The Catcher Was a Spy


Fog and espionage go together like pitchers and catchers.

(2018) Biographical Drama (IFC) Paul Rudd, Mark Strong, Sienna Miller, Jeff Daniels, Guy Pearce, Paul Giamatti, Tom Wilkinson, Connie Nielsen, Shea Whigham, John Schwab, Hiroyuki Sanada, Giancarlo Giannini, Pierfrancesco Favino, Anna Geislerová, Bobby Schofield, Demetri Goritsas, William Hope, Milan Aulicky, Jordan Long, James McVan, Ben Miles, Agnese Nano. Directed by Ben Lewin

 

Doing a biography of a real individual is a difficult undertaking. It’s nearly impossible to get a sense of the subject in just a ninety-minute movie; real lives don’t always condense well. Sometimes, though, you get a subject who has so little known about them that ninety minutes seems too many.

Moe Berg (Rudd) was such a man. A journeyman catcher for five Major League ballclubs, he is depicted here near the end of his career with the Red Sox, being urged by his manager Joe Cronin (Whigham) to hang up his spikes and take up a coaching position. His teammates and contemporaries bestowed on him the nickname “The Professor” because of his unquenchable thirst for knowledge and his success on radio quiz shows.

But Berg had a destiny beyond the ballpark; fluent in seven languages, he was recruited by “Wild Bill” Donovan (Daniels) of the OSS – which would eventually become the CIA – to work initially as an analyst but eventually was sent out into the field to determine how close the Nazis were to developing an atomic bomb of their own and if they were close, to kill the lead German scientist Werner Heisenberg (Strong).

The film has a good number of atmospheric visuals, terrific production values that really bring forth the era and a stellar cast. All this combines to give the film a real noir feel which is a good thing. What it doesn’t have is a sense of urgency or of peril; the atomic race between the United States and Nazi Germany was essentially a struggle to the death for both nations. We never get that sense of suspense which would have been made the movie a lot more watchable; it feels more like an intellectual exercise.

Not all of that is the fault of the filmmakers. In real life Morris Berg was a private man to the point that it was nearly impossible to get to know him. He remains today as mysterious as he was in life. The movie brings up the rumor that the book this was based on did; that Berg was a closeted homosexual but there’s no valid evidence that proves or disproves it so rather than having the courage of its convictions, the film kind of wimps out on it. They do show him having a vigorous physical relationship with his girlfriend Estella (Miller) but even she found him a distant cold fish.

It’s hard for an audience to get behind a character like that and the normally very likable Rudd does his very best but in the end he becomes a bit standoffish and flat and the film kind of follows that lead. Berg is a fascinating character who deserves to have his story told but I sort of doubt it ever will be; the man was much too private for that to occur.

REASONS TO SEE: The strong cast gives it the old college try.
REASONS TO AVOID: Berg deserves a better movie.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, language and brief sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The baseball sequences were filmed at Fenway Park in Boston.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Showtime Anytime, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/7/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 32% positive reviews: Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Spy Behind Home Plate
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Do It Yourself

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Life


Ryan Reynolds in space.

(2017) Science Fiction (Columbia) Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds, Rebecca Ferguson, Hiroyuki Sanada, Olga Dihovichnaya, Ariyon Bakare, David Muir, Elizabeth Vargas, Jesus Del Orden, Allen McLean, Leila Grace Bostwick-Riddell, Mari Gvelesiani, Haruka Kuroda, Alexandre Nguyen, Woong-sin Hiu, Camiel Warren-Taylor, Naoko Mori. Directed by Daniel Espinosa

 

Space, by definition, is lifeless. Space movies shouldn’t be. The best science fiction movies allow us to see ourselves through a window of “what-if.” I suppose that’s true of movies, period.

The International Space Station is on a mission to retrieve a robotic spacecraft returning from Mars. Knocked off of its trajectory by space debris, it hurtles towards the ISS which will have just one opportunity to grab it or else the soil samples and data it collected will be lost forever. Astronaut Rory Adams (Reynolds) snags the spacecraft and brings it into the space station. There, biologist Hugh Derry (Bakare) makes a startling discovery; there is life in the Martian soil. Single celled, maybe, but life nonetheless. The living organism becomes a sensation back at home as the astronauts study it and a naming contest among schoolkids bestow upon the creature the name “Calvin.”

