This page contains reviews of films seen during the months of July to September 2014


“God’s Pocket”-This film is a journey into misery, both for the characters and for the viewers. It seems that the filmmakers, including director John Slattery (“Mad Men”), were looking to create something thoughtful and intelligent, but boy did they go wrong. First of all, they adapted a novel by Pete Dexter, whose books are often about weird and unpleasant locations and characters. A good example is the recent film “The Paperboy” which was about what I previously called “an unlikely and bizarre Southern swamp world.” “God’s Pocket” is about a different kind of swamp world, a working class white urban neighborhood known as God's Pocket, which is populated by people I doubt most of us would want to know. Philip Seymour Hoffman, in one of his last roles, is Mickey Scarpato, a meat dealer, a thief, husband of Jeanie Scarpato (Christina Hendricks) (really?), and step-father of a rather creepy and foul-mouthed young construction worker named Leon (Caleb Landry Jones). When Leon dies in an incident at his work site, and the police seem to believe that it was a mere accident, Jeanie believes otherwise about her son’s death. There are some very good actors in this film, but good actors cannot make a dreary and unlikely story come to life. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Christina Hendricks are accompanied by the likes of John Turturro as Arthur “Bird” Capezio, Mickey’s partner in crime; Eddie Marsan (“Ray Donovan”) as Smilin’ Jack Moran, a sleazy undertaker; and Richard Jenkins as Richard Shelburn, a local newspaper columnist who seems to be barely functioning but nevertheless gets involved with Jeanie in a highly unlikely relationship. All in all, a rather tedious movie-viewing experience. C- (9/30/14)


“Transcendence”-This sci-fi film has a promising concept, a good cast, and some fine cinematography, but is otherwise an incredibly disappointing film. The premise is that Will Caster (Johnny Depp) and his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) are scientists on the verge of creating highly advanced artificial intelligence with the help of friends and co-workers Max Waters (Paul Bettany) and Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman). However, a group of anti-technology terrorists led by Bree (Kate Mara) engages in a synchronized attack on computer experts. In the attack, Will is shot with polonium and will soon die. Evelyn and Max decide to upload Will’s psyche into computers before he dies, but it soon becomes apparent that this is not such a great idea when Will emerges on the computer and is bent on gaining more and more knowledge and power. The film is unfortunately slow, the script plodding, and some of the acting is seriously questionable (Kate Mara will probably regret this part for the rest of her life). Ultimately, while the story is not that hard to follow, the details often make little or no sense. The motivations of some of the main characters, including especially Max, seem inconsistent. Rebecca Hall, who is often excellent, is miscast and bordering on lifeless as Will’s surviving wife and scientific partner. C- (9/23/14)


“Two Lives”-As the film begins, it is 1990, and the Berlin Wall has come down. Katrine Myrdal (Juliane Köhler) appears to be living an idyllic life in Norway. She is happily married to Bjarte (Sven Nordin), a naval captain, has a daughter Anne (Julia Bache-Wiig) and a grandchild, and they live near her mother, Ase Evensen (Liv Ullmann). But when a German lawyer (Ken Duken) arrives and describes a lawsuit that his firm intends to pursue against the Norwegian government, something Katrine initially resists, it soon becomes obvious that Katrine is not quite who everyone thinks she is, and her life begins to unravel. “Two Lives” is an intense and well-acted mystery involving German-Norwegian children who were abandoned by Norway and raised in orphanages in Germany; as well as the way the Stasi, the East German secret police, used many of these children for its own advantage. Juliane Köhler is powerful as a woman who has led a false life, but is distraught at losing what she has. Liv Ullmann, the great Norwegian actress who starred in films of Ingmar Bergman, doesn’t say a lot in this film but her expressions magnificently portray what she is experiencing. (Primarily in German and Norwegian with English subtitles) A- (9/18/14)


