This week, two new adventures hit the big screen, but are they worth a journey to your local cineplex? Let’s look at “Jupiter Ascending”, “Seventh Son” as well as 14 others movies playing in theatres right now.
(New this week) “Jupiter Ascending” 1/4 stars - An exercise in alchemic sci-fiction excess, this bloated spectacle from The Wachowskis (“The Matrix”) badly falls down under an endless parade of pointless characters and insane liberties of basic physics. Mila Kunis minds her own business as a cleaning lady in Chicago, when she suddenly becomes of the sole focus of an interplanetary womanhunt. Luckily Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) arrives on the Earthly scene to protect her, and with his trusty sneakers doubling as “space ice skates”, romance might bloom. My love for this movie never bloomed, and I quickly lost patience after soulless CGI effects and ornate set designs seemingly attempt to mask a really dull story.
(New this week) “Seventh Son” 1/4 stars - Master Gregory (Jeff Bridges), a falcon knight, traps a witch (Julianne Moore) in the middle of an isolated desert, but 10 years later, she frees herself and promises to reign unholy terror when the moon turns blood red. Despite a truly impressive cast of Bridges, Moore, Olivia Williams, Djimon Hounsou, and Antje Traue, this medieval tale of knights, witches, dragons, and other strange creatures feels cheap. The film zips through its predicable narratives in about 95 minutes, and although lots of manhours probably went into the special effects, the end result looks very rushed. “Seventh Son” feels like it was orphaned by filmmakers who simply gave up.
“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, 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 the ineffectual 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.
“Two Days, One Night” 4/4 stars - Rightfully nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, Marion Cotillard plays a woman in dire emotional and financial stress. Sandra (Cotillard) fights to keep her job - for reasons I will not give away here - and pleads her case to her 16 co-workers to save it. Directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s revealing drama finds Sandra battling her defeatist tendencies on a semi-methodical march to each colleague’s home. Sandra believes she’s only marching to keep her job, but her journey - without her knowing it - becomes an opportunity to discover her own self-worth. This thoughtful and quietly powerful film - just about - perfectly captures the wide spectrum of the human condition.
“American Sniper” 3/4 stars - Bradley Cooper serves the title role as real-life U.S. Navy Seal Chris Kyle in an engaging, painful and heroic Iraq War story. Director Clint Eastwood captures the viciousness of urban warfare and brings a sense of dread and fear at every turn along a bombed-out and litter-filled street corners. Kyle’s job as a sniper is to clear the way for his fellow troops by laying low on rooftops and taking out the enemy at long ranges, however the toll of “160 kills” weighs on his conscious, and his time away wears down his family sitting at home. The Academy rightfully acknowledged Cooper’s soulful performance in a very good war film about a man who should be remembered.
“Cake” 3/4 stars - Even though the Academy did not nominate Jennifer Anniston for Best Actress, she delivers an Oscar-worthy performance as an acidic ex-lawyer wrapped in her own bitterness over a brutal car accident. With her character heavily scarred and in massive pain, this is a rare stripped-down Anniston, as Claire constantly seethes with anger, frustration and loss. Director Daniel Barnz slowly spins this indie yarn over 1 hour 42 minutes, and although the root cause of her pain does becomes obvious after 30 minutes, the final reveal is still an overwhelming cause for emotion. Credit the marvelous cast, Barnz’s skill for capturing a close human drama and of course, Anniston with her extraordinary portrayal of a human being fighting the desire to heal.
“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.
“Still Alice” 3/4 stars - A brilliant and successful college professor (Julianne Moore) experiences some memory loss episodes and soon discovers she has Alzheimer’s disease at only age 50. Her family rallies to her support, but all are powerless against this devastating illness. At times, the movie exhibits Alice’s (Moore) slow decline, and at others, displays sharp drops in her condition. Directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland show even an Ivy League professor is still impervious to Alzheimer’s reach, and it’s painful to watch. “Still Alice” is structured like a “Lifetime Movie of the Week”, but it does deliver a powerful statement. Moore is probably the prohibitive favorite for Oscar, and she makes a good case. The film also makes a good case that research needs to dramatically step up to fight this disease. An overwhelming one.
“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.
“Black Sea” 2.5/4 stars- An unemployed - and bitter - deep sea recovery expert (Jude Law) learns of a Nazi submarine - allegedly filled with gold - buried at the bottom of the Black Sea, and he decides to dive into a treasure hunt of a lifetime. This action-adventure picture bathes in a wonderful concept, but falls down in some places. The tension within the Russian/British submarine crew feels forced, and the rushed initial setup doesn’t give the chance to know (and eventually care about) the characters. On the other hand, many of the key sequences deliver an exciting sense of danger and claustrophobia, and at the end of the day, “Black Sea” is an enjoyable, but not a must-see, experience.
“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.
“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 Loft” 1.5/4 stars - Someone kills a woman in a luxurious downtown loft, and the five men who share it, suddenly press to find answers. This whodunit mystery feels - at first - feels like a gem, but then quickly falls into recycled material. Worse yet, the endless twists, turns, double-crosses, and back-stabs become dizzying, and then, ludicrous. Despite a sizable, experienced - and probably - expensive cast, the filmmaking feels cheap, cheesy and forced. The haphazard styling doesn’t add value to the film, but sends this initial good idea into straight-to-video form. Karl Urban, Eric Stonestreet, James Marsden, Wentworth Miller, Matthias Schoenaerts, Rhona Mitra, and the others try their best under compromising circumstances.
“Blackhat” 1/4 stars - Someone hacked into a Chinese nuclear power plant and ignited a meltdown, and who knows where or when this bad guy will strike next! Director Michael Mann offers an international action picture and takes us to wonderful locales like China, Indonesia and Malaysia, however, other than some nice scenery, this film is a disaster of nuclear proportions. Mann features much of the “chase” online, so there’s lots of leaning over keyboards, and our lead computer programmer protagonist - played by Chris Hemsworth (i.e. “Thor”) is horribly miscast. Not to mention, the production values feel cheap, every plot point is telegraphed and the story moves at a grass-growing pace. A waste of 2 hours and 13 minutes which I can never get back.
“The Boy Next Door” 1/4 stars- Jennifer Lopez stars in a bomb of a retreated thriller, as she plays a high school English teacher who falls into a one-night stand with a 20-year-old boy next door, and hence, the film’s title. The boy, Noah (Ryan Guzman), however, turns out to be psychotic and decides to make Claire’s (Lopez) life miserable once she rejects him for a two-night, 10-night, and/or forever-night stand. The movie quickly moves into schlocky territory and pulls plot points from every bad “woman who has been wronged” 1980s drama which comes to mind. The worst part? Claire is always the victim, so that stand-up and cheer moment never arrives. In the end, as a moviegoer, I felt as used as the film’s lead.