This page contains reviews of films seen during the months of January to March 2014


“The Grandmaster”-Some of the most beautiful films over the years have been made by Chinese directors, including “Raise the Red Lantern,” “Farewell My Concubine,” “Red Cliff,” “The Emperor and the Assassin,” “Hero,” and “In the Mood for Love.” The latter was directed by Wong Kar Wai (Kar Wai Wong, western style) who has also directed (and co-written the screenplay for) “The Grandmaster.” Some of these films have explored the history of Chinese society and customs, and others have emphasized the battles between great Chinese warlords. Often, the films include scenes of spectacular battles and martial arts. “The Grandmaster” is a spell-binding biographical study of one of the great martial arts masters, Ip Man (Tony Chiu Wai Leung), from his early middle age in 1930s Foshan, China, through to the early 1950s when he moved to Hong Kong. The film begins with a beautifully choreographed battle in the rain in which Ip Man destroys a large number of opponents. Ip Man, a devotee of Wing Chun martial arts, is soon involved in a struggle for the successor to Gong Yutian, the outgoing master. In doing so, Ip Man meets and battles the lovely Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang), Gong Yutian’s daughter. Describing this part of his life as “spring,” Ip Man notes that with the Japanese invasion in the late 1930s, the next part of his life goes directly from “spring” to “winter.” Following the war, Ip Man moves to Hong Kong, apparently never seeing his family in Foshan again. Like so many of these Chinese films, “The Grandmaster” is mesmerizing in its emphasis on the subtle (even in a kung fu film): things such as a movement of a foot or a momentary facial expression become powerful conveyors of feeling and moment. That said, the story is also a little disjunctive. Towards the end, Wong Kar Wai jumps from Ip Man’s story to Gong Er’s tale and although fascinating, the film seems to lose the emphasis on Ip Man, despite an implication of a romantic interest between the two. It should be noted that Ip Man was famous for being the teacher of martial arts actor Bruce Lee. (Primarily in Mandarin with English subtitles). B+ (3/28/14)


“Saving Mr. Banks”-I saw the Disney film “Mary Poppins” recently for the first time and observed that it is exceedingly cheerful and overblown (especially in the early carousel-ride fantasy and the Dick Van Dyke chimney sweep extravaganza) with a little too much Disney animation. Thus, it is enlightening to learn of the heartbreaking origins of the Mary Poppins stories in the childhood of the author, P. L. Travers (nee Helen Lyndon Goff), in Australia and to discover the reasons for Travers’ serious hesitations when it came to Walt Disney’s proposed movie musical based on her stories. In “Saving Mr. Banks” Travers (Emma Thompson) is shown arriving in Los Angeles in 1961, to consider whether to sign the movie rights over to Disney (Tom Hanks). She is portrayed as a stiff and highly opinionated British woman (she moved from Australia to Great Britain in her 20s) who is extremely protective of her characters (thinking of them as “family”). She certainly is not what Walt Disney imagined her to be when he made up his mind to make the Mary Poppins stories into a film and this is revealed in the highly amusing treacly greeting that Travers receives from the Disney organization upon arrival in LA. The real heart of this story is not Travers vs. Disney, but the story of Travers’ traumatic experiences as a young girl known as Ginty (Annie Rose Buckley) whose very loving father, Travers Goff (Colin Farrell), is an alcoholic and failing Australian banker. That story is told in flashbacks that reveal Travers’ motivations. It takes the Disney people awhile to figure out what the Mary Poppins stories are really all about and although they struggle to satisfy Travers, they obviously never quite succeeded (it is well known that she never allowed Disney to make a sequel). Emma Thompson is powerful, as usual, as the very set-in-her-ways Travers, but Tom Hanks never quite made me believe that he was Disney (I guess I saw the real Walt Disney far too often on his early TV shows to be fooled by Hanks’ somewhat shallow impersonation). On the other hand, young Annie Rose Buckley is memorable as the lovely Ginty, tormented by her father’s disappointing behavior. Colin Farrell is excellent as a man who dearly loved his daughter but whose character weaknesses scarred her for life. Notable also in the cast is Ruth Wilson as Mrs. Goff; Paul Giamatti in the small but charming role of Ralph, Travers’ chauffeur in LA; and Bradley Whitford, B.J. Novak, and Jason Schwartzman as, respectively, Don DaGradi and the Sherman Brothers who wrote the screenplay and music for “Mary Poppins.” Rachel Griffiths also appears as Aunt Ellie, the basis for the Mary Poppins character. A- (3/24/14)


