This page contains reviews of films seen during the months of October to December 2014


“The Skeleton Twins”- This is not a comedy despite the presence of Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader. Unfortunately, it’s not much of a drama either because the script is weak, the characterizations mediocre, and it’s full of dysfunctional family clichés. Wiig and Hader are, respectively, Maggie and Milo Dean, brother and sister who on the same day contemplate and attempt suicide on opposite coasts. Maggie flies to LA, brings her gay brother Milo back to the east where they grew up and she lives with her upbeat and oblivious but nice husband, Lance (Luke Wilson). The film then proceeds to tell us about their strange upbringing and introduces us to their mother (Joanna Gleason) who is portrayed as an airhead from Sedona, Arizona who abandoned them as children. Talk about clichés, similar mothers have shown up recently in “The Affair” and “Homeland” on Showtime. And then there’s the birth control cliché. How many times recently have there been shows in which couples are allegedly trying to have a child only to learn that the wife is secretly using birth control? Suffice it to say that while Wiig and Hader try hard, neither character they portray is a particularly sympathetic and their troubles, including Maggie’s marital problems and Milo’s continued attraction to a man from his youth, are difficult to care about. C+ (12/25/14)


“Magic in the Moonlight”- Woody Allen has been making close to one film a year since the late 1970s. Some have been incredible and memorable successes. A few have been flops. And then there are those that are pleasant to watch but don’t add up to much. Unfortunately, “Magic in the Moonlight” is one of the latter. Colin Firth plays Stanley, an arrogant Brit who does a magic act on stage pretending to be Chinese. Stanley claims to have been successful in exposing psychics and clairvoyants and, as a result, is called in by a magician friend (Simon McBurney) to expose a new young American woman claiming psychic powers. When Stanley arrives at the Catledge Estate in the south of France, he finds the lovely psychic, Sophie Baker (Emma Stone); Sophie’s mother (Marcia Gay Harden); Grace Catledge (Jacki Weaver) who is ready to endow a psychic institute for Sophie; and Brice Catledge (Hamish Linklater), who has fallen in love with Sophie and offers her ukelele music and family riches. Woody Allen's films usually have brilliantly funny lines and situations, but the closest thing to a classic Allen scene is one in which Stanley and Sophie get caught in the rain when the car Stanley is driving breaks down and Stanley announces that he is good with machinery. Well, not surprisingly, he’s not. With a typical and wonderful Woody Allen score of 1920s music (Bix Beiderbecke, Paul Whiteman, and Ruth Etting, for example) and gorgeous French coastal scenery, “Magic in the Moonlight” is pleasant to watch as Stanley tries to figure out if Sophie is on the level or not. And the cast certainly doesn’t hurt, including the marvelous Eileen Atkins as Stanley’s Aunt Vanessa. Allen also throws in a performance by Ute Lemper, the German singer renowned for performing the music of Kurt Weill. There are some very good elements in this film. But when it’s over, one can only conclude that it was not much more than a thin romantic comedy. B- (12/22/14)


“Edge of Tomorrow”-The makers of this film should have thought twice about the film’s name which sounds more like a soap opera than what it actually is. When they released it on DVD and digitally, they changed the name to “Live, Die, Repeat.” While accurately describing what goes on in the film, it’s worse than the original title, making it sound like a sequel to a mediocre Bruce Willis film. The film stars Tom Cruise as Cage, an American major specializing in PR office duties, but shanghaied into fighting as a soldier in a war against aliens (who arrived on earth via an asteroid). Cage initially makes no secret of the fact that he has absolutely no desire to engage in battle, but when he is forced into it and dies quickly on a beach, he immediately returns to life at the specific moment in time at which his battle experiences began; and finds himself repeating his day over and over, each time learning from his prior experiences and advancing. Thus, “Edge of Tomorrow” has been called the “Groundhog Day” of Sci-Fi. In the process of repeating his experiences, Cage meets a tough British female soldier, Rita (Emily Blunt), who had had the same experiences as Cage in terms of repeating life but who had lost that power. Gradually, Cage learns Rita’s theories about the aliens and where the power came from in an effort to finally overcome the aliens. With a good supporting cast, including Brendan Gleeson as the general who forces Cage into the war and Bill Paxton as the sergeant who oversees Cage’s platoon, “Edge of Tomorrow,” while not completely original, is certainly a different and interesting take on rebirth/time travel. Tom Cruise is, as always, Tom Cruise. Nothing new here other than his initial portrayal of a somewhat cowardly character. Emily Blunt gives a fine and rather surprising performance as an intelligent and tough, physically fit female soldier. B (12/20/14)


