New Releases for the Week of August 24, 2018


THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS

(STX) Melissa McCarthy, Elizabeth Banks, Maya Rudolph, Joel McHale, Leslie David Baker, Cynthy Wu, Michael McDonald, Mitch Silpa. Directed by Brian Henson

As the puppet cast of an 80s children’s show begins to get bumped off one by one a disgraced L.A. police detective takes on the case. Her investigation takes her into the seamy side of puppet life. Parents, please note the rating on the movie – it is most definitely not for kids!!!

See the trailer, interviews, clips, video featurettes and B-roll footage here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for strong crude sexual content and language throughout, and some drug material)

A.X.L.

(Global Road) Thomas Jane, Becky G, Alex Neustaedter, Ted McGinley. A robotic dog developed for military use who is relegated to a desert scrapheap after a test goes wrong is discovered by a teen boy who is a bit of an outsider himself. The robot develops a bond with the boy and will go to great lengths to protect him; the scientists who created him will go to any lengths to get the dog back.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Science Fiction/Family
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG (for sci-fi action/peril, suggestive material, thematic elements and some language)

Beautifully Broken

(ArtAfects) Benjamin A. Onyango, Scott William Winters, Emily Hahn, Caitlin Nicol-Thomas. Three fathers fight to save their families from widely divergent perils but their stories converge on this true story-based drama which teaches the value of forgiveness and reconciliation.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, AMC Lake Square, AMC Universal Cineplex, Regal Oviedo Mall, Regal The Loop, Regal Waterford Lakes, Regal Winter Park Village, Rialto Spanish Springs Square

Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic content involving violence and disturbing images, and some drug material)

The Miseducation of Cameron Post

(FilmRise) Chloe Grace Moretz, Jennifer Ehle, Steven Hauck, Marin Ireland. After a young girl is discovered with another girl in the backseat of a car at the 1993 high school prom, her devout guardians ship her off to gay therapy conversion camp to discipline the gay out of her. Instead, she finds a community of fellow outcasts and for the first time begins to feel like she belongs.

See the trailer and video featurettes here.
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: NR

Papillon

(Bleecker Street) Charlie Hunnam, Rami Malek, Tommy Flanagan, Eve Hewson. Wrongfully convicted of the murder of a pimp, a Frenchman is set to the penal colony of Devil’s Island in Guyana where he strikes up an unlikely friendship with a convicted counterfeiter. The brutal and inhuman conditions lead him to make multiple escape attempts. Eventually he wrote a book about his experiences which became an acclaimed movie in 1973 starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman; since then allegations have surfaced that the book was a fabrication.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Biographical Drama
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, Cinemark Artegon Marketplace, Old Mill Playhouse, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: R (for violence including bloody images, language, nudity, and some sexual material)

Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood

(Greenwich) Scotty Bowers, Peter Bart, Stephen Fry, William Mann. The strange but true story of Bowers who was a handsome ex-Marine who came to Hollywood shortly after the Second World War. He became a confidante and aide-de-camp to many Hollywood stars. Eventually he began to connect those who had to hire their sexual orientation with partners that allowed them to exercise their needs. This played the Florida Film Festival this past spring.

See the trailer and a video featurette here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Enzian Theater

Rating: NR

ALSO OPENING IN ORLANDO/DAYTONA:

Blue Iguana
Custody
Elizabeth Harvest
Neevevaru
Parwaaz Hai Jundon
Support the Girls

ALSO OPENING IN MIAMI/FT. LAUDERDALE:

Almost 40
Arizona
The Captain
The Elephant and the Butterfly
Handia (Giant)
I Am Vengeance
Jawani Phir Nahi Ani 2
Memoirs of War
The Music Room
Neevevaru
Skate Kitchen

ALSO OPENING IN TAMPA/ST. PETERSBURG:

Aatagalu
Arizona
Lakshim
Neevevaru

ALSO OPENING IN JACKSONVILLE/ST. AUGUSTINE:

Along With the Gods: The Last 49 Days
McQueen
Neevevaru
Skate Kitchen
Summer 1993

SCHEDULED FOR REVIEW:

A.X.L.
Blue Iguana
The Happytime Murders
Papillon
Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood

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Alice Through the Looking Glass


The Mad Hatter through the looking glass.

The Mad Hatter through the looking glass.

(2016) Fantasy (Disney) Johnny Depp, Mia Wasikowska, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen, Rhys Ifans, Matt Lucas, Lindsay Duncan, Leo Bill, Geraldine James, Andrew Scott, Richard Armitage, Ed Speleers, Alan Rickman (voice), Timothy Spall (voice), Paul Whitehouse (voice), Stephen Fry (voice), Michael Sheen (voice), Barbara Windsor (voice). Directed by James Bobin

 

Like most normal movie fans, I don’t mind some eye candy now and again – and I’m not talking about the good looking member of the opposite sex. I mean special effects that transport you to strange exotic places, create unusual and astonishing creatures and in essence bring awe, magic and wonder to the movies. However, like most movie critics, I’m not thrilled with special effects for their own sake.

