This page contains reviews of films seen during the months of April to June 2014


“Labor Day”-Written and directed by Jason Reitman (“Up in the Air”) from a book by Joyce Maynard, “Labor Day” is an offbeat romantic film which gets off to an promising start only to go downhill rather quickly. Kate Winslet is Adele, a depressed single mother living with her young teenage son Henry (Gattlin Griffith). One day at a supermarket Adele and Henry find themselves confronted by Frank (Josh Brolin), an injured man who manages to talk Adele into taking him to her home where he claims he needs to rest and will leave in the morning. It doesn’t take long for Adele to discover that Frank is an escaped convict (serving time for murder), but the twist is that Frank appears to be a genuinely decent person who helps out a great deal around the house and teaches Adele and Henry, among other things, how to bake a peach pie. Frank manages to stay for the long holiday weekend and Adele finds herself growing attracted to him. “Labor Day” provides flashbacks explaining Adele’s divorce and depression, and demonstrating why Frank is serving time for murder, but the film begins to go wrong when Adele and Frank start considering ways of escaping to be together. Not only is it a little too much to believe that a woman in her situation would take such a chance, but there are too many coincidences and clichés, including a neighbor who just happens to walk through the door without knocking and a young friend of Henry’s who twists the situation to make it look bad for Henry. Everyone seems to stare at Adele and Henry with suspicion (maybe that’s because Kate Winslet and Gattlin Griffith look absurdly nervous in every scene in the latter stages of the film) and everyone is nosy. Everyone seems to be asking: “Why are you doing that?” and “Where are you going?” Unfortunately, on top of its other problems, the film has a far too facile and abrupt corny ending with a cameo appearance by Tobey Maguire as the grown Henry. B- (6/27/14)


“Non-Stop”-Far too many thrillers these days are cliché-ridden and, unfortunately, predictable and boring. “Non-Stop” with the irrepressible Liam Neeson contains a few of the standard clichés, but it isn’t boring. Neeson plays Bill Marks, a federal air marshal with alcohol and personal problems, who boards a trans-Atlantic flight to London, only to find himself in the middle of a mess. Someone on board is sending him text messages demanding $150 million to be deposited into a numbered account or someone on the plane will die every 20 minutes. While Bill is doing everything in his power to find and stop this person, messages are being sent to Bill’s bosses and the media which make it appear that he is hijacking the plane. “Non-Stop” has its weaknesses, including the somewhat unlikely explanation for the demands and threats being made, but in the meantime, the film is a pretty decent mystery (who, how, and why?), especially in the claustrophobic atmosphere of an airplane cabin. The supporting cast is good, even if some don’t have that much to do. It includes Julianne Moore as Jen Summers, who initially befriends and then helps Marks in his air marshal efforts; Michelle Dockery, far from “Downton Abbey,” as Nancy, a flight attendant; Nate Parker as a helpful computer expert, and Corey Stoll, Anson Mount, and Scoot McNairy as suspicious passengers. B (6/20/14)


“Tim’s Vermeer”-Directed by Teller (of Penn & Teller fame), this documentary is about an inventor named Tim Jenison who decided to find out if the great 17th Century Dutch painter, Johannes Vermeer, might have used some level of technology, including mirrors, to create his incredible photo-like paintings. Narrated by Penn Jillette, “Tim’s Vermeer” discusses the theories concerning Vermeer’s art, and includes appearances by actor and painter Martin Mull, architect Philip Steadman, and the wonderful British painter David Hockney. In the process Jenison travels to Delft, Netherlands, where Vermeer lived and painted, and to London where the original of Vermeer's "The Music Lesson" is displayed at Buckingham Palace. But what is truly most fascinating about this film is Tim Jenison’s steadfastness as he labors to recreate the room in which Vermeer painted many of his works, including “The Music Lesson,” and then, although claiming not to be a painter, the painting itself using mirrors, other camera obscura techniques, and his obvious innate genius. While Jenison’s success does not ultimately prove what Vermeer did to make his paintings so photorealistic, it certainly plays a major role in the debate over whether artists of that era used more than their hands and eyes to create their fabulous works of art. B+ (6/12/14)