As anyone who has ever seen this kind of movie knows, this doesn’t end well. When Calvin goes dormant, the supposedly brilliant scientists on the space station – presumably with the blessing of colleagues on Earth – decide to use an electrical current to wake up the organism. That’s a pretty rude thing to do to a guest, don’t you think?

Certainly Calvin thinks so and he reacts to the rudeness with homicidal mania. Wouldn’t you? In any case Calvin holds a few xenomorphing surprises up his sleeve…well, he doesn’t have sleeves exactly but you get my meaning. In any case he starts picking off the astronauts one by one and it becomes horribly apparent that the crew must keep Calvin from heading to Earth at all costs – even at the cost of their own lives.

This was originally slated for a summertime release before it was knocked back to March and for good reason; this is a seriously flawed film. For one thing, it follows Ridley Scott’s Alien virtually note for note. I’ll be honest, it’s better to rip off a classic film than a mediocre one but nonetheless the writers don’t offer anything new; it’s just a different kind of xenomorph than the original and it takes place closer to home in both time and place. You could do a pretty decent mash-up with the two movies and never lose a beat.

Espinosa has gotten himself a stellar cast for his movie. Reynolds and Gyllenhaal are two of the most popular stars out there and Reynolds brings the wise-ass persona from his most recent films onto the ISS here. It works rather nicely. Gyllenhaal is a bit more workmanlike, but nonetheless holds the attention of the viewer with his own intensity. He’s a little bit miscast but pulls it off nonetheless.

Most of the rest of the cast is fairly colorless which is a shame because the actors while lesser known than the two leads are solid in the acting department, particularly Sanada and Ferguson. The characters are essentially disposable, meant to be death bait for the CGI alien who is apparently much brighter than the humans because the humans keep putting themselves in situations that are way more dangerous than they have to be. Astronauts are supposed to be smart and in The Martian they were; here, they’re just good looking.

A movie like this is going to live and die on its CGI and the graphics here aren’t bad. Calvin shows up pretty early on and while he morphs into a succeeding variety of creatures each more deadly than the last, we don’t get the mystery we got from the original Alien where the creature wasn’t revealed until much later in the movie. This is a bit of a technical error on the part of the filmmakers. The first part of the movie when we’re meeting Calvin in his initial forms is far more interesting than the bug hunt portion of the film at the end.

I don’t mind films borrowing from other films. There is nothing new under the sun (or apparently under the stars) after all. I just wish there would be just a little bit more variance from the source material. Everything here is way predictable including the ending. This is basically a poster child for wasted opportunity. The idea behind Calvin was a good one; if only they had surrounded him with a story worthy of that imagination

REASONS TO GO: The alien creature is pretty nicely accomplished. Reynolds is on a roll and this kind of film is just tailor-made for him.
REASONS TO STAY: There is definitely a been-there, seen-that feel to the film. The second half of the movie loses what good will the first half builds up.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of foul language and a modicum of sci-fi violence and some gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Skydance Media, the production company primarily responsible for the film, has been based at Paramount for seven years; not only is this their first film for a distributor other than Paramount, it is also their first R-rated film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/20/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Alien
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Buster’s Mal Heart

Mr. Holmes


Even the most beautiful garden path can be the road to Hell.

Even the most beautiful garden path can be the road to Hell.

(2015) Drama (Miramax/Roadside Attractions) Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Milo Parker, Hiroyuki Sanada, Hattie Morahan, Patrick Kennedy, Roger Allam, Philip Davis, Frances de la Tour, Charles Maddox, Takako Akashi, Zak Shukor, John Sessions, Michael Culkin, David Foxxe, Oliver Devoti, Mike Burnside, Nicholas Rowe, Sam Coulson, Frances Barber. Directed by Bill Condon

The difference between reality and fiction can often be the mere stroke of a pen. Often we are presented with an image, one that in time becomes as reality. What happens to the real person then, when the fictional image becomes more powerful than the real person who inspired it?