“Night Train to Lisbon”-This film is a bit of a conundrum. It is interesting, unusual, mysterious, beautifully filmed, and has an outstanding cast who deliver fine performances, and yet is not totally satisfying. Raimund Gregorius (Jeremy Irons), a professor, upon crossing a bridge in the rain in Bern, Switzerland on the way to his school, sees a young woman standing on the parapet, looking down at the river, and saves her from suicide. He then escorts the young woman to his classroom, whereupon while he is teaching she gets up to leave the room and the building without her coat. When Gregorius checks the coat, he finds a book in the pocket written by a Portuguese writer from Lisbon named Amadeu, and he begins to read. Virtually without hesitation, he takes the coat and leaves his class to find the young woman. In the process, he discovers in the book a train ticket to Lisbon, and heads for the station, taking the first train. That anyone in his position would act so rashly is difficult to accept, but once in Lisbon, Gregorius sets out to find the author of the book and ultimately to solve a mystery going back to the waning days of the Salazar dictatorship in Portugal in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The story that unfolds is a tale of the Portuguese Resistance against the fascist dictatorship. In the process, Gregorious meets Amadeu's sister, Adriana (Charlotte Rampling), and little by little through persistence learns about Amadeu (Jack Huston), a young doctor, and his resistance colleagues, including Estefania (Melanie Laurent), Jorge (August Diehl), and João (Marco D’Almeida). The cast includes Tom Courtenay, Bruno Ganz, Lena Olin, Christopher Lee, and Martina Gedeck. Gregorious’ motivation is never explained. Curiosity? That hardly seems sufficient to drive him to the reckless abandonment of his class and home because of a few words he’s read in a book. But the melodramatic tale takes Gregorius on a journey of self to some extent, especially in his contact with a charming Lisbon optometrist (Martina Gedeck) who provides him with a new pair of glasses after his are broken in a street accident, and an important contact in learning Amadeu’s story. One disconcerting and puzzling aspect of the casting has to be noted. August Diehl, who portrays the young Jorge, is tall and speaks English with barely an accent. Bruno Ganz, who plays the elder Jorge, is short and speaks with a thick accent. B (9/17/14)


“The Railway Man”-Based on a true story, “The Railway Man” introduces us to Eric Lomax (Colin Firth) in 1980 as he is traveling by rail in England. Lomax, who wrote the book upon which the film is based, was a “railway enthusiast,” and in the opening scene on the train he meets and falls in love with Patti, his future wife, played by Nicole Kidman. But not long after they marry, Patti begins to notice Eric’s disturbing behavior revealing that he is experiencing extreme trauma from events in his past. With the help of Eric’s friend, Finlay (Stellan Skarsgard), Patti learns about Eric’s experiences of intense mental and physical abuse in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during World War II, and how it had affected him continuously for all the years since the war. “The Railway Man” is a touching and disturbing tale of the brutality of humans during war and ultimately, despite the horrors, how reconciliation is possible. Jeremy Irvine (“War Horse” and “Great Expectations”) is outstanding as the young Eric, and Colin Firth beautifully portrays the torment that this man had suffered for almost four decades. Nicole Kidman is appealing as a woman who is dedicated to the man she loves but yearns to understand what he is going through. B+ (9/16/14)