“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”-Ben Stiller’s film—he directed it— bears little or no resemblance to the classic short story of the same name by James Thurber. Pretty much the only things in common are a character named Walter Mitty (Stiller) and the fact that he daydreams about heroic feats in the early stages of the film especially while ogling a co-worker, Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig). The essence of Stiller’s version is that Walter is a negative asset manager (meaning he manages all the photographic negatives) for Life Magazine, has just been told that Life is ceasing publication, and that it plans to use a particular negative just produced by photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), and referred to as the “quintessence of life” as its final cover, and Walter and his assistant can’t find that negative. With inspiration from his contacts with Cheryl, Walter, unlike the character in Thurber’s story, begins real-life adventures that completely defy belief, taking him to Greenland, Iceland, and Afghanistan, as he tries to find photographer O’Connell and his missing negative. The cinematography is beautiful and effective but unfortunately Ben Stiller continues to be a dud as an actor. He shows little emotion, although he’s great at staring into space when he’s daydreaming. Kristen Wiig, a wonderful comic actress, is totally wasted as Walter’s love interest with no real comic lines or scenes. There is, to put it mildly, no chemistry between the two. Adam Scott appears as the nasty Ted Hendricks whose job it is to handle the transition of Life from a magazine to a website. This, of course, includes firing employees, including both Walter and Cheryl. Shirley MacLaine plays Walter’s mother. C+ (6/9/14)


“Hannah Arendt”-This film is named for its primary character, the German-Jewish philosopher/professor (German actress Barbara Sukowa) who, upon hearing of the 1960 arrest by the Israelis of Nazi SS leader Adolph Eichmann, talked William Shawn (Nicholas Woodeson) of “The New Yorker” into sending her to Jerusalem for the trial. Before the trial Arendt (who is seen as a young philosophy student in Germany having an affair with the philosopher Martin Heidegger who later became a member of the Nazi Party and supporter of Hitler) is popular with friends, colleagues, and students, but alienates friends, colleagues and the Jewish community in America by writing (first for “The New Yorker” and later in her published book “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil”) her theories that Eichmann was an unthinking bureaucrat who may not have been an anti-semite, and that the cooperation, even under duress, of Jewish leaders with the Nazis may have increased the numbers of deaths in the Holocaust. Barbara Sukowa is powerful as the single-minded Arendt who is never seen to waver from the convictions she gained by observing Eichmann’s trial. Of note in the cast are Axel Milberg as Arendt’s supportive but very concerned husband, Heinrich Blücher, and the wonderful Janet McTeer in a limited role as Arendt’s close friend, the writer Mary McCarthy. This is a powerful film about intellectuals, especially the deep thinking Hannah Arendt, but it is also about how her interpretation of horrifying events could not be easily viewed objectively and was subject to rigorous objections because of the emotions of so many in the academic, intellectual and Jewish communities. (The film is in English but portions are in German, French, and Hebrew with English subtitles). B+ (5/31/14)


“The Great Beauty”-This is the story of 65-year old Jep Gambardella (the excellent and suave Toni Servillo) who declares himself the leader of Roman nightlife after a lifetime of attending lavish parties, engaging in who knows what kind of debauchery, and getting to know everyone who is anyone. Jep once wrote an important novel but long since abandoned that career for the nightlife. With gorgeous cinematography, “The Great Beauty” shows Jep roaming the city streets, and attending and observing a variety of offbeat events, including one in which wealthy people are given botox for a variety of reasons by a costumed “doctor” in a virtual stage setting, and one in which an almost lifeless but revered 104-year old nun “greets” her followers. He appears to be blowing hot and cold in his life and moods, at times seeming to adore the constant nightlife, and at other times wishing he would disappear. One night Jep meets the gorgeous and ill-fated Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli), the daughter of an old friend, who tells him that she spends her money on curing herself and he appears to fall for her, although they love without making love. When Ramona dies, Jep seems jarred but moves on. “The Great Beauty” is a philosophical film about the meaning of life, at least for this one Roman socialite. It’s loaded with unusual characters and spectacular party scenes (and conga lines), and has an appropriate score. This is “La Dolce Vita” for the 21st Century. “The Great Beauty” won the 2014 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. (In Italian with English subtitles) B+ (5/29/14)


