known as the successful television showrunner of series such as "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel" - starts the story in medias res, as our heroes are closing in on the latest Hydra hideout. There, they confront two new "enhanced" (as Captain America calls them) adversaries - Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) - the latter of whom has the power to manipulate minds. It's too bad that neither Taylor-Johnson nor Olsen are any less bland here than they were in "Godzilla," but this doesn't stop the Scarlet Witch from implanting a vision of global destruction in Tony Stark's brain that leads him to create Ultron (what a name, folks!), an AI whose role it should be to protect the world from further harm and ensure "peace in our time." Apparently, "The Terminator" doesn't exist in the Marvel universe, so these poor guys have no way of knowing how badly this could turn out.

Ultron is voiced by James Spader ("The Blacklist"), who has a lot of fun in the role. Ultron is not your average robot. He has personality. Since he was designed by Tony Stark, and is meant to be his evil doppelgänger, Ultron is a strutting megalomaniac. Sounds fun, right? Unfortunately, he also makes no sense, even for a Marvel film. He is both seemingly omnipotent, able to transfer his consciousness between physical bodies and control the internet, and peevishly childish, undone by bouts of temper that erupt from nowhere and make the audience laugh, yet degrade an already senseless script. As much as I had mixed feelings about "Ex Machina," that film's treatment of AI design is masterful compared to "Avengers: Age of Ultron." Don't even get me started about what happens to Jarvis (Stark's benevolent AI manservant). Argh.

I suspect that if one is a diehard Marvel fan, none of this will matter. I also suspect that the film will make as much money as did the last actual "Transformers" film, ensuring many more Avengers and Marvel stories to come. Get ready.

Ex Machina
Ex Machina(2015)

The first film directed by screenwriter Alex Garland ("28 Days Later," "Never Let Me Go," "Dredd"), "Ex Machina" is not nearly as profound as it seems to think it is (despite its high marks on Rotten Tomatoes, but is still (mostly) very watchable and filled with enough strange and unexpected twists to keep the viewer guessing up until the very end. It can never quite figure out what kind of film it wants to be, however, mixing deep thoughts about artificial intelligence (A.I.) with crazy drunken synchronized dancing (which, I will admit, was extremely fun to watch), and although it has fine cinematographic elements that are reminiscent of the best of Stanley Kubrick (slow tracking shots, some done on Steadicam), if one ponders the subject matter for more than a minute or two, it all seems very dumb.

With a pumped-up Oscar Isaac ("A Most Violent Year") - always extremely watchable - as Nathan, a software billionaire who has been working to create a fully functioning human-like robot, and an ethereal Alicia Vikander ("A Royal Affair") as Ava (that robot), "Ex Machina" has much to offer in those two marvelous performances. Unfortunately, it also has Domhnall Gleeson ("About Time") - an actor who tends to bore me to tears (with the occasional exception) - in the central role as the young protégé whom Isaac invites to his top-secret hideout to run a Turing Test on Vikander. The idea that anyone would take this kid seriously as either a genius programmer or love interest for a fledgling A.I. is hard to swallow. Still, the movie's final moments are simultaneously chilling and moving, and appeal to the sci-fi geeks in all of us, so I offer a qualified recommendation.

Cinematographer Rob Hardy ("The Invisible Woman") and Production Designer Mark Digby ("Never Let Me Go") deserve a lot of credit for what works here. Both Ava's design and the design of Nathan's remote laboratory/home set the tone - clean, efficient, sterile, yet somehow also organic - that pervades every frame of the film. It's too bad that so much of the dialogue is expositional. Visually, the movie approaches greatness. Verbally, not so much. Odd, for a movie directed (and written) by a writer.

White God
White God(2015)

In "White God," the animals rise up against their human masters. No, this is not a Hungarian answer to the rebooted (in 2011) "Planet of the Apes" series. Instead, what we get here is an intriguing (and, especially, intriguingly directed) parable about slave uprisings - or about resisting authoritarian rule, at the very least - with dogs in place of the slaves. I see your "Spartacus," and raise you one Fidocus.

13-year-old Lily begins the movie in possession of loved (and loving) mutt named Hagen. But when her mother drops her off with Dad for a spell, it turns out that he - bitter and spent - can't abide the animal, and soon, in a fit of pique when the dog's presence causes trouble in his building, he abandons Hagen in the street, locks Lily in the car and drives away. From then we have two parallel stories, as Lily struggles against paternal authority and Hagen struggles to survive: without Hagen, Lily loses her moral compass; without Lily, Hagen loses everything. Before long, Hagen is captured by a dog-fighting ring, renamed Maxie, and pumped full of muscle-building food and drugs to prepare him for the ring. Lily turns away from her music (she's a trumpeter) and gets involved with drugs of her own.

After his first (victorious) fight, Hagen breaks away from the dog-fighters, but is captured by dog-catchers and thrown into the pound, where his now-vicious manner earns him a spot next-in-line for euthanasia. But just as he's about to be put down, he grabs the arm of his executioner and yells, "No!" OK, I made that up. But he does fight back, and soon Budapest is overrun with rampant dogs who exact a mean revenge on their former tormentors. Since the film opens with an image of Lily, on her bike, pedaling away from a pack of these canines, we know it's only a matter of time before she reunites, in some way, with Hagen. Will she be able to stop the carnage before it consumes her?

So, all silliness aside, there is much to recommend in this film. For one, the director has achieved something quite remarkable in his direction of the dogs. In the movie's official press kit, director Mundruczó ("Delta") details how he used over 250 rescue animals, all of whom were found homes at the end of production. The two most amazing of these dogs (with the exception of one scene-stealing Jack Russell), Body and Luke - brothers, from Arizona - play Hagen. Even though I know that much of what we see on screen is a product of smart training and even smarter editing, it is still amazing to see how natural and believable these canine performances can be. Except in the chasing scenes, where, to be honest, it looks like the dogs are just having a great time running through the streets (I bet it was fun!), the interactions between animals and animals, animals and humans, is perfectly staged. My hats off to the team.

Does it work as a parable? Yes and no. There is no question - with stunning sequences evocative of zombie films like "28 Days Later" (those opening deserted streets) and disaster films like Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds" - that the movie has great visual power, especially since it's set in Budapest, site of the great anti-Soviet Hungarian uprising of 1956. But it's also rather obvious. We get it. Dogs = slaves. Cute idea. And the title, "White God," while clever (think of Sam Fuller's "White Dog" and European colonial attitudes towards their subjects), adds no great further insight to the topic. So what's new? Great dog performances. Anything else? Oh, music cures the savage beast, too.

Speaking of those amazing, lovable mutts ... have no fear. There is a huge disclaimer before the film begins, stating that, no, no animals were harmed during the filming of the movie. So you can sit back and enjoy the spectacle of beasts biting the hands that (once) fed them without worrying about what happened to them, in return.

The Salt of the Earth

Winner of "Un Certain Regard" Special Prize at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, and a 2015 Oscar nominee for Best Documentary Feature, "The Salt of the Earth" is an ethereally beautiful tribute to renowned Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado. Co-directed by Wim Wenders - prolific maker of both fiction ("Wings of Desire") and documentary ("Buena Vista Social Club") films, much like his countryman Werner Herzog - and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado ("Nauru, an Island Adrift") - son of Sebastião - the movie takes us on a lyrical and affecting journey through time, place and the deep truths of our existence as we learn about Salgado's work, its evolution, and its impact. Originally trained as an economist, Salgado has always highlighted important social issues - poverty, violence and genocide - in his stark black-and-white images, and we revisit all of the milestones of his career. Some of the photographs are incredibly graphic - especially those taken in the middle of the Rwandan atrocities in the 1990s - and though it can be difficult to look at them, seeing the work reminds us of the power and necessity of visual art to illuminate that which cannot be put into words. "The Salt of the Earth" - at times dreamy, at times shocking - is a film that everyone must see.

What I have always admired about Wenders is his ability to tell universally accessible stories that nevertheless feel both deeply personal and experimental. In "Wings of Desire," the poetry-reciting melancholy angels that watch over Berlin force an often painfully slow aesthetic on the narrative - time is meaningless to them - but the viewer is still drawn into the touching love story at the center. In "The Salt of the Earth," Wenders (with Salgado, Jr.) often places Salgado's talking head - floating free from the body - in the middle of one of his photographs, making the artist truly one with his work. Now over 70 and mostly bald, Salgado still has fine sculpted features, and his charismatic bust looks like its own piece of art. It's like listening to an ethereal deity meditate on the meaning of life.

While We're Young

The worst thing about this movie is its incredibly generic title, "While We're Young." Really? The writer/director of "The Squid and the Whale," "Margot at the Wedding" and Frances Ha - among others - couldn't do better? It sounds like it belongs on a tacky romcom starring Jennifer Aniston. Fortunately, the best thing about the film - its charming ensemble cast - largely makes up for this. Unfortunately, the writing isn't always up to the talents of that cast, and breaks down in the last third, resulting in cringe-worthy expositional arguments on street corners where feuding characters explain all of their past history and grievances for the audience's benefit. So it's a mixed bag. But when it works, it's delightful. Save your bathroom break for the final act.

The movie opens with title cards showing dialogue between Solness and Hilde in Henrik Ibsen's 1892 play "The Master Builder," in which the two discuss the passing of the torch from an older generation to a younger one. Right away, that's a problem, since it hits us over the head with the movie's theme. But then we're immediately taken away from this clumsiness as we meet Josh - played by a nicely restrained Ben Stiller ("The Secret Life of Walter Mitty") - and Cornelia - the ever-luminescent Naomi Watts ("St. Vincent") - a married couple in their 40s, both documentary filmmakers (he a director, she a producer). Cornelia works mostly for her father, famed cinema vérité director Leslie Breitbart - played by the great Charles Grodin ("Midnight Run") - a man out from whose shadow Josh cannot seem to emerge. Watts and Stiller have an easy and believable rapport, and when we first see them they are in the apartment of new-parent friends. Awkward with the baby, they return home to their blessedly child-free place, happy to have no such burden, free to pursue their work. Or are they happy? Yes, you can probably see the movie's resolution at this point, which brings us back to that final-act problem.

But before we get there, we also meet aspiring documentarian Jamie - played by the effortlessly charismatic Adam Driver (Adam on "Girls") - and his wife, Darby played by a sweet Amanda Seyfried ("Red Riding Hood'). They're the free spirits that Josh and Cornelia wish they still were (childlessness notwithstanding), and soon the older couple is abandoning their age-appropriate friends of the opening to spend more and more time with these twenty-somethings. And why not? Josh can't seem to finish the movie he's been working on for almost 10 years, anyway. This generational collision provides much of the film's humor and wit, as we watch the still-attractive and fit - but no longer 25 - Stiller and Watts do their best to keep up with Driver and Seyfried. Soon, though, it turns out that Driver's Jamie may have an ulterior motive to his friendship, since his own career ambitions require the kind of access and legitimacy that these older folks (and, especially, Cornelia's father) can provide.

And until the film devolves into those unfortunate screaming matches and an all-too-pat ending, Jamie's manipulative machinations lead to all sorts of interesting observations about the changing nature of filmmaking ethics and attribution in our modern world of sampling and reality television. What is allowable in a documentary that purports to be about truth? Is truth even a value that we still celebrate? It's a worthy discussion, placed neatly in the center of a funny comedy about middle age. Too bad the movie has all that extra filler. Then again, with its nondescript title, perhaps it was inevitable that the final result would be less than satisfying. So enjoy the well-acted and well-scripted moments that exist, and do your best to ignore the rest.

The Longest Ride

What, oh what, is young Miss Britt Robertson doing in this movie? With co-stars such as Scott Eastwood (son of Clint), Jack Huston (grandson of John) and Oona Chaplin (granddaughter of Charles) - not to mention Alan Alda, who is his own pedigree, at this point - she stands out simply by virtue of being unconnected to any legacy. Thank goodness she's in the film, however, as she gives the most winning (and natural) performance of the lot. Perhaps she can soon have children of her own who will then, years from now, star in films, too, and be less interesting than their mother (or grandmother).

What, also, is George Tillman, Jr., doing as the director of this movie? One of Hollywood's rare (though a little less rare than in the past) African-American directors, he is best known for 1997's "Soul Food," a film steeped in African-American culture and with an all-black cast. Yet here he is making a film set in North Carolina with an all-white cast, in which rodeo bull riding plays a major role. And it's all based on a novel by Nicholas Schmaltz ... I mean ... Sparks. How white can you get, story-wise? Which fact, actually, makes the film a little more interesting than it deserves to be. Perhaps we can take this as a step in the (right) direction of color-blind directing. True, the movie is pretty ridiculous, but more power to Tillman for making it.

Robertson ("Cake") plays Sophia, an art major and senior at Wake Forest University who meets cute and falls in love with Luke - played by Eastwood ("Walk of Fame") - a star rodeo rider (and rancher) recently recovered from a serious head injury. They have nothing in common, yet are irresistibly drawn to each other by the powers of chemistry and Hollywood casting. Robertson is adorable (if a little generically blonde), and Eastwood is the spitting image (only hunkier) of his famous Dad, so it does not strain credibility to imagine that they are hot for each other. What does require a suspension of disbelief, however, is accepting Lolita Davidovich ("Blaze" - remember her?) as Luke's mother (though she is certainly beautiful enough to have produced him). She has city written all over her (nothing wrong with that) and does not, in anyway, look like she belongs on a farm or ranch.

Anyway, on the way home after their first date, they rescue an elderly man from a car crash and take him to the hospital. Meet Ira, played by the great - if here very hammy - Alda ("M*A*S*H"). Soon, Sophia is spending time with Ira and reading, out loud to him (his eyesight is poor), letters he once wrote to his now-deceased wife, Ruth. These lead us into flashbacks, in which Alda miraculously morphs into Jack Huston. Neither men are Jewish, so you can be the judge of how silly they each look in yarmulkes, but one thing is certain, which is that they look nothing like each other (Alda has Italian ancestry, Huston's grandmother was an Italian model, and there is a long history of Italians and Jews playing each other in film, so there's that). However, this kind of gene-pool randomness happens all the time in films. The real problem is the letters, themselves, as well as the awkward and forced juxtaposition of Ira's and Ruth's story with Sophia's and Luke's. Each letter reads as if it were crafted by the screenwriter specifically as expositional voiceover narration, rather than as an actual piece of correspondence between two lovers. No one writes missives that break down, in such detail, events that have been shared by both parties. No one. Only in a (bad) movie.

It's in the past that we meet Chaplin (Talisa Maegyr on "Game of Thrones"), as Ruth, and she is fine enough, if saddled with an unfortunate Austrian accent. She's supposed to be Ira's Sophia - art lover to his philistine - though the chemistry between Chaplin and Huston is virtually nonexistent. By the end, the love stories come to their (mostly) happy conclusion (this is Sparks, after all, he of "The Notebook" fame), and we struggle to remember much of what we've seen. Since each parallel story needs to justify its existence, the film drags on far longer than I had patience for, expounding on plot contrivances that merely served to justify the title: this is, indeed, one long ride.

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter

For those of you who are fans of Fargo, or of the FX series inspired by it - or both - Kumiko offers an interesting riff on the original story. Based on an urban legend that arose after a Japanese woman was found dead in a frozen field in Minnesota in 2001, the movie tells the tale of young Kumiko, living in Tokyo with her pet rabbit, who becomes convinced that the buried treasure featured in the Coen Brothers' film actually exists. So she abandons everything and heads to Minnesota in search of that thing dreams are made of, that may only be the stuff of dreams. The movie is rich in atmosphere and features a wonderfully off-beat performance from Rinko Kikuchi (Babel, Pacific Rim) as Kumiko.

Unfortunately, the film also features a severely depressed central character, and watching her spiral downwards eventually becomes a chore. I loved the initial set-up of her dead-end existence at home. We get just enough sense of former promise - a happy childhood friend she meets, hints of former loves, references to a soured attitude - to make Kumiko's present existential despair especially poignant. As Kumiko gives into madness and travels to America to track down the fictional treasure, the movie struggles with tone. Is it funny? Is it sad? Is it horrible? The answer is a combination of all three, and while there is nothing wrong with juggling cinematic texture like this, when the ultimate outcome is as melancholy and lonely (loas it is here, then the laughs, at the end, feel hollow.

Still, there is much to admire in the effort, and I found this film a major step up in production value and performance from the previous film I had seen from the Zellners, Goliath (which also deals with loneliness and despair). One sequence, in particular, still haunts me, and that is when Kumiko - about to depart on her quixotic quest - tries to set her beloved bunny, Bunzo, free. It's too bad that her relationship with Bunzo is the most meaningful one in the movie, however. Once he's out of the picture, a little part of me was, too.

Get Hard
Get Hard(2015)
½

So, all right, I chuckled, and once or twice I laughed out loud. In fact, I emerged from the theater feeling as if what I had just seen had surpassed my low expectations. Why low expectations? Well, for starters, there was a certain general critical consensus against the film. And then, on top of that, I am no particular Will Ferrell fan, as I am one of the few people in my circle of friends who did not like "Anchorman" (though I loved "Elf" and "Stranger Than Fiction," which are admittedly atypical of his usual vulgar output). My recent positive experience with Kevin Hart in "The Wedding Ringer" led me to hope that he, indeed, might be funny, and what true laughs came my way here were courtesy of him. But over the few days since I saw the film, the jokes have faded, and all that remains is the bitter taste of stale stereotypes mined for lowbrow humor. Helmed, in his feature directorial debut, by screenwriter Etan Cohen ("Men in Black 3"), the movie is mostly a clumsy attempt to make mirth out of homophobia and racism. While it opens with the promise of a modern take on the 1983 comedic classic "Trading Places" - which featured some truly biting racial and social satire - "Get Hard" rapidly devolves into nothing more than a sorry excuse to trot out the stereotypes it purports to subvert.

Ferrell plays James, a corporate hedge-fund guy, who is tried and convicted of financial impropriety and sentenced to 10 years of hard labor in San Quentin (the judge decides to make an example of him). Terrified that he'll die in prison - correction, that he'll be raped and forced to give blow jobs in prison - James hires Darnell, the only African-American man he knows, to make him "hard" enough to survive jail time. And so the homoerotic jokes begin - "you make me so hard," etc., along with every other bad pun you can imagine - along with the racial ones. James's initial mistake with Darnell (who has never been to prison, but is in fact a happily married middle-class small-business owner) opens the door for a serious (or seriously funny) examination of white assumptions about people of color. But then, when every other non-white character - Latino landscapers and maids, African-American gangbangers - conforms to the very assumptions lampooned in the opening, that satirical door is slammed shut. So much for that. And let's not even get started on the heterosexual fear of gay sex . . . Go if you must, but expect very little.

Run All Night
½

When will Liam Neeson stop running? Since "Taken," in 2008, he's made a series of movies (including two "Taken" sequels) in which he plays a flawed man with killer skills who always rises to the occasion when duty (usually familial) calls. The man who once gave us Oskar Schindler has now become such a pop-cultural icon that he has become a parody of himself. I hope the money is good. Sure, many of these films are entertaining, but they're getting old along with Neeson, who just recently announced that he'll stop making them in about two years. Finally! That's a good thing, because if "Run All Night" is any guide, there's not much left to do with the genre (other than to not do it well).

Made by a man who has twice previously put Neeson through his paces - in "Unknown" and "Non-Stop" - "Run All Night" features Neeson as a New York Irish gangster in the employ of Ed Harris ("Snowpiercer"). An alcoholic wreck, Neeson's Jimmy Conlon is haunted by the memory of the men he has killed over the years, and wracked by guilt over his neglect of his family. He has an adult son - played by Joel Kinnaman ("The Killing") - who now avoids all contact. But this being a tight-knit movie world, that son eventually runs head-on into Ed Harris's boy - played by Boyd Holbrook (terrific in "Little Accidents," but wasted here) - bad things happen, and suddenly the two Conlon men must learn to get along in order to survive. It takes a long time getting to the action (which is why we watch these kinds of films in the first place) - indeed, "Jog All Night" might be a better title, or perhaps "Taken It Slow" - and the backstory we sit through beforehand is a bit of a slog, but once the violence (sort of) erupts, there are some decent thrills. Until there aren't.

Among those thrills is a pretty nifty car chase involving crooked cops that raised my adrenaline to a satisfying level and a few other sequences that, to be honest, are rapidly fading from my memory. What isn't vanishing so quickly is my slight queasiness over the movie's odd (but normal, by Hollywood standards) racial politics. Or maybe "politics" is the wrong word. The film simply shows the same neglect towards people of color as Jimmy has shown towards his son all these years. They're mostly convenient props, and you need them around (maybe), but treating them like real characters isn't necessary. Common (excuse me, Oscar-winner Common) shows up as a lethal hit man, and then there's the fatherless African-American boy - "Legs," played by Aubrey Joseph ("Fading Gigolo") - mentored by Conlon, Jr. There's also a building-full of screaming low-income residents who find themselves under siege when the Conlons hide out in their apartments. Fun stuff. And those are three-dimensional characterizations compared to the film's women (who? what? where?). Again, nothing new (and after all, I really just want more car chases).

If director Jaume Collet-Serra and writer Brad Ingelsby ("Out of the Furnace") had simply accepted the terms of the genre and given us the high-octane thrills we crave minus the pseudo-operatics they feel a need to throw in upon occasion, then the film might have worked as a low-rent "Taken" (already cheap enough). As it is, it's too often soggy when it should be firm, too often meandering when it should be brisk. We do not need to see the mother (with whom we have barely spent screen time) of a recently deceased character collapse in the arms of her husband. What we need is a little less conversation (unless it's good non-expositional talk, which it never is), and a little more action please (thank you, Elvis!).

Cinderella
Cinderella(2015)

"Have courage and be kind," says the dying mother of young Ella (pre-cinders) to her daughter. One wishes that director Kenneth Branagh (former Shakespearean since turned Marvelite) had heeded the first part of that advice, for while his new version of this oft-told tale (from a script by Chris Weitz, of "American Pie" and "About a Boy" fame) is full of lovely images and lovely ... love ... it adds very little that is new, unlike last summer's flawed but innovative "Maleficent" (itself an adaptation of "Sleeping Beauty"). Unless one considers that this is the first time I can remember a happy childhood preceding Cinderella's downfall (and subsequent rise again). Still, a biological mother who comes before the wicked stepmom does not a storytelling raison d'être make. And since the 1950 Disney movie, sentimentality and all, is such a pop-culture touchstone ("Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo," anyone?) - or was, once, anyway - it would be nice to see some updates to the story that explain why Disney felt the need to make it all over again (well, there's money, for sure).

To those who may have grown up in the forest, raised by wolves (actually, you might know this and other fairy tales quite well if you had), "Cinderella" is about a young woman who's widowed father remarries, then dies, leaving his orphan girl in the clutches of a woman whose only care in the world is her own two (spoiled) biological daughters. Together with her spawn, this evil stepmother treats Cinderella like a servant girl. When the Prince of the Kingdom announces a ball to which all maidens - regardless of social origin - are invited, Cinderella's three tormenters lock her up to prevent her from going. Fortunately, young Cinderella just happens to have a fairy godmother, and this enchanted creature sends her charge to the ball in stunning raiment - including glass slippers - of magical provenance, though with the exhortation to leave before midnight, when the spell will expire. Once there, Cinderella charms the Prince, loses track of time, and then flees when the clock begins to strike 12, losing a slipper on her way out. Smitten, the Prince pursues her, but she escapes before he can see her in her plain, ordinary clothing. In the days and weeks ahead, he criss-crosses the territory, asking every woman to try on the shoe. And then, one day, despite the nefarious efforts of the stepmom and her nasty children, the Prince finds his lost love, marries her, and he and Cinderella live happily ever after. The end.

And that, folks, is the exact story of Branagh's and Weitz's movie. True, it's live action, rather than animation (though with CGI, which means it's at least half-animated), but the plot deviates not one iota from that basic outline. It is entertaining, and filled with charismatic actors, but we've seen this movie before. So why go?

Well, for one very good reason: the chemistry between the two leads, Lily James (Lady Rose MacClare on "Downton Abbey") as Cinderella and Richard Madden (Robb Stark on "Game of Thrones") as the Prince. Oh, other quality performers are around, for show, including Cate Blanchett ("Blue Jasmine") as the stepmother and Derek Jacobi (Stuart Bixby in "Vicious") as the King, but it is James and Madden who make this movie worth watching. In particular, it is the three extended scenes they share that are profoundly moving: their first meeting in the forest; at the ball; and the final slipper test. Branagh and his two main actors get young love right. We feel the excitement of two people falling for each other for the first time, and it is a supreme delight to share in their joy. The dance at the ball is especially lovely, and Branagh's mise-en-scène as Cinderella first appears takes the gathered attendees' breath away, and ours, as well. So while the script may be a bit bland, there is nothing dull about the central love story. See it for that, if for nothing else.