“American Hustle”-A fictionalized version of the ABSCAM scandal, an FBI sting operation, which occurred in the late 1970s, and which brought down a US Senator and several Congressmen, this is one hell of a movie. With an absolutely brilliant starring cast of Amy Adams, Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, and Jeremy Renner, “American Hustle” introduces us to a group of hustlers who seem to be out-hustling the other hustlers in the story. Christian Bale and Amy Adams are remarkable as Irving Rosenfeld and his girlfriend Sydney Prosser (aka Edith, with somewhat of an English accent), who are small-timing crooks seeking loans. Ultimately caught by FBI agent Richie Demaso (Bradley Cooper), they somewhat reluctantly agree to join Demaso in his efforts to catch crooked politicians. And it’s all uphill and downhill from there. Hold on tight. But it isn’t just Bale and Adams. Bradley Cooper is memorable as the wild, wacky, sometimes dangerous, and definitely unlikely FBI agent who has to constantly fight his boss (Louis C.K.) for help and support in the sting operation. Jeremy Renner, sporting an Elvis-type hairstyle, is notable as Mayor Carmine Polito of Camden, NJ, whose efforts to rebuild Atlantic City provide the basis for the sting. And, finally, the amazing Jennifer Lawrence is hysterical and striking as Rosenfeld’s angry wife, Rosalyn. Not only is the cast incredible, but the script, co-written by Director David O. Russell and Eric Warren Singer is near perfect. In addition, the film has a delightful soundtrack loaded with wonderful pop hits from the late 1970s. Highly recommended. This is a must see. A (3/20/14)


“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”-This is the second part of “The Hunger Games,” based on the three novels of Suzanne Collins (although apparently part three will be presented over the course of two “Mockingjay” films). “Catching Fire” is all too similar to the first film, with the difference being that whereas the brutality of the ruling regime of the Capitol led by President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and the horror of the annual murderous Hunger Games was relatively new to Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) of the poverty-ridden District 12, this time they are experienced and angry at the way they have been treated. Sent out on a victory tour surrounded by the so-called “peacekeepers,” the Capitol’s thug army, Katniss (who is seen by Snow as a stimulant to rebellion) and Peeta are once again forced into a special Hunger Games against other experienced Hunger Games victors. Jennifer Lawrence is quite good at smiling only when forced and her anger, bitterness, and outrage at the Capitol’s brutality is obvious. Josh Hutcherson, unfortunately, shows little in the way of emotion as Peeta, who just seems to be carried along by Katniss. The cast also includes the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as Plutarch Heavensbee, the new gamemaker who seems intent on pleasing President Snow with his vicious assaults on the game participants, although Hoffman didn't seem sufficiently impressed with his role to give it any distinctive treatment; Woody Harrelson, who once again appears as the older District 12 victor, Haymitch; Elizabeth Banks, reappearing in the campy role of Effie Trinket, District 12’s spokesperson; Lenny Kravitz, present once again as Katniss’ stylist, Cinna; and an outstanding new trio of Jenna Malone, Jeffrey Wright, and Amanda Plummer as somewhat sympathetic Hunger Games’ participants. “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” is entertaining if not new and original, but it does the job of moving the story along from the first film to the expected provocative and distinctive events of the two “Mockingjay” films to come. B (3/11/14)