“The Monuments Men”-During WW II, Adolph Hitler directed his Nazi troops to steal as much art as possible, especially from Jewish victims of the Holocaust. In the process, the Nazis amassed a collection of artworks almost beyond imagination. “The Monuments Men” celebrates the Allied effort to recover those artworks and restore them, as much as possible, to their rightful owners. Director and co-writer George Clooney plays Frank Stokes (based on George Stout of Harvard), the man who helped create the so-called “Monuments Men,” a collection of American, British and French art experts (curators, historians, and professors) who found themselves in danger in the middle of the war zone. He puts together a team played by Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville, and Bob Balaban, with the aide of a French woman from the Resistance, played by Cate Blanchett, and that cast is the best thing in this film. While “The Monuments Men” provides some insight into an interesting bit of WW II history (especially the astonishing discovery of vast numbers of artworks, including the Ghent Altarpiece, in a mine), the script is lacking any significant tension and excitement. Just about the only pleasure in this fairly lackluster film is watching the delightful cast put on as much charm as possible. The film contains some scenes in a variety of European languages with English subtitles. B- (5/22/14)


“Her”-It is not a surprise that Director Spike Jonze’s screenplay won the 2013 Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. The story is, if nothing else, incredibly original. Set sometime in the future in a Los Angeles that seems to have lost all its natural charms and gained techno charms instead, the film centers on Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), a man whose job it is to dictate personal letters for other people onto his computer. But it isn’t only at work that Theodore uses his computers. It seems society has advanced technologically to the point that the world is now totally computer-centric. Theodore wears an earpiece through which he can communicate with his computer no matter where he is. He carries a small device to see what the computer wants him to see visually and he plays super-advanced video games at home without the need for a television screen. He’s also lonely and in the midst of a divorce from Catherine (Rooney Mara), someone he’s known since childhood. And he has friends, a married couple (Amy Adams and Matt Letscher) nearby in the building in which he lives. Then one day he acquires a new super-advanced AI operating system for his personal computer. Given the choice of male or female voice, he chooses the latter and is introduced to Samantha (the voice of Scarlett Johansson), an OS that sounds like a real person and tells him that she will grow mentally each day as she talks to him and does his bidding. In this technologically advanced world, somehow it doesn’t completely shock people when he tells them that he’s dating and falling in love with his OS. Spike Jonze’s screenplay explores the effects of technological advancement on human relations, but it also explores the meaning of and varieties of love, for in this case talking to his OS is virtually the equivalent for Theodore of talking to a real woman (just without physical form). “Her” is beautifully filmed (interestingly in LA and Shanghai) and has an excellent cast. This is Joaquin Phoenix’s best performance and one in which he is on screen almost continuously. Although she is never seen in the film, Scarlett Johansson does a masterful job as the computer temptress, Samantha. Rooney Mara is effective as Catherine, the only person Theodore knows who reacts negatively to his new “love.” Amy Adams is perfect and ironic as Theodore’s attractive friend to “lean on.” Although the idea of a man falling in love with his operating system sounds ridiculous at first, the idea is translated into a truly original and thoughtful film. Highly recommended. A (5/19/14)