Next up? Apparently, Tim Burton is considering remaking "Dumbo." Now, will this be the Tim Burton of "Big Eyes" or the Tim Burton of edgier material? We'll have to wait and see ...

Red Army
Red Army(2015)
½

The 1990s were not kind to Russia, at least not to its idea of itself as a global superpower. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, in December, 1991, the new Russian Federation that emerged from the legacy of 74 years of so-called communism entered a period of great economic uncertainty, ideological upheaval and almost constant political crisis. As a graduate student in Russian and East European Studies, and then a teacher of Russian, I traveled fairly regularly to the region throughout this period, witnessing firsthand* some of the major events (including the 1993 siege of the Russian Parliament building) of the cataclysmic transformation underway. It was exciting to observe, but not that fun to live through. Small wonder, then, that ordinary Russians have today embraced Vladimir Putin as a man who can restore Russia to the glories of old, even tolerating an aggression towards Ukraine that threatens to destabilize the Russian economy anew.

Back when Russia was part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (or USSR), it was a superpower in more than just military might. It also dominated in other areas, including sports, winning many Olympic medals. One of the jewels in its athletic crown was the national hockey team, run by the Soviet (or "Red") Army, which first won the Olympic gold medal in 1956, then won every gold from 1960-1976, and then again in 1984 and 1988. The team and its victories were one of the many symbols that the USSR could hold up to the world as an example of its superiority over the "West" (meaning, us). When the team lost in 1980 to the United States (our "miracle on ice"), it was a devastating blow (though one from which, clearly, they could quickly recover), since the national psyche of supremacy was so heavily wrapped up in its hockey triumphs.

Now, from director Gabe Polsky ("The Motel Life"), comes a new documentary - opening today at Baltimore's Charles Theatre - that chronicles the history of the Soviet hockey team and the men who worked hard to ensure its victories. The movie is more than just a profile of the team, however, as it also tells the tale of the rise and fall and rise again of Russia, itself. Out of great specificity come universal truths, and the details and politics of Soviet hockey reveal much about what worked - and what didn't - in the former empire. This is only Polsky's second movie as a director, though he has been producing (including for Werner Herzog, who returns the favor here) for a little longer, and approaches his topic with great skill and panache.

What is truly amazing about Polsky's film is that he secured the participation of most of the surviving actors in the drama, first and foremost among them Vyacheslav ("Slava") Fetisov, considered one of the best defenseman in the history of the game. Polsky and Fetisov share some aspects of their biographies, since the director was born in the Soviet Union (in Ukraine), immigrated to the United States, and later played hockey for Yale. This background allows Polsky to ask the right questions, probe deeply into the harsh realities of life behind the iron curtain, and shed light on the beauties and intricacies of the game.

Gaining access to Fetisov was a major coup, as the man makes an extremely charismatic main character. That, and his journey from Soviet superstar to pariah (when he tried to emigrate) to American hockey star (for the Stanley Cup-winning Detroit Red Wings) and back to Russia - as Putin's Minister of Sport! - mirrors the up-and-down fortunes and shifting allegiances of Russians over the past 30 years. Combining archival footage and contemporary interviews, "Red Army" is a brilliant historical document of sports, politics and human history. If the film has one weakness, it's that - at only 76 minutes - it is too short (as a man who believes that most films should have a damn good reason to be much longer than 90 minutes, I can't believe I just wrote that). As Polsky moves the story briskly along, we do not get to spend quite as much time on certain topics as I would have liked, such as: how did the hockey players feel after losing to the Americans in 1980; after his negative experience with the authoritarian Soviet government in the late 1980s/early 1990s, why did Fetisov agree to work for Putin? Still, that aside, the movie is a marvel, and I highly recommend.

Leviathan
Leviathan(2014)

The landscape is beautiful, but cold. Sky, earth and water converge in a steel-like mix of blue and grey, and at their juncture lie the bones, exposed. The skeletal remains of ships and whales intermingle in the sands of time. This is where the bodies are buried, though the graves are open, exposed. There is grandeur in the acceptance of the inevitable. Best get on with it.

So opens the magnificent new film from Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev ("The Return"), the camera slowly revealing the barren majesty of a northern outpost. The movie ends, over two hours later, with almost the same exact sequence of shots, in a visual coda redolent of futility. What purpose has been served by the actions of the petty human characters at the center of the drama?

The plot of "Leviathan" is simple enough. Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov, unknown outside of Russian-language films), a middle-aged father with a younger second wife, has the misfortune to live on land coveted by the local mayor. Unwisely, he has refused to accept the verdict of the local court - turning said property over to this politician - and has appealed, bringing in an old army buddy of his - now a big-city lawyer - for help. This friend, Dima (Vladimir Vdovichenkov, similarly mostly unknown to non-Russian audiences), arrives from Moscow, full of hope for Kolya's case. Thanks to some seedy connections, he has the dirt on the mayor. If he can only keep Kolya - a hothead - from blowing the case, he might just be able to win the appeal.

Taking as his departure point events that took place in Colorado in 2004, Zvyagintsev uses this seemingly straightforward tale of a land-grab to craft a narrative of political corruption and abuse of power. Is it about Russia today? Well, sure. It's also about Russia of yesterday (and maybe tomorrow). In one amazing drunken scene, a group of local policemen shoot up portraits of former Soviet leaders, intimating that next up are the current rulers (though it may yet be "too soon," as one of them says). In another scene, the corrupt mayor confronts Dima while standing beneath a framed photograph of Vladimir Putin. But it's not only about Russia. As with all great works of art, out of great specificity come universal truths. Zvyagintsev layers his story with rich details of Soviet and Post-Soviet life, but his movie is a parable of what can happen to any one person who decides to battle an entrenched system. David does not always beat Goliath.

Though events do take some serious dramatic turns, the prevailing emotional tone of the film - except when vodka is involved - is one of carefully managed restraint. Always, just below the surface, lurks a violence waiting to erupt and to destroy those in its path, yet it is often hidden beneath a veneer of civilized banter or official courtroom procedure. Zvyagintsev uses very little music on the soundtrack, and what music there is comes from composer Philip Glass, known for his minimalist compositions. The most shocking moments in the film catch us unawares, though the sense of dread throughout is palpable. Zvyagintsev frequently sets us on edge with camera pans away from the action, following one character, while we hear the sounds (sans music) of the other characters off-camera. We know they're up to something, and it's dangerous, but we can't see it.

Serebryakov is wonderful as Kolya, alternately depressed and volatile. Vdovichenkov is equally strong. His Dima has a greater sense of how to play the political game, but is still no match for the venality of the establishment. The heart of the movie, however, lies with the magnificent Elena Lyadova (Zvyagintsev's "Elena"), as Kolya's wife. In her, we see the burdens and disappointments of life in the far north and the hope for something better that, for one brief moment, comes alive, and then dies.

"Leviathan" was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language film, but lost to "Ida." Both films are masterpieces, so that's OK with me, but don't neglect to see Zvyagintsev's movie just because it didn't win. It still remains one of the best films of 2014.

McFarland USA

While the inspirational coach film is hardly the most recurrent of genres, it has nevertheless produced enough popular and enduring films to stick in our minds as, well, a genre (or at least a sub-genre of the "sports movie"). Think of films like "Knute Rockne All American," "Hoosiers" and "Remember the Titans" - to name but three - and you'll know the main components: a tough, exacting coach; a sometimes ragtag group of young men ("Bend It Like Beckham" brings in women) in need of direction; a stronger, usually better-funded, adversary; outside forces (recalcitrant parents, illness, prejudice) that conspire against everyone's best efforts ("Dead Poets Society" essentially fits into this genre, only it uses drama, rather than sports). In the end, whether or not the team triumphs, all participants in the events will have learned valuable life lessons. The best of these movies - which can, if not careful, come a little too close to maudlin sentimentality for my taste - inspire the audience as much as the coach inspires the team, and do what cinema does best: briefly transport us to a higher plane of consciousness through their well-crafted catharses.

Now we have a new such film, "McFarland, USA," from director Niki Caro ("Whale Rider," "North Country"). Starring Kevin Costner (25 years past his "Dances with Wolves:" heyday) - who, with both this and the recent "Black or White", seems to be announcing a career resurgence (a Costneraissance, perhaps?) - as the coach, the movie is set in 1987 in California's Central Valley, in the eponymous town of the title. It is to this scorching and inland outback, mostly inhabited by ethnically Mexican fruit pickers - some of them migrant laborers, some of them new (and newly proud) landowners - that Jim White (Costner) brings his family (a wife and two daughters) after he is fired - yet again - from a previous high-school coaching job. It's a rough transition from Boise, Idaho, where the movie begins, and the Whites pretty clearly want to get out as soon as they get in. But Jim White knows this is his last chance, and so tries to make it work.

Soon, Coach "Blanco" (as his students call him) notices that the football-playing kids in his charge are far more suited to running trails than running plays, and this revelation conveniently comes to him just as California announces new funding for high-school cross-country programs (the screenwriter freely admits that he compressed the facts of the true story on which the movie is based for a stronger dramatic punch). With the reluctant acquiescence of the principal (and the students), White manages to recruit the requisite seven members of the team, and soon both he, the students, and the movie, are off and running. As a poor school without resources, the kids of McFarland will have to face off against elite private schools throughout the state, though what they have going for them is grit, drive and the need to prove to everyone that they are better than how the world sees them. Will they win the state championship? Have you seen these kinds of movies before ... ?

What makes "McFarland, USA" work is the rich texture of the town and it's inhabitants, and how Caro and screenwriter Grant Thompson structure the narrative to emphasize how White is as much in need of inspiration as his students. These kids - played, wonderfully, by a cast of relative unknowns and first-timers - don't even see "Blanco" as a savior. They mostly come from supportive - and extremely hard-working - families, and though they are destined to work in the fields as their parents do, these are not troubled teens (with the caveat that all teens are, by their very nature, "troubled"). Almost everyone in this film - with the exception of Maria Bello ("A History of Violence"), wasted as Mrs. White in an underwritten part - feels three-dimensional and acts with personal agency. When the movie ends and we meet the real-life White, together with the students he coached, over the credits, and learn how the depicted events affected all of them, the sentiment of the moment feels genuinely earned (though I do wish that Caro were not so determined to underline her big beats with the sometimes overpowering musical score).

It's great to find Costner working so hard again. Maybe it's finally time to forget the debacle of his mid-1990s missteps ("Waterworld," "The Postman") and remember the finer work of the 1980s ("The Untouchables," "Bull Durham"). His features are still ruggedly handsome, and he's still as good as ever at portraying resolute men. Now, however, with the wisdom of the added years, he's also willing to play the flaws, which is what makes him such a pleasure to watch. See the film for him, the amazing supporting cast, and for Caro's gentle, yet purposeful, direction.

Kingsman: The Secret Service

Based on the comic series "The Secret Service," written by Mark Millar (who also wrote "Kick-Ass") and illustrated by Dave Gibbons (who also drew "Watchmen"), "Kingsmen: The Secret Service" is directed by Matthew Vaughn, who also directed the movie version of "Kick-Ass" (as well as "Layer Cake" and "X Men: First Class"). As one would expect from the man who brought us a gun-toting, foul-mouthed under-age Chloë Grace Moretz, this new film is tasteless and violent, as well as tastelessly violent. It's also a fair amount of fun. Disgusting, but fun.

Why disgusting? Well, for starters, there is a bad-ass villain's henchman (henchwoman, actually) with prosthetic steel blades in place of legs, with which she chops and dices her opponents with the skill of a master chef. Vaughn does not hold back on the resultant blood. There's also a scene in which hundreds - nay, perhaps, thousands - of heads explode (including, it seems, the head of a sitting U.S. President), played for comedy. And let's not even get into the bloodbath that occurs in a church, in which Colin Firth ("The King's Speech") goes berserk and slaughters the entire congregation, all to the tune of "Freebird." Did I mention that the film is tasteless?

Still, there are some genuine pleasures, most of which come from watching said Firth strut his (mostly tasteful) stuff as he trains relative newcomer Taron Eggerton ("Testament of Youth") in the ways of cloak and dagger (or, in this case, suits and explosives). Firth plays "Galahad" - a code name - an agent in a super-secret independent "international" (yet they're all British) espionage outfit, tasked with finding a replacement for a fallen colleague. He sets his recruitment sights on "Eggsy" (Eggerton) - a nickname (I hope) - the son of a previously fallen comrade and a kid in need of new direction, and soon we are in full training mode, a territory Vaughn has visited before with "Kick-Ass" and, especially, "X-Men" (perhaps, looking back 100 years from now, if anyone remembers Vaughn, he'll be talked about as that guy who made comic-hero training movies). It's a good thing that Firth and Eggerton, as well as a few other supporting players - including Mark Strong ("The Imitation Game") as "Merlin" (the head trainer), Samuel L. Jackson (does this man need any introduction?) as Valentine (the arch villain), and even Mark Hamill (as in, Luke Skywalker) as a hapless professor - are all compulsively charming and watchable, as they, and not the pyrotechnics, are what make the movie work, when it works. The women - with the exception of new arrival Sofia Boutella ("Monsters: Dark Continent") as the Ginsu-wearing killer - are fairly forgettable. Which should not surprise, since this is a boy's playground.

The story, such as it is, revolves around the usual megalomaniac plotting to take over/destroy the world. And only our hero can stop him. You get it. We've seen this before. If you don't mind desensitizing mayhem, and think it's funny when a princess offers to let the main character "do it up her asshole" if he saves the world, then this is definitely the movie for you. I could have taken it or left it, but I did not emerge from the experience unamused or unentertained. So there's that.

Fifty Shades of Grey

I was never tempted, in any way whatsoever, to read the book (and its sequels) on which this movie is based, in spite of its global success. Originally inspired as "Twilight" fan fiction ("Twilight" being another book series that I avoided, though I did, sadly, watch the movies), the series received mostly derisive (but also guilty-pleasure) reviews while racking up big bucks - plus a picture deal - for its author, E.L. James. It told the story of virginal college student Anastasia Steele, who meets handsome young gazillionaire Christian Grey - a man with serious control (and other) issues and a taste for kink - and plunges into a sadomasochistic relationship in which he is the dominant and she the submissive. Except that plucky young Ms. Steele doesn't quite take to the lifestyle as Mr. Grey might want, making the central conflict of the book (and series) the question of whether or not Anastasia can change (or heal) Christian and mold him into the man she would prefer to love: rich, strong, and like, totally into her but without the whips and chains.

Since I haven't read the book, I cannot tell you where the movie, directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson ("Nowhere Boy") departs from its source material. I can tell you, however, that based on what is on screen, if this is what BDSM is all about, I'll take a pass, as I like to think of sex as an alternately exciting, romantic and intimate - or, ideally, all three - communion between two (or more, let's not judge) consensual souls, and what we get here is none of that. Instead, we have two actors who look bored in each other's presence going through the motions of sex (and bondage) with neither zest nor passion. Say what you will about the artistic merits of a film like "Nine 1/2 Weeks" - an obvious comparison - but the characters played by Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger seemed, at a minimum, to enjoy being in each other's presence. Unfortunately for Ms. James's fan base, there is no chemistry whatsoever between the heretofore little-known Dakota Johnson ("Need for Speed") - daughter of Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith) - and her co-star Jamie Dornan ("Flying Home").

At least Ms. Johnson is fun to watch, much to my surprise. She's got moxie. Based on my reaction to the nauseating trailer, I expected to not only loathe the film, but both actors, as well. Instead, I found myself thoroughly won over by the young female lead. Until the tedium of the script and listless sex scenes take over the movie, Ms. Johnson livens up every scene she is in (which is most) with her winsome spirit and energy. It's not her fault that the source text requires her to bite her lip like a schoolgirl, and she makes the most of what opportunities there are to rise above the material. The same cannot be said for Mr. Dornan, an actor with the screen presence of days-old meatloaf. THIS is a man who, at 27, has somehow managed to amass a huge fortune and create a vast empire? I don't think so. Granted, his is a thankless task: he has to somehow incarnate a man who has to be strong, sexy, dominant, yet also somehow vulnerable. I'm sure that greater actors than Mr. Dornan would fail, as well. And yet, it would have been nice to see him actually try. Can you imagine Mickey Rourke wining after the fact about how he hates seeing his "bum" on screen? Hey, nobody forced you to make this awful movie, dude; could you not even try to match Dakota Johnson's effort?

Leaving aside the politics of whether we need, in 2015, yet another Cinderella fantasy of the poor girl offered a life of pleasure and leisure by a fantastically rich man, or whether or not a film about a dominant-submissive relationship is appropriate for Valentine's Day - all besides the point for those who just want a naughty escapist movie to watch - the greatest sin of this movie is that it is just so absolutely, dreadfully boring. "I'm 50 shades of f***-ed up," utters the tortured Mr. Grey. If only he really were, then we might have something interesting on our hands.

Here's a suggestion for you, if you're into what the story promises, yet fails to deliver: stay in and rent last year's "Venus in Fur" this weekend, instead. You'll have a better - and sexier - time.

The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water
½

I have two confessions to make:

1. I have never seen a single "SpongeBob SquarePants" episode, nor have I seen "The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie." Amazing, given the longtime appeal of the TV show.

2. I went to college with Jonathan Aibel, one of the two screenwriters of this new film, who, along with his longtime writing partner, Glenn Berger, has written such animated delights as "Kung Fu Panda," "Kung Fu Panda 2," and "Monsters vs. Aliens," as well as many episodes of the TV series "King of the Hill."

OK - that's out of the way. Please feel free to keep those facts in mind as you read my review.

I didn't love this movie. But I liked it. A lot. For someone like me, unfamiliar with the SpongeBob universe, the movie opens with a beautifully scripted live-action prologue that introduces the pirate Burger Beard as he steals a mysterious book from a booby-trapped island shrine (shades of "Raiders of the Lost Ark"). Played by a perfectly cast Antonio Banderas ("The Skin I Live In") - William Shatner would have been good, too, if he were younger - hamming it up for all he's worth, Burger Beard settles down on his ship, book in hand, and starts reading to a resident flock of seagulls. Et voilà! We have a perfect excuse for the exposition that takes us down under the sea to meet SpongeBob SquarePants and his friends, colleagues and, of course, enemies. I learned all I needed to know about that world in a brisk five minutes that was quirky and a lot of fun. Thank you, Jonathan and Glenn!

Soon we find ourselves immersed in the anarchic and silly shenanigans of the town of Bikini Bottom, where SpongeBob lives and works. It's a paradise where the lives (and eating habits) of the citizens revolve around the delicious burger known as the Krabby Patty. When its secret formula is stolen, that paradise morphs into a fire-torn hell. As one character gleefully states, "Welcome to the Apocalypse. I hope you like leather."

The movie's title promises that our little yellow sponge and company will leave their ocean hideaway, and that they do, interacting with the residents of a beach resort in a skillful blend of CGI and live-action footage (directed by Mike Mitchell, he of "Sky High" fame) as they hunt for their lost formula. It's all wonderfully entertaining, except when we get sidetracked in a long and completely unnecessary time-travel subplot that involves a British-accented ancient dolphin (the film has second-act issues, for me). Then again, that might be just the kind of thing that one expects from "SpongeBob" episodes and movies. What would I know? If you know, and like that kind of stuff, then this movie will work for you even more than it did for me.

Seventh Son
Seventh Son(2015)

This movie is based on Joseph Delaney's "Spooks" books. Have you ever heard of them? I had not. This makes me think that studios are desperately scouring the shelves for any multi-volume series that they can adapt into a (hopefully) long-running movie series. Seventh Son, I am sad to report, will most likely not result in such a series. Incomprehensible, with its two big stars doing their own crazy thing, apparently without direction from the formerly interesting Russian director Sergei Bodrov ("Prisoner of the Mountains"), the movie lurches from messy set piece to messy set piece without bothering with coherence. Oh, and though there are plenty of nasty white folks, the only people of color in the film just happen to be evil. Seriously - why bother? I guess the CGI looks pretty good, so there's that. Still, I forgot the entire movie as I was walking out of the theater, so maybe it wasn't all bad.

We get Jeff Bridges ("True Grit")! Julianne Moore ("Still Alice")! Alicia Vikander ("A Royal Affair")! Ben Barnes! (wait . . . who?). The former two are just making up their performances as they go, with Bridges riffing on every other alcoholic hero he's played. Vikander - lovely - comes away with fewer battle scars, but her part is so severely underwritten that this fact barely registers. Barnes ("The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian") is a good-looking lad, but very boring.

And there you have it. I had a lot of questions at the end of the film, but I can't remember them anymore.

Still Alice
Still Alice(2015)
½

If you want to see a truly poignant and cinematically innovative film about a woman succumbing to early-onset Alzheimer's Disease, allow me to suggest the marvelous 2006 debut feature by Canadian actress-turned director Sarah Polley (only 27 when the film was released!), "Away from Her." Shot and acted with poise and restraint, starring the great Julie Christie ("Darling") and equally fine - but largely unknown outside of his native Canada - Gordon Pinsent ("The Shipping News"), that movie touchingly evoked the joy and pain of life and death. Based on a novella by Alice Munro, it was a perfectly crafted work of art.

"Still Alice" also has a literary source - the novel by Lisa Genova - and shares its main subject with that earlier film. It tells a similarly moving story. Unfortunately, its directors lack much of the grace and subtlety of Polley, and though Julianne Moore ("The Kids Are All Right") tries her (mostly) best in the lead role of Alice, she cannot make up for the rather ordinary and plodding way the script takes us through her journey. I usually admire Moore - she's one of the best actresses of her generation - but here she is unable to transcend the pedestrian soap-opera structure. So far, she seems to be favored in predictions for this year's Best Actress Oscar, but for me it is not a performance on the same level as that of the other nominees. She's good, but not that good.

Moore plays a noted Columbia professor of linguistics who turns 50 as the film begins, then soon discovers that her recent wave of disorienting experiences is due to an inherited genetic defect that will quickly lead her inexorably into dementia. Before long, the sharp-as-a-tack woman we meet at the start has turned into someone who cannot find the bathroom in her own house. It's a tragic situation, made all the more so by the loss her family feels. Her husband, played by a distracted Alec Baldwin ("30 Rock"), is supportive but distant, unable to process the premature loss of his best friend; her youngest daughter, played by the ever-talentless Kristen Stewart ("Twilight"), struggles with the many unresolved issues we all have with our parents. There are other children, but they are not developed enough in the screenplay to have much effect on the story.

It's sad. A lot of people cry. Alice speaks less and less. The camera isolates her with shallower and shallower depth of field. Surely we can do better than this shallow movie about such a devastating condition. And indeed we can: watch "Away from Her."

Two Days, One Night

From the great fraternal Belgian filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne ("L'enfant") - perpetually interested, it seems, in high-stakes stories about working-class and underclass characters in crisis - comes a new film that is one of the best treatments of the challenges faced by modern-day worker bees that I have seen. Starring Marion Cotillard ("La Vie en Rose"), nominated - for this film - for a 2015 Best Actress Oscar, the film is a brilliant portrait of a woman, Sandra, at the end of her rope, thanks to a cruel decision taken by her boss vis-à-vis her employment status. Through her struggle to retain her job - and her dignity as a human being - she discovers previously unknown reserves of strength within herself that compensate - up to a point - for her lost job.

As the film begins, Sandra is about to return to work at Solwal, a Solar Panel company from which she has been away - on medical leave - for four months. She has just recovered from a bout of severe clinical depression, but is now healthy (enough). So when she gets a phone call on a Friday from a co-worker, Juliette, informing her that her boss just offered the other Solwal employees a choice between receiving their end-of-term bonuses or keeping her, Sandra, on the payroll, and that the vote (not surprisingly) did not go in her favor, she is (understandably) devastated. As we learn, she and her husband (and two kids) have only recently moved out of social-welfare housing, and the loss of Sandra's salary will throw them back into their old situation. But Juliette is a woman on a mission, and drags Sandra to meet the boss, convincing him to allow another vote on Monday. This one will be done via secret ballot, and without the foreman present. Sandra therefore has the weekend - the "two days, one night" of the title - to wage a door-to-door campaign to woo her co-workers to vote in her favor. It's a nasty deal - she is asking people in no better financial situations than her to give up money they feel they've earned - and would be hard enough for someone in great mental health. For Sandra, it threatens to undo her recovery.