“Fruitvale Station”-This film should make you cry and should also make you very angry at police officers who act like thugs, especially when dealing with young black men. The film is based on the true story of Oscar Grant III who was pulled off a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) train in the early morning hours of January 1, 2009, after a fight had broken out. He was ultimately shot in the back and killed by a police officer while lying face down on the ground. “Fruitvale Station” recreates the hours leading up to this miserable moment. Michael B. Jordan ("Friday Night Lights") is outstanding as Oscar, a young man who has been in prison, dealt in drugs, been unfaithful to his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz), who also happens to be the mother of his daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal), lost his job for lateness, and has a problem with his temper, but who is also portrayed as having a very positive side. He is shown to be loving to his adorable daughter, helpful to others, including a stray dog, and caring about his mother (Octavia Spencer) on her birthday. Whether or not this portrait is of the actual Oscar Grant is not made clear, but it demonstrates that Oscar is a fairly normal human being, considering his environment and circumstances. What ultimately happens to him is a very serious problem about the American justice system that happens far too often to innocent young African-American males. A fight breaks out on the BART (in the film Oscar is in the fight but is a victim, having been attacked by a white man with whom he once spent time in prison). The BART police do not see the fight but randomly select young black men, including Oscar, and verbally and physically abuse them at the Fruitvale Station, treating them as if the police had seen the fight and were clear that these men were involved. Besides Jordan’s fine performance, the fine performances of Melonie Diaz as Sophina and Octavia Spencer (“The Help”) as Oscar’s mother, should be noted. The film is directed by a promising first-timer Ryan Coogler, who also wrote the screenplay. A- (3/4/14)


“Nebraska”-There are directors who do nothing memorable and then there are directors who are utterly imaginative and creative, such as Woody Allen and Wes Anderson. With their films they establish their own cinematic worlds. One of those appears to be Alexander Payne, whose outstanding films include “Sideways” and “The Descendants.” “Nebraska,” filmed in stark black and white, tells the story of Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an elderly and somewhat addled man living in Billings, Montana, who thinks he has won a million dollars and wants to go to Lincoln, Nebraska, to collect. In the opening scene, Woody is seen pathetically attempting to walk down a highway on his way to Lincoln (850 miles away) only to be picked up by a police officer and returned to his family. Although he is derided by his shrill wife, Kate (June Squibb), and told by his sons David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk of “Breaking Bad”) that he hasn’t really won anything, David eventually agrees to drive him to Lincoln. Thus begins a road trip that will lead Woody to his roots in a small town in Nebraska where he and his family will learn a great deal about the nature of family, friends, celebrity, and greed. “Nebraska” presents a dim view of middle-America: empty, desolate towns with mostly empty people. There is one scene in which a bunch of Woody’s brothers are sitting around viewing a football game and looking more like the living dead than the living. On the other hand, towns such as this also include people like Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), Woody’s former business partner, who initially acts like an old friend but soon reveals his nasty nature. But there is also the lovely Peg (Angela McEwan), who runs the local paper and tells David, somewhat sadly, about her long ago failed relationship with Woody. Bruce Dern, a fine actor, was a perfect choice for the part of Woody. He’s been playing old codgers like this for years (most recently as the much nastier Frank Harlow in the HBO Series “Big Love”). Will Forte is impressively sympathetic as the young dedicated son who is willing to allow his confused father his “dream,” only to discover a great deal about family and his father’s youth. June Squibb is outstanding as Woody’s very uninhibited wife who is both hateful and loving towards her husband. She has some of the most amusing scenes in the film (especially the graveyard scene which is unforgettable). This film stands in contrast to the majority of recent films because it is simply an outstanding portrait of a significant part of America and the human beings who inhabit it. A- (3/1/14)


“Gravity”-In some ways, “Gravity” is like watching “All Is Lost,” except that instead of taking place on the Indian Ocean, it takes place in space above the Earth. This is a survival movie and begins with two astronauts, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) on a space walk working on a repair of a part of their space shuttle. Within minutes of the opening of the film, an onslaught of space junk hits and destroys the space shuttle and those within and leaves Stone and Kowalski alone, floating in space. Kowalski, more experienced than Stone, tells her they have to get to the nearby international space station and then from there to a Chinese space facility which has the means for a return to earth. Do they make it? You’ll have to watch the film, but I can say that this film, like “All Is Lost,” has no real substance. It’s pure survival and outer space movie magic. The film, directed by Alfonso Cuarón, is sufficiently loaded with special effects that you definitely feel like you’re watching astronauts lost in space. They float, they talk, and they bang into things, whether it’s the space shuttle or floating debris. This film has been raved about: best film of the year and a likely Oscar winner. I thought it was entertaining and more watchable than “All Is Lost,” but I wouldn’t go that far. Sandra Bullock appropriately hyperventilates as Dr. Stone and George Clooney is, well, George Clooney. B+ (2/25/14)