In a sleepy seaside town on the east coast of England lives a cantankerous old man in an old cottage overlooking white chalk cliffs. He spends his days pottering around, caring for his bees and chatting with Roger (Parker), the son of his housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Linney). It is nigh on impossible to believe that once upon a time, this old man was the most famous and honored detective in Great Britain, for he is Sherlock Holmes (McKellen), now 93 years old and living in retirement in post-war England.

It is 1947 and he has just returned from Japan on a visit with Umezaki (Sanada), with whom he has been corresponding about the nature of prickly ash, which is said to have restorative powers for those afflicted by senility. Holmes witnesses first-hand the horrors of Hiroshima only two years after it was annihilated by the Americans and their atomic bomb; for a man who has lived through two world wars, this visual representation of man’s inhumanity to man is almost more than he can take.

Holmes’ great mental facilities and his memory has become suspect and the 93-year-old man is trapped by his fading intellect. He is trying to recall his last case, one which caused him to retire to the seaside, but he can’t remember it, or what about it caused him to put down his magnifying glass for good. He feels like he needs to recall this; everyone he knows is dead save for the two living with him now who didn’t know him when these events transpired. All he knows is the case involved a distraught husband (Kennedy), a mysterious wife (Morahan) and a music teacher (de la Tour) who was also something of a spiritualist. As the case unravels, so does Holmes. Can he remember the details of the case and find peace, or will he join his colleagues in the Choir Invisible first?

This is the Bill Condon of Gods and Monsters, not the one who directed the two installments of the Twilight saga. Other reviewers have described this movie as elegiac and that’s nearly the perfect description; there is an air of melancholy, of lost lives and overwhelming regret and loneliness. Much of the movie is told through flashbacks as the elderly Holmes recalls shards of memory and starts to assemble them into a cohesive whole. There is an amazing scene where a middle-aged Holmes speaks to one of the main players in the mystery he is revisiting in his old age and describes that he has consciously made the choice to be lonely, but somewhat ironically follows up that having the great intellect is reward enough. As he nears the end of his life, Holmes no longer has the comfort of that intellect, although germs of it remain.

&We forget that McKellan is one of the great actors of our time; we tend to associate him with Gandalf and Magneto and need to remember that this man has a Shakespearean background and has some of the most honored performances in the history of the English stage,. His gruff exterior hides inner pain, as he for perhaps for the first time in his life feels fear; fear that the thing most of value to him is being slowly stripped away from him. For someone like Sherlock Holmes, dementia and senility are the absolute worst calamities that might befall him. We see the uncertainty of a man used to relying on the powers of his mind suddenly unable to trust those powers any longer. It’s a bravura performance that not only humanizes the great detective who is often seen these days as something of a caricature but also makes him relatable. In the past, Holmes always seemed above the rest of us; we could admire his skills while finding him cold and unapproachable. Befriending Sherlock Holmes would be something like befriending an iPad; it can be done but it wouldn’t be very satisfying if you did.

I haven’t read the novel this is based on but I’m going to make a point of finding it. There is a marvelous backstory as we discover that for the sake of making the chronicles of Sherlock Holmes’ career more enticing to the reading public his dear friend Dr. Watson has taken a few liberties with the truth. For example, Holmes tells us in a somewhat bemused tone, that he never wore a deerstalker cap (which was actually an invention of illustrators Sidney Paget and Frederic Dorr Steele, who assumed the deerstalker was the chapeau of choice due to Arthur Conan Doyle’s descriptions of his headgear, although the author never expressly stated that Holmes wore a deerstalker) nor did he smoke a pipe – he tended to prefer cigars. We get the sense that Holmes is somewhat amused by Watson’s inventions regarding his life but is to a large extent also trapped by them.

Purists of the Holmes canon will probably have a bit of a meltdown regarding some of this, but I personally think (not being a Sherlock Holmes expert in any sense) that the author and filmmakers do honor the spirit of the character here. We get a sense of what a real human being would be like if possessed of the same mental acuity as Sherlock Holmes. It would be a marvelous life indeed – and a lonely one as well.