Fortunately, she has an extremely supportive husband, Manu - played wonderfully by Dardenne regular Fabrizio Rongione ("Rosetta") - who understands that the only possible way Sandra will become whole again is by fighting for her job (and dignity). Sure, they need her salary, but he, himself, needs her once more present as both mother and wife. Not only are both Cotillard (who spends much of the movie hunched over and physically weighed down by her burdensome task) and Rongione individually spectacular, but they are marvelous together, and completely believable as a long-term couple. It's them against the system, and though the system may not care, we do. To see at all costs

A Most Violent Year

The new film from J.C. Chandor ("All Is Lost") is set in New York City in 1981, a time when the Big Apple was rife with crime and decay, and centers on a former truck driver, Abel - played with heart and grit by Oscar Isaac ("Inside Llewyn Davis") - who now owns the heating-oil company for which he once worked and has plans to expand his business. Unfortunately, he also has a host of competitors, some of them with mob connections, and an ambitious D.A. - played by David Oyelowo ("Selma") - threatening to prosecute him for financial improprieties. Things could either go really well for Abel or really badly. Right at the start, they take the latter course.

This is a movie that closely analyzes the politics and opportunities (or lack thereof) for social mobility in late-stage capitalism. As in Chandor's first film, "Margin Call," the director is fascinated by the nitty-gritty details of how institutions operate (in a way, "All Is Lost" was similar, too, if one substitutes "institution" for "survival"). We spend a lot of time watching Jessica Chastain ("Interstellar"), as Abel's Lady Macbeth-like (and mob-connected, herself) wife poring through files (when she's not taunting Abel on how a real man would respond to threats), looking through accounting errors. Crime may be rampant in the big city, but success in business depends as much on will power as in understanding paperwork.

Abel is a wonderful metaphor for what can happen to a person when they pull themselves up by their bootstraps, only to come face to face with the boot makers. He's good at what he does, but will that be good enough? In sharp contrast to Abel's mover and shaker is a fellow immigrant (Abel is originally from South America), Julian - touchingly played by Elyes Gabel (Rakharo on "Game of Thrones") - who doesn't have the same drive (and wife) as Abel, and so is ripe to be used and discarded when his usefulness has expired. Indeed, if the film is, indeed, an exploration of what it takes to succeed in (American capitalist) business, then it's the interactions between these two men that the story is told.

The movie does have its action scenes (yes, violence comes into play), and also a lot of other, fun performances that add a rich texture to the seedy vibe. Albert Brooks is especially fine as Abel's lawyer/consigliere, and Alessandro Nivola brings charm and chill to his role as a Mafioso rival to Abel. It is a powerful film about the temptations of corruption, how to avoid them, and the price we pay when we give into them.

Black Sea
Black Sea(2015)

In spite of some reviews labeling Jude Law as "somewhat miscast" - a statement with which I totally disagree - Jude Law is, in fact, one of the best things about this movie, and he is very, very good. All sinew and tough muscle, hair shorn to stubble, Scottish accent bursting from between clenched teeth, Law is the epitome of the angry blue-collar guy who gets the shaft from white-collar guys who care only about their bottom line. The film opens - after an unnecessary, though visually arresting, title sequence filled with archival footage of subs, Nazis and Stalin - on Law, as Robinson, a submarine captain who works (or soon, worked) for Agora, an international marine-wreck salvage company, receiving his pink slip from a mealy-mouthed (younger, English) executive. He is no longer needed (for reasons never specified) - even though he's given 11 years of his life to Agora - and an £8,000 check is supposed to make it all OK. I don't think so.

Soon, Law finds out that there's a sunken Nazi sub at the bottom of the Black Sea, filled with Nazi gold, and before long he assembles an Anglo/American-Russian crew to track it down. This is the best part of the film, as we see the barely contained simmering resentment of all of these men, regardless of provenance, against the superiors who have left them without gainful employment. Plus, director Macdonald ("The Last King of Scotland") has populated his movie with excellent characters\ actors, Russian and non-Russian, alike: Konstantin Khabenskiy ("Night Watch"), Grigoriy Dobrygin ("How I Ended This Summer"), Michael Smiley ("Svengali") and David Threlfall ("Shameless") among them. Unfortunately, he also miscasts Ben Mendelsohn ("The Place Beyond the Pines") and Scoot McNairy ("Monsters"), two usually fine actors who here do shoddy work in underwritten parts. While the former are part of what works so well in the movie - the wariness and solidarity amongst the downtrodden foot soldiers of the world - the latter are part of what doesn't work so well in the movie - the submarine heist gone wrong.

Is that a plot spoiler? Well, then you just haven't seen the trailer yet. But don't get me wrong: I love a good submarine film ("Das Boot," anyone?). And some of the scenes of underwater claustrophobia and tension work wonderfully. It's that when things starts to wrong for the men, they also go wrong with the script. The set-up is fine; the development and resolution are contrived. But as a treatment of the struggle of labor vs. capital, the film works beautifully ... until it doesn't. So enjoy it while you can, and then be glad that it's less than two hours long.

Mr. Turner
Mr. Turner(2014)
½

I wish that I could agree with the overwhelming majority of film critics who adored the new film from director Mike Leigh ("Topsy-Turvy"), entitled "Mr. Turner" (which is, appropriately enough, about the great 19th-century English landscape painter J.M.W. Turner), but while I loved the cinematography from longtime Leigh collaborator Dick Pope (also "Topsy-Turvy") - Oscar-nominated (his second time) for this film - I found the movie, itself, a somewhat long and dreary affair. I have seen enough of Leigh's films to believe completely in the sincerity and intentionality of his efforts, so I have no doubt that everything on the screen is meant to be there. I also admire his attempt to make a film that, as it progresses, devolves into the same formlessness as its subject's later paintings. And yet in spite of my own great efforts to give a damn, I simply began, as time wore on (and on) to lose interest in all but the gorgeously composed images. Some works of arts are labors of love; this felt, quite simply, like labor, alone.

Timothy Spall (Peter Pettigrew/Wormtail in the "Harry Potter" films) certainly gives it his all, grunting and snorting (and spitting) his way through what can certainly be called a performance (of sorts), and which, given what we know about the historical Turner, seems designed to remind us, time and again, of the great artist's working-class roots (that and his Cockney accent), yet what we come away with is merely a sense of the effort it took to sustain that role for the length of the production. I like the idea that beautiful things can come from unrefined people (and why not?), but apart from this (hardly new) presentation of the dichotomy of the vessel and its precious cargo ("Amadeus," anyone?), but apart from this unoriginal observation about the physical awkwardness of the man, what does the film tell us about art, its creation, or even just this one particular artist?

Well, we learn this: Turner was a bastard. He loved his father, but mistreated most of the women in his life (for no discernible reason, according to Leigh). He was inarticulate, and not very sociable. He was successful enough to live well, but then, as his paintings grew more abstract and he fell out of favor, he became disdainful of selling out, and turned into even more of a recluse. He was original and ahead of his time. At the end, he found a good woman who took care of him, treated her reasonably well (better than her forebears), and then died. Events happened, maybe in that order, and some impressive art was left for us to admire in the centuries to follow. Does that seem a bit ajumble? Welcome to "Mr. Turner!"

One other note, which relates to a general criticism I have of Mike Leigh's work - hit or miss, for me, though when he hits, he approaches genius - is Leigh's tendency to write one-dimensional caricatures of characters who are either social climbers, of the upper classes, or just filled with pretension (to his mind). He does this in "Life Is Sweet" and "Naked," among other films, and now "Mr. Turner," where his John Ruskin - an incredibly important 19th-century art critic - is portrayed as a foppish wannabe. Why does he insist on doing this? I am glad that his focus is so squarely on the working class - someone's has to be - but no one, not even a villain, is without layers and depths. He should take a lesson from Mohamedou Ould Slahi, recent author of the first ever memoir penned from within the prison at Guantánamo Bay, who writes of everyone - even his captors - as if they are fully human. Which, like all of us, they are. Leigh's films would be of consistently greater interest if he understood his own weakness to demonize those whom he despises.

Dick Pope deserves all of the kudos he's getting, and if he wins an Oscar, then it his work, alone, that will bring people back to this movie in years to come (even without an Oscar, you should watch the film - even if you get bored - just to see what he's done). Shooting digitally, he paints with light, much as Turner did. To enter into Pope's vision is to understand what cinema can do when the right tools are in the hands of the right people. It's just too bad that the larger vessel that holds Pope's cargo is full of holes. If you want to see better films made by Leigh and Pope, check out the following: "Secrets and Lies," "Vera Drake," and the aforementioned "Topsy-Turvy."

Blackhat
Blackhat(2015)

"Blackhat" is such a ridiculous, unbelievable, chaotic mess, filled with the kinds of extreme close-ups that director Michael Mann ("The Insider") has used to better (and far less confusing) effect in other films, that I cannot recommend it to anyone other than Chris Hemsworth ("Rush") fans (and even then . . .). Hemsworth plays Nicholas Hathaway, a brilliant (and very hunky) hacker who is sprung from prison by the Department of Justice at the request of his former MIT roommate - now a rising star in China's security apparatus - to help solve a mysterious spate of dangerous computer breaches at nuclear power plants and stock exchanges in Asia. If you can buy Hemsworth as a hacker - or buy the fact that a computer specialist would somehow have become a weapons and hand-to-hand combat specialist after a few years in jail - then you might enjoy the film. I could not. Filled with jittery cheap-looking video footage, the movie doesn't even have the usual lush feel of some of Mann's best work. Stay away.

American Sniper
½

There's nothing wrong with this movie that a better script wouldn't solve. Written by Jason Hall ("Paranoia"), and based on the 2012 autobiographical book of the same title by Chris Kyle (with help from Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice), "American Sniper" tells the story of the man dubbed "the most lethal sniper in U.S. history," and is given especial poignancy by the fact that Kyle was killed by a fellow veteran in 2013. It's a frequently gripping story that takes us into the trauma of war - and the addiction to killing - only to avoid dealing with the hard questions of how to recover from such trauma/addiction. Like lesser films about other kinds of addiction, which revel in the drinking and drugging, rather than the recovery - the over-hyped 2009 "Crazy Heart" comes to mind - "American Sniper" spends the bulk of its over two-hour length focused on the war, then covers Kyle's return to humanity in a dissolve. I've always loved the 1983 movie "Tender Mercies," which gets its drinking out of the way in the first ten minutes and then spends the rest of its 90 minutes on the difficult process of not drinking. That's much more interesting then what we get here. The best recent war film that showed, with far greater moral complexity, what our soldiers have to deal with in Iraq, was "The Hurt Locker." Though mostly well directed by veteran helmer Eastwood ("Million Dollar Baby"), and with a very strong central performance from Bradley Cooper ("American Hustle"), this film all too often feels like "Team America: World Police" without the irony.

That's not to say that the film fails on all counts. The action scenes are pretty spectacular - including a final battle in a dust storm - and Kyle's transformation from gung-ho American patriot to troubled killer is powerfully realized by Cooper. To his wife - a mostly wasted Sienna Miller (The Girl) - Kyle is increasingly duplicitous, but mostly because he does not have the verbal tools to deal with his feelings. Instead, he signs up for tour of duty after tour of duty, returning to Iraq again and again to, in his eyes, save as many Americans as he can. The why of that relentless and unchallenged belief in the supremacy of American lives over Iraqi lives is never addressed, which is a shame, as it would have been a better movie had we understood what drives Kyle to kill. Then again, at the screening I attended, the audience applauded when Kyle killed an Arab sniper, so maybe certain segments of our population don't want their belief in their own righteousness questioned, either. Eastwood made a far better film, in 1992 - the revisionist, Oscar-winning Western "Unforgiven" - which managed to have its exploitative audience-friendly violence and yet also explore the costs of such violence with great sensitivity and intelligence. "American Sniper" is not that film. It was just - somehow - nominated for a 2015 Best Picture Oscar, however, so perhaps it will seem as good as that previous work to some. I beg to differ.

Paddington
Paddington(2015)

In spite of enjoying myself thoroughly during the screening, I cannot quite sign on to a full-throated endorsement. My reservations are quite specific, and may not bother other people (though I wish they would). Namely, I find it inexcusable, in 2015, even if adapting a book written in 1958, when cultural attitudes were different, that one should continually - especially if one belongs to a former colonial power like Great Britain - use the phrase "darkest Peru" over and over again, without irony, to describe the country of origin of the titular main character. And secondly - and again in 2015 - to make a movie set in London an extremely ethnically diverse city, where the only people who are not white and English are the members of a calypso band that appears occasionally as both soundtrack and Greek chorus is, to my mind, worse than inexcusable. But hey, other than that, the movie is charming.

It's also, however, a bit derivative, as it opens with a cute historical scratched-print black & white documentary movie of the exploits of the (white, British) explorer who first discovers the intelligent bears of "darkest Peru," recalling the equally charming opener of Pixar's 2009 "Up." Once that intro established, we find ourselves in the jungle, years later and now in color, where those same bears - a childless male and female, who live with a young nephew - have learned to speak English (and enjoy marmalade) thanks to books and other items left behind by the aforementioned explorer. They live an idyllic (and beautifully designed) existence in a lovely tree house where they can make marmalade to their heart's content, and where their nephew (soon to be renamed Paddington) runs free and joyful. Soon, however, disaster strikes, the idyll is shattered, and the young nephew takes off for England, where, the explorer had told his aunt and uncle, the bears would always be welcome.

And so our hero (voiced with perfect diction and oodles of charisma by Ben Whishaw - Q in "Skyfall") finds himself adrift in London, but not for long. A returning family of vacationers - with the wonderful Hugh Bonneville (Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, on "Downton Abbey") and Sally Hawkins ("Blue Jasmine") its patriarch and matriarch - finds the bear in Paddington Station, give him his new name, and take him home (ostensibly temporarily). Soon, thanks to the nefarious machinations of a mysterious villain played with great relish by a remarkably game Nicole Kidman ("Stoker"), both family and bear find themselves embroiled in a dangerous adventure. Will they survive? Well, it's a kids' movie. What do you expect?

Well choreographed and with remarkable CGI effects for the bears (Paddington's fur, in particular, continued to amaze me, especially as it moved in the wind), the movie should be fun and exciting for most audiences. And if you don't mind the (probably unconscious, but no less palatable) colonial attitudes of the filmmakers, then you'll have an even better time than I did. Be sure to bring some marmalade for the little ones.

The Wedding Ringer
½

This is not a good film, by any objective standards. It is crass, offensive, derivative (starting with its title), scripted with only a bare minimum of coherence (if even that), and written to celebrate the worst of male behavior. However, it is also ridiculously fun, and despite my good intentions, I found myself swept up in the comedy. I had a terrific time, as did the preview audience with whom I saw it. Most of the reason for the movie's success lies with funny man Kevin Hart ("Think Like a Man Too") and his perfect chemistry with co-star Josh Gad ("Jobs"), as well as with the awesomely quirky supporting cast, which includes Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting (Penny on "The Big Bang Theory"), Olivia Thirby ("Dredd"), Jorge Garcia (Hurley on "Lost") and especially such mostly previously unknown-to-me (and maybe to you, as well) actors such as Affion Crockett ("Baggage Claim"), Dan Gill ("Bad Sports"), Aaron Takahashi ("Awesome Asian Bad Guys") and Alan Ritchson ("Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles"). Not to be outdone in weirdness, Cloris Leachman (yes, that Cloris Leachman) is around to be set on fire. What more could you ask for?

The plot, such as it is, revolves around successful lawyer (whom we never see work) Doug (Gad) who, a week before his wedding to out-of-his-league Penny (Cuoco-Sweeting), still has neither best man nor groomsmen. You see, he has no friends. None. Fortunately, there's Jimmy Callahan (Hart), who makes a living offering his services as a best-man-for-hire. Doug poses a special challenge, since he requires a "golden tuxedo" (Jimmy's business term for a full suite of fake friends), but since Doug's willing to pay the big bucks, Jimmy signs on. And so the fun begins, as Jimmy (redubbed "Bic Mitchum," the name Doug had provided to his fiancée in a moment of panic), along with the friends and actors he hires to impersonate groomsmen, sets out to create a lifetime of memories before the big day.

It's a crazy premise, which steals liberally from movies like "The Hangover" and every recent bromance, and it never makes any sense. How could Doug have the money for this folly - earned, presumably, because he is good at what he does - yet not have the social skills to have made even one friend in his life? How has Jimmy never been discovered as a fraud in all his years in business? These are legitimate questions, yet somehow they stopped bothering me as I gave myself over to the joie de vivre of the movie. Hopefully you will, too.

Inherent Vice

I recently read Thomas Pynchon's 2009 novel "Inherent Vice." Here is my review, from the book aggregator site Goodreads: "This was my first Pynchon novel, and I suspect that had I wanted to really get a sense of the writer I should have tackled "Gravity's Rainbow" first. Or not. A detective thriller with a stoned P.I. (private investigator) as its protagonist was not at all what I expected from a man I associated (through hearsay) with dense and complex narratives. But then I started reading, and this multi-layered text, rich in historic detail (the setting is early 1970s Los Angeles just after the Sharon Tate murders, where hippies and straights collide), began rather quickly to draw me in by the way its author so cleverly inserted deep societal insights into an ostensibly popular fiction genre. The book is a marvel in its skilled marriage of commerce and art. I loved it, and I can't wait for the movie to come out in a few weeks."

Given that reaction to the book, perhaps my hopes for the movie adaptation, by American auteur director Paul Thomas Anderson ("The Master"), were too high (the marvelous trailer helped raise those expectations, as well). To say that I was disappointed would be inaccurate, since I enjoyed much of the film. It's just that where Pynchon manages to have his hash brownie and eat it, too, beautifully wrapping up the loose narrative by the end, Anderson seems to have no interest in tying up his own loose ends. If, however, you are a fan of the director's more recent work, and liked "The Master" and "There Will Be Blood," then you may not have the same issues that I have with Anderson's new movie. I like my chaos contained, at least at some point; Anderson, as he has gotten older, prefers his mayhem unfettered, eschewing the discipline of his earlier (to me, far more masterful) works like "Boogie Nights" and "Magnolia." Still, I admire the risks he takes, as well as the way he works with actors, all of whom are in fine form here. For quite a while, the virtues outweigh the vices, and watching the manic energy on display is a treat, indeed.

A magnificent Joaquin Phoenix ("Her") plays Larry "Doc" Sportello, a hippie sleuth-for-hire in Los Angeles whose ex-girlfriend Shasta - played by Katherine Waterston ("Glass Chin"), daughter of Sam, with a disturbing mix of childlike vulnerability and sexuality - shows up one day, out of the blue, asking for his help to thwart the planned kidnapping of her new lover, a sleazy real-estate developer named Mickey Wolfmann. Whatever else Doc may be - stoner, hippie, etc. - he takes his job seriously, and stills cares for Shasta, so he is soon sniffing around the less savory (rich and poor) parts of town, looking for clues. It takes him a while to truly get in the game, though - maybe it's all the pot he constantly smokes - and before he knows what's happening he's being jerked around and set up by various parties, including local hotshot cop, "Bigfoot" Bjornsen, played by a Josh Brolin ("No Country for Old Men") in exceedingly top form. Indeed, it is the interactions between Doc and Bigfoot - the hippy and the straight - that give the movie much of its energy and purpose. Representing different sides of the then-culture wars, as well as different sides of the investigative professions, they face off in altercations alternately hostile and quasi-affectionate: they're frenemies. And in both the book and the movie, they allow author and filmmaker to explore the opposing worldviews of that specific era.

But outside of that central relationship, the film lacks the narrative drive of the novel. I kept wondering, as I watched, whether or not the film would make sense to anyone who hadn't read Pynchon's book. Maybe it doesn't matter as much as I think it does. Rich in lush visual detail, "Inherent Vice" features additional strong performances (sometimes almost cameos) from a cast that includes Owen Wilson ("The Internship"), Reese Witherspoon ("Wild"), Benicio Del Toro ("Savages"), Michael Kenneth Williams (Omar from "The Wire"), Jena Malone ("Into the Wild") and Martin Short (remember him? lately he's been doing a lot of voice work for animated projects like "The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That!"). And while the film meanders from crazy set piece to crazy set piece without much of a coherent connective tissue, as if the director and all involved were, themselves, toking it up throughout production, each of those set pieces is (usually) a lot of fun to watch. Perhaps we are not meant to worry about causality - even though coincidences abound - and should just enjoy the very real pleasures that lie within each scene. Perhaps . . . and yet ... I wanted just a little bit more, as I have in other recent Anderson films.

One of the oddest choices in this adaptation is the invention of a narrator. Anderson takes a minor character in the book - a fortune-teller named Sortilège (played in the film by musician Joanna Newsom) - and hands her much of Pynchon's prose to read as voiceover. On the one hand, it's possible he realized that his movie needed more structure, and so added these bits of exposition to help explain the fractured narrative. On the other hand, Los Angeles has a long history as the frequent locale of 20th-century hard-boiled fiction, rendered in such classic Hollywood films noir like Billy Wilder's 1944 "Double Indemnity" - which helped launch the world-weary and doomed male narrator we now associate with the genre - that it's also possible that Anderson is indirectly referencing this past, and flipping it on its head. Whatever his intentions, while there is a definite atmospheric upside to Newsom's dreamy drawl (which works so beautifully in the aforementioned trailer), much of what she speaks just feels like muddled explanatory text, and only contributes to the overall confusion.

Despite my ambivalence about the movie, however, I found much to like in its strangeness. It is sui generis, that's for sure, which is certainly a valid reason to recommend it, however qualified that recommendation may be. It's a mess, but a beautiful one.

Selma
Selma(2015)

In 1965, a year after the passage by the U.S. Congress of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 - which outlawed discrimination on the basis of race - the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., led a march from Selma, Alabama, to the state's capital of Montgomery to protest widespread restrictions on access to voting for African-Americans in the South. The President at the time, Lyndon Baines Johnson, while a champion of civil rights for African-Americans, wished, after 1964, to turn his attention to the "war on poverty" (a not unworthy goal, for sure). King, however, believed that civil rights without voting rights was an empty triumph, and so continued to push his agenda to allow African-Americans the same access to the polls as had whites, organizing a demonstration in Alabama, a state - led at the time by the virulently racist George Wallace - particularly infamous for its refusal to allow blacks to vote.

Though King and his colleagues at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) always engaged in non-violent practices in their protests, they were met, initially, by violent reprisals from the police, led by Sheriff Jim Clark. Soon, however, thanks to negative media coverage of those reprisals, as well as federal intervention, the marchers were allowed to proceed to Montgomery, where they arrived, 54 miles and 5 days later, on March 25. Once there, King gave a rousing speech, optimistically stating that it would not be long before blacks would enjoy the same voting rights as white, and in August 6 of that year, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which effectively removed many of the restrictions on voting that had long been applied in the South to prevent blacks from voting.

This is the story told in the powerful, necessary and extremely entertaining new film by Ava DuVernay ("Middle of Nowhere"), and never has it been a more vital time to tell that story. Less than two years ago, the United States Supreme Court gutted the very legislation that King, his SCLC colleagues, the many protesters, as well as Johnson, worked so hard to pass into law, and since 2010, 22 states have passed new voter restriction laws (all in the name of junk-science fears about voter fraud). It is time to take stock, America, and decide, once more, what kind of country we wish to be. Let "Selma," anchored by a brilliant performance from British actor David Oyelowo ("Lee Daniels' The Butler"), be your guide. Ignore the criticism that some have leveled about its portrayal of Johnson (about as valid as those fears about voter fraud) - who is no villain in the movie, just a man with different priorities than King - and make the film a must-see for you, your family and friends in the new year. And then do everything in your power to make sure we don't continue, in 2015, rolling back the clock to 1964.

Beyond the important civil-rights lesson, "Selma" is a wonderful ensemble portrait of how politics works, much as was "Lincoln," Steven Spielberg's 2012 film about the 1864 passage of the 13th amendment. Yes, King is at the center of the story, but he is hardly alone. The other members of the SCLC, as well as young students in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and protesters both black and white, are essential actors in the drama, and DuVernay does not ignore them. Indeed, they are portrayed by such fine actors as Wendell Pierce (Bunk on "The Wire"), Oprah Winfrey (also one of the movie's producers, along with Brad Pitt), Tessa Thompson ("Dear White People"), Carmen Ejogo ("The Purge: Anarchy"), and many others. Tom Wilkinson (Belle) - always good - as Johnson brings out our 36th President's humanity without ignoring his well-documented racism (which makes his role as civil-rights hero even more remarkable), and Tim Roth ("Lie to Me") seems to have a lot of fun as the smirking George Wallace (the movie needs at least one villain to hate).

But in spite of the impressive cast, this really is Oyelowo's movie. His King is a man possessed of many gifts - intelligence, political acumen, charisma, eloquence - who is nevertheless plagued by the same demons that plague all humans. He is not a saint, and not perfect. He is a human man. The movie opens with a charming scene between King and his wife, Coretta (Ejogo), just before King is to receive the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, and the casual and sweet flirtation they share tells us right away that this is a movie about people, not icons. Which is why it is a great film. Originally scheduled to open in Baltimore on January 9, "Selma"'s release was moved up to January 1. See it today.