“Dallas Buyers Club”-This is a powerful film about a man with AIDS fighting against time. Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) is a Texan in 1985 who works as an electrician and likes to hang around the bull riders at the rodeo. Like so many of his friends, he’s also a homophobe. So when he becomes seriously ill and is told by two doctors (Denis O’Hare as Dr. Sevard and Jennifer Garner as Eve) that he has AIDS and has only 30 days to live, Woodroof immediately acts outraged that he could have such an illness because he believes it is an affliction for homosexuals. But ultimately he begins to contemplate ways to survive, especially when he hears about an AZT study at the local hospital, and he does research to learn about his tragic illness. When he doesn’t get in to that AZT study, Woodroof obtains alternative medications from a variety of sources and begins distributing them through his “buyers club” (for $400 a month). In the process, Woodroof’s outlook on homosexuals has evolved and he finds himself befriending and including in his business an AIDS-suffering transvestite, Rayon (Jared Leto). Despite federal government efforts to stop his activities, Woodroof appears to have had a good idea, at least for the very early days of AIDS, as he survives long past the 30 day death sentence he was initially given. Matthew McConaughey is brilliant and compelling (and awfully sickly looking, having lost a great deal of weight for this role) as Woodroof, a man driven to survive and do what he can (even for money) for others with a similar plight. Jennifer Garner does a fine job as Dr. Eve, who ultimately becomes cynical of the hospital establishment. And matching McConaughey’s performance is that of Jared Leto, who also lost a great deal of weight for his role, in a memorably touching performance as a tragic transvestite who gradually deteriorates due to drug use and HIV. A- (2/20/14)


“All Is Lost”-I have always been puzzled by people who engage in life-endangering “adventures.” What could possibly make a man want to sail alone across the oceans? “All Is Lost” begins at the worst possible moment in the trek of an unnamed man (Robert Redford) who is sailing in the Indian Ocean (not only is he not named, but no background story is given to explain his journey). He awakens to find a great deal of water sloshing on the floor of his cabin and discovers that a floating shipping container has crashed into his boat, leaving a large hole in the hull. Although the man is able to patch the hole, all of his electronic equipment, including his radio, has been ruined. As a result, he sails into a tremendous storm and all goes downhill from there. This film explores the man’s incredible efforts to survive whether in the boat or ultimately in a life raft. Robert Redford, the only performer in the film, is devastating as the man who initally reacts to his situation with cool determination, but little by little grows more frustrated by his apparently losing situation. Considering that Redford is in his mid to late 70s, it’s an extraordinary performance. Although “All Is Lost” is beautifully filmed, with direction by J. C. Chandor (“Margin Call”), the problem I found is that it is very difficult to watch, especially over 1 hour, 46 minutes. Survival films such as this seem to fit into a genre of difficult to watch films such as “127 Hours” (2010) in which a man whose arm is caught between boulders has to decide about cutting off his arm in order to survive, and “Open Water” (2003) in which two scuba divers find themselves stranded in shark-infested waters. If you’re fascinated by these lone (or almost alone) battles for survival, this film is for you. If not, stay away. B+ (2/18/14)


“Enough Said”-Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the late James Gandolfini stand out in this tale of a divorced woman with a daughter about to go off to college. Eva (Louis-Dreyfus) meets Albert (Gandolfini) at a party and they begin to date and hit it off. At the same party, Eva meets Marianne (Catherine Keener), a poet, who hires Eva to be her masseuse (something Eva does at customer’s homes, carrying her burdensome massage table around in her car). Eva and Marianne become friendly, although it seems that the conversation is one-sided with Marianne constantly moaning about the deficiencies of her former husband. Ultimately, you won’t be surprised to learn that Marianne’s ex is Albert. The heart of the film, written and directed by the excellent Nicole Holofcener (“Lovely & Amazing”), is Eva’s inability to drop her painful friendship and business relationship with Marianne, ultimately leading to Marianne’s complaints having an undue influence on Eva’s relationship with Albert. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is very real and effective as the insecure Eva, and James Gandolfini is sincere and charming as Albert, a part that for once bore no resemblance to Tony Soprano. The rest of the cast is also quite good, including Toni Collette (with her natural Australian accent for a change) as Eva’s friend and confidante, Sarah. This is a well-written, well-directed, and intelligent film about human beings and the emotions and anxieties that they experience in their love lives. A- (2/15/14)