“Guardians of the Galaxy”- Okay, it’s sort of the same old sci-fi extravaganza with spaceships darting in and out of impossible spots, explosions, evil aliens, and the usual glitz and graphic garishness one would expect of this sort of film. But in something of an homage to the original “Star Wars,” “Guardians of the Galaxy” also has a couple of saving graces: a sense of humor and some awfully fun characters. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is a space merchant of sorts who calls himself Star-Lord and finds himself in possession of an orb that seemingly has no function but is wanted by the evil Ronan (Lee Pace). The battle for the orb is at the heart of the tale, especially when it’s discovered that the orb can destroy planets, including Xandar, peaceful home of the space militia led by Nova Prime (Glenn Close). In the process, Quill gathers a group of amusing and entertaining aliens, including Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper), a raccoon; Groot (essentially a tree with the amusing single line of “I am Groot” repeated over and over, voiced by Vin Diesel), Drax (Dave Bautista), and the green beauty Gamora (Zoe Saldana). The cast also includes Djimon Hounsou as the evil Korath, John C. Reilly as Corpsman Day, and even Stan Lee, creator of many of Marvel Comics characters. “Guardians of the Galaxy” is hardly a great film, but certainly entertaining enough as light fare because of the quirky and amusing characters. B (12/19/14)


“Draft Day”- This has to be one of the most enjoyable football films I’ve seen which has almost no football being played in it. For some reason, although I don’t follow college football, I often watch the NFL draft on TV to observe the psychological pressures, if any, upon the players waiting to see which team they will be joining. “Draft Day” is not so much about that, although it certainly is a factor, but rather the psychological stress placed on an NFL general manager who must decide which player or deal is best for his team. Kevin Costner is Sonny Weaver, Jr., GM of the Cleveland Browns and son of the late legendary coach of the team. It’s draft day and Sonny has gotten off to a bad start when he fails to get excited after his girlfriend Ali (Jennifer Garner), a team official, tells him she is pregnant. But to add to his stress, his team has the seventh pick in the draft and he isn’t sure which player he wants, although he seems to be leaning towards a defensive player named Vontae Mack (Chadwick Boseman of “42”). What really gets his day off to a stressful start is the temptation offered by the Seattle Seahawks GM: the #1 pick in the draft and the chance to draft the QB that everyone believes is the obvious choice for that slot. Although I’ve never been thrilled by Kevin Costner’s acting, he often manages to find parts that aren’t that demanding and that just about fit his demeanor, and this is certainly one. Costner looks about as stressed as one can get as he goes about dealing with the offer and the reactions of his staff (including Coach Penn played by Dennis Leary) to his decision. Although Jennifer Garner is 17 years younger than Costner, they don’t seem like an unlikely pair and Garner’s Ali ultimately provides emotional support for Weaver, even as he is being pressed for success by the team owner (Frank Langella). What makes “Draft Day” really fun to watch is the clever and intriguing outcome that can only bring a smile and make your day. B+ (12/18/14)


