In theatres now: the good, the not bad, and the ugly
“The Drop” 3.5/4 stars - Cousin Marv’s - a local watering hole - in a Brooklyn blue collar neighborhood is the setting of this wonderfully dark and gritty small-time crime film. Marv (James Gandolfini) no longer owns his bar - as the nearby Chechnyan mob took it over 8 years ago - but he still manages his place along with his good-hearted younger cousin, Bob (Tom Hardy). Although Marv and Bob had their own “crew” back in the day, Marv constantly stews over past mistakes and Bob minds his own business and usually mentions, “I just tend the bar.” Life suddenly becomes complicated as the aforementioned mob and a random antagonist cause trouble. Our “heroes” quietly burn while the forces around them close in during the gray and cold weeks after Christmas. All of the performances - especially Hardy’s - are top notch, including nice supporting turns by Noomi Rapace and Matthias Schoenaerts. A great sendoff for Gandolfini.
“No Good Deed” 2/4 stars - This paint-by-numbers plot pits an unsuspecting housewife (Taraji P. Henson) against an escaped convict (Idris Elba) when she lets him into her home. Terri (Henson) is a former criminal prosecutor, but that doesn’t stop her from opening her door to a complete stranger, Colin (Elba), and giving him the run of her house. Thin on story, but long on clichés, the film quickly and unfortunately devolves into “The Burning Bed”/”Sleeping with the Enemy”/”Fatal Attraction” territory. Luckily for the audience, with a runtime of only 83 minutes, the clichés do end: when the picture is over. Some crowd pleasing moments elevate the film from a boring disaster to an unoriginal effort.
“Boyhood” 4/4 stars - Writer/director Richard Linklater creates an absolute marvel of a film. In a most unique way, he organically captures the impact of a dysfunctional and flawed upbringing over a 12-year period. Yes, Linklater filmed the story of a six-year-old boy named Mason (Ellar Coltrane) over 12 years. Coltrane, Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, and Linklater’s daughter, Lorelei come along to tell Mason’s and their characters’ narratives too. Day-to-day conversations and seemingly ordinary events compile over years to help form a person from child to adult. Over 2 hours and 45 minutes, we, the audience, see his progression and the emotional land mines he’ll need to avoid from age 18 and beyond. A complete triumph. I’ve never seen another movie like it.
“Calvary” 4/4 stars - Brendan Gleeson delivers an utterly captivating performance as a good priest living under extreme duress in small seaside Irish community. Although scenic beauty surrounds him at every winding country road turn, almost all of the townspeople constantly spew hostility in his direction. The biggest danger, however, comes from a man who enters his confessional box and threatens to kill him in one week. Writer/director John Michael McDonagh weaves a very dark “whodunnit” film which plays like an old western as it marches towards Father James’s (Gleeson) date with destiny. A surreal and difficult picture to watch, but McDonagh creates a beautiful film noir. Kelly Reilly, Chris O’Dowd and M. Emmet Walsh co-star.
“Guardians of the Galaxy” 4/4 stars - Marvel Studios latest effort is also their very best. When five ruffians band together to deliver a mysterious orb for an astronomical (pardon the pun) profit, they discover the meaning of friendship. As corny as that sounds, the manner which director James Gunn gets us there is anything but corny. This is a highly entertaining action film - accompanied by a wonderful 70s soundtrack - captures the imagination, but more importantly, this movie is simply extremely funny. As far as I’m concerned, “Guardians of the Galaxy” is right up there with “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and dare I say, “Star Wars”. Most fun I’ve had in a theatre in years.
“Frank” 3.5/4 stars - A wholly bizarre rock ‘n’ roll story about a terrible alternative band trying - in vain - to make a record. Frank (Michael Fassbender) - the group’s mentally ill lead singer/songwriter - uses highly unconventional methods to write and record music, and - to top it off - wears a large papier-mâché head on his head at all times. Frank and the band members’ (called Soronprfbs) individual personalities and musical approaches eventually wear very thin on Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), the new keyboard player, and believe me, this band will wear on you too! The movie’s unexpected jumps and twists will keep you on your toes. Amongst the severe dysfunction, we hope for a happy ending, but boy, it does not seem likely.
“A Most Wanted Man” 3.5/4 stars - Hamburg is the setting for this very smart espionage motion picture based upon the John le Carré novel. Issa (Grigorly Dobrygin) - a mysterious Chechnyan/Russian immigrant - sneaks into Hamburg, and local spies, led by Günther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman), believe this “most wanted man” is the key to catch a very important man, Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), who is funneling large sums of money to terrorists. The focus is first on Issa, because as Gunther explains, “It takes a minnow to catch a barracuda. A barracuda to catch a shark.” Director Anton Corbijin weaves through the secret world of German intelligence - which circumvents local laws - through the gray and cloudy daylight surrounding broad antiseptic office buildings and hidden basement garages. “A Most Wanted Man” is a most welcomed film, and we have a golden, but melancholy, opportunity to witness Hoffman’s brilliance.
