Movie award season has begun, and this means one can find plenty of great movies in cineplexes everywhere. On the other hand, not every film will win an Academy Award, so let's look at the films to see and the films to avoid.
(New this week) “Inherent Vice” 3.5/4 stars - Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson pulls up in his GTO and takes the audience on a bizarre trip into yesterdecade - 1970 to be exact - and into the life of private detective and proud hippie, Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix). An old flame pays Doc a visit, but soon after, she goes missing. Doc, somewhat promptly, puts himself on the case and falls into weird and head-scratching circumstances. Since Doc is constantly stoned, our hero captures a off-center perspective on the crazy happenings which surround him, but think how we feel in this time warp while living and breaking in 2015! Josh Brolin hilariously plays Doc’s antagonist and brings the many of the funniest moments - in a film filled with funny moments - to the screen. This trip is a trippy and entertaining adult movie experience.
(New this week) “Mr. Turner” 3/4 stars - Timothy Spall paints a brilliant picture of famed British artist J.M.W. Turner in writer/director Mike Leigh’s ambitious film. Traditionally, Leigh plays loose with his scripts, and this movie is no different. The curious editing leaves the audience with a collection of scenes which begin and end, but many times with seemingly little purpose. On the other hand, after the course of a 2 hour 30 minute film, one absorbs a real feel for Turner’s life, and Spall’s performance should receive equal praise. A very good history lesson about one of England’s great painters.
“Birdman” 4/4 stars - In one of the very best movies of 2014, Riggan (Michael Keaton) is a 60-something former movie superhero star who takes on the most ambitious project of his career: he writes, produces, directs, and stars in his Broadway adaptation of his own hero’s, Raymond Carver’s, short story. The movie plays out like a play as writer/director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu films the 2 hour picture under several continuous 10-minute shots. While the camera winds through the hallways, dressing rooms, and the stage itself, we are privy to the backstage maneuvering and hilarity needed to put on a Broadway production. The writing is razor sharp, and all the performances hit their marks, none better than Edward Norton’s portrayal of a talented actor with a chip the size of a city block on his shoulder.
“Foxcatcher” 4/4 stars - Based upon an eerie and strange true story, an ineffectual multimillionaire John du Pont (Steve Carrell) asks Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) to live on his property to train for the 1988 Seoul Olympics. While Schultz singularly focuses on Olympic gold, du Pont’s tries to reach glory for himself by trying to coach his new protege. The problem is du Pont does not possess any charisma or coaching ability, and their “father/son” relationship bathes in an uncomfortable stew. This highly intriguing and off-putting drama is led by three Oscar-caliber performances by Carrell, Tatum and Mark Ruffalo, who plays Mark’s older brother.
“The Imitation Game” 3/4 stars - Benedict Cumberbatch delivers a terrific performance as famous British mathematician Alan Turing who attempts to break the unbreakable Nazi code called “Enigma”. Director Morten Tyldum steps into a thriller narrative as Turing and his staff have until midnight - for night after endless night - to decipher the code, because at every 12:01am, the Germans change up their impossible puzzle again and again. Tyldum’s history lesson also spends time in Turing’s tortured personal life after the war, and the film leaves anyone - living in the 21st century - angry and emphatic.
“The Interview” 3/4 stars - A TV tabloid journalist (James Franco) and his producer (Seth Rogen) score an unlikely interview opportunity with North Korean’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, but the CIA steps in and asks them to assassinate him during their stay. Although the controversy around this picture runs high, so does the number of genuine belly laughs. Sure, this comedy regularly hits below the midsection on the taste-meter, but the silliness and slapstick work, and Franco’s bafoonery act as a clueless TV personality steals the show. Don’t be frightened by the propaganda and enjoy a tasteless, but smartly-written film.
“The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” 2.5/4 stars - Peter Jackson’s conclusion to the “The Hobbit” trilogy mainly focuses on a spectacular battle at the base of the Lonely Mountain for the massive gold treasure located inside. Jackson features the famous dragon scene from the book, but don’t blink because (spoiler alert) it’s over before the opening credits. Fans of the series should not miss this movie, but the overall completed work left me a feeling a bit hallow and underwhelmed.
“The Gambler” 2/4 stars - Mark Wahlberg stars in the title role. Jim Bennett (Wahlberg) gambles a lot, but never seems to win, and neither does the audience. He is his own worst enemy and steals “defeat in the jaws of victory” over and over. “The Gambler” is a good character study of someone with the disease, but the movie loses us when Jim works at his “day job” as a college writing professor. Jim’s lecture scenes are laughably over-the-top. His frequent classroom meltdowns just scream lazy writing and overacting and take us out of any hope Jim is a believable character. This isn’t a bad movie, but I know better ways to spend your $10. Lottery tickets, perhaps?
“Exodus: Gods and Kings” 1.5/4 stars - Ridley Scott tells Moses’s story under an avalanche of huge sets and special effects, but this biblical recreation somehow forgot to pen the emotion into the script. That’s really difficult to do with one of the all-time famous stories! Under Ramses’s (Joel Edgerton) rule, Egypt falls into endless misery as God’s wrath pummels him and his people, but the constant strife becomes a never-ending rote exercise in theatrical masochism. Thankfully, the picture does end after 2 hours and 30 minutes. Moses (Christian Bale) does triumph the day, but none of us in the theatre will feel like winners.
“Into the Woods” 1.5/4 stars - This creative mash-up musical of nursery rhymes begins as a whimsical and fun exercise. An all-star cast - led by Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp, Chris Pine, Emily Blunt, and Anna Kendrick - swaps spit between Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, and Little Red Riding Hood, and the tongue-in-cheek humor and catchy sing-a-long tunes bring flashbacks of “The Princess Bride”. Unfortunately, the whimsy quickly ends at about 1 hour 10 minutes, and the film painfully drags on for almost another hour. I cannot remember a movie which starts out so strong and then completely falls off the rails as much as this mess. Note to director Rob Marshall: Children-themed musicals should not last 2 hours and 5 minutes.
"The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1" 1/4 stars - For me, this series completely falls apart. In this excruciatingly slow picture, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) hunkers down in District 13 with other rebels as they battle President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and the central government. The problem is this film is 98 percent talking and 2 percent action as the “rebels” whine and complain about their predicament and spend a majority of their time filming a political infomercial with Katniss as the star. I’m serious. Lawrence, Sutherland, Julianne Moore, Woody Harrelson, and Josh Hutcherson try their best with the paper-thin material, but this picture is a brutal exercise in complete boredom. The disappointment of the year.