The Babadook
The Babadook(2014)

Young widow Amelia (a very fine Essie Davis, known in her native Australia for "Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries"), whose husband died in a car accident years ago, is at her wit's end caring for her troubled son, Samuel. Prone to violent rages, and obsessed with weapons, Samuel means well, but misbehaves in school one time too many, and is expelled. Amelia's sister is no help; she can't stand the boy, especially after he pushes her own daughter out of a tree house. So Amelia is left to fend for herself, caring for the little dear while trying to hold down her job at a nursing home. Every night, before she can get some much-needed rest, she must read to Samuel from a book of his own choosing. One night, he picks a book she's never seen before, about a frightening wraith-like home invader called "Mr. Babadook" (whatever you do, don't invite him in!). It's terrifying; completely inappropriate for a boy Samuel's age. Where did it come from? Soon, that question is replaced by a more urgent one: why are the gruesome details of the book coming to life?

I wish I felt about this Australian indie the way the vast super-majority of critics do. Most find it a perfect parable about the challenges of motherhood, and I can see that. Unfortunately, while there is much to recommend here - first-time feature director Jennifer Kent is brilliant at creating an eerie vibe through camera placement, lighting and sound design - the script, for me, breaks down in the second half of the film, once we actually meet the monster (when the low budget really shows, since the CGI does not cut it). I also found myself less creeped out than angry that such horrible things were happening to a woman who began the film already at her nadir. True, there is always further you can fall, but I spent too much time annoyed at the film's cruelty to its protagonist to fully enjoy the horror of the story (granted, horror is not my favorite genre, anyway). Still, I will long be haunted by the work of the Production Designer Alex Holmes, who has created one of the scariest children's books I have ever seen. So, flawed as it is, I give it a qualified recommendation for the art direction and cinematography (by Radek Ladczuk), alone.

The LEGO Movie

Young Emmet (voiced perfectly by Chris Pratt, also in this year's "Guardians of the Galaxy") lives a peaceful existence as a worker in a factory in a Lego(TM) paradise, where "Everything Is Awesome." The only problem is that it's only awesome if you do what everyone else does. Otherwise, beware ... One day, he stumbles into a rebellion against the status quo, and is mistaken for "the Special," a man who will overthrow the dictatorship of "Lord Business" (voiced by a very funny Will Ferrell, who also scored big in "Megamind"). Terrified, he nonetheless embarks on a series of adventures that lead to an eventual showdown with Business that will decide the fate of the world ... or at least of Lego(TM) Land.

I finally watched this film after it came out on DVD some time this fall, since I missed it in its original theatrical release. How happy I was to see it! I had long heard students, colleagues and friends rave about it, and so I assumed it would be fun, but I was unprepared for how smart it would be. Indeed, not only is this movie a wonderful parody of all hero-quest stories, it is also an extremely sharp satire of contemporary popular culture, all the while being a super-enjoyable traditional three-act narrative with a cathartic climax and happy end. What's not to love? Sure, it may, in some ways, be an extended advertisement for Lego(TM) toys, but what big commercial movie these days is not hawking some kind of product? The disarming fact is that this movie never lays claim to any higher purpose other than to entertain and sell its wares, and yet manages to be so much more than most other big Hollywood films (which helps explain how it could be the #4 box-office earner for 2014). It is one of my favorite films of the year.

The Dance of Reality
½

The only other Jodorowsky film I've seen is "Santa Sangre," and boy, was that a trip! It was about an armless mother who dominates her son by forcing him to act as her arms for her, often murderously. It was extremely bloody and disturbing, and I'm still not sure to this day if I liked it, but it was deeply memorable (I often recommend it), which is what we want art to be, no?

This new film - Jodorowsky's first since 1990's "The Rainbow Thief," is bizarre yet majestically beautiful, and compared to "Santa Sangre," it is a model of filmmaking restraint. Of course, if you've never seen a Jodorowsky film, you'll marvel at that description (and immediately rent or buy "Santa Sangre," I hope, to see how "The Dance of Reality" could be called "restrained"). Billed as an autobiographical film about Jodorowsky's childhood in Chile, "The Dance of Reality" is a magical-realist coming-of-age fable with a twist: it's not the boy (young Alejandro) who grows up, but the father, Jaime (played by the marvelous Brontis Jodorowsky, the director's son). In order for Alejandro to become a man, first the tyrannical father must die and be reborn as a kindler and gentler soul, able to appreciate the ways in which his son is different, and to celebrate that difference.

Filled with striking images and fantastical sequences, the film might turn off those looking for strict narrative coherence, although it is fairly linear in its plot development. I recommend that you stick around for the full journey, as it will surprise you and mark you as only a truly unique and inspired work of art can do. And now I have to go off and watch some more films by Jodorowsky, as two is not enough.

Jodorowsky's Dune
½

In the 1970s, Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky established himself as a director of twisted cult-hit masterpieces with "El Topo" and "The Holy Mountain." The films were considered visionary (I have never seen them), and they were successful enough that Jodorowsky was approached by a group producers with an offer to direct yet another potentially visionary film, which this time would be an adaptation of Frank Herbert's 1965 science-fiction novel "Dune". Jodorowsky threw all of his considerable creative energies into the project, eventually producing a beautiful graphic-novel quality storyboard that is, sadly, the only remaining testament to what this project might have been like. For a variety of reasons, the movie never got made (although David Lynch did produce his own mess of an adaptation in 1984). Based on what I have seen of Jodorowsky's work, I deem that a cinematic tragedy.

Even if you have never read "Dune," nor seen any films by Jodorowsky, this is a must-see movie. Along with "Lost in La Mancha," about director Terry Gilliam's failed attempt to adapt "Don Quixote," "Jodorowsky's Dune" ranks as one of the best documentaries about filmmaking ever made. Filled with entertaining anecdotes about the creative process of this one-of-a-kind filmmaker, the film takes us on a behind-the-scenes look at the inner workings of the artistic brain. It is one of my favorite movies of the year.

The Interview
½

There is no question that the best thing to happen to the second film from the writing /directing team of Evan Goldberg & Seth Rogen (This Is the End, which I mostly liked) was the Sony hacking scandal. Without it, I think the film would have come and gone quickly. True, dumb as it is, it might have still had a decent opening weekend, overcoming its critical drubbing, but then word of mouth would have quickly condemned it to a quick disappearance. Because its biggest crime is not that it goes after a sitting head of state (Kim Jong-un, as far as I'm concerned, is fair game), but that it is seriously unfunny. Most of the jokes are of the kind we've grown accustomed to in the era of the Judd Apatow school of filmmaking, and while they felt fresh when first seen in the pioneering short-lived TV show "Freaks and Geeks" or in movies like The 40-Year-Old Virgin or Knocked Up, they've begun to feel very stale by now. And can we please retire the "bromance?" Crafting a story about two guys who love each other more than they love the women in their lives really just seems to be an excuse for lazy writing: it's supposed to be funny because they're really gay, get it? Ha ha!

Who knows how it would have performed if Guardians of the Peace hadn't decided to target Sony. We'll never know. As it is, the film earned a healthy gross from online rentals and sales this past weekend (to recap, Sony decided to pull the movie from theaters, then relented and allowed it be screened in select venues and online), including $5.99 from yours truly. I've seen worse movies on which I've spent more money, so I'm hardly complaining. I just wish that all of the hullabaloo had been about something that was actually worth getting worked up about.

James Franco (127 Hours) plays Dave Skylark, host of a frivolous "Entertainment Tonight"-style celebrity-interview show. He's vacuous and vain, à la Ryan Seacrest, and very popular. Seth Rogen (Neighbors) plays his producer, Aaron, who longs to do some real journalism. When Dave discovers that Kim Jong-un is a fan of the show, he suggests that they contact the North Korean dictator and set up an interview. As soon as CIA operatives learn of their plans, they draft them to act as assassins. As Dave says in response, "Whaaaaaaaaaa ... ?" Like that would ever happen.

But hey, this is supposed to be a dumb comedy where we suspend our disbelief, so why not? The problem is that we don't suspend our desire for laughs, and since so few are forthcoming, all we get is a premise that makes no sense and a pair of idiots prancing their way through a surprisingly unprotected presidential palace near Pyongyang. Both Franco and Rogen can be very appealing performers (Franco gave one of my favorite performances of 2013, in Spring Breakers), but here they just annoy, Franco especially (his Skylark is so unbelievably stupid that it's hard to imagine him successful at anything). There is one shining light in this mess, however, that saves it from being a total disaster, and that is Randall Park (Danny Chung in "Veep") as Kim Jong-un. Though I had seen him in many other films in supporting roles, I had never fully appreciated his range. Here, he takes Kim from shy charmer to crazed killer in seconds, and you believe him. Here's hoping that the attention the film has garnered earns him accolades and further opportunities. He is amazing. Other than Park, however, there's not much of interest to see.

Big Eyes
Big Eyes(2014)

In the 1960s, a man named Walter Keane painted a series of paintings of waif-like little girls, all with tragically huge dark eyes, seemingly brimming with tears, which became a cultural sensation. A pioneer in the field of marketing reproductions, Keane became rich by selling cheap posters and postcards of his work. Excoriated by art critics but celebrated by the public, Keane built himself a tidy little dynasty. The only problem was that he was lying. His wife Margaret was the painter, and once she tired of living in her dominant husband's shadow, and asked for a divorce, it was only a matter of time before Keane's stolen glory would desert him. Tim Burton ("Frankenweenie") has decided, for some reason, to give this sordid story is its own cinematic treatment, and so Walter (now deceased) and Margaret (still with us) are back in the news. Unfortunately, judging solely by this movie, the question to ask is . . . why do they deserve to be?

I have long admired Burton's voice, even when I did not like certain movies of his. "Beetlejuice," "Batman," "Edward Scissorhands" (especially), "Ed Wood," and "Sweeney Todd," as well as animated fare like "Frankenweenie," are among my favorites of his work. All have a recognizable aesthetic. "Big Eyes" could have been directed by anyone: it is that bland. Granted, the paintings at the center of the story are, themselves, without personality, but that the film about them should similarly lack a raison d'être is inexplicable. If Burton was able to wring drama and humor from the life of the talentless Ed Wood, why can he not do so here?

Beyond the script, the problem lies at least partly in the casting. Christoph Waltz ("Django Unchained"), as Walter Keane, is a fine actor, but he is not a charming salesman type as Walter must be. And then there is the matter of that accent. Waltz is a polyglot, but he speaks English with a recognizably German intonation, which remains unexplained throughout the film. Amy Adams ("American Hustle") fares no better. I am a big fan of hers, but here she fails to convince me that she is ever afraid enough of Walter to do his bidding. She exudes too much strength.

There's nothing to recommend here. Unless you find the original paintings of interest, I would give it a pass.

The Imitation Game
½

Alan Turing (1912-1954) was a brilliant English mathematician considered to be one of the fathers of modern computing. During World War II, he helped British intelligence break the infamous Enigma code used by the Nazis, a feat without which the war might have gone in quite a different (not good) direction for the Allies. He was also a deeply closeted homosexual, and since engaging in homosexual acts was then illegal in Great Britain, when he was caught soliciting sex from a man in 1952, he was sentenced to chemical castration, whereby he was required to take drugs to reduce his physical impulses. He committed suicide two years later.

The Norwegian director Morten Tyldum ("Headhunters"), working off a script by novice feature-film writer Graham Moore, has fashioned a compelling drama from the tragic circumstances of this misunderstood genius's life. It is a profoundly sad - and effective - portrait of a very lonely individual who gave so much to the world yet received so little in return. For - at least according to the movie - Turing was the ultimate misfit and outsider. He didn't not fit in solely because he was a gay man in a straight world; rather, he was, from a young age, a social outcast, owing to behavioral patterns that we would now recognize as falling somewhere on the autism spectrum. Since we see Turing as both child and adult in this temporally fluid story, we are given perspective on how the seeds of his oddness (and eventual destruction) were sown early on.

Tyldum is helped in his task of biographical sketch by a monumental performance from one of the great actors of our day, Benedict Cumberbatch ("Sherlock"). With total commitment and great emotional intelligence, Cumberbatch brings Turing alive in all his ornery glory. We alternately love him and hate him; even more importantly, we understand him and, eventually, pity him. We also believe in his brilliance, since Cumberbatch, like Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking in "The Theory of Everything," is able to reveal the workings of Turing's mind through the play of his eyes, alone (and unlike Redmayne, confined to a wheelchair for much of his film, Cumberbatch has the rest of his body to play with, too, though he exercises that freedom with great restraint). Also essential to the film are Keira Knightley ("Begin Again") as Joan Clark - the one female math genius of the movie, and the one woman Turing, sort of, romances - and Matthew Goode ("Stoker") as Hugh Alexander, a playboy mathematician whose charisma and good looks make him a natural rival to Turing, yet who comes around - as we do - to throw his full support to a man so obviously his intellectual superior. Both Knightley and Goode - extremely appealing performers, both - bring much needed warmth to the story, and thereby help to highlight Turing's full humanity.

I knew very little about Turing before seeing the film, beyond the fact that the laptop on which I am typing these words might not have come about without his contributions to the then-burgeoning field of computer science. One of my favorite moments in the story comes when Turing is speaking to the police inspector in charge of looking into his indecency case. The detective thinks Turing may be a Soviet Spy (this is the 1950s, don't forget), and has done his research into Turing's work. They discuss his 1951 paper, entitled, appropriately enough, "The Imitation Game," in which Turing examined how to differentiate between artificial and human intelligence. That's when I realized that we all owed Turing an additional debt of gratitude for unknowingly contributing to one of the great works of cinematic science fiction of the past 40 years: "Blade Runner," based on Philip K. Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?." That film opens with a cyborg hunter (a "blade runner") administering a "Voight-Kampff test" to a seeming human. That test? Basically a re-working of Turing's "imitation game." What a man! What a genius! And what a tragedy . . . and what a fine movie about all three.

Unbroken
Unbroken(2014)

A few years ago, I read author Laura Hillenbrand's "Seabiscuit," from which the 2003 film of the same title was adapted. I loved the book, and was impressed with Hillenbrand's writing and attention to detail. I had also enjoyed the movie, which I had seen prior to reading the book, but the book was the superior work of art. Though the movie told an enjoyable and gripping tale, the richness of character and atmosphere that was so present in the writing was somewhat lost in the translation to the screen.

I suspect that something along those lines has happened with Unbroken, the second feature film from actress-turned-director Angelina Jolie ("In the Land of Blood and Honey"). Since I haven't read the book, however, I cannot say for sure whether the problems with the movie lie with the source material, Jolie's direction, or the work of any of the (four!) screenwriters, two of whom just happen to be Joel and Ethan Coen ("Inside Llewyn Davis"). Well, that's dumb, actually, because a screenplay is the blueprint for any film, and what we have here is a film that starts off impressively, but which then goes steadily downhill (mirroring the fate of its protagonist) in its second half, so I blame the script, first and foremost. Overlong and overly fixated on the depredations of psychopaths, "Unbroken" takes an inspirational true-life story and turns it into an exercise in torture porn. Before it slides morosely into narrative despair, though, the film is as powerful as any war and/or survival film made previously.

Louis Zamperini (played as an adult by a very good Jack O'Connell, soon to be seen again in the upcoming "'71"), the son of Italian immigrants in California, spends his youth getting into serious trouble until his older brother Pete encourages him to try out for the track team. Soon, young Louis becomes a running sensation - the "Torrance Tornado" - and when 1936 rolls around he finds himself in Berlin for the Olympics, where he is the fastest American in the 5000-meter race. He has his eye on the next round - the 1940 Tokyo Olympics, but history gets in the way. We learn all this in flashbacks intercut with the "present" of Zamperini at war in the Pacific, as a bombardier. And what a present it is! The film opens with a brilliantly staged aerial battle between the American bombers and the Japanese fighters sent to stop them. With this sequence, alone, Jolie proves her mettle as a major director. She may lose her way later on, but for a while she flirts with greatness.

After escaping the Japanese air assault, Zamperini and his team, led by their Captain, Phil (a for-once very impressive Domhnall Gleeson ("Frank"), are sent out on a rescue mission to recover other Americans lost at sea. Unfortunately, their plane crashes in the ocean, leaving only three survivors (including Zamperini), and for the next 45 days these poor men suffer horrible deprivations of water and food, as well as shark attacks (though they prove to be the more dangerous predator when they pull a shark aboard their lifeboat and eat it) and Japanese strafing. Finally, Zamperini and Phil are rescued (the third having died around day 30 or so), but by a Japanese vessel, after which they enter a whole new kind of hell. And that's when the film goes south.

It's not that Zamperini's story is not a powerful narrative of resilience and survival; it's just that much of what happens in the camps into which he is placed, one after the other, has already been shown - with greater artistry - in other films about World War II, including David Lean's epic 1957 masterpiece "The Bridge on the River Kwai." In that film, the great Oscar-nominated Sessue Hayakawa did a wonderful job evoking the psychosis and tragedy of the camp commander, Saito, without resorting to over-the-top performance tricks. In "Unbroken," the designated torturer, Watanabe, is played by Japanese pop star Miyavi without subtlety or nuance. He's a nut, and we spend far too much time with him. Jolie would have been better served to compress the camp scenes - we get it, it's a terrible experience - and focus, instead, on the inner workings of Zamperini's mind, so that we might understand how he willed himself to survive, much as Alan Parker did for his protagonist in the 1978 "Midnight Express." Instead, we get something more like Mel Gibson's 2004 "The Passion of the Christ": all agony and no redemption.

Still, when it works (i.e., in Act I), the film is effective, indeed. And Zamperini, who died just this year, in 2014, as a closing title card inform us, seems like a man well worth remembering. It's wonderful to see photos and video of the real man during the end credits (though the music Jolie has chosen to play underneath the photos is sappy beyond belief). A half-good tribute is better than no tribute at all.

Into the Woods
½

I was one of the few people I knew who did not like (Academy Award-winner!) "Chicago." Something about that film's ceaseless wink-wink-nudge-nudge smirk of knowingness throughout its 113-minute length really rubbed me the wrong way. So when I saw that its director, Rob Marshall, was back with a new musical, I assumed I would hate it. The fact that I actually liked one half of the movie is either a tribute to the source material - Stephen Sondheim's stage musical of the same title, with which I was previously unfamiliar - or to the director's maturation. Either that or I've mellowed with age (maybe I'll adore Marshall's next screen musical). I suspect, however, that it's all about Sondheim.

If, as was I, you are unfamiliar with the plot, such as it is, here is a brief summary: Sondheim has taken various characters from different mostly Brothers Grimm fairytales - including Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk and Rapunzel - and has woven them together into one tale using an original story of a childless baker and his wife as a framing device. It turns out that an evil witch who lives next door to the baker has placed a curse on his house that, until lifted, will forever prevent the baker and his wife from conceiving a child. But . . . if the baker will but procure a red cape, a golden slipper, a white cow and some corn-yellow hair, the curse can be lifted. You can guess which fairytale character will provide which item (hint: Jack has the cow).

For the first half of the movie (that which constitutes the first act of the musical), it's all terrific fun. With a delightful cast that includes Meryl Streep ("August: Osage County") hamming it up as the witch, a charming Anna Kendrick ("Pitch Perfect") as Cinderella, Johnny Depp (veteran of another Sondheim adaptation, "Sweeney Todd") as the big bad wolf (also hamming it up), an absolutely amazing Chris Pine ("Star Trek into Darkness") as a narcissistic prince, the always-lovely Emily Blunt ("Edge of Tomorrow") as the baker's wife, and the heretofore-unknown-to-me-but-very-good James Corden ("The Wrong Mans") as the baker, the film zips along, tweaking the tales we know so well, and that estrangement from the familiar works a powerful magic. But then, in the second half, the story begins to unravel, and the whole enterprise sinks into the same mud hole into which our heroes try to trap an errant giant.

We're meant to learn that having dreams come true doesn't necessarily bring about happiness, and that true peace and joy comes from the hard work of living. I get that. But that point is so obvious, and so out of the blue and in such sharp contrast to the crazy fun of Act I, that it's just a major bummer, instead. And once you lose that magic, you begin to realize that the threads uniting the characters are actually pretty thin, which means the big emotional beats don't resonate. I don't know - maybe it played differently on the stage. Or maybe I'm just a curmudgeon. But hey, I loved Sweeney Todd, and that mixed humor and the macabre quite well. Here, when people die or suffer misfortune, it just feels random and very sad.

Foxcatcher
Foxcatcher(2014)

The new film from Bennett Miller ("Capote," "Moneyball"), about the troubled interactions between the wealthy, but insane (insanely wealthy, too), heir to the DuPont fortune - John DuPont - and two Olympic wrestlers - Mark and Dave Schultz - is a frustrating concoction. Based on a true story (John DuPont did, in fact - spoiler alert - kill one of the Schultzes), Foxcatcher is, on the one hand, a brilliant examination of depression; on the other hand, it is a silly movie about a fake nose. Sadly, we can't have the one without the other.

Michael Scott - I'm sorry, I mean Steve Carell (Michael Scott on "The Office") - plays DuPont, and though I am a big fan of his and have enjoyed him in many a serious role ("Little Miss Sunshine" - where he gives a truly great depressive performance - is one), here he is all wrong. From the moment we meet him, he looks like he's in on a great big joke - look at me, I'm crazy! - and then there's that awful prosthetic proboscis. Why, Bennett Miller, why? In your previous work, you have demonstrated such wonderful attention to subtleties, and half of this movie is in line with that tradition. So why the nose?

The problems with the nose are this: a) it's too big, and therefore distracting, especially since Carell otherwise looks like himself; b) along those lines, Carell plays DuPont like a Michael Scott off his meds, so this sense of familiarity conjures up too many memories of his past performances; c) John DuPont's actual honker wasn't that humongous (he was no Cyrano), which means there is absolutely no reason for this monstrous piece of misconceived makeup to be in the movie. An additional issue is that Carell, himself, seems to be equally distracted by the nose, often staring at it in an almost cross-eyed manner, which makes no sense. Sigh. I fail to understand the talk of Oscar buzz for Carell.

The other half of the movie - the portrait of the relationship between the brothers Schultz - is terrific, and well worth watching. An amazing Channing Tatum ("22 Jump Street") is Mark Schultz - the younger brother, and the one with serious depression issues - and an equally riveting Mark Ruffalo ("Begin Again" - when is this man ever not good?) is the older one, Dave, all warmth and charm. The development of their story as they navigate the tricky world of sports competition and sponsorships (which is what leads them to DuPont, since he has money and offers it liberally) is the backbone of the movie. Tatum, though we know he can act, already, thanks to movies like "Magic Mike," is a revelation here. His mute and hulking silence as his disease takes over his behavior is a wonder. Too bad Carell wasn't paying attention. If anyone gets nominated for this movie, it should be him, with Ruffalo not far beyond.

See the movie, then, for them, and just grit your teeth for the rest. Half a good movie is never a bad thing.

Annie
Annie(2014)

I know I should somehow feel deeply ashamed of myself - especially since I am at odds with the general critical consensus - but I did not dislike "Annie." In fact, I had a pretty good time watching it. It features very likeable performers, catchy tunes and some wittily trenchant social and political commentary. It's also deeply flawed, story-wise, and occasionally technically deficient, so it's by no means a masterpiece. But it deserves to find an audience. Heck, if "Exodus: Gods and Kings" can take the #1 spot on its opening weekend (and that film had absolutely nothing going for it), then why not "Annie?" Compared to the former, "Annie" is a living, breathing (and singing!) work of art.

It probably helps that I have never cared one iota about "Annie" the Broadway musical - and have never seen John Huston's 1982 movie version (just let that sink in - John Huston!), and so had no expectations whatsoever going into the screening. I've also never read the "Little Orphan Annie" comic strip - other than catching the freaky blanked-out eyes of the titular characters in the funny pages as a kid - on which the entire series of adaptations are based. My mind, when it comes to Annie, was as blissfully empty as was her original incarnation's gaze

So what do we have? A zippy little frivolity celebrating a racially diverse New York City starring a lovely Quvenzhané Wallis ("Beasts of the Southern Wild"), a solid Jamie Foxx ("Ray" - he has the best singing voice of this cast, for sure), a delightful (as always) Rose Byrne ("Neighbors"), a great (also as always) Bobby Canavale ("Blue Jasmine") and a mostly overacting-but-occasionally-funny Cameron Diaz ("Sex Tape," where she was much better). After seeing the film, I can't get "It's a Hard Knock Life" out of my head (a good and bad thing). I am not a specific fan of musicals, so what's up with my generosity towards this thing?