In some ways this is likely to get lost amid the bombast of the summer’s louder and more well-heeled blockbusters, but this is as entertaining as any of them – and more than most of them, for that matter. I thoroughly enjoyed this visit to the great detective’s final years and found it believable and enjoyable, and that is all you can really ask of a summer movie indeed.

REASONS TO GO: Tremendous performance by McKellan. Terrific backstory.
REASONS TO STAY: Not for purists.
FAMILY VALUES: Some of the concepts here are pretty adult; there are a couple of images that are disturbing as well.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The actor playing Holmes in the movie that the “real” Holmes goes to see is played by Nicholas Rowe, who starred in the title role of Young Sherlock Holmes.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/28/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Seven Per-Cent Solution
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Little Death

Minions


Scarlet Overkill attempts to kill the Minions with kindness.

Scarlet Overkill attempts to kill the Minions with kindness.

(2015) Animated Feature (Universal) Starring the voices of Sandra Bullock, Jon Hamm, Michael Keaton, Allison Janney, Steve Coogan, Jennifer Saunders, Geoffrey Rush, Steve Carell, Pierre Coffin, Katy Mixon, Michael Beattie, Hiroyuki Sanada, Dave Rosenbaum, Alex Dowding, Paul Thornley, Ava Acres, Carlos Alazraqui, Lori Alan, Laraine Newman, Mindy Sterling. Directed by Kyle Balda and Pierre Coffin

We know the villains. They are often flamboyant, deliciously evil and unforgettable. But what of their henchmen? What of the cannon fodder they send to take on the hero, or to do whatever nefarious deed needs doing. What of them?

Master criminal Gru (Carell) has long been supported by his yellow pill-like Minions (all voiced by Coffin), odd creatures in denim overalls, usually with two eyes (occasionally with just one) who speak an odd high-pitched patois of every language on Earth as well as some gibberish that sounds like a 33 1/3 vinyl album played at 45 RPM (ask your parents or grandparents; they’ll understand the reference). But where do these non-human creatures come from?

It turns out from right here. An amusing opening sequence (much of which is seen in the trailer) shows them evolving from single-celled organisms who are determine that the best way for them to survive in a hostile world is to find the biggest, baddest villain they can, serve him and by doing so, come under his protection.

This goes badly for the Minions. It isn’t so much that their masters turn on them, as you might expect that evil villains might. It’s just that the Minions, in trying to serve, have an unnerving knack of killing their masters by accident. This causes the Minions to sink into a deep depression.

One of their number by the name of Kevin won’t sit idly by for this. He determines to leave their ice cave lair and find a new boss to serve. To accompany him will be Stuart, a would-be rock and roller, and Bob, the most adorable Minion and perhaps the most enthusiastic.

As the Minions have been in hiding for a number of years, the world has changed somewhat since last they had been seen. It is 1968 and it is New York City. You’d think that Minions would find plenty of villains there but they discover that, rather, Orlando is the place to be. That’s because a convention of evildoers is about to convene in The City Beautiful in the years Before Disney.

They hitch a ride with Walter (Keaton) and Madge Nelson (Janney) who are driving down to Orlando with their kids. It turns out that they are villains as well, expert bank robbers. And there are a number of Villains who might be worthy of the Minions, like Professor Flux (Coogan) or Sumo (Sanada). However, the biggest baddest villain of them all is Scarlet Overkill (Bullock) who it so happens is hiring.

Kevin, Bob and Stuart get the gig and go to London in Scarlet’s private jet (apparently crime does pay after all) where they meet her mechanical genius of a husband Herb (Hamm). Scarlet’s already got a job in mind for the adorable yellow Minions; to steal the crown of Queen Elizabeth (Saunders). Easy peasy, right? Of course, the Minions make a hash of it and things go rapidly downhill from there.

There has been a tendency in the world of animated features of late to populate them with adorable supporting creatures, from the slugs of Flushed Away to the penguins of Madagascar. Sometimes these creatures are more interesting than the main characters (see Skrat, Ice Age). The Minions may be the best of these, entirely incompetent but always worth a giggle. They often upstage Gru in his own movies.