“Belle”- This British period film tells the true and unusual mid-to-late 18th Century story of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), whose father was a British admiral (Captain Sir John Lindsay, played briefly by Matthew Goode) and whose mother was an African slave. After Dido’s mother died, Sir John Lindsay brought Dido, as a young child, to his parents, Lord and Lady Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson). Although he was leaving with the Royal Navy (and he never returned), he emphasized that Dido was his child and thus “family” and asked his parents to raise her as their own. Despite initial reluctance, Lord and Lady Mansfield accepted and apparently never regretted it, although the class customs of those strict times made it difficult for a partially black (“mulatto”) member of the family. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is very appealing as the intelligent and talented young woman raised under obviously unique and occasionally offensive conditions. Like so many films about 18th Century England (think Jane Austen), the story ultimately revolves around the potential for marriage for Dido and her cousin, Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon), also being raised by Lord and Lady Mansfield. The excellent cast includes Penelope Wilton (“Downton Abbey”) as Lady Mary Murray, who directly supervised the girls as they grew up; Miranda Richardson as the snobbish Lady Ashford, mother of two potential suitors for Dido and Elizabeth; James Norton as Oliver Ashford who falls for Dido; Tom Felton (on the verge of being typecast as an obnoxious jerk--see his performances as Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter films and more recently as Erich Blunt in the TV series “Murder in the First”) as the other, and very unpleasant, Ashford brother; and Sam Reid as John Davinier, the young idealistic lawyer who plays a major role in influencing the outcome of a case involving the murder of slaves that is pending before Lord Mansfield, Lord Chief Justice of England, and ultimately in Dido’s life. B+ (12/10/14)


“The November Man”- As I’ve said before, the thriller genre is often loaded with clichés and violence. And because of that these films usually have to be downgraded for boring repetition and lack of originality. But “The November Man,” despite the presence of clichés and violence, somehow works and is fun to watch. Pierce Brosnan, at 63, still seems capable of playing the smooth undercover agent capable of mowing down any and all enemies. Here, Brosnan plays Devereaux, a retired CIA agent living peacefully in Switzerland who is called upon to return to action in order to find and save a woman who has secrets that could bring down the likely next Russian president. In doing so, he finds himself up against the CIA and, particularly, a former colleague, David Mason (Australian actor Luke Bracey), leading one to wonder which one will go down first. With lovely scenery and an entertaining cast (including Olga Kurylenko, Bill Smitrovich, and Will Patton, as well as a large contingent of eastern European actors), this well-paced film is a good choice if you like this type of film. B+ (12/9/14)


“12 Years a Slave”-This Academy Award winning film is, unfortunately, predictable and somewhat disappointing. Based on the memoirs of Solomon Northrup, the film opens with Northrup as a free black man with a wife and two children in Saratoga, NY, in 1841. Tricked into traveling to Washington, DC, he is kidnapped and sold into slavery. Although he is skilled (at playing the fiddle among other things) and educated, he is warned not to let the slaveowners know about his ability to read. Northrup, played admirably by the British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, suffers under two slaveowners: Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), the slightly more humane of the two, and Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) who, in combination with his cruel wife (Sarah Paulson), treats his slaves like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic overseer, Simon Legree. Directed by Steve McQueen, “12 Years a Slave,” takes us through the expected agonies of humans forced to do the bidding of others, whether physical, mental, or sexual, and the barbaric behavior of a race of mostly Southern plantation owners whose inhumanity practically defies understanding. The production values are excellent and the cast is fine, but other than the limited unique aspect of the story (a free man sold into slavery), “12 Years a Slave” doesn’t tell us much new about this blight on American history. Lupita Nyong’o received raves and accolades (and an Academy Award) for her portrayal of Patsey, one of the Northrup’s fellow slaves at the Epps Plantation, but while she was effective in her limited role, I didn’t find her portrayal any more powerful than others in the cast. Also of note in the cast were Paul Giamatti as a callous slave merchant, Paul Dano as a cruel plantation boss, and Brad Pitt as the Canadian carpenter who sets in motion Northrup’s ultimate return to his family. The film ends on an interesting note, informing us that Northrup attempted to have his kidnappers and the slave merchant prosecuted but that none were ever punished. This might have made a more interesting story to reflect how times haven't changed that much. B+ (12/4/14)