“Divergent”-Making young adult novels into films seems to be the thing in Hollywood these days and “Divergent” is certainly a good example. Based on Veronica Roth’s novel, and loaded with the usual clichés of such stories, “Divergent” presents a world which has experienced a violent war. Only Chicago and its environs remain, led by a soft-spoken woman named Jeanine (Kate Winslet, in a role far below her talents) who believes that human nature is evil. Society is thus divided into factions: Abnegation, Dauntless, Candor, Amity, and Erudite and, in a scene reminiscent of the “Hunger Games,” each young person, after undergoing a personality test, must take part in a ceremony to choose permanently which faction they wish to belong to. At the moment, the parents (Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn) of Tris (Shailene Woodley) are powers in Abnegation, the faction which leads the society. Although Tris is revealed in her personality test to be a “divergent,” i.e., someone whose personality doesn’t belong to any of the factions and something that must be kept hidden for her protection, she rejects her parents’ faction and chooses Dauntless, the one that makes up the law enforcement aspect of society. Tris then undergoes rigorous training to become a permanent part of Dauntless (those who fail wind up being faction-less and outcasts) and in this she encounters Four (Theo James), a Dauntless leader who is initially hostile but, as things go in these films, begins to change as he realizes his attraction to Tris. I won’t go further than to say that the story takes the inevitable turn towards one of the factions attempting an overthrow of power and, in this, Tris’ divergent personality becomes quite relevant. “Divergent” is a simplistic tale with limited “action” scenes. Some of the scenes tend towards the banal and and the story isn’t complex enough to warrant a running time of 2 hours, 19 minutes. A good 20-30 minutes should have been edited out in order to tighten up the story and the tension. Shailene Woodley (“The Descendants”) tries her best to appear tough and fragile at the same time, but she’s still a work in progress. Theo James is pleasant and handsome as Four. Not the best, but certainly not the worst film about a futuristic dystopian society. B- (8/23/14)


“Le Week-End”-Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan play Nick and Meg, a long-time British married couple who have arrived in Paris, where they honeymooned, for their anniversary. When they reach their inexpensive and somewhat seedy hotel, the problems begin as Meg insists on moving to a first class hotel despite the fact that they clearly have money problems. “Le Week-End” presents this couple as blowing hot and cold in their marriage. One minute they are kissing affectionately and the next they are talking about or at least implying divorce. In one distasteful scene, Nick and Meg have dinner at a nice French restaurant and then skip out without paying. They’re laughing as they run down the street, but it’s not particularly funny. Later, while they are having an affectionate moment in the street, they run into Morgan (Jeff Goldblum), an old colleague of Nick’s who is obviously doing very well in life as a writer. He invites them to a party at his beautiful apartment to meet his new young wife, Eve (Judith Davis) where Nick makes shocking revelations. Jim Broadbent, Lindsay Duncan, and Jeff Goldblum provide outstanding performances, but the script (written by Hanif Kureishi), is all over the place and leads to a film that can only be described as not totally satisfying. Of note in the cast is Olly Alexander (“Great Expectations”) as Morgan’s son who appears in a compelling scene with Nick. B (8/18/14)


“Inside Llewyn Davis”-Photographed in colors so muted that it almost resembles a black and white film with highlighted colors, “Inside Llewyn Davis” is the latest creation of Joel and Ethan Coen, who have made some real dillies over the years, including “Fargo,” “No Country for Old Men,” and “O’Brother, Where Art Thou?” There has often been an element of humor in their films, including even the violent ones. But “Inside Llewyn Davis” is a rather bleak tale of a young folk singer in Greenwich Village in 1961, who can’t seem to do or have anything go right in his life. Oscar Isaac’s break-through performance as Llewyn Davis is memorable, not only for his devotion to the portrayal of this poor character’s miserable life, but also because of his talent as a performer. Llewyn lives from one borrowed couch to another, and never seems able to make any real bucks from his performances. When staying at the home of a couple on the upper west side, he manages to get locked out of the apartment with their cat, and winds up carrying it around New York. An attempt at a gig in a Chicago club fails and Llewyn returns to NY, contemplating a complete change of careers. Despite being good looking and talented, Llewyn can’t even seem to make it with the opposite sex. Carey Mulligan plays Jean of the folk duo Jean and Jim (Justin Timberlake) who has reason to despise Llewyn even as he asks her for favors. The Coen Brothers are clearly being philosophical in this film, as indicated by the opening and closing scenes which appear to be taking Llewyn’s life around in a circle. Others of note in the cast are John Goodman as Roland Turner, a cynical musician with a few physical problems; Jeanine Serralles as Llewyn’s sister Joy; Adam Driver (“Girls”) as singer Al Cody; F. Murray Abraham as the music impresario in Chicago; and Garrett Hedlund as Turner’s taciturn driver. This is not an upbeat film, but it is very well made as one would expect from the Coen Brothers. B+ (8/16/14)