They actually do an adequate job of carrying their own movie as well, although not a spectacular one. While their Minion language gets a bit old in its indecipherable glory, it still gets the message across. Their simplicity appeals to children who tend to like their characters to be uncomplicated and the Minions are definitely that.

The entertainment factor is solid. There are plenty of sight gags that are clever although truth be told they occasionally are too clever for their own good (like the Minions emerging from a sewer on Abbey Road only to be stepped on by Four sets of Fabulous feet at the crosswalk. It’s a famous album cover – ask your parents or your grandparents, they’ll understand the reference.

But the problem here is that there really is no there there, as Gertrude Stein might say. It’s entertaining, but only that; the content is so light and airy that the slightest of breezes will blow the whole thing away like a dandelion in spring. The story, while disposable, grinds to a halt in a few places and unnecessarily so. There were some scenes the movie could well have done without.

I would have thought that the Minions could have survived on their own but it turns out that they need Gru more than he needs them, which comes as a bit of a shock. At the end of the day, they are supporting characters and because they are meant to be in the background, they don’t really make an impression in the foreground for the hour and a half running time. This really feels like a Saturday morning cartoon stretched out to feature length, and while that may be a bit harsh and perhaps unjustified, nonetheless that’s the impression I walked out with. It’s entertaining enough that if you take your kids to see it you won’t be unbelievably bored (as with several animated features from last year) but at the very least this movie will make you appreciate Gru all the more.

REASONS TO GO: Reasonably entertaining for both parents and children. Minions are adorable.
REASONS TO STAY: Disposable fluff.  Drags in places.
FAMILY VALUES: A little bit of slightly rude humor and animated action.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While Kevin, Bob and Stuart are watching Scarlet Overkill’s presentation at Villain-Con, Gargamel from the Smurfs can be seen sitting directly in front of them.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/25/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 54% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Flushed Away
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Ant-Man

The Railway Man


Those who walk along straight tracks are liable to get run down by a train.

Those who walk along straight tracks are liable to get run down by a train.

(2013) True Life Drama (Weinstein) Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman, Stellan Skarsgard, Jeremy Irvine, Sam Reid, Tanroh Ishida, Hiroyuki Sanada, Bryan Probets, Michael MacKenzie, Jeffrey Daunton, Tom Stokes, Tom Hobbs, Akos Armont, Keith Fleming, Ben Aldridge, Yukata Izumihara, Masa Yamaguchi, Michael Doonan, Keiichi Enomoto. Directed by Jonathan Teplitzky

The number of veterans that come home from war with PTSD is staggering. Nobody comes back from war unscarred, even if they didn’t get a scratch on them in battle. These days, our combat vets have programs through the VA that can help them through it, although getting into those programs these days can be frustrating and time-consuming. Back in the days of the Second World War, PTSD wasn’t even a recognized condition.

Eric Lomax (Irvine) certainly has scars, some which aren’t visible at all. Captured by the Japanese after the Fall of Singapore, he and his fellow soldiers were sent to work on the Burma-Siam Railway which was also called the Death Railway for the number of prisoners of war and Asian civilians who died in its construction. Lomax, a railway enthusiast and an engineer, was spared the forced labor because engineers were needed for other tasks. In secret, he also built a radio receiver which would have devastating consequences for Eric when it was discovered.

Years later, Eric (Firth) has met a nurse named Patti (Kidman) whom he has fallen deeply in love with. The two get married but Patti is troubled by her husband’s frequent night terrors, his violent mood swings and panic attacks. Whatever shell he has built around himself to cope with what he has been through is crumbling. Desperate, she talks to Finlay (Skarsgard), his best friend who at first is reluctant to talk to her about what Eric went through but at last gives in. Eric was brutally tortured, facilitated by a translator named Takeshi Nagase (Ishida).