Maybe it's because it doesn't take itself at all seriously, and opens with a wonderful way of moving beyond the traditional redheaded white-girl Annie to our new (African-American) protagonist (I won't spoil it by describing it). There are problems, to be sure. In a few of the early numbers, the post-dubbed syncing is not great (that "technical deficiency I mentioned earlier), and some of the dance sequences would benefit from actual choreography. The weaknesses of the source story are not erased (rich guy rescues poor orphan girl without anyone addressing the core issues of what causes poverty and how one can help the poor in meaningful ways), and there are major holes in the plot throughout (just one - why does the NYPD have jurisdiction in New Jersey, at the end?). But the movie has energy and panache, and arrives just in time for the holidays. It's a great family picture. Go, and take your kids, if you have them.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

The tagline for the new (and final!) film in director Peter Jackson's overlong and bloated adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's brief and sleek first Middle-Earth book "The Hobbit" (following last year's second film in this trilogy in search of a raison d'être beyond the mercenary) is "the defining chapter" (see poster, above). I'll believe that when, 20 or 30 years from now, Jackson has proven himself worthy of that promise. Since there is still plenty of story and esoterica to be mined from the Tolkienverse (or to be invented by fans of J.R.R.'s writing who aren't getting their fill from "Game of Thrones"), I am highly skeptical that this is the last we will see of elves, orcs, dwarves, wizards and, of course, hobbits (if I was supposed to capitalize any of those, well, I just don't care). Where there's money to be made and fans to be satisfied, why stop?

I'll tell you why - because this stuff is getting dull. Really dull. The whole post-"Lord of the Rings" enterprise has always felt contrived - an exact replica of the successful formula that Jackson and his team had applied to Tolkien's actual trilogy (and I like those movies, so don't peg me as a Sauron who's always hating - I'm more like a Saruman who was once on the side of the heroes but has now turned against them) - only without any sort of script. Yet here we are, and a new movie has come out, so I must review it.

To be fair, after all that, "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armie"s (despite my love of this year's "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," can we please stop adding colons to titles ...) is brisker and shorter than its predecessors. It also starts in media res, so before we know what's happening, the action is on. What action? Well that is the problem with this kind of opening, since we are required to remember exactly where we left off last time. This is no stand-alone film, to be sure. Perhaps we are meant to have recently purchased the DVD or Blu-ray and just re-watched film #2. I'd buy that as a motivation ...

Anyway, as Smaug rises above the lake to blast that wooden town floating in the river, some memory of past events may come back to you. Let me help you: Smaug is a dragon (whose name is pronounced, in this series, as "Smow-og," though reading the book as a child, I just called him Smog, as in, dirty air), whose lair under the mountain has just been invaded by a team of dwarves (I think I'm supposed to write "dwarfs," but again, so what?) whom he had originally kicked out of said lair. Bilbo - the ostensible protagonist of these movies (the hobbit of the title ... before the colon and all) - spent much of the second half of film #2 taunting Smaug, and though I cannot quite recall what he specifically did to Smaug to piss him off so much, the dragon is on a rampage and blasts the town and its inhabitants all to hell.

It's actually a well-executed scene, quite frightening, but it soon ends in the expected way (hint: this is not Smaug's movie), after which we spend two hours among mopey dwarves and a largely missing hobbit. Yes, there are battles and people die, but keep in mind that Jackson has taken the final 72 pages of a 300-page book and tried to make a feature-length film by lengthening scenes that were best left short. The most moving sequences - and they are very affecting, to be sure - are ironically ones that center around a character not even in the original source text: Tauriel the "she-elf" (Evangeline Lilly from "Lost"), who is in love with Kili the dwarf (Aidan Turner from "Being Human"). Almost everything else left me looking at my watch.

Perhaps the worst sin of the film is how much Jackson ignores Bilbo or, even worse, makes him such a passive character. Martin Freeman (Watson from "Sherlock") is always excellent, but his relegation to supporting status here forces us to watch orcs and dwarves square off, and after one battle too many, it all blends together. I think the folks at Weta Digital do great work, but really, it's story that we (OK, that I) come to see.

And lest I make this review as bloated as Jackson's movies (it's contagious!), I will stop now. See the film if you must, enjoy it if you will, but remember that good box office returns will only encourage the man to keep on going.

Exodus: Gods and Kings

What can I say . . . do not see this film. Flee from "Exodus: Gods and Kings." It may well be the worst film I have seen all year. I overheard some people at the end of the screening I attended saying that while the story was bad, at least the effects were spectacular. They are wrong. The effects are terrible, too, and the 3D just makes them worse. Everything in this mess, from the performances to the production design to the visual effects and cinematography, is just misconceived and misbegotten. You want to watch a story about Moses and the return of Jews to their homeland? Rent Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 "The Ten Commandments" - a bloated mess in its own right, but a masterpiece of storytelling by comparison - instead. And that's all I have to say in the subject. Or maybe not. Let's let Mel Brooks have the last word, in this clip from "History of the World: Part 1": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4TAtRCJIqnk

Pelican Dreams
½

At a brisk 80 minutes, "Pelican Dreams," the lovely new documentary film by Judy Irving ( "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill") hardly overstays it welcome. With beautiful shots (especially the high-resolution slow-motion footage, both above and underwater) of wild pelicans at work and play, the film treats us to stunning scenes from the lives of these once-endangered birds (courtesy of DDT dumping in the 1950s and 1960s) who now face new environmental threats because of climate change. At times heartbreaking (especially when we meet injured birds in captivity), and at other times heartwarming (when those same birds fly away), the movie is a moving tribute not only to the birds but to the people who care for them. The film should appeal to all who care about about animal life on our planet.

That said, the movie is not perfect. I did not enjoy Judy Irving's voiceover; in fact, I often found it irritating and completely unnecessary. Better to let the beauty of the birds and the voices of the experts tell the story, rather than interrupt our revery with musings on whether or not birds dream. I loved Irving's "Wild Parrots" - in which she refrained from such excessive commentary - but as she announces at the start of her new film, she has always felt a personal connection with pelicans (unlike with parrots), and so we get what we get. I was also not a big of the film's soundtrack, by Bruce Kaphan, which I found as similarly intrusive as the voiceover. So be it. Together they are a small price to pay for the joy of watching pelicans frolic.

Wild
Wild(2014)
½

The worst that can be said about Wild, the new film by French Canadian filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallée ("Dallas Buyers Club"), is that it feels overdetermined. While it's true that good drama often flows from the connections and causalities between various life events and the narrative threads that bind them, it is also true that one must be wary of coincidence and cliché. "Wild" has a strong story and structure (courtesy of novelist Nick Hornby), but also a lot of easily foreseeable outcomes. If that's the worst of it, though, then not to worry, for the positives mostly outweigh those negatives. What "Wild" does beautifully is tell the moving tale of one woman's journey of self-discovery after a moment of supreme crisis in her life. And while we can easily guess that this journey will end well (the movie is, after all, based on the best-selling memoir of the same title by Cheryl Strayed, the movie's protagonist), that doesn't mean that the journey is not, in and of itself, interesting. It helps that the cinematography is gorgeous and the performances sublime. It's potent stuff, mostly well realized.

When the movie begins, Strayed - a very good Reese Witherspoon ("Walk the Line") - a woman in her mid-20s, has just pulled herself out of a self-destructive downward spiral that saw her both engage in indiscriminate sex with strangers (despite being married to a man she loved) and abuse heroin, all the result of grief at her mother's untimely death from cancer. She reinvents herself with a new last name after her divorce and decides to hike 1000 miles up the Pacific Crest Trail as both penance and healing walkabout. We travel with her as she struggles up peaks for which she is woefully unprepared, flashing back to earlier moments in her life, including many scenes with her mother, the self-described "love of her life." Played by a magnificent Laura Dern (the mother in "The Fault in Our Stars," as well), Cheryl's mom is a warm and nurturing presence to which Cheryl returns time and again during the cold nights of her hike, and thanks to Dern we can easily understand why her loss was so devastating to Cheryl. Eventually, as these stories go, Cheryl manages to pull herself up by her hiking bootstraps - after meeting many colorful characters along the way, and some mild danger, as well - and return to the world of the living, leaving us with a sense of genuine catharsis and redemption. And though we may have seen this kind of movie before, it's rare that we see a movie where a woman solves her own problems, largely by herself, without requiring undue help from the men in her life. Redemption and, hopefully, inspiration to us all.

Top Five
Top Five(2014)
½

Let's be clear: this is not a great movie, by any means. Though comedian Chris Rock ("Grown Ups") has directed two previous features over the past 11 years ("Head of State," "I Think I Love My Wife"), he is still a relatively inexperienced filmmaker, and it shows. Scenes drag on for too long, reaction shots are not always timed well, and transitions are often clumsy. And yet . . . the movie is supremely enjoyable, and frequently very funny. Rock is a smart man who is much more than just a funny guy (see his recent "Hollywood Reporter" essay on race in the movie business as an example of his insightful thinking), and his jokes - when they hit their mark - are like little Trojan comedy missiles that hide their barbed social commentary inside a soft Nerf(TM) cover. It helps, also, that Rock has cast the perfect straight foil for the main character that he, himself, plays, in Rosario Dawson ("Cesar Chavez"), with whom he has terrific on-screen chemistry. Their banter is a delight to behold. So while the movie is flawed, it has enough going for it to be more than worth seeing.

Andre Allen (Rock) is a major Hollywood star known for playing "Hammy the Bear" in a series of crude "Beverly Hills Cop" send-ups who, in a career 180 reminiscent of that of "Sullivan's Travels," has decided to abandon comedy and make a film about an 18th-century Haitian slave uprising (like "Sankofa," only without the artistry). One of the funnier running gags in the movie is how atrociously bad this movie-within-the-movie is and how no one, regardless of race, wants to see it. Allen is also about to get married to a narcissistic reality star played by Gabrielle Union ("Think Like a Man Too"), and the stress of the upcoming nuptials and his failing movie may just drive him to drink again (he's a recovering alcoholic). In walks a "New York Times" reporter (Dawson), hungry for the real scoop on the star, and after Allen agrees to spend the day walking around with her, most of the rest of the movie is about their conversations - often deep, frequently hilarious - about life and Allen's career. Thanks to the two stars and some very witty dialogue, the movie almost always works in these blissful scenes. If it doesn't quite work at other times, it's still more hit than miss. It may be not make it into my own personal top five of the year (or top 10, or top 20), but it's still a lot of fun.

The Homesman
The Homesman(2014)

The greatest asset in "The Homesman" - the second theatrical feature directed by actor Tommy Lee Jones ("The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada") - is also its greatest weakness. Hilary Swank ("Million Dollar Baby"), plays Mary Bee Cuddy - an independent frontier woman in the Nebraska Territory in the 1850s - with such energy and commitment that she shines from within, making her luminous to behold. In other words, it is a typically magnificent Swank performance. The problem is that everyone else in the movie keeps lamenting how plain and bossy she is, and the disconnect between what the camera sees and what the characters see is jarring. Even when she essentially throws herself upon the men in the movie, desperate for love (or, at the very least, connection), they reject her. I had always thought that the settlers who populated the American West liked their women strong (with nice, child-bearing hips!). According to this movie, that is not the case, and it literally drives the women crazy.

Cuddy - alone on a farm that she owns, with no man and no family - volunteers to transport the wives of three men in her town back East. These poor women have gone insane, for different reasons: one has lost her children; another, her mother; the third, to be honest, I cannot remember the reason. It's not important. What is important is that the men in their lives have either abused them or been unable to provide them what they need - emotionally, spiritually, physically - to survive in the barren landscape they inhabit. Adrift and friendless, they need someone to step up and escort them back to a more civilized place, and that someone is Cuddy. But she can't do it alone, and on her way home one day she finds a drifter, George Briggs (Jones), seated on his horse with a rope around his neck. She rescues him and tells him he must help her make the trip to Missouri. He's not keen on the idea, but since he gave his word, he does, indeed, go along for the ride.

This is a movie defined by its oddness - in ways both good and bad. Though mostly chronological in its storytelling, it occasionally digresses from the narrative to show us a subjective memory or dream, without explanation. At times elliptical - days pass without us realizing it at first - the film at other times succumbs to excessive expositional dialogue. I haven't read the source novel of the same name, by Glendon Swarthout, so I don't know how much of the aesthetic strangeness of the movie comes from Jones or the original author. Still, though messy and not always coherent - Cuddy's climactic action is untrue to her character, and for some reason James Spader ("The Blacklist") shows up in the final third as an Irish gangster - "The Homesman" is usually interesting to watch, largely thanks to Swank and Jones, who fill the screen with their electrifying performances. As a feminist revisionist take on Westerns - deconstructing male behavior and revealing it for the selfish and misogynist thing that it can be - the film is fairly effective. As a gripping and consistent narrative, it is less so. I did love the ending, though, which is perfect for a crazy movie like this: Briggs, his one selfless act completed, dances, drunk, on a river barge, reverting back to the behavior that got him in trouble in the first place.

Still, if you want to see a better recent Western about the triumph of the female spirit, I recommend watching Kelly Reichardt's 2010 "Meek's Cutoff." Until then, 'The Homesman" may or may not do, depending on your taste. Jones's first film was far more successful, but this one, flaws and all, is not without merit.

The Theory of Everything
½

Biopics - or biographical pictures - all face the same challenge: how to reduce the essence of one person's life into recognizable and digestible components while balancing the needs of drama within the approximate two-hour length of most movies. It's not an easy equation to solve, and sometimes the better films are the ones that choose to focus on one particular moment in that person's life, as in last year's marvelous "The Invisible Woman," about the affair that 19th-century English author Charles Dickens had with a much younger woman. Since Felicity Jones, a powerfully engaging young actress who portrays Jane Wilde - or the woman who was physicist Stephen Hawking's first wife - in "The Theory of Everything," was also in "The Invisible Woman," perhaps we can claim that one of the requirements of a successful biopic be that it feature her. For while "The Theory of Everything" has the usual flaws of many a biopic - compression, conflation and oversimplification - it is nevertheless among the best of its genre, thanks in no small part to Jones and Eddie Redmayne ("My Week with Marilyn"), who plays Hawking in an astonishing, career-making performance that rivals anything the great Daniel Day-Lewis did in "My Left Foot."

One thing this film does not do well, though, is explain Hawking's theories of the universe (which is clearly not its intention, anyway). For that, I recommend you check out Errol Morris's superb 1991 documentary "A Brief History of Time," which was based on Hawking's best-selling book of the same title. In that film (or book), you'll learn all about Hawking's obsessions with (as his website tells us) "gravity, black holes, the Big Bang, the nature of time and physicists' search for a grand unifying theory." Hawking is probably one of the most important scientific minds of the 20th (and now 21st) century. But that's what "The Theory of Everything" is about, despite its grandiose title.

Instead, this is a story of love, resilience and overcoming adversity. When the movie begins, in 1963, Hawking and his bride-to-be, Jane, are students at Cambridge University. They meet cute, fall in love - she studies medieval Spanish literature and he, physics, and it's the difference that attracts - all is beautiful, and then one day Hawking takes a nasty fall and it is revealed that he has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (or ALS) and only two years left to live (Hawking, born in 1942, is still alive as of this writing). It is, as his father intones, "a heavy defeat." But Jane genuinely loves Stephen, and is a lot tougher than she first appears to be, and soon she is nursemaid to the great (though physically deteriorating) genius, putting her own dreams on hold to be wife, and then mother, as the couple has not one, but two and then, finally, three children. She is a saint, though, to be fair, the movie is based on Jane's account of her life with Hawking, so we'll have to take the truths therein as simply her own version thereof.

As a portrait of two strong-willed individuals, the film is a marvel. But while Jones is luminous, it's Redmayne who impresses the most. From a dashing nerd, he morphs into a twisted physical shell of a man with eyes that shine through the pain to show the giant brain within. It is a truly remarkable transformation. And we need to see Hawking's daily struggle in this visceral way so that when, towards the end of the movie, in front of an American audience during his book tour for "A Brief History of Time," his computer-generated voice (Hawking underwent a tracheotomy in the 1980s after a bout with pneumonia, and lost his vocal chords) intones, "'However bad life may seem, while there is life, there's hope," it resonates with meaning. So while you may not learn a lot about science in "The Theory of Everything," you may learn a lot about life, and living it to the fullest.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1
½

There is a moment in the first third of the new Hunger Games movie - yet another "Part 1" of a two-part adaptation of the final volume in a popular young adult book series - that is the perfect encapsulation of the inextricability of movie making and movie marketing; the ultimate metafictional moment. Katniss Everdeen, the reluctant warrior heroine of Panem's revolution, has been drafted to play the role of the "mockingjay" - the symbol of the rebellion against the Capital - and has failed miserably to deliver camera-ready performances for District 13's propaganda team. She's no actress, and the studio setting of the rebels' bunker is no battlefield: Katniss is best when she's authentic. And so the leaders send her out to visit another, recently bombed, district. While Katniss is there - camera crew in tow - the Capital attacks again, and she fires off an explosive arrow, destroying an enemy airplane, then turns and delivers - to the camera - an improvised speech that is everything her handlers have wanted. Next scene: the residents of District 13 gather to watch the short propaganda film, or "propo," edited to showcase the highlights of the skirmish and of Katniss's righteous battle cry. The piece ends with the mockingjay logo - the same one used on much of the marketing materials for "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1" - accompanied by the four-note mockingjay melody - the same one used at the end of the movie's official trailer. The movie within the movie is a tie-in for the movie, in other words. Expect the evil President Snow to be playing with a Katniss Everdeen action figure in Part 2!

That said, this new entry in what is a hugely successful film franchise ("The Hunger Games" grossed almost $700 million worldwide, and it's sequel - "Catching Fire" - over $850 million) is not always so crass (or clever, depending on your point of view). There is genuine feeling in the performances, and Francis Lawrence, the director of the previous movie (and also of "Water for Elephants," among other works), continues to show a real strength with actors and action scenes, alike. Forever banished are the missed beats and false notes of the first film, and we feel we are in the hands of a consummate craftsman who knows how to direct his cast and crew. "Mockingjay - Part 1" largely delivers on its promise to set up a rousing finale for next year's "Mockingjay - Part 2." Still, while it (more or less) holds together as a movie in its own right, there's a certain lack of energy in the plot development that all too often reduces tension and slows things down for no apparent reason other than to fill out the half-story to feature length and make room for the conclusion. Other than the fact that the two-part series ending has become de rigeur, thanks to "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1" and "Part 2," there's no real raison d'être for this particular movie's penultimate status. With (much) tighter editing and another 30 minutes tacked on, we'd have one hell of a finish.

All major actors from the first two films are here again (unless their characters died, earlier), and in fine form. It's bittersweet to see the late Philip Seymour Hoffman ("Capote") as Plutarch Heavensbee, but there he is, good as always. Jennifer Lawrence ("American Hustle"), Josh Hutcherson ("The Kids Are All Right") and Liam Hemsworth ("Empire State") incarnate the three sides of the central love triangle with appropriately moist eyes and trembling voices, though it's Hutcherson, as the captured (and tortured) Peeta Mellark who gets to really act this time, as his body and mind reflect, more and more, the scars of his captivity. Woody Harrelson ("Out of the Furnace") and Elizabeth Banks ("Little Accidents") are back as comic relief (of which this gloomy film needs much more than it has), and are each perfect, as is Jeffrey Wright ("Boardwalk Empire") as the Capital's erstwhile tech security guy who now works for the rebellion. Julianne Moore ("Don Jon") joins the cast as Alma Coin, leader of District 13, opposite the great Donald Sutherland's ("Man on the Train") President Snow. They're all very good together.

Overall, the film is much better than its source text (which, granted, isn't saying a lot). The first book of the series was by far the strongest and yet its cinematic adaptation was, so far, the weakest of the bunch. As author Suzanne Collins wrote books 2 and 3, she seemed to lose her way, and the final book - in particular its final half - was an underwritten mess. So far, the movies are following the reverse quality trajectory. If "Part 2" has all of the strengths of "Part 1" plus more energy (i.e. none of its weaknesses) and less gloom, than there's no doubt that the finale will continue this trend. I wish they had made one movie, rather than two, but my desires are insignificant compared to the demands of the box office.

Rosewater
Rosewater(2014)

Would we care that much about this film if Jon Stewart - he of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" - were not the director? I doubt it (and I'm a fan of Stewart's). While it tells a worthy story - how Iranian Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari was imprisoned for 118 days in 2009 by the Iranian regime after he reported on the disputed 2009 presidential election between then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the main opposition leader, Mir Hossein Moussavi, it does not tell it in any particularly exciting way. This is a film by a first-time director, so to expect more would be unrealistic. Still, Stewart does not embarrass himself, and gets a fine performance out of Mexican actor Gael García Bernal ("Y tu mamá también"), who plays Bahari. But the script (which Stewart wrote, based on Bahari's memoir "Then They Came for Me") and the direction almost succeed in making a compelling story seem pedestrian (starting with the horrible music by Howard Shore, who has done much better work in films like "Doubt" and "The Departed," among many others). Stewart felt driven to make this film in part because Bahari had appeared on his show a few days before being arrested, an appearance which was one of the pieces of evidence used against him during his incarceration (dictators never seem to have a sense of humor, sadly). Nevertheless, it would have been better to have a Paul Greengrass ("United 93") or an Alan Parker ("Midnight Express") direct it. Oh, well.

What we get is a film that purports to show us a horrible ordeal at the hands of a totalitarian regime that manages to make said ordeal seem like no big deal. There is very little tension anywhere, although both Bernal and his interrogator, "Rosewater" (so nicknamed by Bahari - though we never learn this from the movie - because of the scent he applied to himself daily) - played by Danish actor Kim Bodnia ("In a Better World") - do their best. There is one moment in the film where the story suddenly takes a turn for the captivating, and that is when the über-interragotor who supervises "Rosewater" challenges Bahari to prove - given the history of the Western media and of the CIA in Iran (he argues that both conspired to turn public opinion against the regime of Mohammad Mosaddeq and supported his ouster in favor of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi) - that he is not a spy. "How can you say that when the media worked with the CIA to bring the Shah to power?" It's true - the CIA did usher in the Shah. In the ongoing Kafkaesque negotiations between Bahari and his torturers, where words matter less than subjugation, this scene proves interesting. The rest is just noise (which may be Stewart's point, but which does not make for captivating cinema). Good try, Jon. You got this out of your system. I'll wait for your next movie.

Dear White People

I must confess that I found both the trailer and the hype surrounding "Dear White People" more than a little annoying. The jokes and the premise, itself (white people are racist!), seemed clumsy and unoriginal. Racism exists and pervades our culture - of that I have no doubt (just look at the lack of diversity in major films coming out of Hollywood) - but that doesn't mean that any film that takes on that subject is going to be good. Still, one of my favorite films from the 1980s remains Robert Townsend's biting satire on race and popular culture, "Hollywood Shuffle," and that had plenty of crude humor in it, so I finally made up my mind to go see first-time feature director Justin Simien's movie. Much to my pleasant surprise, it was a lot better than I expected. Yes, it was messy - the way many first movies are - but it was also pretty smart in many places, and filled with appealing actors delivering fine (and often nuanced) performances.

The four main actors - Tyler James Williams ("Everybody Hates Chris") as Lionel, Tessa Thompson ("For Colored Girls") as Sam White, Teyonah Parris ("Mad Men") as Coco, and Brandon P. Bell ("Hollywood Heights") as Troy - all deserve immense credit for what works in the film, as they make the dumb stuff seem smart and the smart stuff seem brilliant. Lionel is the gay black (Trekker) nerd with a huge afro who fits in nowhere; Sam is the conflicted bi-racial ("tragic mulatto" as her otherwise sweet white boyfriend mockingly calls her) who hosts the titular "Dear White People" on-campus radio show; Coco is the aspirational reality TV wannabe who will do anything to draw attention to herself; and Troy is the man-about-campus son of the Dean of Students who is normally so un-confrontational that he has no real identity to speak of. All four come together in ways both contrived (the white President and black Dean of Students not only went to college together but now have children attending the same university and dating each other?) and amusing as a white-run humor magazine throws a "negro"-themed Halloween party, complete with blackface, fried chicken and watermelon, which leads to a race riot. It may not be entirely believable (why don't the black students have their own party, as the folks over at NPR's "Pop Culture Happy Hour" pointed out - would they really be sitting around having a Black Student Union meeting?), but much of it is good fun. And the ultimate "why can't we all get along message" of the movie, coupled with its cynical take on (campus) politics (which is believable), is hard to argue with. So it's a mixed bag, for sure, but one filled with lots of goodies.

On a final note: one interesting way in which we can argue that popular culture has changed a bit over the years is that there have been no alarms over how this film might incite racial rioting, as there were back in 1989, when Spike Lee released his seminal masterpiece "Do the Right Thing." We're still far from a post-racial world (if that's even possible), but that may count as progress, of a sort.