“The Wolf of Wall Street”-“The Wolf of Wall Street,” directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio is well done technically as films go, except for its length (more later on that). The cast does a fine job, the cinematography is first rate, and the script (apart from the legion of curse words and graphic sexual descriptions) is acceptable for its painfully obvious tongue-in-cheek approach. But ultimately, the film is an extreme portrayal of a real life decadent crook, Jordan Belfort (DiCaprio), based on his book of the same name. The story is simple, even for a three-hour movie. In 1987, Belfort begins work for a Wall Street firm that soon goes bust, but in the meantime he is taught by a master, his first boss (Matthew McConaughey), that the sole purpose of a stockbroker should be to make oneself rich at the expense of one’s customers. Belfort, having learned well, soon finds himself a master in the penny stock business, smooth-talking customers out of their money as his wealth grows. But even that is not the only theme of this film as it does nothing to hide Belfort’s drug obsession/addiction (cocaine, crack, and Quaaludes). Nor is it any secret that sex plays a very significant role in Jordan’s life and rise in the business world. The film is replete with raucous scenes of Jordan and his cohorts, including his partner Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), sniffing cocaine, stuffing themselves with Quaaludes, and engaging in extreme sexual behavior. Hardly a female seems to get by in this film without removing her clothes, and even a few males can’t escape the nudity. Jordan cheats on his first wife (Cristin Milioti) and loses her, then marries Naomi, a blonde bombshell (Margot Robbie), only to eventually have her turn against him as well. He engages in a variety of fraudulent and other criminal business activities, including money-laundering and is soon under investigation by the FBI. The biggest problem with this film, apart from glamorizing a creep and his wholly antisocial behavior, is that it almost seemed to go on for an eternity. I had the feeling that I had experienced Jordan Belfort’s entire life. One would think a master director like Martin Scorsese could have been able to cut at least a half hour out of this three hour film. It’s worth nothing that the cast includes fine performances by Kyle Chandler as the FBI agent investigating Belfort; Cristin Mililoti (“How I Met Your Mother”) as Belfort’s first wife Teresa; Rob Reiner as Belfort’s father and company aide; Jean Dujardin (“The Artist”) as a corrupt Swiss banker; and the wonderful Joanna Lumley (“Absolutely Fabulous”) as Naomi’s very understanding British Aunt Emma. The scene between Belfort and Aunt Emma on a park bench in England is priceless. This film was nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture. I can see why, although I warn the reader that it’s an overlong and very graphic view, despite the attempts at humor, of some rather unpleasant people and their abhorrent behavior. B (5/18/14)


“Austenland”-I was looking for a light comedy and came up with this film about a young woman named Jane Hayes who is obsessed with the books of Jane Austen. Jane (Keri Russell) has Austen-related items all over her bedroom and even wears a t-shirt labeled “I (heart) Mr. Darcy.” She discovers a British amusement park of sorts called “Austenland,” headed by Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour) and heads off for a Regency Period experience. Unfortunately, despite the costumed actors and participants, what Jane finds herself involved in seems more like a comedy of errors than an experience with anything resembling Jane Austen’s time. The first disaster is that her fellow Austenland visitor is, as played by Jennifer Coolidge, so over-the-top silly as to be embarrassing. Happily, the screenplay calms down Coolidge’s character about half way and the film becomes a romance of sorts as Jane finds herself being wooed by the Austenland caretaker Martin (Bret McKenzie of the HBO series “Flight of the Conchords”) and Mr. Henry Nobley, the Mr. Darcy character at Austenland, played by J. J. Feild. Jane’s problem is she can’t determine the seriousness of these men, getting confused as to whether they are playing roles or are genuinely interested in her. Ultimately, “Austenland” is not particularly funny and the film left me with a feeling of “ho-hum.” Keri Russell, who is so fine in the current TV series “The Americans” as a KGB agent living outwardly as an American housewife and travel agent, seems lost in this silly airhead role. C (5/15/14)