Not long after, Finlay brings news to that Nagase is still alive. The former translator is now a museum tour guide (Sanada) in the very building the atrocities were committed in. Finlay urges Eric to go to Thailand and confront Nagase. Eric is reluctant to but a dramatic act by Finlay convinces him to go.

This is a true story, based on Lomax’ own autobiography. While a few facts were fudged – the meeting between Nagase and Lomax was portrayed as a complete surprise to Nagase when in fact the former translator had been prepared for his arrival through correspondence, and while Lomax’ motives to go to Thailand were portrayed here as initially a need to take vengeance, his book states clearly that he went to seek closure and confront his former tormentor face to face. It also doesn’t mention that Eric had been previously married and had three children by that marriage who figured in the actual story as well. Other than that (which are major issues it must be admitted) and the time compression of some events, the movie pretty much follows the book closely.

Firth has a difficult role to play. Not only is he a man in deep mental anguish, he also has to play a shy, retiring sort more interested in railroads than people, yet with a good heart. We get every side of Eric Lomax here, from the man in pain to the man bestowing the most divine of human gifts that one can give another, and I’m not talking American Express gift cards here.

Kidman’s role is less complex but she performs it no less satisfactorily. This isn’t a real glamour role for the star but she is still as lustrous as ever. She’s not a background performer here, although her character does take a backseat to Firth’s but then again, it’s not called The Railway Woman.

The message is a powerful one. Lomax not only forgives Nagase, but recognizes that his pain runs deep as well. When Nagase reads those words and collapses in tears, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Sometimes all we need is acknowledgement that we are hurting to make us feel better.

The depictions of torture are pretty graphic. Those who are wondering what waterboarding is will get a good idea of it when watching this movie. It serves as a reminder that our leaders who authorized using it as a means of extracting information failed to learn from history when it comes for the effectiveness of this method in getting reliable intelligence. It had the extra added side effect that it made me even more angry at the CIA, the Bush Administration and our military for allowing it to happen. We are supposed to be better than that and I expect our political and military leaders to be better than that.

To forgive is divine and never is it as divine as when a wrong as heinous as this is committed on a person. Hollywood is quick to make movies about revenge but movies about forgiveness are few and far between. While the filmmakers belabor their point a bit, I still think that if we made more movies emphasizing forgiveness that we as a culture would benefit greatly.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific job by Firth. The theme of forgiveness is powerful and unusual for a Hollywood film.

REASONS TO STAY: Overplays its point.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some disturbing violence against prisoners of war.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Patti Lomax attended the premiere of the film at the Toronto Film Festival last year and received a standing ovation at the conclusion of the film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/3/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Bridge Over the River Kwai

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Transcendence

New Releases for the Week of April 25, 2014


The Other WomanTHE OTHER WOMAN

(20th Century Fox) Cameron Diaz, Leslie Mann, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Kate Upton, Taylor Kinney, Nicki Minaj, Don Johnson. Directed by Nick Cassavetes

A high-powered lawyer who has her pick of men has settled on one – who might be the One. When she discovers he’s married, she’s devastated. When she accidentally gets together with the wife of her former boyfriend, they discover that they have a lot in common – among other things that he’s cheating on the both of them with another woman. Joining forces with the other other woman, the three women plot this philanderer’s comeuppance.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-Roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic material, sexual references and language)

Brick Mansions

(Relativity) Paul Walker, David Belle, RZA, Gouchy Boy. In the Detroit of the near future (does that sound familiar?) a gigantic wall has been built around the worst slum, Brick Mansions. The crimelord of the district has put into motion a plan to devastate the entire city. An undercover cop and a fearless ex-con, each of whom have a stake in apprehending the crimelord, must (reluctantly) team up to stop him before all Hell breaks loose.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-Roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Action

Rating: PG-13 (for frenetic gunplay, violence and action throughout, language, sexual menace and drug material)

From the Rough

(Freestyle Releasing) Taraji P. Henson, Michael Clarke Duncan, Tom Felton, Justin Chon. The swim coach of the woman’s swim team makes history as the first woman to coach a men’s golf team. Not only is she a pioneer, but she successfully takes the team to record-breaking heights. Based on a true story.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Sports Drama