Diplomacy
Diplomacy(2014)
½

Based on a stage play by Cyril Gély - who, along with director Volker Schlöndorff ("The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum"), co-wrote the movie adaptation - Diplomacy tells the story of how, towards the end of World War II (August 25-26, 1944, to be exact), the Paris-born Swedish consul-general to France, Raoul Nordling, convinced Nazi General Dietrich von Choltitz - the military governor of Paris - to refrain from blowing up the "City of Light" as the Nazis retreated from the Allied invasion. This material has been covered before, in the 1966 action-adventure war film "Is Paris Burning?" (an adaptation of the book of the same title), but whereas that film was all battles and explosions (and very good for what it was), this new film is about a different kind of tension. Will Nordling convince von Choltitz to disobey a direct order from der Führer and save Paris? The fact that the movie is largely fictional (at least according to the great academic historian Ian Buruma) does not diminish from its success at creating a brilliant cat-and-mouse game of verbal fencing. It's particularly rewarding because the roles of cat and mouse (who is who?) remain unclear until the very end. It is a brilliant exploration of the art of diplomacy.

Both André Dussolier ("Un coeur en hiver"), as Nordling, and Niels Arestrup ("Un prophète"), as von Choltitz, are more than up to the task that Schlöndorff and Gély devise. We believe them as men of strong will and strong minds (Dussolier, especially). And we understand the stakes at play, for the movie opens with archival images of the destruction of Warsaw (another petty act of Nazi terror that served no strategic purpose). Should Nordling fail, not only will centuries - nay, millennia - of human culture and history be destroyed, but so, too, will hundreds of thousands of lives be lost, for the demolition of the bridges over the Seine will cause widespread surges that will break the river's banks and flood the city. This knowledge lends an urgency to the sometimes-casual conversation between the two men that makes even the most seemingly trivial line resonate with meaning. In this movie, words do, indeed, matter a great deal.

Beyond the Lights
½

About halfway through "Beyond the Lights" - the new soapy tearjerker of a pop-infused romance by Gina Prince-Bythewood ("Love & Basketball," "The Secret Life of Bees") - Nate Parker ("Red Tails") takes his shirt off to dress the self-inflicted wounds of Gugu Mbatha-Raw ("Belle"). As the camera lingers on his perfect chest, biceps and abs (which it will do with increasing frequency throughout the film), what should be a moving moment of crisis turns, instead, into a risible and crass display of a sexy body. The audience in the theater laughed, as they did with each subsequent nude shot. And that's the essence of the problem with the movie. Though Prince-Bythewood, a talented writer/director, has made the film with great care (and the best of intentions) - tackling universal themes of love, despair, identity and self-determination - the net result rarely rises above the general (and generic) clichés of mainstream Hollywood filmmaking. With more than a few shades of 1992's "The Bodyguard" (and most other pop star-centered stories) in its DNA, "Beyond the Lights" - though entertaining in spots, and featuring a riveting performance from its female lead - does not, in fact, go beyond much at all.

Mbatha-Raw plays Noni, the mixed-race daughter of Minnie Driver ("Good Will Hunting") - in a thankless one-note role as a domineering stage mother - and an unknown father, whom we first meet as a child (nicely incarnated by newcomer India Jean-Jacques) as she is about to perform in a talent contest, singing Nina Simone's "Blackbird." When she comes in second, her mother forces her to throw away the trophy, telling her, "You wanna be a runner-up or you wanna be a winner?" With a sudden smash cut to the present, we see what Noni has become: a rising R&B star who, through a series of sex-fueled music videos with a white rapper, is poised on the brink of superstardom (with her first solo album on the way). But then, one night, inebriated, she tries to throw herself off a balcony, and we discover that the journey from child to adult, and from authentic performance to the artificiality of the music business, has taken a serious toll on Noni.

Fortunately, Kaz (Parker), a twenty-something police officer moonlighting on Noni's security detail, is there to catch Noni as she falls (physically and emotionally). The rest of the movie centers on the way their relationship could either derail both of their career prospects (he is an aspiring politician), or show them each a new way forward, towards the selves they were meant to be. It's a sweet story, but often rendered so clumsily, and with music - even the final ballad that Noni composes as an example of true self-expression - so insistently banal that is often hard to appreciate the moving message beneath the noise. The sole exception to this is the scene in the film when Noni, in Mexico with Kaz, sings, once more, Simone's "Blackbird," and we feel - for one brief shining moment - something real happening on screen (Mbatha-Raw is great throughout, but not well served by the material).

In spite of it all, the film is eminently watchable, with appealing actors. It's just not very good.

Force Majeure

In "Force Majeure," a Swedish film (originally entitled "Turist") by Ruben Östlund ("Play"), a family - seemingly happy together - on vacation at a ski resort (the gorgeous Les Arcs, in the Savoie region of Alpine France) faces one (natural) disaster that then leads to another, more serious (familial) one. After an avalanche comes dangerously close to the outdoor restaurant where they are lunching, the father bolts as the snow rushes upon them, leaving the mother to frantically protect her two kids. After that, nothing is the same. As a meditation on manhood, heroism and gender roles, the film is a masterpiece.

I knew none of the actors beforehand, but both Johannes Kuhnke - as Tomas, the father - and Lisa Loven Kongsli - as Ebba, the mother, are brilliant. We believe both their early easy physical intimacy and later dissolution. For Ebba cannot forgive Tomas for running; or, rather, she can't forgive him for not owning up to his behavior. As their children (real-life siblings Clara and Vincent Wettergren, each equally terrific) look on helplessly, Tomas and Ebba intermittently argue and avoid each other.

But this is also a wonderfully funny film. In fact, it's one of the funniest films I've seen all year: a true "dramedy." Both Tomas's narcissism and Ebba's never-ending amazement at that narcissism, coupled with their unrecognized sense of entitlement (only the wealthy can afford Les Arcs), make for wonderfully biting comedy. As do their interactions with other guests at the resort, including Tomas's good friend Mats - played by the wonderfully charismatic (what a great big red beard!) Kristofer Hivju (Tormund Giantsbane on "Game of Thrones") - and his 20-year-old girlfriend Fanny (the charming Fanni Metelius). Mats, especially, tries to help Tomas justify his selfish behavior through a verbal jujitsu that just makes it worse (and leads to his own subsequent problems with Fanny). There is no way out except through confession. Which turns out to not be true at all, since Tomas manages to suffer his breakdown in the most self-pitying, self-centered way imaginable. By the time the film ends (in a spectacularly inconclusive fashion), we sense that the marriage is over, even while Tomas - his guilt off his chest - seems revived. Ebba knows better, as do we. It's Tomas's refusal to do more than just admit to cowardice - his refusal to change in any substantive way - that spells doom. It's a perfect portrait of how and why relationships can go wrong.

It's a must-see, and also very entertaining.

Interstellar
Interstellar(2014)
½

Dust is everywhere. The only crop that can still grow on earth is corn, but every year more crops fail. Most of the world's population has died, and the remaining humans struggle to make ends meet, and view science - which they imagine as responsible for their dreary fate - with great skepticism. New textbooks claim that the 20th-century moon landing was faked, and anyone who disagrees is seen as a troublemaker. It's only a matter of time, though, until the ever-multiplying dust clouds kill off the last people on earth. This is the future as imagined by Christopher Nolan ("Inception") and his brother and frequent co-writer Jonathan ("The Dark Knight"), and it's a dreary, but not unusual (these days, anyway), cinematic scenario.

Matthew McConaughey ("Dallas Buyers Club") plays Cooper, a former NASA pilot who know farms corn and does his best to raise two kids: an older boy, Tom - who will be played as an adult by Casey Affleck ("Gone Baby Gone") - and a younger girl, Murphy (or Murph) who will grow up first to be (disappointingly), the lightweight Jessica Chastain ("Zero Dark Thirty") and then (less disappointingly) Ellen Burstyn ("Requiem for a Dream"). Murph is the true apple of her father's eye, and a dreamer like him. As first incarnated by young Mackenzie Foy ("The Conjuring"), she is a powerful intellectual and creative force, and we understand why Cooper would invest so much ardent energy on her. And it's important that we do, for their relationship is the key to the entire film. Without these early scenes on earth, the rest of the movie would have little emotional resonance. That the movie works at all (when it works) is in no small part due to the rapport between McConaughey and Foy, both of whom deliver electrifying performances.

This (dust-choked) idyll is soon threatened when Murphy and Cooper, tracking coordinates mysteriously spelled out in dust on Murph's bedroom floor, come across a secret NASA bunker, where Cooper reunites with an old mentor, Professor Brand, played with his (now) usual curmudgeonly charm by Michael Caine ("Batman Begins"). Brand has a daughter - also a "professor" - known simply as "Brand," and played with a delightful combination of whimsy and seriousness by Anne Hathaway ("Les Misérables"), an actress I don't always like, but very much do here. It turns out that father and daughter have designed an interstellar mission to reach a wormhole that they've discovered near Saturn. On a previous mission - departed a decade prior - over a dozen astronauts traveled through that wormhole to a distant galaxy in search of new planets to settle, since ours is so quickly failing. Since they haven't returned, NASA plans to send a new vessel to the wormhole, and needs an experienced pilot like Cooper in charge. Cooper - bored with farming and needing no convincing that this is the only way to save our species - signs on, but not without great regret, since that means leaving Murphy (and Tom) behind. Fortunately, crusty father-in-law Donald - played by a fine John Lithgow (3rd Rock from the Sun) - can fill in as parent, but Murph is devastated, and will spend the rest of her life bitterly angry with her father for abandoning her.

The rest of her life? Well, yes, because beyond the set-up of the film's core relationship, the other thing "Interstellar" does well is to dramatize what we know about time dilation in space travel: how people stuck on earth would age more rapidly than people traveling great distances at close to the speed of light (as a kid, one of my favorite books about this phenomenon was Robert Heinlein's "Starman's Quest"). As Cooper and Brand (daughter) journey first to the wormhole and then go through it, they age in months and years, while their family on earth ages in decades. It's a steep price to pay, but the stakes are nothing less than the survival of the human race.

The problem with "Interstellar," though, is that it can never figure out what kind of movie it wants to be: Ridley Scott's "Prometheus" or Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey." Both films deal with humans desperately seeking answers in the cosmos, but the former traffics in trite (if entertaining) action clichés, while the latter tackles large existential issues with finesse and grace. Nolan, who has made a career out of combining pop-cultural aesthetics and metaphysical questions (the best of his work remains "Memento"), here gets the equation all wrong. He steals the banal concepts from Scott and the (by now banal, because repeated ad nauseam since then) visuals and action sequences from Kubrick, rather than emulating Kubrick's philosophical meditations and Scott's sense of pace. So we get a slow - if beautiful - story about not much at all. Yes, we are doomed, but the method by which we eventually rescue ourselves from oblivion manages to be both impenetrable and hackneyed: love it seems, conquers all. Sweet, but . . . that's it? Still, awkward pacing and silly ideas and all, even at almost 3 hours the film is not without interest. It's just, sadly, without a lot of interest.

Big Hero 6
Big Hero 6(2014)

From Walt Disney comes a new adaptation of a lesser-known Marvel comics super team. This summer saw the release of the hip and cool (and terrifically fun) live-action Guardians of the Galaxy - also from Disney, and also taken from a heretofore obscure series - and now we get Big Hero 6, a much weaker animated confection that is trying so hard to be all things to all people that it ends up being very little to anyone at all. There are a few genuine laughs and some truly spectacular animation on display (though the 3D was unnecessary, and added nothing) - we would hope so, since this is Disney - but the end result is a fairly insipid mess, perhaps good for kids who don't have anything else to see, but not worth watching beyond that.

Which is too bad, since the basic premise - that nerds are cool - is a good one. Too bad that they otherwise aren't that different from any other misfit Disney heroes of the past. I did myself no favors by mistakenly assuming that this was a Pixar film before the screening, and so the lack of originality in the character development came as a bitter disappointment. Add to that the brutal barrage of video game music throughout the movie and my head was hurting by the time it was over. Though it is perhaps a little too obviously sentimental, the cute short film - Feast - that precedes the feature is far more interesting than the main event.

I had to laugh - which was not the directors' intention - at the set-up of the movie. We are in "San Fransokyo," a heavily Asianized - or Japanified, anyway - version of San Francisco (which in our real world is already a happy home to a large and diverse Asian population). There's nothing wrong with that, but it feels like such an obvious pitch to the lucrative Chinese and pan-Asian market, as opposed to something organically justified by the story, that from the get-go I was on the defensive, expecting more crass commercialism, rather than pure story. After researching the source material, I see that the original comics take place entirely in Japan, and I think the movie would have been better served had the filmmakers kept to that location. The hybrid they create is not without its visual inventiveness (pagoda arches on the Golden Gate bridge, for example), but it feels like a cheap trick: let's appeal to our traditional audience - and include an African-American nerd for good measure - but also position ourselves for the future.

The story focuses on Hiro, a 14-year-old genius whose early graduation from high school has left him free to pursue a black-market career in "bot fighting," where he uses his small size and seemingly innocuous (but very lethal) robot to hustle larger and older players. His older brother Tadashi (also a brilliant robotics engineer) rescues Hiro from this aimless pursuit and convinces Hiro to apply to the same super college which he, himself, attends. In order to get in, Hiro must first come up with an original idea to impress the school's leader, Professor Callaghan. Without much effort, it seems (indeed, another weakness of the film is how it sells genius as something that comes without the necessity for labor), Hiro creates - with help from Tadashi's ragtag group of college friends - a swarm of "micro-bots" that he can control with a powerful computer headband. Wearing that device, he is able to make these tiny robots coalesce into any form he dreams up. He is, in short, like a god. Obviously, he is accepted into the college. But not before attracting the attention of some nefarious sorts who covet those micro-bots.

And then - of course - tragedy strikes, and Hiro is left on his own, in mourning. To his rescue comes an unlikely savior in the form of a first-aid robot - Baymax - designed by Tadashi. Baymax is the big, white fluffy Michelin man-like creature featured on the posters and in the trailers for the film. He's a dear, and the scenes between him and Hiro are genuinely sweet and adorable . . . until they become cloyingly so. Soon, Hiro must re-program Baymax as a fighter (and design some nifty heavy-duty armor and jet propulsion for him, too), once he discovers a nasty super villain at work to destroy the city. With his mighty redesigned helpmate and Tadashi's college buds in tow, Hiro becomes the de facto leader of the super nerds, redubbed at the end of the movie "Big Hero 6." I think I see a potential franchise, no?

Whiplash
Whiplash(2014)

"Whiplash," the overwhelmingly riveting second feature from young (born 1985) writer/director Damien Chazelle ("Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench") opens with a scene of an aspiring jazz drummer, Andrew - played with searing commitment by rising star Miles Teller ("The Spectacular Now") - rehearsing in an empty studio space. Suddenly, he stops, noticing the eavesdropping (more like lurking) figure of a man outside. He knows who it is, though we don't, yet. Then that man walks in, and we meet resident musical guru Fletcher - played with powerful intensity by a J.K. Simmons ("Spider-Man") as you've never seen him before - and the pas-de-deux that will drive the movie for the next 100+ minutes begins.

Fletcher is the most charismatic and demanding teacher at the fictional Shaffer Conservatory of Music in New York, and it's his role (as he sees it), to create the next generation of geniuses. He sees something in Andrew. Is it genius? Is it hunger? Both? Or is it a willingness to suffer abuse in the pursuit of art? For Fletcher is not a conventional pedagogue. If you want to be great, you must suffer to become so, even if that means having a chair thrown at your head.

Fletcher is clearly a sadist, though he has convinced himself that his methods are the best, and that they are definitely justified by the ends. His students adore him or, at least, believe in his greatness (and fear him). When he tells Andrew, later, that there are no two words more harmful in the English language than "good job," we know that not only does Fletcher believe this mantra, but so do his (damaged) pupils, Andrew included. Like all successful abusers, Fletcher can also be charming, mixing sugar with his spice, and the kids feed as much on his occasional kindnesses as they do on the nastiness.

It's an interesting contrast to Andrew's father, played by a well-cast Paul Reiser (of "Mad About You" fame), who offers only nurturing support (the mother is long gone). When Andrew eventually breaks down, Dad is there, arms open. But is such unconditional love what Andrew wants or needs?

I loved this film, because it asks us to think about the nature of art, perfectionism, learning and mentorship, and what is acceptable in the pursuit of greatness (or, at least, of mastery). Most of us are (and should be) horrified by Fletcher's behavior, but there's something in his desire to accept nothing less than the absolute best that is hard to resist. Wouldn't we rather listen to a musician who's been through some kind of crucible of pain and suffering - and survived - than someone who just breezily decided to play one day and has remained forever mediocre? Still, many of us have probably also had mentors who have managed to be demanding without resorting to physical and/or mental assault. It is to Chazelle's credit that he raises these questions without pushing one specific ideological agenda on us (although the final scene of the movie does skew in favor of triumph over adversity).

The performances are revelatory. Teller and Simmons are quite a pair, and well matched. Teller plays his own drums, for the most part, and we believe his passion. As we believe in the passion of this gifted filmmaker. So go. Give yourself "Whiplash' and experience perfection through the vicarious suffering of the characters on screen, rather than your own.

Nightcrawler
Nightcrawler(2014)

"Nightcrawler" is the directing debut of screenwriter Dan Gilroy ("The Bourne Legacy," co-written with his brother, Tony Gilroy, who also directed), and whatever I may think about the movie (and I am not as big a fan as the rest of the world, according to Rotten Tomatoes), it does not feel like a first movie. Gilroy, working with acclaimed cinematographer Robert Elswit ("There Will Be Blood") and his other brother, veteran editor John Gilroy ("Michael Clayton," also written and directed by Tony), has crafted an assured action thriller that delivers the goods when it comes to suspenseful storytelling. He also does a fine job directing Rene Russo ("The Thomas Crown Affair"), who delivers a performance that makes us realize what we've been missing since she stopped being as ubiquitous as she was in the 1990s. Russo just happens to also be Gilroy's wife (this is a family affair), but no matter - she earns her place in the film. Unfortunately, her co-star, Jake Gyllenhaal ("End of Watch"), though clearly fully committed to his role, is so weird and off-putting that he threatens to derail the movie. True, the whole point is that he is supposed to be odd and creepy, but not to the point where it is unbelievable that anyone could take him seriously. I like Gyllenhaal, but he's simply too much, here.

Gyllenhaal plays Lou (or Louis, as he prefers to be called, later) Bloom, an extremely lost soul and ne'er-do-well whom we first meet cutting a fence by a train track, then beating the man who confronts him. It turns out he's a thief, as well, since we next see him peddling items stolen from the train yard. When he talks, he sounds as if he learned to speak by reading a business self-help manual, as if he's a cousin to the alien Scarlett Johansson played in "Under the Skin," freshly minted and not quite at ease in his new body. The first guy he pesters for a job has a very sane reaction: no.

But then Bloom discovers the joys of human suffering. Or rather, as he's watching a woman in a car accident pulled from the burning wreckage by EMTs, Joe Loder (Bill Paxton from "Big Love") shows up with a camera, which he shoves into the middle of the rescue. What's going on? asks Bloom. It's for the news, says Loder. For sale to the highest bidder, he means. And suddenly our demented protagonist has a calling. Little by little, he figures out the game, and earns more and more money peddling his parasitic video footage to one particular late-night news producer, Nina Romina (Russo). The fact that Bloom is clearly insane does not deter Romina from buying his material - as long as it's gruesome - though it does put her in an awkward position once it becomes clear that Bloom wants more than just money. This is what seems to be Gilroy main point: that we are a society so benumbed and corrupted by the 24-hour news cycle that we have become ghouls in need of (on-screen) flesh on which to (vicariously) feed. That's a radical notion . . . for the 1970s, when Sidney Lumet's "Network" came out with much the same thesis. Speaking of the 1970s, Gilroy also seems to be cribbing from Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver," since Gyllenhaal channels Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle, right down to the same initial shy politeness.

So as a societal critique, Nightcrawler simply doesn't work, as we are already way beyond being horrified by its revelations. And too often Gilroy gives the game away by explaining Bloom's motivations too early (as when he exacts revenge on his now-rival Loder). But where the film does finally get it right is in the second half, after Bloom has crossed one ethical line too many and the film becomes more of a procedural thriller than a polemic. As Bloom and his hapless assistant Rick (Riz Ahmed, from "The Reluctant Fundamentalist") barrel down the streets of Los Angeles on the tail of a police cruiser chasing a violent criminal, the adrenaline rush we feel is very real.

So see it for that, and for Russo, if not for its shopworn criticisms of the media.

Citizenfour
Citizenfour(2014)

I am unfamiliar with the work of documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, but after watching Citizenfour I feel an urgent need to find two of her previous films, My Country, My Country and The Oath, both of which (I understand) similarly tackle issues of liberty and democracy in a post-9/11 world. We learn at the start of her new movie that - together with Citizenfour - they comprise an unofficial trilogy that analyzes the after effects of the terrorist attacks that so shocked (and transformed) the United States and its security apparatus. If they are even remotely as powerful as her new work, I expect to be transfixed.

Citizenfour tells the story of Edward Snowden, the former Booz Allen Hamilton employee who, as a contractor for the NSA, leaked classified documents to the world through journalist Glenn Greenwald and a few select others, including Ewen McAskill and Jeremy Scahill. Both Greenwald and McAskill appear in the movie - the former much more than the latter - and what makes the film so fascinating is the realization that we are watching a behind-the-scenes making-of document of very recent (and turbulent) history. Unless you were asleep in 2013, you surely remember seeing Snowden's interview with Greenwald in real time. Now imagine seeing the events leading up to that disclosure. It's pretty exciting. Even if one believes that Snowden is a traitor who should face justice for his actions, the film is worth seeing, since we're right there with him.

When the film begins, those of us with no prior knowledge of Poitras discover that she has been under U.S. Government surveillance ever since making My Country, My Country. When she receives an encrypted email, signed "citizenfour," from an unknown source, asking her to journey to Hong Kong for a meeting (along with Glenn Greenwald), she accepts. She is, after all, an investigative filmmaker, and what the mysterious writer promises to reveal is intriguing. Once she and Greenwald arrive, they meet a nervous and thoughtful young man, holed up in a hotel room, who, over the course of a week, tells them who he is, what he has discovered, and why he thinks the world should know. Intriguing, indeed. And frightening, too.

For what Snowden has to say is that the United States, in the name of domestic security - is spying, illegally, on not only foreigners but its own citizens, amassing an ever-growing database with the intent of identifying potential terrorists and subversives (sounds a bit like Captain America: The Winter Soldier, doesn't it?). Given his feelings about the nature of democracy and liberty, and the importance of privacy, Snowden finally decided that he could not keep this information to himself. And so he acted. He chose to go through journalists rather than just publish the data online, as Julian Assange and WikiLeaks had previously done, because he wanted others - ideally, responsible journalists - to make the decision of what information was important for the world to know, and what would put legitimate secret operatives and their informants at undue risk.

Snowden's concern for doing the right thing - for acting on principle, and responsibly, rather than out of pure anger or indignation - is a quality that emerges time and again over the course of this two-hour movie, as is Snowden's desire to not allow those who oppose his actions to make him the center of the narrative. "I am not the story here," he says, over and over. "This is about state power and people's ability to meaningfully oppose that power." It's not about a data dump - it's about opposing governmental overreach. "We are now the ruling and the ruled vs. the elected and the electorate." As someone who would rather live in a world where "people shouldn't be afraid of their government; governments should be afraid of their people" (thank you, Alan Moore and V for Vendetta) - though, ideally, fear never enters into the equation at all - I cannot help but respect Snowden's intentions and be grateful for the conversation he started. Even if you feel differently, you will be unable to see the man on screen as a monster.

Greenwald and Poitras are also part of the narrative (though we only hear, rather than see, the latter). Their struggles to tell the story and disseminate the information are frequently hampered by U.S. interference (Poitras had previously moved to Berlin to escape surveillance, and Greenwald now lives in Brazil), yet they soldier on. William Binney, a former NSA data collector who is now a major critic of NSA, is also a player in the film, and it's his lawyer who probably utters the single most depressing line of the movie. When confronted with Snowden's action in an interview, she replies, "This will prompt an investigation into who leaked, rather than into who authorized these policies." We do love to kill the messenger, do we not, rather than see if their message is worth hearing.

This is one of the must-see movies not only of the year, but of the past decade.

Birdman
Birdman(2014)

The Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu has been making feature films since the year 2000, when his masterful triptych "Amores Perros" was released. Scripted by Guillermo Arriaga (who turned director, himself, in 2008, with the depressingly mediocre "The Burning Plain"), that movie followed three separate stories in Mexico City - all involving, in some way, dogs - as they intersected and diverged over the course of many months. Before turning to full-length films, González Iñárritu had, like David Fincher before him, for years honed his craft on commercials, and his cinematic confidence as he juggled the many different threads of "Amores Perros" was a marvel to behold. What especially impressed was the fact that he wasn't all flash - con brio, e non con braggadocio - and that the stories had narrative weight and consequence.

