In theatres now: the good, the not bad, and the ugly
New in Theatres:“Dracula Untold” 3/4 stars - Screaming in at 92 minutes, director Gary Shore retells Dracula’s backstory and - thankfully - does not overcomplicate the narrative. In the 15th Century, Prince Vlad the Impaler (Luke Evans) uses a gentle hand over his Transylvanian people, but becomes viciously fierce to defend his kingdom. When the Turkish Empire threatens to destroy everything Vlad holds dear, he turns to a dark force - a vampire - for strength. Within three days, Vlad could become a permanent vampire himself, and in the process, Evans offers a Dracula whom we can root to victory. Surprising dramatic sequences grabbed my breath, and Evans’s performance delivers the right balance of chivalry and empathy.
“Kill the Messenger” 3.5/4 stars - Based on a true story, investigative journalist Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner) discovers a massive CIA-led drug trafficking network used to fund Contra rebels in Nicaragua. Webb tirelessly digs for the truth but opens doors which the U.S. Government wanted permanently closed. The film captures terrific political thriller sequences and also quiet moments with Webb’s home life. While surrounded by an all-star cast, Renner shines as the lead, the messenger. A must-see film for journalists and everyone else who appreciates an intriguing David vs. Goliath story.
“Pride” 3.5/4 stars - When Welsh coalminers go on strike and fight a losing battle with the British government, a small group in London’s gay/lesbian community take notice and offer to help. Despite their differences, this unlikely pair of people form a bond, and with it, offer one of the most engaging films of the year. A real crowd-pleaser, this true story from 1980’s Britain will make you stand up and cheer. Ben Schnetzer stars as Mark - who initiated support for the miners - and his youthful energy is contagious for the on-screen characters and movie audience, alike. Paddy Considine, Bill Nighy, Andrew Scott, and Imelda Staunton are also particularly good in supporting roles.
“You’re Not You” 3/4 stars - Hillary Swank embraces a difficult role as a healthy 30-something suddenly stricken with ALS. We see Kate (Swank) in a perfectly healthy state at the movie’s beginning, and her condition soon becomes a stark contrast for what is to come. The key plot driver is Kate’s relationship with her new caregiver, Bec (Emmy Rossum), and quite frankly, the relationship feels very manufactured for most of the film. With Bec’s continual array of bad choices and equally bad manners, her behavior seems too unrealistic to be believed. On the other hand, the chemistry between the two finally meshes in the film’s third act, but the last 30 minutes also become painful to watch. With all due respect to the ice bucket challenges, everyone who wants more awareness about ALS should see this film.
The Good:“Gone Girl” 4/4 stars - Ben Affleck and Rosemund Pike are perfectly cast in director David Fincher’s hugely entertaining adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s dark novel. Flynn also wrote the screenplay, and it shows as all the key elements of her book find themselves on the big screen. Even though the film runs just shy of 2 1/2 hours, it never bores, and the quick pace surges as the mystery of Amy Dunne’s (Pike) disappearance confuses and then becomes clear. Fincher, known for grizzly material with “Seven” (1995), “Fight Club” (1999) and “Zodiac” (2007) is the right person to helm this tale, but lifts us up with other moments of unsuspecting humor. Pike and Affleck are excellent, and Pike flawlessly delivers in the movie’s most gruesome scene. These few minutes will sit with you for years. Carrie Coon, Neil Patrick Harris and Tyler Perry round out a very good supporting cast. One of the 2014’s best films.
“Guardians of the Galaxy” 4/4 stars - Marvel Studios's 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.
“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.
“A Walk Among the Tombstones” 3/4 stars - Liam Neeson plays as a New York City private detective trying to find two serial killers who killed a drug dealer’s wife. Writer/director Scott Frank serves up very dark and sick material which brushes against “The Silence of Lambs”-like territory. The provocative sequences do raise blood pressures, but the storyline - on its own - is worthy of good-thriller status. Much smarter than a “Taken” film, Neeson’s wrestles his adversaries in the collective urban grit without cartoonish violence and James Bond bravado. This is a good thing, but please do not invite your Great Aunt Edna to tag along with you to this movie.
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 Equalizer” 2/4 stars - When Boston criminals and crooked cops cause trouble, who can Jane and John Doe turn to for help? The Equalizer (Denzel Washington), of course. The Equalizer works his magic like 80’s heros “The A-Team”, but in his case, he anomyously fights crime. His methods are secretive and - more importantly - very effective. Robert (Washington) can kill a group of bad guys in close quarters in about 30 seconds, but unfortunately, the movie’s story arc is so familiar and predictable, the slow march towards the ultimate conclusion truly bores. Maybe The Equalizer can meet up with Sylvester Stalone’s newest “The Expendables” sequel.
“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.
“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 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.
“The Skeleton Twins” 2/4 stars - “Saturday Night Live” alums Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader give very good performances as twins reuniting in their home town in Upstate NY after a family emergency. Suicide and depression fill the screen at every turn, and that could work on the surface, but the ham-handed delivery feels clunky and forced. Yes, we understand parents can mess up their kids, but the constant march of disfunction and despair overwhelms the actors’ attempt to bring humanity and depth to the overall movie experience.
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.
“Annabelle” 1/4 stars - An inferior prequel to the truly terrifying “The Conjuring” (2013), this uninspired horror film focuses on a doll possessed by a murderous cult follower. Of course, the ornate doll itself was creepy enough without the aforementioned possession, but now Annabelle can turn on stovetop burners to light overcooked popcorn on fire, slam doors and create other ghostly mayhem for a young LA couple. Some sequences deliver some scares, but the film doesn’t provide enough of them. I wanted the movie to go in darker directions, but - unfortunately - it plays it safe. That’s too bad. It’s also too bad the “wooden” acting by Ward Horton is so distracting, any suspense of disbelief becomes compromised. Rent or stream “The Conjuring” instead.
“Tusk” 1/4 stars - Kevin Smith’s bizarre horror comedy badly misses its mark and takes its unsuspecting audience on a sickening and deeply twisted creepshow. When a podcast broadcaster’s (Justin Long) interview goes south, he makes a grave mistake by trusting a weird old man (Michael Parks) and the promise of a treasure chest of great stories. “Tusk” is supposed to be comedy, but its laughs fall flat, and the disturbing turn in the film’s second half simply repulses. The visuals will stick in your brain for about 20 years or so. The film is effective in that sense, but I fail to see any redeeming value in having those images in anyone’s head.
Image Credits: Universal Pictures