Tim Burton’s 2010 Disney fantasy Alice in Wonderland was a surprise hit – not a surprise that it was a hit so much but how big a hit it became. Grossing over a billion dollars worldwide, it was natural that the studio was eager for a remake but considering the A-list nature of some of the stars and Burton’s own reluctance to make a sequel (James Bobin of The Muppets Most Wanted eventually got the job) has delayed this to the point where some have forgotten how good the first one was.

And it was rather good. I thought it was one of Burton’s best ever, which has gotten me a lot of razzing in the film buff community I hang out in, but I stick to my assessment – it’s imaginative and fun with less of Burton’s neuroses to make it too dark. I’m guessing that the experience Burton had with Disney didn’t stick too well with him, because he has chosen not to direct the sequel and it suffers from his absence.

Alice (Wasikowska) is now a young woman and not just any young woman, but the captain of a sea ship, the Wonder which was once her late father’s ship. Attacked by pirates, she takes an incredible chance against them and (of course) escapes with a daring maneuver. Point for Alice.

However her former fiancé Lord Hamish (Bill) in a fit of pique has taken over her father’s old company and has ordered the Wonder taken away from Alice and that she be reduced to a clerk in the organization. He sneeringly threatens to take away her mother’s home which he coincidentally owns the mortgage on if she doesn’t accept his terms. Turns out he’s not just a twit but a spiteful one as well.

Searching his office for a clue as to how to get out of the situation, Alice is overheard and with nowhere to escape, discovers that the mirror may provide a useful means of egress. She goes through and ends back up in Underland, the world she fell into years ago and saved when she slew the Jabberwocky (which appears in a flashback here but sans dialogue since the voice of the original was the late Christopher Lee). It seems that a calamity has occurred.

The Mad Hatter (Depp) is in a deep depression. He believes he’s found evidence that his family whom he once thought slain by the Red Queen (Carter) is still alive but nobody will believe him – including Alice. However, she determines that the only way to save the Hatter is to save his family from death and the only way to do that is to go back in time.

However, it turns out that Time is a person (Cohen) who doesn’t much appreciate people meddling with the events of the past. However, Alice steals an orb that will allow her to go back in time and warn the Hatters’ family about their impending demise, but what she doesn’t realize is that the Orb powers the Great Clock which is what regulates Time itself and without it, everything will cease to be.

The plot goes on from there and if you want to find out more, see the bloody movie but let me just say that the problem with this movie is the problem that all time travel movies have – they are generally confusing, contradictory and make the viewer’s head ache if they think about it too much. Given that this is a family film, the wee ones will probably be able to just accept the situation and keep going from there – kids are remarkable that way – but their parents will end up scratching their heads and wondering why they didn’t stay home and paint that spare room.

That’s not to say that this movie is less interesting than watching paint dry, far from it. Once again, some of the images are fantastic, such as Time contemplating an eternity of watches, each representing a human being who is still alive. When their watch stops, so do they and Time collects the stopped watches. Time is a bit of a melancholy fellow.

And Cohen plays Time with great depth and many layers. While I’m not sure why he had to give him a Yiddish/German accent other than that Cohen always plays with accents, nonetheless this is one of Cohen’s less strict comedic parts. There are moments when Cohen gets to cut loose as a comic but he tempers those with moments that really touch the heart.

Wasikowska is plucky not only in character but as an actress; the role, as written, is pretty colorless and she does what she can with it but I would have liked to have seen more depth to her. When her mother’s situation becomes apparent to her, we see her determination to save the day, but nothing of the emotions behind them. Alice is as two-dimensional here as the paper the original story was written on.

And again, this has little to do with the book Charles Dodgson a.k.a. Lewis Carroll wrote, so purists beware. Not that the plot matters overly much; Bobin clearly exists more time and energy in the special effects than he does on character development and plot (perhaps writer Linda Woolverton, who wrote the first Alice might bear some responsibility for this) which frankly is a mistake. As undiscerning as American audiences are, give them characters they care about in an environment that makes them slack-jawed with wonder and they’ll return again and again to see your movie. It really isn’t a very difficult concept to follow.

I was sorely disappointed in this sequel as I loved the first movie so much. This is more or less mediocre, not the crash and burn some critics made it out to be but certainly not a home run either. Audiences have reacted accordingly, with a resounding “not interested.” It will likely recoup its budget and maybe make a little bit more after its home video run, but this Alice isn’t as inviting for a return trip to Wonderland as the last.

REASONS TO GO: Some truly amazing images. Cohen gives his best performance ever.
REASONS TO STAY: Over-emphasis on effects over plot. Time travel is confusing and contradictory.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild rude language and plenty of fantasy action and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Sacha Baron Cohen’s first appearance in a film distributed by Disney.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/14/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews. Metacritic: 34/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Snow White and the Huntsman
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Captain America: Civil War

Love & Friendship


Kate Beckinsale machinates.

Kate Beckinsale machinates.