What followed were films equally as confident and similarly masterful - at least in terms of their mise-en-scène - but much less meaningful. Both "21 Grams" and "Babel" - written by Arriaga, as well - allowed González Iñárritu to continue to explore his love of multiple overlapping stories and fluid chronology, but when they reached their respective conclusions they revealed not much more than a naked emperor, fascinating as their cinematic trappings may have been. "Biutiful," his next film, was made after he and Arriaga had a falling out, and it eschewed the focus on multiple protagonists to give us a hard look at one man (Javier Bardem) dying of cancer. An even bleaker movie than González Iñárritu's earlier films, it featured a powerful central performance and much more straightforward camera and editing work than we had grown accustomed to. It was nice to see the director trying something new. Still, dark despair does not always equal profundity, and the film, though effective in certain scenes, managed to leave me cold in the face of death.

And now we have something new: a comedy (though a bleak one). Fresh as that might sound to aficionados of González Iñárritu's work, what's even more innovative is how he has transformed his earlier technique of layering multiple narratives and shifting chronologies into a seemingly linear story that looks like a single unbroken camera take (that is, without edits). From the time we first meet our hero, Riggan Thompson - played by Michael Keaton (in top form and much better served here than by "RoboCop") - the camera, though extremely restless, never cuts. Or so it seems. González Iñárritu and his cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki (an Oscar-winner for "Gravity" and heretofore the main cinematographer for another Mexican director, Alfonso Cuarón) have carefully crafted the film to look that way, though in actuality it was not shot as a single take. And if that were all this movie were - an example of bravura filmmaking and choreography - then it would fascinate, for sure, but remain a meaningless magic trick. Instead, this technique is an integral part of the story, since it brings us into the visceral feverish madness of the lead character by bending time and perspective (González Iñárritu's usual obsessions)

Riggan Thompson is a washed-up former action star, best known for his work in a series of superhero films (the Birdman of the title, which somewhat resemble the "Batman" films that Keaton, himself, once starred in). In an effort to rehabilitate his reputation, he has written (and is now directing and starring in), a Broadway play based on the writer Raymond Carver's short story anthology "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." Rehearsals are not going well. After a stage light falls on his male co-star, he is forced to bring on board an obnoxious New York thespian, Mike Shiner (a very funny Edward Norton, seen earlier this year in "The Grand Budapest Hotel"), whose volatility proves a dangerous addition to the production. Along for the ride is a cast of very fine actors, all at the top of their game: Emma Stone ("Magic in the Moonlight") as Riggan's daughter; Zach Galifianakis ("The Hangover") as his nervous lawyer and friend; Naomi Watts ("St. Vincent") as his female co-star; Andrea Riseborough ("Oblivion") as his girlfriend (and other co-star); Amy Ryan ("Win Win") as his ex-wife; and Lindsay Duncan ("Le Weekend") as a nasty theater critic. All serve as both obstacles and opportunities in the way of Riggan's success, and companions on his slide towards insanity.

The film is a wonderful meditation on the nature of art, its intersection with commerce, and how the search for validation - for admiration - through the creative process is no substitute for real human connections. As Riggan's mind slowly disintegrates and the boundary between his alter ego and real self becomes indistinct, we see how the desperate need for love can destroy us if we can only take and not give. As the movie's opening title card - a Carver poem, "Late Fragment," from "A New Path to the Waterfall" - proclaims:
"And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth."
Did I mention that the film is also extremely funny? Never has madness been this entertaining.

St. Vincent
St. Vincent(2014)

Longtime Brooklyn resident Vincent is a hard-drinking, hard-smoking misanthrope, almost penniless and with racing debts that may soon come due. Soon after we first meet him, we see him in bed with Daka, a pregnant (not by Vincent) Russian prostitute. Yeah, he's that guy. Still, there's something surprisingly touching about his interactions with Daka, which hints at character dimensions as yet to be revealed. And as played by a delightfully sharp Naomi Watts (who was equally as good with a Russian accent - though far more serious - in David Cronenberg's "Eastern Promises"), Daka may also be more than she seems.

Soon, Vincent has new neighbors: Maggie, a struggling single mother - played by a wonderfully restrained Melissa McCarthy ("Tammy") - and her young son Oliver (terrific newcomer Jaeden Lieberher). Though Maggie and Oliver do not meet cute with Vincent - the opposite, in fact - soon Maggie's brutal work schedule forces her to rely on Vincent as a babysitter. Yes, it's a terribly misguided decision, but without it we would not have this often funny - if also frequently predictable - movie.

It's easy to see why Murray would have signed on for the role, even though this is writer/director Theodore Melfi's first feature film. It's a juicy part, and allows him to strut his stuff with great panache. Of course, that's both the appeal and the weakness of the movie: though hilarious at times, it also falls occasional victim to the showboating of its star. It's a good thing McCarthy has dialed it down, or we'd be in real trouble. Still, for my money, the performances of Lieberher and Watts, and the manic loopiness of Murray, make it all somehow worthwhile, despite the pedestrian nature of the story. We know, more or less, how it will all end, but that doesn't keep us from enjoying much of the journey.

John Wick
John Wick(2014)

Keanu Reeves plays John Wick, the mention of whose name causes the other characters in the movie to utter a shuddered, "Oh," filled with the dread of mayhem to come. What's particularly interesting about their reaction is that when we first meet Wick - after an opening that shows us what is presumably the end of the movie, with Wick collapsing, bleeding, on the street - he is a grieving widower, quiet and still. He may drive a mean-looking 1969 Mustang at high speeds, but the way he interacts with the beagle puppy that arrives on his doorstep as a posthumous gift from his just-deceased wife reveals a gentle giant, rather than a killer. He is all sweetness, and the only hint at his true nature comes from that opening (and the movie's poster). In the tradition of great Westerns like "Shane" and "Unforgiven," though, he is a man who has fled a violent past that is about to catch up with him. Unfortunately, the clarion call to action comes at the expense of that adorable pup, though the violence is (there, at least) treated with discretion. Once that nasty business is over, the movie then leaves any semblance of harsh real-world consequences behind as it takes off into high cartoonish action-genre mode, with Wick hunting down the men who have wronged him.

"John Wick" is essentially two films: a) a very smart, perfectly realized alternate-reality universe where hitmen have their own secret society, and woe betide anyone who goes against the rules of the group; and b) a typical high-body-count action shoot-'em-up which may have some interestingly choreographed scenes, but with nothing we haven't seen before. I prefer the first movie, and wish there more of it. The great Swedish actor Michael Nyqvist (Mikael Blomkvist in the original "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo") delivers a terrifically over-the-top performance, as the lead baddie, that is magnificently served by that first premise, but wasted in the second. Reeves is equally perfect - though far more restrained - as the titular character, playing him mostly straight but with hints of humor below the surface that emerge at just the right moments. It's too bad that he is too often is required to merely run around with a gun.

Still, there are delights aplenty, in spite (or, depending on your preference, because) of the plethora of nasty spurting headshots. Willem Dafoe (so recently nasty in "The Fault in Our Stars"), Ian McShane (with some of his trademark "Deadwood" menace), and Baltmore-native Lance Reddick (Cedric Daniels on "The Wire") are all along for the ride and add to the air of professional competence with which the film is made. It's good, dumb fun. I just wish it were as smart as its better half.

Fury
Fury(2014)

The opening shot of "Fury" - the new film from writer/director David Ayer ("End of Watch") - is at first hard to decipher. Are we looking at treetops, over which a rising sun peeks? The shapes are fuzzy and colorless, but as a solitary figure - a horseman - slowly rises on the horizon, we realize we are looking at a battlefield; a field of clumps of dirt, in fact, rutted and pitted by tanks and dying men. It's an apt image, for this will be a movie about dirty warfare. Dirt and grime are everywhere, and nowhere more present than on the soldiers who fight the battles, both on their faces and in their souls. It is April, 1945, and World War II is about to come to a close, though some of the fiercest fighting lies ahead, particularly for the crewmen of the "Fury," so dubbed by the tight-knit band under "Wardaddy" Sergeant Collier's command.

Wardaddy is played with an amazing combination of brio and reserve by Brad Pitt, who just last summer battled an equally deadly - if fantastical - enemy in "World War Z." Here, he is just as resourceful, and a hell of a lot tougher, his body and face covered with burns and scars. Right after that horseman enters frame, the camera following and panning over to what looks to be a disabled tank, Wardaddy leaps from out of nowhere, knife in hand, stabs the rider (a dreaded German SS officer, as it turns out), and then jabs his knife into the man's eye socket. It is the first of many gruesome close-ups of carnage: the film does not stint on the horrors of combat; soon, we will see a melted human face on a tank seat. Again, an apt image, for our own faces are literally shoved into the blood of the wounded and killed, time and again. This is one of the best films I have ever seen at portraying the brutality of war.

Wardaddy's men - a motley crew made up of Michael Peña ("Cesar Chavez"), Shia LaBeouf ("Lawless") and Jon Bernthal (Shane Walsh on "The Walking Dead"), all excellent - all with war monikers of their own, are devoted to their leader, who has kept them alive since their first battles in Africa three years ago. As the film opens, they have just lost one of their gunners (that melted face), and HQ has decided to give them a green army novice, Norman (a terrific Logan Lerman, so good as the lead in "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," as well), who becomes our surrogate in the nasty classroom of tank warfare. When he, early on, hesitates to fire on the enemy, Wardaddy forces him to shoot a German prisoner of war, in cold blood. This is also one of the best films I have ever seen at portraying morally compromised main characters that demand our sympathies, or at least our full attention.

The problems for the men of the Fury are many. The Germans just won't give up, and their tanks - designed by Porsche - are superior. It will take everything these guys have got to fulfill their mission and survive the war. The movie - to its credit - is less interested in potential happy outcomes than in exploring the moral and physical toll that prolonged combat inflicts on its participants. There is a marvelous scene halfway through the film when the Americans have successfully captured a German town - after immense casualties - and Wardaddy and Norman treat themselves to an interlude with two female (German) cousins hiding in their apartment. Is it rape? As Wardaddy tells Norman: "Ideals are peaceful; history is violent." There's certainly coercion at play, yet these two men turn out to be far more civilized than their fellow soldiers. The way Ayer plays with our expectations (and our need to like the protagonists) is brilliant, and sets up the greater violence to follow.

And that violence is magnetic: the battle scenes are intense, like nothing I have seen since the opening of "Saving Private Ryan" (though I did also find much to admire in "Lone Survivor," released in January of this year). During each and every one, I was on the edge of my seat.

Where the film is less successful is in its occasional post-battle montages, filled with the overly sentimental strains of the score by composer Steven Price ("Gravity"). The ending, in particular, overuses Price's music as the camera cranes high above the final battlefield (a nice visual echo of the opening). Still, that misstep notwithstanding, this is a powerful movie that deserves its place in the canon of great war (and/or antiwar) films of yore.

Men, Women & Children

What to say, what to say? This is a movie that takes itself so seriously, yet has so little of consequence to say. Couple that with the choice of writer/director Jason Reitman ("Juno," "Up in the Air") to use Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot speech as an awkward framing device - combined with shots of the Voyager spacecraft leaving our galaxy - and you get much hysterical ado about not much at all. It's too bad, since a lot of good people are acting up a cosmic storm here, including Judy Greer (Kitty Sanchez on "Arrested Development"), Dean Norris (Hank on "Breaking Bad"), Ansel Elgort ("The Fault in Our Stars"), Rosemarie DeWitt ("Kill the Messenger") and Kaitlyn Dever ("Short Term 12") (less so Adam Sandler and Jennifer Garner, in one-note roles). But that's what happens when you dress up platitudes in fancy duds: they're still hackneyed.

What's it about? Life! Sex! Depression! How we live in an interconnected world yet are so unconnected! Imagine a mall full of people looking at their smartphones, and you'll have the essence of the film's message. Since the whole affair is narrated by Emma Thompson, much of it ends up feeling like "Crash" - multiple stories and all - with a British-accented voiceover (though that might be unfair to "Crash," as superficial as that film was). If that sounds appealing, then Men, Women & Children might just be for you (OK, I'll admit I laughed at some scenes, particularly early on, and loved all interactions between Judy Greer and Dean Norris, but that's it). I recommend seeing "Pride," instead, however, which does a far better job selling the importance of the need for human attachment.

Pride
Pride(2014)
½

If, like me, you grew up with the songs of Pete Seeger played loudly, and proudly, in your home, then the opening credits of "Pride" will immediately strike a welcome chord. My song of choice, as a child, was "Little Boxes" - which I listened to gleefully without understanding a word of the lyrics - but as I aged I gained a greater appreciation of the humanism and progressive ideology of the man, of which his great workers' anthem, "Solidarity Forever" - the title music of theater director Matthew Warchus's new film - is a powerful example. In the spirit of the late champion of labor rights (among other causes) and promoter of rousing feel-good folk songs, "Pride" is a movie which - though contrived and overly sentimental at times - will leave you profoundly moved and hopeful. It's a film that promotes the (radical!) notion that there are other ideas worth rallying around than patriotism and fear. In a midterm election year, that's not a bad thing to keep in mind.

The film - based on true events, as a title card informs us - takes place in the 1980s United Kingdom of the Margaret Thatcher era, beginning with one London Gay Pride March - on June 30, 1984 - and ending with another, one year later. One day, 20-something activist Mark (a charming Ben Schnetzer, from "The Book Thief") notices a diminution in the numbers of police harassing young gays like himself, and figures out where they've all gone: to harass the country's miners, all of whom are out on strike. Not content to work only on behalf of his own constituency - and understanding full well how workers and oppressed minorities are all connected (and how his community is directly benefiting from police distraction) - Mark gathers a small coterie of fellow gay men (and one lesbian) to raise money in support of the miners. It's a hard sell - many gays and lesbians have long suffered severe bullying and discrimination at the hands of their working-class brethren - but Mark is a charismatic leader, and soon his group - LGSM ("Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners") has raised enough cash to be worth donating. The problem is ... to whom? For while gays and lesbians may be able to unite in support of the miners, it proves a bit harder to find miners willing to accept help from gays and lesbians. This is the 1980s, after all.

Fortunately, for the eventual betterment of all concerned, an older Welsh union worker misunderstands the name of the group over the phone, and soon a strike leader, Dai - played by an excellent Paddy Considine ("Submarine") - is on his way to London for a meet & greet. The awkward (yet very funny) first sit-down sets the tone for the rest of the film, as Dai, Mark and the rest of LGSM conclude that what binds them is greater than what separates them. Convincing the rest of the world of the same is what drives the plot of the film. With laughter and tears - most of it earned - the movie takes us on a satisfying journey that - even with its almost too-perfect conclusion - refuses to gloss over the harsh realities of the world. With great performances from all involved - including Bill Nighy ("The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel"), Imelda Staunton ("Vera Drake"), Dominic West (McNulty from "The Wire"), Andrew Scott (Moriarty on "Sherlock"), and especially Jessica Dunning (whom I had never seen before), among others - "Pride" is a wonderful treat, and just what you need to see this weekend. Go!

Kill the Messenger
½

Gary Webb was a reporter for the "San Jose Mercury News" in 1996 when he came across evidence linking the CIA to the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s. Investigating further, he uncovered a vast drugs-for-money network where U.S. intelligence operatives collaborated directly - if covertly - with Nicaraguan Contras and drug dealers (often the same people) to sell crack in American cities to raise money for the fight against the leftist regime in Nicaragua. Disgusted by what he saw as the more-than-lingering after effects of the previous decade's urban drug scourge, Webb - despite warnings of reprisals by the CIA - wrote a series of articles under the heading "Dark Alliance," which embarrassed the CIA and incited the anger of African-American communities nationwide, many of whom had felt the brunt of the crack epidemic. At first hailed as a hero, Webb very quickly found himself in the crosshairs not only of the CIA, but of rival newspapers - humiliated that a journalist at a small paper had gotten the big scoop - and soon his halo metamorphosed into a pitchfork. Tawdry facts from his past were unearthed, and he - rather than the Contra/crack connection - became the story. It didn't help that he had been sloppy and sensationalistic in his reporting. Before long, he was completely discredited and no longer able to work in his profession. He took his own life in 2004. David Carr of "The New York Times" wrote a recent article about Webb that fills in any missing details in the above narrative.

Webb's tragic and quixotic struggles make for a great movie, and Michael Cuesta ("L.I.E."), the director, has fashioned a gripping conspiracy procedural out of the known facts. Or rather, to be fair, out of the facts known to Gary Webb, since the movie is based, in part, on the book he published in 1998, entitled "Dark Alliance" (like the articles). It's an extremely well made thriller that, like Oliver Stone's "JFK," mixes archival footage, reenactments and narrative elements to tell its tale of a man destroyed. Also like JFK, the film leaves you reflecting that if even a few of the theories presented are correct, then something bad must have happened. As one audience member muttered at the end of the screening I attended, "That's why I never trust the government." Right on!
Now, I am the last person to think my government - or any government - incapable of the most despicable evils (human history is filled with too many examples of executive malfeasance), but I am also by nature a healthy skeptic, so when I watch any one-sided story where the forces arrayed against our hero are all evil - and he is all good - I immediately begin to question the integrity of the narrative. The advantage of a movie like this is that it doesn't have to actually prove anything; it can just insinuate. What's ironic is that this is exactly the approach that the CIA - and the rival newspapers - took with Webb. They destroyed him through implication. What goes around comes around, I guess, and since there does appear to have been some truth to Webb's story - sloppy reporting notwithstanding - this turnaround is not undeserved.

Where the movie is especially strong, however, regardless of its truthiness, is in its portrayal of institutional behavior. When systems are threatened, the consequences for the hapless neophyte attacker can be devastating. In the case of Webb, the publisher and editor of his paper refused to stand by his story and threw him under the proverbial bus. As played by Oliver Platt ("The Big C") and Mary Elizabeth Winstead ("Smashed"), these two superiors who should have had Webb's back are particularly chilling since they are so likable. We get why they must do what they do, even though they are as responsible for the mess as Webb. Would we behave any differently? Ah! There's the question.

Jeremy Renner ("The Hurt Locker") plays Webb with ebbing vitality and a vanishing confidence made all the more poignant by the actor's natural vibrancy. With his brilliant and committed performance, he helps us overlook the flaws in the script. Rosemarie DeWitt ("Your Sister's Sister") is a bit wasted as Webb's wife, but brings her usual sincerity to her underdeveloped role. Of special note are Paz Vega ("Sex and Lucia"), as the (ridiculously flirtatious) girlfriend of a drug dealer who first draws Webb's attention to the CIA connection, Tim Blake Nelson ("O Brother, Where Art Thou?") as a defense lawyer for another drug dealer, and Andy Garcia ("At Middleton") as yet another (imprisoned) drug dealer down in Nicaragua.

It's a film well worth watching, imperfections and all, just as Webb's articles were, themselves, well worth reading.

Gone Girl
Gone Girl(2014)

David Fincher releases his 10th feature film today, adding to a vastly entertaining and compelling body of work that includes music videos, commercials and 9 previous films that, love them or hate them, have proven him both a great visual stylist and powerful storyteller. "Gone Girl" is an adaptation of the best-selling novel of the same title by Gillian Flynn (Gillian pronounced with a hard G), and the script was written by Flynn, herself (as a former writer for "Entertainment Weekly," she perhaps feels she knows a thing or two about movie structure). I was not a fan of the book, although I recognized that it was a strong page-turner and fairly well-written (in terms of narrative structure). No matter - it was a huge success, and now Fincher - a director I admire, and whose last film, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," while not a strictly necessary work (since the original had been so fine), was still a more-than-worthy adaptation of a potboiler - has turned his considerable talents to its cinematic translation. I wish he had chosen a different source text, but what's on the screen is nevertheless fascinating to watch, if also odd and repellent. There's nothing wrong with unlikeable characters - indeed, the late great Patricia Highsmith specialized in loathsome and/or morally opaque protagonists - but one has to be in the right mood for it, and the characterizations had better be masterful. Flynn is no Highsmith, that's for sure, but Fincher is, himself, a master filmmaker, so what we get mesmerizes even as it repulses. And it's also pretty funny in spots.

"Gone Girl" starts on the 5th wedding anniversary of Nick and Amy Dunne, a couple that has recently relocated from New York (Amy's hometown) to North Carthage, Missouri (Nick's hometown), after both of them lost their jobs. The marriage, once deliriously romantic, has now turned sour, and when Amy disappears, Nick becomes the prime suspect in her assumed murder. An affable sort, Nick does himself no favors by trying a little too hard to be friendly to the army of well-wishers who descend upon the town. When the police discover Amy's diary (along with other incriminating evidence that includes Amy's financial support of the marriage and a bumped-up life insurance premium), which starts positive and is then increasingly filled with frightened entries, Nick appears done for. The media - including a character very loosely based on Nancy Grace - crucifies him, then North Carthage's citizens follow, and it's only a matter of time before the police will arrest Nick.

Except that all may not be as it seems. Suddenly, midway through the story, we discover new details about Amy that radically change the dynamic of the narrative. No plot spoilers to follow. Suffice it to say that this twist is by far the most interesting aspect of the novel, after which we are left with unappealing characters who behave in predictable ways while reinforcing stereotypes of male and female behavior (with a surprisingly healthy does of misogyny) that are just fundamentally not that interesting.
Thank God for Fincher. Even more than his trademark brilliance with the visual language of cinema, he brings to Gone Girl a delightful strangeness in the sound design. This is a story about people whose behavioral mannerisms are completely faux constructs (Flynn's seeming point being that all relationships are about performance), and from the opening off-balance close-up of Amy's head, accompanied by the odd synth chords of composers Trent Reznor (of Nine Inch Nails) and Atticus Ross, we enter a world of artifice that feels almost dream-like in its presentation of the facts (such as they are) of the story. In a way that words, alone, cannot convey, Fincher uses image and sound to plunge us into, first, a dream, and then, as the story gets darker, a nightmare. Only the director of such masterpieces as "Se7en" and "Fight Club" could pull this off. I did not enjoy the movie, but I was inexorably drawn to it (though it could have been about 20 minutes shorter).

Ben Affleck (bulked up for his upcoming "Batman v Superman" film) and Rosamund Pike ("Jack Reacher") star as Nick and Amy. They're good together, and the fact that neither has great acting range is probably appropriate for such shallow characters. The supporting cast is excellent, including Kim Dickens (good in everything she does, including "Deadwood"), Neil Patrick Harris (so fine, as always, in "How I Met Your Mother") and Tyler Perry (yes, that Tyler Perry). There are a lot of reasons to see the film - especially if, unlike me, you're a fan of book - including the many darkly comic moments sprinkled throughout (I laughed quite a bit, actually), even if the writing is not among them. Steel yourself for the nasty misery of Nick and Amy's marriage, and hop to it. Fincher is always worth watching.

The Skeleton Twins
½

The second feature from Craig Johnson ("True Adolescents") is a major step up from film #1 in terms of production quality, story and star power. In Johnson's freshman effort - which starred Mark Duplass ("Your Sister's Sister"), who on this new film is the Executive Producer - the writer/director already demonstrated a strong understanding of script structure and a fine way with actors, but here he takes it to a whole new level. Working with veteran "Saturday Night Live" performers Kristen Wiig ("Bridesmaids") and Bill Hader ("Adventureland"), Johnson has crafted a moving story of family and sibling bonds that mixes tragedy and comedy in equal measure, and is a powerful showcase for the sizable dramatic talents of his two leads. The film is by no means perfect - the ending, for me, felt completely contrived and unbelievable - but the pros far outweigh the cons, and it's made with such panache that I forgive it its few weaknesses.

"The Skeleton Twins" tells the moving story of fraternal twins Maggie (Wiig) and Milo (Hader) Dean, who must overcome a 10-year estrangement when one of them attempts suicide and lands in the hospital. Filled with brilliantly funny moments, the film is nevertheless an emotionally wrenching and intense tale of the ties that bind us all, siblings or not. While Wiig and Hader may not be entirely believable, genetically, as twins, their ease and comfort with each other after years together on television makes them a great fit as sister and brother: they complement each other perfectly in tone and pitch. And even though Andrew O'Hehir, in Salon - while he praises the film - worries that Hader (who is straight), playing the gay Milo, may come too close to "gay typology or even stereotype" for comfort, I found Hader to be the best thing about the movie (plus, the director, himself, is gay, so if he's OK with it . . .). His pain and joy at being alive are infectious, and his lip sync of the horrible 1980s Starship ballad "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" is worth the price of admission, alone.

The film also stars Luke Wilson ("Legally Blonde"), Ty Burrell ("Modern Family"), Joanna Gleason ("Love & War") and relative newcomer Boyd Holbrook ("Little Accidents"), all of whom impress, as well. It's also shot by noted cinematographer Reed Morano ("Kill Your Darlings"), who brings an intoxicatingly hypnotic visual aesthetic to the story. I wholeheartedly recommend!