“The Immigrant”- This film tells the tale of a young Polish woman (Ewa, played by Marion Cotillard), who arrives at Ellis Island with her sister in 1921. While her sister is forced to stay at the Ellis Island hospital facility due to tuberculosis, Ewa is told she will be deported back to Poland because of something she is said to have done aboard ship and because her aunt and uncle failed to appear to pick her up. But then a seemingly harmless man named Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix) pays off a guard and takes Ewa to what appears to be the lower east side of Manhattan where he puts her up in a run-down apartment building full of women. What ensues can only be described as over-the-top melodrama as Ewa, who needs money for her sister’s hospitalization, is forced into prostitution, seemingly against character, and yet becomes the object of desire of both Bruno and his cousin Emil (aka Orlando the Magician), played by Jeremy Renner. The director, James Gray, is said to have observed that Marion Cotillard has the look of a silent screen star, and I’ll give him credit for that one. Cotillard does her best as a young Polish woman in an impossible situation, but Joaquin Phoenix is very difficult to watch and it may be the result of being forced to play a rather poorly defined and silly role. Meanwhile, the laughable story is almost as hokey of those of many of the silent films of the 1920s. C (8/14/14)


“A Field in England”-Filmed in black and white and taking place during the English Civil War in the mid-17th Century, “A Field in England” is one very eccentric movie. An alchemist’s servant named Whitehead finds himself alone near a raging battle but soon discovers and joins three other men who have decided to leave the battle to find an ale house. Unfortunately, other than Whitehead, the three have thick British accents which are difficult to decipher. They are seen trudging across open fields, engaging in strange activities such as what appears to be a one-sided tug-of-war, until they meet up with a nasty character named O’Neill who, taking advantage of their use of mushroom hallucinogens, dominates the men in order to get them to dig a gigantic hole to search for an alleged treasure. A scene in which a trussed up goofy looking Whitehead is used as some kind of divining rod by O’Neill is one of the strangest movie scenes ever. Directed by Ben Wheatley and written by Amy Jump, “A Field in England” turns into a horror film of sorts as the men manage to kill each other (other than Whitehead) and then miraculously return to life. Can I explain this film? No. Is there an explanation? I presume that the writer and director had something in mind when they created this story, but it certainly isn’t clear from watching the film. This is definitely not something that will appeal to most American movie-going sensibilities and is certainly not recommended. C (7/26/14)


“The Grand Budapest Hotel”-Director/writer Wes Anderson is without a doubt one of the most unique and intriguing filmmakers of our time. Films such as “Moonrise Kingdom,” “The Darjeeling Limited,” “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” and “The Royal Tenenbaums” demonstrate Anderson’s rather unique view of life, or at least life in the movies. “The Grand Budapest Hotel” certainly follows in that tradition with its eccentric and humorous approach to a caper film that is also a love story of sorts. From the extremely colorful and exotic costumes, especially at the hotel of the title, to the clever philosophical language of the script, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” tells the wonderful story of how Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham as an older man and Tony Revolori as the young lobby boy) became the owner of the hotel. Talking at dinner to a young writer (Jude Law), Zero tells the tale of how he met the fascinating and articulate concierge of the hotel, M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), was hired as lobby boy, and proceeded to join M. Gustave in a tremendously interesting and funny caper in which they steal a priceless painting; M. Gustave is accused of murder and winds up in prison; M. Gustave and others escape the prison; and all (well, almost all) works out in the end. Ralph Fiennes and Tony Revolori are delightful in the lead roles, supported by an astonishing cast, including Mathieu Amalric, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Hervey Keitel, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, and Saoirse Ronan. A- (7/21/14)