“Begin Again” 3/4 stars - “Once” writer/director John Carney returns to the silver screen with his welcomed and frank bohemian style. Instead of Dublin, New York is his canvas, and this time, all eyes fall upon Keira Knightley. She does a terrific job of playing a vulnerable, sweet and broken-hearted Greta who followed her musical boyfriend (Adam Levine) to NYC, but was soon dumped. Greta owns some musical chops of her own, and a down-and-out record producer (Mark Ruffalo) talks her into recording an album. “Begin Again” isn’t as strong as “Once”, but Carney offers a pleasant and warm story.
“Chef” 3/4 stars - Writer/director on Favreau’s new film about a very talented Los Angeles chef who starts over by running a food truck is a nice diversion from your typical summer blockbusters. Carl (Favreau) is divorced, and takes his son on a cross-country trip promoting his new mobile business. Speaking of mobile, his son Tony (Emjay Anthony) does most of the marketing using the latest social media, and Favreau makes does a good job of mixing it into the film. Fun and light, “Chef” is a most pleasant rated-R family film. John Leguizamo, Bobby Cannavale, Sofia Vergara, Oliver Platt, Scarlett Johansson, Dustin Hoffman, and a surprise cameo round out a talented cast.
“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” 3/4 stars - A worthy successor to 2011’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”, this film really dazzles with remarkable special effects. In fact, the CGI is so good, the apes seem much more human than their stiff and wooden human counterparts. It is some years after the 2011 film took place, and the apes - led by Caesar (Andy Serkis) - live in harmony in the Northern California forest, but conflict arises when humans trespass in order to jump start a dam for electricity in nearby San Francisco. Gary Oldman’s, Jason Clarke’s and Keri Russell’s talents are completely wasted here, and the real interest is between Caesar and a rival ape named Koba (Toby Kebbell).
“Lucy” 3/4 stars - Scarlett Johansson stars in Luc Besson’s exciting and wild sci-fi thriller, and with a runtime of just 90 minutes, “Lucy” does not waste any time to transport the audience on a crazy journey. Set in Taiwan, Lucy (Johansson) inadvertently takes an experimental drug which allows her to use a higher percentage of her brain. A higher percentage than anyone else in human history. Mayhem, craziness and about seven different film genres spray all over the screen, so prepare yourself for the unexpected. Isn’t that why we go to the movies? The Not Bad:
“Let’s Be Cops” 2.5/4 stars - With their careers going nowhere, two down-on-their-luck Los Angeles roommates, Ryan (Jake Johnson) and Justin (Damon Wayans Jr.), decide to dress up as police officers and fight crime. Johnson and Wayans Jr. have terrific comic chemistry and bring out some very funny sequences. I laughed a lot, but - although this is a new idea - the thin and predictable story arc feels like a retread. On the other hand, again, I did laugh a lot. Keegan-Michael Key makes a hilarious supporting turn.
“The Hundred-Foot Journey” 2/4 stars - An Indian family - led by the patriarch, Papa (Om Puri) - moves to France to start their lives over. They open a restaurant 100 feet from a posh establishment with traditional French cuisine and thus, begin a heated rivalry with the owner, Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren). This Lasse Hallstrom film looks terrific and has all the ingredients for a hit film, but the script crams too many ideas (most likely from the book) into 2 hours and 2 minutes. The end result? We are simply left with a bland movie. The Ugly:
“As Above, So Below” 1.5/4 stars - Scarlett (Perdita Weeks) - who earned two PhDs - is on a lifelong quest to find the key to eternal life in the form of rock called the Philosopher’s Stone. Her journey take her to Paris, and she leads a team of twenty-somethings just underneath the city through hidden tunnels of the infamous Catacombs. Although Scarlett is “wicked smart”, she makes horribly-dumb decisions, and leads this band of semi-merry men and women to the Gates of Hell. Frustrating, predictable - and for being trapped 100 meters below the surface - the film does not really give a sense of claustrophobia at all. A scary movie misfire.
“The November Man” 1.5/4 stars - Pierce Bronson plays an ex-CIA wonder-spy who is forced out of retirement to escort a fellow agent out of Russia, but this is only the beginning of film with about 1,000,006 plot twists. If you are keeping score, that’s about 1,000,003 too many. The editing is all over the place which made me scratch my head over various characters’ motivations actions. Bronson is fine in the starring role. He has not lost his touch, but he really needed a better script. A much better script.
“Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” 1.5/4 stars - An absolutely huge all-star cast - including Mickey Rourke, Jessica Alba, Josh Brolin, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Rosario Dawson, Eva Green, Powers Boothe, Ray Liotta, Dennis Haysburt, Christopher Lloyd, and Bruce Willis - cannot save this joyless and uninteresting follow up to 2005’s smash hit. This movie looks and feels like the first film, but lacks its pizzaz and surprise. It was great to see Rourke’s brutish Marv again, but Alba’s storyline was tired, and Willis’s continued cameos throughout the picture were tiresome and repetitive. The biggest disappointment of the year, so far. Image Credits: Fox Searchlight Pictures