“Ender’s Game”-Around 1968, Stanley Kubrick released one of his masterpieces, “2001, A Space Odyssey.” It was a revelation with brilliant cinematography, special effects that no one had ever seen before, mystery, classical music, and humor. Then came more great sci-fi in the 1970s and 1980s, including “Star Wars” and “Blade Runner.” Then slowly but surely filmmakers began to run out of both ideas and new cinematic revelations for sci-fi films. “Ender’s Game,” based on a book by Orson Scott Card, is another example of the downswing of this genre even though the story is a little different. As the film begins, it has been 50 years since humans beat back an invading alien force of insect-like creatures called Formics. The hero was young Mazer Rackham (played now by Ben Kingsley as an older man). Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) has the job of finding a new, young version of Rackham to lead the Earth to victory in case of another feared Formic invasion. Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield of “Hugo”) is that young man, chosen by Graff and Major Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis) because of his mental approach (including standing up to bullies) and video game abilities. The adult cast is supported by Hailee Steinfeld as Petra, Ender’s friend and supporter at Battle School, and Abigail Breslin as Valentine, his loving and inspirational sister. Although the film concentrates on Ender’s training, it presents it in the same old modern boring sci-fi forms. Lots of computer imagery and cinematics. Lights glowing and flashing, computer images everywhere, and young people flying around in simulated battle (“Harry Potter “anyone?) Things that are so similar to what we see in so many recent sci-fi films. No interesting music. No humor. Nothing really original. Maybe it’s me, someone who has been watching films for a long time, but these films are just not that exciting. Ho-hum. I’ve seen it before. Harrison Ford looks like he was calling in his performance. And Viola Davis? What a waste of a talented actress. Kingsley, however, is amusing as Rackham with his New Zealand accent. And one important final thought. I have read that Orson Scott Card, the author of the book upon which this film is based, and an executive producer of the film, has a reputation as an extreme homophobe. So, I found it a little puzzling (not having ever read the book) that the story includes at the end a very important element of human concern for an alien species. Funny, Formics are worth caring about, but not gay humans? C+ (2/13/14)


“Lee Daniels’ The Butler”-Just wanted to note that the director’s name is in the title apparently as a solution to a claim by Warner Brothers to owning the rights to the name “The Butler” due to a silent film of that title. This is very strange since many films over the years have had the same titles as earlier films with no such controversy. Makes you wonder. In any case, this film tells the powerful story of a man and his relationship to the civil rights movement in America. The man is Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) who loses his father to a murderous white man in 1920s Alabama, and when grown heads north and establishes himself as a butler. Gaines is so recognized for the quality of his work at a Washington hotel, that he finds himself being hired to work at the White House during the Eisenhower administration. Gaines is very aware of the horror of racism and segregation, considering his own history, but he has ingrained in him the sense that it is not his place to object. He is told by his boss at the White House that his job is to serve and not to observe or listen, although it seems that every time Gaines is in the Oval Office, the subject being discussed involves race and civil rights and the discussion is not often pleasant to the ear. On the other hand, Gaines’ son Louis (David Oyelowo), grows up to feel exactly the opposite, going off to college in Tennessee to fight the battle for civil rights, initially at lunch counters and later with the Black Panthers. The film centers around the struggle of Cecil and Louis for each other’s love and respect. Forest Whitaker does a workmanlike job as a man at war with himself over his circumstances and his son’s beliefs and actions, but often seems much too stiff and inexpressive before finally showing some reaction to the racism around him late in the film. A smile or an occasional humorous moment might have livened up his performance. David Oyelowo, a rising young British actor, is powerful as the angry son who stands up for what he believes. Oprah Winfrey, who made her acting debut almost 30 years ago in “The Color Purple,” is brilliantly subdued as Gaines’ wife Gloria who has to tolerate her husband’s devotion to his job and his antipathy to his son. The cast includes a variety of somewhat distracting cameos, some successful but most not, including Robin Williams as Eisenhower, James Marsden as JFK, Liev Schreiber as LBJ, John Cusack as Nixon, Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan, and Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan. Although the makeup artists gave Rickman a real Reagan haircut (or wig), he was completely wrong for the part of the pseudo-charming Reagan. The cast also includes Cuba Gooding, Jr., and Lenny Kravitz as Cecil Gaines’ co-workers at the White House, and Terrence Howard as Gaines’ flirtatious neighbor. Overall, Lee Daniels’ film successfully explores the pain of American racism and the fight for civil rights, but it needed to more effectively balance the pathos with some moments of humor and joy. B+ (2/6/14)