“Chef”- This very enjoyable film is an antidote to so many violent, creepy, and dehumanized American films that have been released in recent times. “Chef” is a nice surprise because it’s all about a decent hardworking guy with an ex-wife (Sofia Vergara) and a young son (Emjay Anthony) who struggles to balance the demands of his profession as a celebrity chef in LA with his son’s needs. Jon Favreau not only wrote and directed the film but stars as Carl Casper, a chef who wants to create new and original meals but has come up against a hard-headed restaurant owner (Dustin Hoffman), who insists on repetition of the same boring menu, and a seemingly harsh food critic (Oliver Platt). At the same time that Carl struggles to pay attention to his son, he refuses to listen to some good advice he has received from his beautiful ex-wife. However, he eventually finds himself in Miami doing exactly what his ex-wife recommended and it results in a food truck road trip (through Florida and to New Orleans, Austin, and eventually back to LA) that is a delight and not only should make you smile but also make you want to eat a great meal as soon as possible. “Chef” has a wonderful supporting cast which includes John Leguizamo and Bobby Cannavale as important members of Carl’s kitchen staff; Scarlett Johansson as Molly, Carl’s restaurant associate and friend; and Robert Downey, Jr., as his ex-wife’s first ex-husband, who provides him with the food truck that will eventually turn his life around. The scenes of food preparation are fascinating, but, most important, this film has a sense of humanity and fun that has been seen far too rarely in American films in recent years. B+ (11/26/14)


"Ida”-Filmed beautifully in black and white and directed by Pawel Pawlikowski (“My Summer of Love”), this lovely film concerns a young woman in 1960s Poland named Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) shown initially living in a convent and about to take her vows as a nun. But before that happens she is informed by the Mother Superior that she has an aunt and must meet her. Her aunt, Wanda (Agata Kulesza), an attractive but lonely woman who serves as a judge in the Communist government, informs Anna that her real name is Ida and that she is Jewish, and they begin a road trip of sorts to discover what happened to Ida’s parents during the War. “Ida” is a very quiet meditative film. There is minimal dialogue with occasional moments of effective music, but both Agata Trzebuchowska and Agata Kulesza provide virtually all one needs to know with their expressions. Also, Dawid Ogrodnik does a fine job as the handsome Lis, an alto sax player who provides Ida with the temptations of real life. A-(11/25/14)


“Million Dollar Arm”- In this true life story, Jon Hamm plays JB Bernstein, a sports agent whose business is failing. With his partner, Aash (Aasif Mandvi), JB comes up with the rather bizarre and desperate idea of seeking out major league pitching talent in India where the game of cricket is extremely popular and baseball is barely known. With the aid of a wealthy but demanding supporter, JB sets up a reality competition of sorts called “Million Dollar Arm,” and discovers two young Indians, Rinku (Suraj Sharma, most recently in “Homeland”) and Dinesh (Madhur Mattal of “Slumdog Millionaire”) who can throw in the mid 80s but can’t seem to get the ball over the plate. When JB brings Rinku and Dinesh to LA to learn baseball at USC from coach Tom House (Bill Paxton), a romantic interest with his tenant, Brenda (Lake Bell), seems to be triggered although there seemed to be little chemistry between the two. “Million Dollar Arm” isn’t really a baseball movie and it isn’t really a romance. It’s more of a fantasy which is appropriate since this is a Disney movie. When Jon Hamm has to play a complicated character such as Don Draper in “Mad Men,” he does very well. But when he’s playing a not particularly compelling character such as JB, he’s far less effective. The cast includes Alan Arkin, doing an unsurprising bit as a cynical baseball scout. “Million Dollar Arm” is at most mild entertainment. C+ (11/19/14)


“Jersey Boys”- Two things first: (1) I did not see the Broadway version of “Jersey Boys,” although I did hear the original cast album, and (2) I tend to enjoy movie bios about music performers. “Jersey Boys,” the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons from their troubled youth in New Jersey to ultimate stardom and admission to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, is a great deal of fun, even if not a perfect film. Directed by Clint Eastwood (undoubtedly as a result of his great love of music), the film tells the stories of the group’s members: Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda), Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young) and ultimately Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), through each member’s spoken asides to the audience. It’s made clear that although Valli had an astoundingly unusual voice and was the ultimate star of the group, the real prize was Gaudio who, with producer Bob Crewe (Mike Doyle), wrote almost all of the Four Seasons’ great hits, starting with “Sherry.” I had some minor quibbles with the production: for example, some of the sets and lighting seemed awfully artificial, especially early in the film. But overall, “Jersey Boys” should be delightful entertainment for anyone who loves films about show biz and especially those who grew up with The Four Seasons. And this is simply due to the wonderful performances of songs like “Walk Like a Man,” “Who Loves You,” “Rag Doll,” “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry.” As for the cast, Vincent Piazza (“Boardwalk Empire”) as the very troubled Tommy DeVito is outstanding and John Lloyd Young, who originated the Frankie Valli part in the Broadway version, couldn’t be better. Also of note in the cast is Christopher Walken as Gyp DeCarlo, a friendly New Jersey gangster. A- (11/11/14)