“August: Osage County”-Based on the play by Tracy Letts, “August: Osage County” is a hell of a dysfunctional family film, reminding me of the 1998 Danish film “The Celebration.” Taking place in rural Osage County, Oklahoma, the film begins with a scene in which Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) an alcoholic poet, hires Johanna, a young Indian woman (Misty Upham) to be a caretaker for his wife Violet (Meryl Streep) who is suffering from cancer in addition to also being an alcoholic and a compulsive pill-taker. But when we next meet Violet, Beverly has disappeared and her daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts) has arrived from Colorado with her estranged husband Bill (Ewen McGregor) and their 14-year old daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin). It isn’t long before severe family hostilities emerge, especially when Violet and Barbara are told that Beverly has died, an apparent suicide, and other family members arrive for the funeral. “August: Osage County” has a top-notch cast of actors who are forced to emote to the utmost as they tear into each other, literally and figuratively, ultimately discovering truths and secrets about themselves and other family members. This is not a happy film, but it is still an experience to see the likes of the incomparable Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts (in a unique, for her, angry role), and Margo Martindale (as Violet’s sister Mattie Fae), unload on each other. The rest of the cast deserves accolades as well: Chris Cooper as Mattie Fae's husband Charlie; Benedict Cumberbatch as Charlie and Mattie Fae’s relatively weak son, Little Charlie; Julianne Nicholson (“Boardwalk Empire” and “Masters of Sex”), wonderful as Ivy, the only one of three of Violet’s daughters who has remained in Oklahoma; Juliette Lewis as Karen, the third and somewhat clueless sister who has arrived from Florida; and Dermot Mulroney as Steve, Karen’s fiancé, who ultimately engages in predictable highly inappropriate behavior that brings out rage in Johanna, who has been seen mostly in the background enduring all of the nightmarish family behavior and insults. B (4/26/14)


“The Invisible Woman”-Ralph Fiennes plays two roles in this film. First, he is the director of the film and at that he is fairly unsuccessful. Second, he plays Charles Dickens and at that he is successful. “The Invisible Woman” is the story of the young woman Dickens met and fell for when he was 45 and she was 18. Ellen Ternan (Felicity Jones) is a young actress supervised by her mother Frances (Kristin Scott Thomas), while Dickens has already established himself as a great author and national celebrity. He’s also unhappily married to the mother of his ten children and begins to focus in on Ellen (or Nelly as she is also known). While Mrs. Ternan expresses protective concern for her daughter’s reputation, Dickens is portrayed as somewhat egotistical and self-interested, a man who plows ahead in his desire for young Nelly. Aside from the fact that the film drags at an almost funereal pace, the portrait of Ellen Ternan in the film seems inconsistent with historical descriptions of her character. She has been described as “clever and charming, forceful of character, undomesticated, and interested in literature, the theatre, and politics.” But in “The Invisible Woman,” although obviously interested in theater as an actress, and in Dickens’ books, as portrayed by Felicity Jones she seems primarily young, fearful, and very reticent with regard to Mr. Dickens’s advances. There is no sign of her being “undomesticated.” And yet suddenly, towards the end of the film, she is shown taking up with him virtually without explanation, becoming pregnant with his child, and thus endangering her reputation in the British society of the time. Fiennes is powerful as the very energetic, brilliant, and articulate Dickens, but the film never shows Dickens actually engaged in his occupation as a writer. Although “The Invisible Woman,” based on the book by the biographer Claire Tomalin, exposes us to an interesting part of literary history, it fails to present anything closely resembling a romance, aided by the fact that there is little or no chemistry between the two primary actors. The result is that the viewer learns nothing about why this 18 year-old-girl would fall for a middle aged man with a wife and 10 children, even if he was Charles Dickens. C+ (4/23/14)