Rating: PG (for language and thematic elements)

Joe

(Roadside Attractions) Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan, Gary Poulter, Ronnie Gene Blevins.An ex-con with a hair-trigger temper takes a homeless young boy under his wing to the chagrin of the boy’s alcoholic and brutal father. The ex-con, beset by his own demons, tries to set the boy on the right path of life while facing the consequences of his own poor choices. Sold out it’s showing during the Florida Film Festival, you can read my review here.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for violence, disturbing material, language and some sexual content)

The Last Passenger

(Cohen Media Group) Dougray Scott, Kara Tointon, David Schofield, Lindsay Duncan. A weary London commuter and his son board the last train of the evening, headed home. As the train rolls into the night, he discovers that the conductor has disappeared and the brakes have been sabotaged. A lunatic has taken control of the train and means to commit suicide by train, taking the passengers with him.  This passenger, however, isn’t ready to die just yet.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Thriller

Rating: R (for language)

The Quiet Ones

(Lionsgate) Jared Harris, Sam Claflin, Erin Richards, Olivia Cooke. University students set out to create a poltergeist, the focus of their experiments being a dangerously disturbed young woman who seems able to manifest dark energies. However as the experiment continues, they soon discover to their horror they have unleashed something far more dangerous than they imagined and much too powerful to contain.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, featurettes and B-Roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Supernatural Horror

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and terror, sexual content, thematic material, language, and smoking throughout)

The Railway Man

(Weinstein) Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman, Stellan Skarsgard, Hiroyuki Sanada. A veteran of the Second World War is haunted by his harrowing experiences in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. He and his cohorts are used as forced labor to build a railway system. Years after the war is over, he discovers that the interpreter whom he holds responsible for much of his brutal treatment is still alive and sets out to confront him and make him pay for what he did. This true story is based on the autobiography of Eric Lomax.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-Roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for disturbing prisoners of war violence)

Walking With the Enemy

(Liberty) Ben Kingsley, Jonah Armstrong, Hannah Tointon, Burn Gorman.In the waning days of World War II, a young Hungarian man utilizes a stolen Nazi officer’s uniform to try and find his displaced family. Trying to get as many Jews to safety as he can, he disrupts the activities of the Germans in order to keep them from implementing their final solution in his city. Said to be inspired by actual events.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: War Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for war violence including crimes against humanity)

The Zero Theorem

(Well Go USA) Christoph Waltz, David Thewlis, Matt Damon, Tilda Swinton.  In a dystopian future, a reclusive computer genius is given the assignment of finding the meaning of life. Plagued by angst and confusion, he is tortured by unwanted visitors by those he doesn’t trust. It isn’t until he breaks down the walls he has erected for himself with love and desire that he finds the tools to carry out his assignment. The newest film from visionary director Terry Gilliam.

See the trailer, featurettes and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: R (for language and some sexuality/nudity)

47 Ronin


Keanu Reeves keeps a sharp eye out for flying monkeys.

Keanu Reeves keeps a sharp eye out for flying monkeys.

(2013) Martial Arts Fantasy (Universal) Keanu Reeves, Hiroyuki Sanada, Rinko Kikuchi, Tadanobu Asano, Ko Shibasaki, Min Tanaka, Jin Akanishi, Masayoshi Hanada, Hiroshi Sogabe, Takato Yonemoto, Hiroshi Yamada, Shu Nakajima, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Neil Fingleton, Natsuki Kunimoto, Togo Igawa, Tanroh Ishida, Yorick van Wageningen, Clyde Kusatsu, Haruka Abe. Directed by Carl Rinsch

There is honor and courage and then there are the ancient samurai of Japan. If we in the West think we know what those concepts are, think again. For that group of warriors, those weren’t just concepts – they were their way of life.

In feudal Japan, the kind and just Lord Asano (Tanaka) rules in a beautiful and bucolic province of Ako. He takes in a half-breed man named Kai (Reeves) who apparently escaped from the demon-infested forest as a boy, although his samurai urge him not to. His beautiful daughter Mika (Shibasaki) nurses him back to health and the two fall in love, although there is absolutely no future in it.