“Snowpiercer”- This attempt at a story of a frozen dystopian world in which the only survivors are aboard a futuristic train which circles the earth is pretty lame. Directed and co-written by Joon Ho Bong who made the interesting monster film “The Host,” “Snowpiercer” goes off the track in the first half with too much violence and collapses at the end with meaningless dialogue about the the need to cull the survivors in order to keep the remnants of so-called humanity going. Chris Evans (Captain America) is Curtis, the leader of the filthy wretches of society who take up the back of the train and are treated like animals. With the help of Edgar (Jamie Bell), Tanya (Octavia Spencer), and Gilliam (John Hurt) they begin a violent assault on the stormtroopers who keep them in their place under the apparent leadership of the rather bizarre and talkative Mason (Tilda Swinton). As they proceed through the train, they find their way to the cars occupied by the 1%, cars with gardens, swimming pools, schools, tanning lamps, ultra-dining cars, and more. That they never seem to find sleeping quarters or bathrooms seems to be beside the point. Of note in the cast are Alison Pill (“The Newsroom”) as a deranged schoolteacher, Ed Harris as Wilford, the creator and engineer of the train, and two Korean stars of Joon Ho Bong’s “The Host,” Kang-Ho Song and Ah-sung Ko as a father and daughter who ultimately decide the fate of the train and its occupants . C (11/6/14)


“Winter’s Tale”-About 30 years ago, I read the book (by Mark Helprin) on which this film was based. I remember it being intriguing, supernatural, and romantic and that it had a flying white horse. The film based on the book does a fairly successful job of translating that story to the cinema although I wonder why it took 30 years to do so. In the early stages of the film we mysteriously see Colin Farrell’s character appear both in 1916 and 2014. What’s going on here? Of course some of this timing would have made a little more sense if the “present” had been around 1983, when the book came out, but you’ll have to watch the movie to see what I mean. Nevertheless, Farrell plays Peter Lake, a young thief in NYC in 1916 who meets and falls for a beautiful young woman, Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay of “Downton Abbey” fame) who is unfortunately dying of consumption. Lake, who is befriended by a magical flying white horse, thinks he can save Beverly but in the meantime has to battle supernatural forces in the form of gangster Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe) and his gang of thugs. After Lake appears to fail in his efforts, he resurfaces (literally) in modern day NYC and resumes the struggle. I’m not usually a big fan of supernatural stories but “Winter’s Tale” is sufficiently charming to be worth a viewing. It has a fine supporting cast, including William Hurt as Beverly’s father, Will Smith as Pearly’s “boss,” Jennifer Connelly as a young mother Lake meets in the present, and Eva Marie Saint (looking great at age 90). B- 10/25/14


“In a World...”-Lake Bell is the star of this comedy as well as its writer and director. She tells the story of Hollywood voice coach Carol (played by herself), one of two daughters of Sam (Fred Melamed), a voice-over star whom she wishes to emulate. Sam is a rather self-centered jerk who thinks women have little or no chance at doing cinema voice-overs and he supports another man (Ken Marino) for an important job instead of Carol. All three dream of becoming the pre-eminent voice-over king or queen of Hollywood following the death of Don Lafontaine, the real life creator of the expression “In a world…,” heard in many movie trailers over the years. The script includes an amusing side story in which Carol’s sister, Dani (Michaela Watkins), almost ruins her good marriage to Moe (Rob Corddry) while doing Carol a favor by recording the voice of a sexy fellow with an interesting Irish accent. “In a World…” has something of a dysfunctional family plot, but includes some effective performances, especially from Michaela Watkins, Rob Corddry, Stephanie Allyne as an hysterical recording studio aide, Demetri Martin as the recording tech with a crush on Carol, and Geena Davis (remember her?) as the movie producer who gets to decide which of the three will do the voice-overs on her “quadrilogy” trailer. B (10/23/14)

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