“Philomena”-Like "The Magdalene Sisters" (2002) before it, “Philomena” exposes the monstrous and evil Irish Catholic convent system of the mid-20th Century. Steve Coogan is Martin Sixsmith, a former BBC journalist who is trying to figure out what to do with himself after being pushed out of the British Labour Government. Ultimately, he is introduced to Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), a woman who, 50 years earlier, had met a boy, had sex, become pregnant, and was placed in an Irish convent where she gave birth and was forced to engage in slave labor in the convent’s laundry. The nuns allowed her to see her son into infancy only to sell him to an American couple without her knowledge or consent. Although initially resistant to a human interest story, Sixsmith changes his mind and accompanies Philomena to the convent where the nuns deny knowledge of her son’s whereabouts. Convincing an editor to support his search, Sixsmith and Philomena head for the US where they discover her son’s rather successful but ultimately tragic story. But, worse, they discover the vile and immoral lies they were told by the Irish nuns. Steve Coogan does a fine job of performing Sixsmith’s initial ennui and, later, anger over the treatment of young women at the convent and the lies the nuns told both to Philomena and her son. Judi Dench, as always, is marvelous as a fairly simple-minded woman whose emotions constantly change over the nightmare she has experienced. This is a fine film that, like “The Magdalene Sisters,” adds to the tales of cruelty of a supposedly moral religious organization. B+ (4/18/14)


“Kill Your Darlings”-Since it tells the true life story of a group of emerging serious writers, “Kill Your Darlings” tends to take itself a little too seriously. Although it has a juicy murder at its heart, the film feels like two different stories with the murder almost as an afterthought. The first story involves the meeting at Columbia University in 1943 of the writers who would play a major role in bringing forth the “beat” generation: Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe), Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), and William Burroughs (Ben Foster). This portion of the film emphasizes their intellects, their idiosyncrasies, and their teenage insecurities. In the middle of all this we meet a character named David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall) who obviously has an affinity for Carr; we observe the mental problems of Ginsberg’s mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh); and we discover that Kerouac is in a somewhat confused relationship with a young woman named Edie Parker (Elizabeth Olsen). But it isn’t until late in the film that we are presented with the scandal that rocked the beat generation when the relationship, if you can call it that, between Carr and Kammerer came to blows. Since this murder was clearly the main reason for the film, it seems to me it should have been better developed rather than seeming like a sudden shift in focus to a second story. The cast does a fine job. Dane DeHaan, an actor with whom I was not previously familiar, is particularly effective as the very troubled Lucien Carr. And I must mention that it was somewhat of a shock to see Michael C. Hall as the victim rather than the killer. B- (4/12/14)


“Rush”-This film is about two real-life men in a crazy and extremely dangerous sport: Formula 1 auto racing. James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) is a tall, good-looking and very self-confident British driver trying to win his first world championship. But along comes Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), a somewhat arrogant Austrian who knows how to drive and how to adjust the cars to make up speed. There is an instant hostile competitive feeling between them. “Rush” tells the story of their battle for the championship during 1976, one which culminated in a terrible accident scarring Lauda for life. Both are shown as having relatively little difficulty attracting women who are drawn to the atmosphere of sex and danger surrounding the race car circuit. Natalie Dormer (“Game of Thrones” and “The Tudors”) plays an early Hunt conquest, while Olivia Wilde plays Suzy, Hunt’s first wife (who ultimately wound up with the actor Richard Burton). Lauda’s wife, Marlene, is played charmingly by Alexandra Maria Lara, a Romanian/German actress. Director Ron Howard does a fine job of providing a true sense of the thrills and dangers of the race track, although ultimately the film doesn’t add up to much more than a story of competition between two highly competitive men who function in a world of speed, gas, tires, and danger. Chris Hemsworth effectively portrays a man who knows exactly what he wants and usually gets it, while Daniel Brühl, a German/Spanish actor, portrays Lauda as a driven man with a somewhat stiff personality. If you enjoy or are curious about the thrills of auto racing, this film will definitely give you a rush. B+ (4/8/14)

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