“Blue Jasmine”-This is a serious Woody Allen film, and it is not a comedy. This is something of a surprise considering Allen’s usual approach. Even most of his serious films in the past had elements of humor. “Blue Jasmine” is a downright sad film about an upper class woman from New York, Jasmine (the incredible Cate Blanchett), whose life has completely fallen apart. I presume Woody Allen based his screenplay loosely on the Bernie Madoff scandal. Jasmine’s ultra-rich Wall Street husband (Alec Baldwin), has been found to be a cheat and an utter crook and all of their wealth is now gone. Jasmine, who was an elitist in New York and had little interest in or love for her lower-middle-class sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), now finds herself experiencing mental difficulties due to her ordeal and she is looking for help and a home in San Francisco with that very sister. Jasmine's loss of esteem and depression has led her to talking obsessively to others and to herself. Making a comment about the relative virtues of the social classes, Woody Allen has given us his usual gorgeous cinematography (this time mostly San Francisco) and a wonderful cast. Blanchett's performance is brilliant and deserves the Oscar for Best Actress. Sally Hawkins (“Made in Dagenham”) is stupendous as the sister who was monetarily burned by Jasmine's husband's corruption, but has a life and almost lets Jasmine ruin it. In addition to Alec Baldwin, the cast includes Bobby Cannavale as Chili, Ginger’s new tough and rough boyfriend; Andrew Dice Clay as Augie, Ginger’s former husband; Michael Stuhlbarg (“Boardwalk Empire”) as a dentist who comes on a little too strong to Jasmine; Louis C. K., as a potential new lover for Ginger; and Peter Sarsgaard as a young wealthy resident of Marin County who almost makes a very serious life-changing mistake. This is not an upbeat film, but it is from the brilliant mind of Woody Allen, and Cate Blanchett’s performance alone is worth the price of admission. A (2/3/14)


“Captain Phillips”-It seems that there is controversy everywhere, including in films based on true life events. I have read that some of Captain Phillips’ cohorts on the Maersk Alabama questioned his competence in handling the movement of his ship through dangerous waters. But in Paul Greengrass’ “Captain Phillips,” the captain, played tremendously by Tom Hanks, is every bit the hero. The story is simple. Phillips leaves his New England home in 2009 to guide the Maersk Alabama, a container ship, around the east coast of Africa, and soon after leaving port receives warnings about potential piracy. Sure enough, the Somalian pirates arrive hoping to ransom the ship for millions. With the help of his crew, Phillips almost outsmarts the pirates, but ultimately winds up being held hostage in a lifeboat. This is one beautifully filmed and exciting movie. Maybe it runs a little long at the end, but who’s complaining. These are events and sights we rarely see in films and director Paul Greengrass, who made the excellent “United 93,” also based on real events, has outdone himself in the re-creation of the Alabama’s ordeal. While Tom Hanks somehow missed out on an Oscar nomination, the film is nominated for Best Picture and newcomer Barkhad Abdi is nominated for best supporting actor for his outstanding performance as Muse, the lead Somalian pirate. A- (2/1/14)