“Lone Survivor”-Directed by Peter Berg, and based on the book by Marcus Luttrell, “Lone Survivor” dramatically tells the tale of a group of Navy SEALS who, in June 2005, were sent into the hills of Afghanistan to capture or kill a Taliban leader responsible for the deaths of a large number of Marines. Due to an unforeseen incident, the SEALS are exposed and ultimately ambushed by Taliban troops with Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg) as the “lone survivor” due to the intervention of local Afghan villagers. The film is well made and effective to tell the horror story of the deaths of this troop of tough rugged Americans. Although there isn't much character development, there is an effort in the early stages of the film to show the humanity of the soldiers about to die. There are no women in this film as it is primarily a brutal and seemingly realistic depiction of the battle between the SEALS and the Taliban in mountainous territory far from Bagram AFB from which the SEALS came. There are no real heroes in this story other than the Afghan villager who chooses to save the seriously injured Luttrell and put his village at risk from Taliban revenge. What I got out of this film was a sense of utter waste of good young lives in a war that appears to have accomplished little or nothing. The first-rate cast includes Eric Bana as the SEALS’ commander at Bagram; Taylor Kitsch as Michael Murphy, the troop’s leader; and Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster, and Jerry Ferrara as members of the ill-fated troop. B (7/12/14)


“Great Expectations”-I’m certainly not about to comment on the plot, taken from one of the great works of English literature. So, let’s look at the presentation and the performances. Dickens’ great classic about the fortunes of Phillip Pirrip (known as Pip)(played by Toby Irvine as a boy and by his real-life brother, Jeremy Irvine, as an adult) and his undying love for Estella (Helena Barlow as the young Estella and Holliday Grainger as the adult), the girl he meets when summoned to the home of the strange and mysterious Miss Havisham (Helena Bonham Carter), is very well presented by Director Mike Newell (“Mona Lisa Smile”). However, the end seemed a little rushed and slightly confusing, especially the scenes in which Pip, having lost his fortune, is arrested because of his debts and is saved by his uncle Joe Gargery (Jason Flemyng). Jeremy Irvine well represents the nature and character of the adult Pip. Holliday Grainger is good but doesn’t completely convey the coldness of Estella whose character is driven by her “mother,” Miss Havisham, to punish men in revenge for the evil deed done by men to her. Others of note in this excellent cast are Robbie Coltrane as Jagger, the lawyer who informs Pip of the mysterious benefactor who desires to remake him from an apprentice blacksmith into a gentleman, and who later is the connection as the intricate mysteries of the story unfold; Olly Alexander as the upbeat Herbert Pocket, Pip’s friend; Ralph Fiennes as Abel Magwitch, the escaped prisoner Pip meets in a cemetery at the beginning of the story; and Sally Hawkins, having a wonderful time playing Pip’s miserable sister, Mrs. Joe (Gargery). It was a great deal of fun returning to this wonderful Dickens tale. B+ (7/8/14)


“Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit”-It’s almost a cliché to say that certain movies are pathetic because of clichés, but that’s the case here. Things like the passage of more than 10 years in the first 10 minutes of the film; young Jack Ryan (Chris Pine) being recruited for the CIA mysteriously by a man in uniform (Kevin Costner); Jack discovering a major plot to undermine America simply by looking at his computer; CIA agents obtaining information instantly and unbelievably from computers; car chases and crashes in which the local police authorities appear to be utterly invisible; long distance air travel that seems to take minutes; a family member (or in this case a girlfriend) being held hostage by the bad guy and saved just in time; and the ultimate: a battle to stop a major bomb, on a timer, from going off in the middle of the Wall Street area. To add to that, although directed by a man I’ve always thought of as talented, Kenneth Branagh, there are too many scenes and segues which are fairly inept. And to make it worse, Branagh as the evil Russian Cherevin, Kevin Costner as Ryan’s CIA superior, Thomas Harper; and Keira Knightley as Ryan’s girlfriend, Cathy, all seem to be phoning in their roles. Costner has never demonstrated any great acting talents, and Knightley is particularly weak and has been in her last several films. As often seems to be the case in films like this, there is absolutely no chemistry between Pine and Knightley. Chris Pine is okay but he just doesn’t have the charisma necessary to play the kind of hero to make a thriller of this sort exceptional. C (7/3/14)

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