But not everyone is as honorable as Lord Asano. Lord Kira (Asano) desires the wealthy and plentiful lands ruled by Asano and determines to obtain them. With his devious partner, a shape-shifting witch (Kikuchi) who poses as one of his concubines, Kira hatches a plot to shame Lord Asano during a visit by the Shogun (Tagawa) which results in Asano’s ritual suicide. His samurai are released from service and declared to be Ronin, masterless samurai which is the equivalent of a mercenary in modern times although with much less respect. They are forbidden from seeking vengeance by order of the shogun. Kai is sold as a slave to the Dutch where he is made to fight in their bare knuckle brawls and Mika is betrothed to Kira whom she will marry after a one year mourning period for her father.

This is more than the leader of Asano’s samurai, Oishi (Sanada) can take. Even though he knows the consequences of his actions, he determines to re-assemble his men and add Kai, whom he had previously expressed disdain and loathing for, to take on overwhelming odds to exact justice for their Lord, but it’s not an easy matter. Kira’s palace is more of a fortress and the possibility of 47 men storming the castle and surviving is simply ludicrous, plus he is under the protection of a skilled and seductive witch but even if they are successful, the men know they will be under the sentence of death for defying the shogun’s orders. So what’s the use?

Well, according to the actual men who inspired this movie, plenty. If you take away the supernatural elements of this version of it, the basic events happened pretty much as shown – a Japanese feudal lord was betrayed by an ambitious and ruthless fellow lord, rendering his samurai as Ronin. They did defy the shogun’s order and behave as depicted. The results were surprisingly the same as well and they were led by a real life samurai named Oishi.

This was something of a surprising choice for a very big budget Hollywood movie. Why the writer and filmmakers determined to add the supernatural elements of the witch, the Lovecraftian samurai, and the demons in the forest is somewhat surprising; a smaller budget version with fewer special effects would have been a much more effective film in my view.

I won’t deny that some of the CGI are pretty spectacular and the attempts to give this a kind of epic scope of the sort that the legendary Akira Kurosawa used to routinely give his movies are pleasing to the eye. However, Kurosawa certainly would have rolled his eyes at the over-complexity of the plot.  and quite frankly the legendary director wasn’t much into fantasy although he wasn’t afraid to use elements of the supernatural in his films when they were required.

Rumor has it that the studio was overly involved in the making of the movie, demanding changes and leading to a delay of nearly a year for this movie to come out. There definitely is a feel here for too many cooks in the kitchen; the movie doesn’t have the feel and flow that you get with a steady, single hand in charge. Perhaps they needed someone more experienced than first-time director Rinsch for a movie of this scope and budget.

While Reeves is as usual somewhat stiff and wooden, we are treated to some of the finest actors in Japan at this time with the Oscar-nominated Kikuchi as the seductive and sly witch with the different-colored eyes (one brown, one blue) and the respected Sanada, a veteran of The Last Samurai lending gravitas to Oishi and Asano (The Wolverine) giving Kira a kind of sly wink to go along with his wickedness. Tanaka (The Twilight Samurai) as the kindly Lord Asano is also memorable.

While this is a good-looking movie that gives us the opportunity to watch quality performances by actors who don’t get as much exposure in the West as they deserve, there is simply too many flaws for me to give this a solid recommendation. See it more as a curiosity piece rather than as coherent cinema and as long as your expectations aren’t too high, you might even find reasons to enjoy this.

REASONS TO GO: Some fairly cool eye candy. Nice supporting performances from a great Japanese cast.

REASONS TO STAY: Overwrought plot. Needless elements of fantasy in one of Japan’s most iconic true stories. Something of a mess.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is quite a bit of martial arts action violence, some fairly disturbing images  as well as some thematic elements that might be above the heads of the very young.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the seventh filmed version of the story although the first to come from Hollywood; in reality the 47 Ronin are revered in Japan for their honor and adherence to the Samurai code despite overwhelming odds.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/19/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 13% positive reviews. Metacritic: 29/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Forbidden Kingdom

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Griff the Invisible