“The Way Way Back”-The title of this film can be confusing. Is it about how things were done “way back?” As a comma does appear, after the first “way,” at the end of the film, one might think so.” But alas this is a rather pleasant coming-of-age film that occurs in the very recent past. When we first meet 14-year old Duncan (Liam James), he is being questioned by his mother’s obnoxious boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell), on the way to a beach resort in Massachusetts where Trent’s sister (Allison Janney) resides. Duncan is miserable for good reason despite the lovely location, but as in most coming-of-age films, he gradually breaks out, first by finding a bike to ride around town, then by being befriended by the pretty girl next door (AnnaSophia Robb), and finally and most importantly by meeting a charming and caring older friend in the form of Owen (Sam Rockwell), the manager of a local water park, who brings joy to his life in the form of friendship, advice, humor, and a summer job. Sam Rockwell is wonderful as the free-spirited park manager who recognizes some of himself in young Duncan. Toni Collette plays Duncan’s mother, Pam, who seems to take a long time to recognize the mistake she is making with Trent. Steve Carell is wonderfully obnoxious as the overbearing and deceitful Trent. The film was written and directed by Nat Faxon (charming) and Jim Rash (funny) who both appear as members of the water park staff. Allison Janney has one major scene and knocks it out of the park as an apparently lonely woman who is thrilled, effusive and over-friendly when Trent and company arrive. AnnaSophia Robb is charming as the nice girl next door. And Maya Rudolph appears in a humorous and sympathetic role as Owen’s water park love interest. This is a very pleasant cinematic experience. B+ (1/18/14)


“Closed Circuit”-A bomb explodes in London killing dozens. A middle-eastern man is arrested and charged. And two lawyers are to defend him. They are Martin Rose (Eric Bana) and Claudia Simmons-Howe (Rebecca Hall). Rose has the job because the former defense attorney has died under mysterious circumstances. And because state secrets may be involved, Simmons-Howe’s job is exclusively to deal with the secret evidence that may be kept out of the case. Rose and Simmons-Howe, former lovers, are not allowed to speak to each other under British law. It is in these strange circumstances that we begin to realize that Rose and Simmons-Howe are being watched closely and may be in danger if they try too hard to defend the accused. “Closed Circuit” which begins with multiple images on closed circuit TV of people going about their affairs at the soon-to-be bomb site, offers an eerie sense of just how claustrophobic life might be in a society in which there are cameras and “eyes” everywhere. “Closed Circuit” takes a slightly different approach to the standard conspiracy thriller and, thankfully, doesn’t turn into a gigantic shoot-em-up chase at the end. But the end, although downright cynical, leaves the viewer feeling that something important was omitted. With a good supporting cast, including Jim Broadbent as the Attorney General, and Ciaran Hinds as Devlin, whose role is never quite clear, “Closed Circuit” is on the right track toward an intelligent consideration of the issues, but it doesn’t quite make it. Eric Bana and Rebecca Hall do a fine job in their attorney roles, but are lacking the chemistry needed for the, admittedly minimalist, romantic element. B (1/16/14)


“Stories We Tell”-Sarah Polley is a progressive actress/director from Toronto, Canada. Her first major appearance as an actress was in the outstanding film “The Sweet Hereafter (1997).” More recently, she played one of John Adams’ daughters in the TV series “John Adams” with Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney. As a director, she made the intelligent and sensitive “Away From Her” with Oscar-nominated Julie Christie as a woman with Alzheimer’s disease and, more recently, “Take This Waltz” with Michelle Williams. Sarah is part of a large family. Her mother Diane (an actress and an extrovert who died when Sarah was 11) had two children before marrying Sarah’s father, Michael, and three children with Michael. Or so it seemed for many years despite Sarah being kidded by her siblings about her parentage because of her reddish blonde hair. Ultimately, Sarah discovered the truth which led to the making of this wonderfully interesting family film. She presents all the various people in her life telling their stories. Some know a lot, some know only a little. The most interesting is her father Michael, also once an actor, who is shown both reading a script and talking naturally. Either way, his story and take on the situation is fascinating and insightful. Although we see the real people and vintage home movies of Diane and others, the presentation is enhanced with actors playing those from the distant past. Thus, Rebecca Jenkins, actress and singer, plays Diane. It’s done so well, it takes a while to realize that these important people in Sarah’s life are actors. At one point, one of Sarah’s siblings asks essentially why anyone would care about their family. But “Stories We Tell” is done so well and with such sensitivity and honesty that it’s not just about Sarah’s family, it’s about the much larger theme of relating to family and friends and dealing with changes, sometimes very surprising, in life. A- (1/3/14)

Return to top