A Walk Among the Tombstones
½

As in so many other films, women are once again neglected by way of underdevelopment - and here abused and tortured, actually - in "A Walk Among the Tombstones," adapted from the book of the same title by Lawrence Block. This new Liam Neeson-on-a-tear movie from writer-turned-director Scott Frank ("The Lookout") has the virtue of at least being a tad original, story-wise, and despite the truly horrific and disgusting nature of the crimes on display, it (mostly) kept me from looking at my watch for its duration (then again, I may be serial killer). Still, it is a gruesome thing, filled with silly plot contrivances of its own, and at times barely competent. Nevertheless, Neeson (hard at work already on the next "Taken" sequel) is always watchable, and though his attempts at a New York accent are funnier than almost anything in recent comedies, his grim avenger makes for (somewhat) compelling cinema.

Why, however, is a drug dealer reading Nabokov in one scene? Is it meant to signify a depth of character that the screenplay refuses to supply? What, you say? It's just a book, in one shot? Well, yeah, but details matter, and if you're a good director, you make them count. After all, the young homeless kid, TJ (Astro, seen this past summer in "Earth to Echo" in a similarly pitched role), befriended by Neeson in the New York Public Library one day, is constantly dropping literary and cultural references to prove his own self-worth, so somebody, somewhere, had to think about Nabokov. Or not. And that's the problem.

So what do we get? A sordid story about two crazies who kidnap women (usually the wives of drug dealers) and then chop them up after collecting ransom. While we are spared many of the gruesome bloody visuals, we get just enough to turn stomachs unaccustomed to such grotesquerie. And while the movie is ultimately not on the side of the psychopaths, the director is one of these people who so clearly wants to have his cake and eat it, too: killing and dismembering women is bad, but wouldn't you like just a taste?

See it for Neeson, or go rent "The Lego Movie" and enjoy his turn as Good Cop/Bad Cop, instead.

This Is Where I Leave You

The last film I saw by Shawn Levy ("Night at the Museum," "Date Night") was "The Internship," and "This Is Where I Leave You" shares many traits with that former effort. Both feature moments of successful comedy, yet both are mired in a morass of false sentiment and under-developed characters (particularly the women). It's not uniformly terrible - indeed, how could a film featuring such likable performers as Jason Bateman ("Arrested Development") and Tina Fey ("30 Rock") be all bad? - but nor is it particularly interesting. It's just . . . there . . . right where the screenwriters left it.

Bateman is one of four siblings - the others being Fey, Corey Stoll ("House of Cards") and Adam Driver ("Girls") - who are brought home by the death of their father: their mother, Jane Fonda (who needs no listing of a token credit here, I hope), claims that the father's dying wish was for the whole family to sit Shiva (even though he and everyone else was/are de facto atheists). Leaving aside the fact that none of these folks look like they belong in the same gene pool, the premise has promise, since forcing the members of a dysfunctional family (and there is much "dys" here) to spend time in a small space could lead to some funny results. Alas, with overbearing music blaring in almost every scene, and treacle punctuating the laughs, the overall effect is that of a generic sitcom (of particular note, since almost all of the players come from far more unique television series). You'll chuckle, no question, but also wonder why such good actors as Rose Byrne ("Damages"), Timothy Oliphant ("Deadwood") and Connie Britton ("Friday Night Lights") are wasted in nondescript parts. See it if you must.

The Drop
The Drop(2014)

"The Drop," based on Dennis Lehane's short story "Animal Rescue" (which Lehane, himself, adapted for the screen), tells the story of 40-something Bob, a shy and mumbling Brooklyn bartender and erstwhile tough guy, as he struggles to maintain his calm and composure as what life he has (which isn't much) is threatened by underworld shenanigans. Tom Hardy plays Bob, delivering yet another performance - after "Lawless" and "The Dark Knight Rises" - where his voice is altered in some way to make it hard to understand. Following this past year's "Locke," where he was so precise in his annunciation, it's a return to form, of sorts.

The "drop" of the title refers to a designated location (changing all the time) where the mob collects funds (gambling and otherwise) from various sources. Whoever is in charge of that evening's drop bears the dangerous responsibility of ensuring that none of the money gets waylaid or stolen. The Chechen mafia is not one to accept losses lightly.

Cousin Marv - played by the late James Gandolfini ("Enough Said") in his last movie role - owns one of these occasional drops. Or rather, he used to own it, until the Chechens muscled in and made him merely a manager, leaving him with a (much reduced) seat at the table and simmering resentments. Bob works for Cousin Marv (and is his actual cousin), and though he is clearly the subordinate, there are occasional flashes of steel in his behavior that hint at their shared, possibly violent, past. One night - not a drop night, fortunately - two masked gunmen enter the bar and steal $5000 from the register (and therefore from the Chechens), setting in motion a plot filled with twists and betrayals.

Into this sordid story comes Rocco, an abused and abandoned (and adorable) pit bull puppy, found by Bob in a trash can one night as he's walking home, and Nadia - played by Noomi Rapace (the original "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo") - an abused and abandoned woman of unknown origin, in whose trash can Rocco has been discarded. Together, Rocco and Nadia (in that order) awaken Bob's extinguished emotional core. When Nadia's former boyfriend - and, it turns out, Rocco's original owner - Eric (a terrific Matthias Schoenaerts, of "Rust and Bone"), shows up, his menacing presence threatens to awaken more than just emotion in Bob. Even while Bob remains largely a cypher, we sense his capacity for explosive violence, and spend most of the film awaiting his eventual eruption.

If all of this seems interesting, it is, up to a point. Hardy - mumbling affectation aside - is riveting, as always, and Gandolfini similarly holds our attention. I wish Rapace were as good here as she was as Lisbeth Salander, but it's not entirely her fault that she's miscast. And the pit bull puppy will melt the heart of even ardent haters of the breed (although the frequent close-ups of his face begin to feel a bit desperately manipulative after a while). The problems with the movie have primarily to do with the script. I haven't read the source text, but much of what happens here feels a bit too preordained and predictable, and is not helped by Hardy's occasional (and portentous) voiceover. We know that Bob will eventually act, so when he does, there is little surprise (the audience at my preview screening even tittered at that climax). Despite the weaker elements, however, there is much to enjoy. As a final farewell to Gandolfini, it may not live up to the standards of "The Sopranos," but it's still enjoyable.

A Five Star Life

"Up in the Air" meets "I Am Love," but with a nice feminist twist where the female protagonist doesn't actually need a man to be happy. That's how I'm billing "A Five Star Life" ("Viaggio Sola," or "I Travel Alone," in the original Italian) and I'm sticking to it! In this visually sumptuous (sponsored by "The Leading Hotels of the World!") coming-to-terms-with-life story about a visually sumptuous middle-aged woman - an amazing Margherita Buy ("We Have a Pope") - we meet Irene (Buy), a luxury hotel inspector who travels the world for an agency that rates five-star hotels to determine whether they still deserve all five of those stars. Along the way, she is forced to rate her own romance-free child-free life and determine the best path forward.

On the one hand, it's a beautiful movie, buoyed by Buy's magnificent performance, and like "The Trip to Italy" and "Magic in the Moonlight" offering the viewer the aesthetic delights of gorgeous locations that (somewhat) make up for flaws in the screenplay. On the other hand, however, those flaws accumulate to the point where the script and characters become too schematic: conversations between Irene and her sister, and Irene and her former lover feel overwhelmingly expositional; a late arrival to the story - a British feminist intellectual - is inserted into the plot, it seems, merely to force Irene into self-awareness. Still, there's something to be said for elegantly presented and marvelously acted eye candy, and you could do worse than spend 85 minutes (blessedly short!) watching Margherita Buy traipse through some of the most stunning hotels in the world.

Frank
Frank(2014)

Michael Fassbender (seen earlier this summer in "X-Men: Days of Future Past"), as the title character of "Frank" (which opens today at Baltimore's Charles Theatre), spends most of the movie wearing a large papier-mâché head, and this visual conceit is almost reason enough to see the film. Requiring an actor considered, by some, to be one of the sexiest around, to cover his pulchritudinous features with an ungainly apparatus seems like a silly joke on the audience. But it is quite the opposite, as the fake head serves, instead, to mute our usual reaction to the presence of a movie star, which is to project onto him or her the longstanding feelings we have for them. In "Frank," the head allows Fassbender to act, hidden from our preconceptions, and to create a vibrant and moving portrayal of a deeply damaged being with only his body as a tool. And he is marvelous. It's too bad the film is only halfway so, but that first half is almost pure genius. As long as the movie stays in Ireland, where it begins, it works, but once the film shifts to America and to the SXSW Festival (where, incidentally, I first saw it), it becomes almost pedestrian.

"Frank" is about a rock band fronted by a man with a serious mental illness who copes with his madness by quite literally showing a different face to the world. Frank (the man) is also a bit of a musical prodigy, and his insanity and talent attract a group of similarly unstable musicians. Into this bizarre world comes Domhnall Gleeson - an actor I confess to find tiresome (except in this summer's "Calvary") - a paragon of normality and mediocrity, who is both drawn to Frank and his entourage and repelled by their rejection of the conventions of normal behavior. In the first half of the movie, as the band rehearses and then records what is to be a major album for them, the film flirts with true greatness, examining the meanings of art and insanity, and the potential connection between the two, without being too obvious in its intentions. But then, once the album is recorded, the band is invited to perform in America, and the earlier subtlety vanishes. Obvious dialogue and clumsy dichotomies - art vs. mediocrity, sanity vs. insanity, etc. - take over the script, and the dullness that is Gleeson takes over the movie. The final scene somewhat redeems the film, but the end result is still a very mixed bag. For that powerful first hour, however, I must recommend it. Maggie Gyllenhaal ("Stranger Than Fiction") and Scoot McNairy ("Monsters") - both almost as good as Fassbender - do fine work in supporting roles as a counterbalance to the parts that don't succeed.

The November Man
½

The last two weeks have seen the usual weak roster of films that studios tend to release in late August, before the autumn slate of Oscar contenders come out. The summer blockbusters are done, and now we must bide our time until the anticipated return of quality (we hope). After "If I Stay" and "When the Game Stands Tall," we now get "The November Man," from Australian-born New Zealand director Roger Donaldson, a man who in the past has given us such reasonably competent thrillers as "No Way Out," "Dante's Peak" (which, like this new film, starred Pierce Brosnan), "Thirteen Days" and - my favorite among them - "The Bank Job." Unfortunately, "The November Man" is neither reasonable nor competent. It is, upon occasion, a lot of fun - if you don't mind senseless violence and gaping plot holes - which elevates it above pure stinker level. That's not much, but at least it's something.

The film sees Brosnan - 12 years after his last outing as James Bond, in "Die Another Day" - return to action-movie form as a former CIA operative (with, somehow, an unexplained British accent) with an axe to grind with his ex-employer and ex-trainee (now promoted to full operative status). Brosnan - except for a few scenes in which he overdoes the hand-wipe-over-brow to indicate stress - is terrific, and it's a joy to see how much he's still got it. Unfortunately, Luke Bracey ("G.I. Joe: Retaliation"), as his protégé, is anything but terrific. In fact, he's dull, dull, and then dull. Olga Kurylenko ("Quantum of Solace," where she starred opposite Brosnan's replacement as Bond, Daniel Craig) livens things up a bit, but no one next to Brosnan is as entertaining as unknown Bosnian gymnast Amila Terzimehic as a Russian assassin whose body is as flexible as it is deadly. Too bad she's not in the movie for more than a few minutes.

To describe the plot would be a wasted venture, as very little of it makes sense. The various secret services are alternately super-efficient and bungling, and people are killed throughout - in glorious bloody close-up - with neither reason nor sense. The car chases and action sequences, however, are staged well, and when Brosnan is one the move, too distracted by bullets to wipe that brow, he's a powerfully kinetic force that must be watched. Idiocy, slaughter and proficiently managed mayhem: if that's your thing, you'll enjoy at least parts of the film.

If I Stay
If I Stay(2014)
½

What a week! The two films screened for press were this and "When the Game Stands Tall," neither of which impressed. The only way this movie looks good is by that comparison, sadly. Based on the best-selling young adult book of the same title by Gayle Forman, "If I Stay" comes with a built-in opening-weekend audience. I have not read the book, nor am I of the target demographic, so all I have to go on is the feeling of dread and nausea that spread over me with each passing minute of screen time. Who would die? Who would cry? Oh me, oh my!

Right away the film had problems. Its lead, Chloë Grace Moretz, so good - and, most importantly, natural - in "Kick-Ass" and "Let Me In," here seems to have developed a severe case of "acting." She telegraphs every emotion to the audience with head shakes, nose flares and dilating pupils. It's unfortunate, as Ms. Moretz is a very likable presence, even if she has no chemistry with her onscreen co-star, Jamie Blackley ("We Are the Freaks"). Perhaps we can simply chalk up this and "Carrie" to growing pains. I hope so. Her talent lies (or lay, anyway) in effortlessly revealing the strangeness below the surface of normality. When we see her exertions, however, it's painful.

"If I Stay" tells the story of how Mia (Moretz), a talented young cellist in a family of former punk rockers, gets into a car accident, suffers severe head injuries and almost dies. For most of the film, she lies in a coma, remembering her life (via flashbacks) and deciding whether or not to leave it behind and head into the white light of the beyond. While her body is trapped in the hospital bed, her conscious mind wanders the floors of the hospital, which is how she is able to discover the fate of the family members who were with her in the car (hint: theirs is not a happy fate). As tragedy is layered upon tragedy and Mia feels less and less inclined to fight for her own life, a certain emotional numbness sets in. Who else will die? How far will the filmmakers go to make Mia's case as dire as possible? It's tragi-porn at its most extreme.

But just when you thought all was lost, along comes Adam (Blackley), the love of Mia's (extremely young) life. Will his affections make up for Mia's loss? Will the song he writes for her bring her back from the brink? Speaking of Adam's music - he's a rocker, like Mia's parents - I found his supposedly brilliant songs (the ones that get him an awesome record deal) rather conventional, and more pop than rock. But music was the least of my complaints. What was more annoying was seeing Mireille Enos - so terrific in AMC's (and now Netflix's) "The Killing" - reduced, yet again, to playing the mother role in a feature film (as she did in last year's "World War Z"). Give the woman a role worthy of her!

I stayed till the end, but kept on saying to myself, "If I leave . . ." Unless you're a diehard fan of the source text, I'd leave the movie for someone else to see.

When The Game Stands Tall

"Inspired by the extraordinary true story" (as the poster reminds us) of how the members of De La Salle High School's football team struggled to regain their sense of purpose (and of faith) when they lost two games in a row after a 151-game winning streak, "When the Game Stands Tall" hits every tired sports movie cliché in the playbook and augments each one with ostentatious displays of Christian belief that are clumsy enough to embarrass even the most devout among us. It's a fiasco of messy storytelling that asks us to care about its grotesquely underwritten characters just because they spout platitudes of brotherhood and God. When one of the families faces an actual tragedy (sorry, but losing games doesn't count), we mourn their loss, but it's hard to feel anything truly genuine since we hardly know those involved. The movie strives to be "Hoosiers" but instead comes across as the "The Passion of the Coach," which perhaps shouldn't surprise us since said coach is played by Jim Caviezel (Jesus in Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ").

On the plus side, "When the Game Stands Tall" is that rare example of a film where the 2nd act is actually the strongest part of the enterprise. Normally, screenplays that start and end well suffer in the middle: it's a lot easier to write the fun opening and wild finish. But here, the first 45 minutes are completely unfocused, with barely distinguishable young football players running around looking mopey, presaging their inevitable defeat. Once that defeat happens, however, the movie jettisons its religious mission for a bit and focuses on the game that brings the team together and turns their fortunes around. While it does that, it's (somewhat) interesting. And then it all falls apart again. But I think I'll save this movie somewhere in my memory bank as one to show my students in the future, as the exception that proves the rule of the usual script issues. Badly acted and poorly conceived, the film is otherwise not worth its ticket price, however. Stay away.

Calvary
Calvary(2014)

"Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved.
Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned."
- St. Augustine

"My first taste of semen was when I was 7 years old"
- Off-camera voice spoken through confessional wall to Brendan Gleeson's Father James at the start of "Calvary"

A film that opens with the above epigraph, attributed to St. Augustine, as white text over black, and then segues into a stark confessional scene, in which an unknown man describes his childhood molestation by a Catholic priest, holds out the promise of a raw emotional journey into how the hope and promise of Christianity collide with the sins of the Church, especially the sin of pedophilia. As written and directed by Irishman John Michael McDonagh, whose previous feature, "The Guard," was similarly set in a small Irish hamlet and also starred Brendan Gleeson (who also starred in "In Bruges," written and directed by Michael McDonagh, John Michael's brother), Calvary starts out with every indication of fulfilling that promise, and then some. McDonagh has a wonderful feel for his homeland's beauty and ruin, as well as for simple dialogue that conveys more by what it doesn't say than through needless exposition, and Gleeson is more than up to the task of carrying the weight of the film - and of the world - on his wide and weary shoulders. But about halfway through the 100-minute running time, "Calvary" begins to falter, losing its light touch and deft mixture of comedy and tragedy to become an overwrought mess. It stumbles badly on the way to its own crucifixion. Still, the film is well worth watching for Gleeson, alone.

Gleeson plays Father James, a widower (and now-sober alcoholic) who joined the priesthood after his wife died. He has a troubled daughter, nicely played by Kelly Reilly (who, with this and "Flight," needs to be careful not to be typecast as the struggling addict), who comes to visit him after a failed suicide attempt. Through their conversations, we learn much about what motivated this one-time bon vivant to become a priest, and their scenes together are gently rendered. It's all colored by the threat uttered in the opening confessional, however, in which the sex-abuse survivor declares that he will exact retribution on the Church by killing an innocent priest - Father James - since killing a guilty man would mean nothing. As Gleeson makes the rounds of his disillusioned flock - the only believer in the power of faith is a visiting French woman whose husband dies in a car wreck - we watch him struggle to bring some good into the world in the face of indifference, all the while knowing that he will probably die if he doesn't leave. And struggle he does, since no one gives a damn.

For a good while, the film is very effective at showing how the years of administrative neglect and moral corruption have eroded the ability of even a sincere priest to do his work. We almost come to believe that Father James will ultimately triumph over the disgust of the scant congregation members he has left. The fact that he doesn't is not where the film goes wrong. Rather, the threads of the story begin to fray as McDonagh starts underlining his points in bold underline, explaining in no uncertain terms how Father James's struggle is quixotic, at best. Then there is also the question of tone: as the film grows psychologically more dire, the comedic bits seem less and less appropriate. Finally, the ending eruption of violence is shown in such an out-of-the-blue graphic close-up that it feels like it belongs to a different movie, as if McDonagh is channeling his inner Tarantino.

In spite of these significant problems, however, the movie raises important issues of institutional failure and faith, and with fine supporting performances from Chris O'Dowd, Aidan Gillen, Isaach De Bankolé, Marie-Josée Croze, Orla O'Rourke and even *gasp* Domhnall Gleeson (Brendan's son, and an actor I usually find unbearable to watch, but who here is very good), "Calvary" has many reasons to see it, even if the sum total of its quality elements do not help it transcend its flaws. I give it a (very) qualified recommendation.

Magic in the Moonlight
½

Woody Allen's new film is as delicious and amusing a confection of cinematic delights as any he has made in the past 20 years. Filled with gorgeous shots of the French Riviera - often bathed in the fading rays of magic hour - from master cinematographer Darius Khondji ("Se7en," "Midnight in Paris"), "Magic in the Moonlight" is a visual marvel, well served by the fine lead performances from Colin Firth and Emma Stone. Unfortunately, it is not well served by an ultimately pedestrian script burdened with a foreseeable plot twist that leads to the inevitable (and distasteful) union of an older man to a much younger woman (not quite shades of "Manhattan," but still problematic and not particularly believable). Isn't it time we start demanding more than the same tired clichés?

We are in 1928. Stanley (Mr. Firth), a world-famous magician (who goes by the stage name of Wei Ling Soo, Orientalism being in fashion then) is approached by an acquaintance on a mission. It seems as if some mutual friends have fallen under the spell of a young American medium, Sophie (Ms. Stone), and it turns out Stanley is a noted expert at unmasking spiritual frauds. Will Stanley travel to the south of France to expose the pretender? Of course! And so off he goes, incognito (no one must know that he is the famous Wei Ling Soo), to the charming mansion in which Sophie has so comfortably settled, senses and cynicism on full alert, prepared to destroy the young lady. But a funny thing happens on the way to battle, as Stanley - a lifelong bachelor only recently engaged - finds himself enchanted, rather than repulsed, by Sophie. Is she real? Is Stanley's conversion real? Does he love her? Does she love him? Or is it all a game, where no emotions are genuine?

For a while, the film works - and is, in fact, very entertaining - largely thanks to the solid performances from the leads and the supporting players, which include a very funny Hamish Linklater, an icy Marcia Gay Harden and a ditzy Jacki Weaver, among others. But the central romance at the center of the story - in spite of the considerable charms of both Mr. Firth and Ms. Stone - just doesn't work. At no time does their budding attraction the one for the other feel anything other than pure screenwriting conceit. As the film moves away from Stanley's initial misanthropic cynicism (something Mr. Firth perfected in his work in "Pride and Prejudice" and "Bridget Jones's Diary") to later genuine hope and feeling, the script devolves into hackneyed romantic-comedy conventions, and we lose interest. In the end, though magic there may have been, it was in the beautiful light of Khondji's images and not in the writing.

Get On Up
Get On Up(2014)
½

With a terrific central performance by Chadwick Boseman ("42"), "Get on Up" has what it needs to give "Godfather of Soul" James Brown his due respect, but is hampered by a messy script and pedestrian direction from Tate Taylor (who did a little better in "The Help"). Papa may "got a brand new bag," but it's a very mixed one, indeed.

Part of the problem is the film's approach to chronology. It begins in 1993, although we don't know that it's then until the end, when we return to the same scene of James Brown walking backstage to the chant of a crowd calling his name. We then immediately jump back (not that far) to 1988, where we meet a seemingly confused Brown who brandishes (and shoots) a gun in a building he owns, and then we keep moving backwards, now to 1968 and Brown's musical tour of Vietnam, where he performs for the troops. We make one final quick jump, to 1939, where Brown is a little boy with warring parents, the result of which feud leads his mother (a wasted Viola Davis, who should have won an Oscar for "The Help") to abandon young Brown. Soon he is brought to a brothel run by an aunt, played by Octavia Spencer (much better served by this summer's "Snowpiercer"), who becomes his de factor mother, and from then on we jump around from time period to time period, often without specific reason. Sometimes there are subtitles to the dates, explaining why they're important, and sometimes not. Sometimes Bozeman breaks "the fourth wall," to address the audience directly, and sometimes not. There's no rhyme or reason to any of it.

Which is too bad, since Bozeman (who, according to the credits, lip-synched to Brown's original vocals) brings great energy and charisma to his turn as the singer. After seeing what Bozeman did in "42" and here, it would be great to see him next create a role from the ground up, without benefit of biopic research. It would also be wonderful to see him act in a movie with a better script. Still, he is almost worth the price of admission, as is Nelsan Ellis ("True Blood") as his long-suffering friend and lieutenant, Bobby Byrd. It's a very mixed bag, indeed.

Guardians of the Galaxy

Until I first saw a trailer for this new superhero fantasy from Marvel Comics, I had never heard of the "Guardians of the Galaxy," though it appears that these characters have existed in some form since 1969 (the year of my birth!). Still, something in the irreverent tone of that trailer caught my fancy, and given the relatively lackluster commercial fare on offer so far this summer, I went into the screening with some hope of having a good time. And I did. I am happy to report that Guardians of the Galaxy could be the big-budget blockbuster film you've been waiting for since June: action-packed, funny, slickly produced, with a decent script and (for the most part) interesting characters. With an extremely likable Chris Pratt ("Parks and Recreation") leading the way, Guardians may be silly and derivative (shades of "Star Wars" in the poster, to begin with), but it's also a terrific piece of escapist sci-fi entertainment. Zoe Saldana ("Avatar," "Star Trek") - she of the ever changing on-screen skin color - and Bradley Cooper ("The Hangover," "American Hustl"e) - who here lends his voice to that of a surgically altered space raccoon - add their talents to the mix, to great results.

The movie begins on Earth in 1988, when the lead character - then a boy, but soon to grow up to be Chris Pratt - is kidnapped by a group of interstellar mercenaries just at the moment of his mother's death, never to return. One of the recurring jokes in the film is that Peter Quill (Pratt) has a knowledge of pop culture stuck in our planet's 1970s and 80s. When next we meet him, he is now an outlaw, himself, who very soon finds himself at the unwelcome center of a plot to destroy the universe. He may be a thief, but he's not a psychopath. Thrown in jail after a failed heist, he joins forces with a ragtag band of fellow misfits and felons. The usual trial period of argument