(2016) Period Romance (Roadside Attractions/Amazon) Kate Beckinsale, Morfydd Clark, Tom Bennett, Jenn Murray, Lochlann O’Mearáin, Sophie Radermacher, Chloë Sevigny, Stephen Fry, Jordan Waller, Ross Mac Mahon, Frank Prendergast, Xavier Samuel, Emma Greenwell, Justin Edwards, Kelly Campbell, Jemma Redgrave. Directed by Whit Stillman

Woman Power

The role of women has evolved over the centuries, but it still has a long way to go. One woman who has helped it evolve is the author Jane Austen, who wrote about strong female heroines in a period when women were not just second class citizens, but third or even fourth class. It is something of a shame that Austen heroines are to this day still more of an exception than a rule.

Lady Susan (Beckinsale) is a widow with scarcely a penny to her name. In the Regency era, that is a dire situation indeed. Having married into the upper class, she is used to a certain lifestyle that she can no longer afford. Having a scandalous reputation as a temptress (one that has been well-earned to be sure) hasn’t helped her cause. With few options, she goes to her sister-in-law Catherine Vernon (Greenwell) and her good-natured husband Charles (Edwards) to stay with.

Things are tense between the two women, mainly because Susan had opposed the marriage and had done her best to quash it – unsuccessfully. Now the appearance of Susan’s daughter Frederica (Clark) has complicated matters. Susan has been trying to get Frederica married to the extremely wealthy, moderately handsome, sweet-natured but utterly dim Sir James Martin (Bennett) whom she doesn’t love and has been resisting. Susan herself has been courting the charms of Catherine’s younger brother Reginald (Samuel), much to the amusement of Susan’s American friend Mrs. Johnson (Sevigny).

However all of Lady Susan’s plots and schemes may come crashing down about her head. There are people who just plain don’t like her and disapprove of her. It will take all of her wits and intelligence to stay one step ahead of everyone else and succeed in making sure both she and her daughter are able to live in comfort and privilege.

Director Whit Stillman is one of those guys who is well-respected within the film community. He has some really terrific films to his credit, including Last Days of Disco and Metropolitan, both must-sees for any film buff. He seems tailor-made for the works of Jane Austen and true to expectations he nails it with his first foray into the grand dame’s work.

And that turns out to be the case. Stillman gets the essence of the language, making it flow without making it too incomprehensible to modern ears, which is often the case with Regency-era adaptations. He also knows how to bring the best in Beckinsale, who starred for him in Last Days of Disco. She is absolutely superb here, self-confident, manipulative, venal and absolutely seductive. This is the kind of performance that serves notice that you’re not just a B-movie actress, as she has already shown in several other indie films.

There are a couple of other great performances here as well, including Sevigny’s acerbic turn as Mrs. Johnson. Sevigny is an actress who is criminally underused by both Hollywood and the independent film scene. Her appearances are always much anticipated and appreciated by this critic, and she gives one of her best performances here in years. Bennett is also tip-top as the incredibly dense Sir James. He is delightfully funny and provides a fine counterpoint to the very intelligent Susan.

The only quibble I have is that so many of the other roles are played in an almost stilted fashion. That does make Beckinsale’s work stand out but I think it detracts from the rest of the film. I would have liked to have seen a little more personality in some of the other actors.

This is also a lush-looking film, with beautiful locations and sumptuous costumes and wigs. The period is recalled evocatively but in many ways you don’t feel you’re looking at the actual era so much as an idealized version of it. As is often the case in Austen’s work we rarely see beyond the walls of the upper classes – the savage poverty that was also a hallmark of the era. It exists only as a big bad boogieman to terrify those of the upper class who are teetering on the edge of it.

Jane Austen isn’t for everybody. Most audiences find her dull and slow, but there is a lyricism about her work – even the filmed versions of it – that I have found oddly moving and appealing throughout my life, from reading her actual words to the adaptations of those words. I think that she continues to teach us about the reality of who women are – or can be. She has created dozens of role models who can STILL be role models nearly 200 years after the fact. If there is anything more impressive than that, I can’t think of it.

REASONS TO GO: Beckinsale gives a marvelous performance and Bennett is inspired comic relief. Gorgeous costumes and settings. A fine adaptation of a lesser-known Austen work.
REASONS TO STAY: May be too mannered for some. A few of the supporting performances are too colorless to stand up.
FAMILY VALUES: Some of the thematic elements are a bit on the adult side.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sienna Miller was originally cast as Lady Susan, but had to drop out and Beckinsale was cast in her place.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/6/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sense and Sensibility
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Dark

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies


Martin Freeman mulls "His Precious".

Martin Freeman mulls “His Precious”.

(2014) Fantasy (New Line/MGM) Ian McKellan, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Cate Blanchett, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Aidan Turner, Jed Brophy, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, Richard Kircher, James Nesbitt, Stephen Hunter, Dean O’Gorman, John Callen, Peter Hambleton, Mark Hadlow, Adam Brown, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee, Ian Holm, Sylvester McCoy, Benedict Cumberbatch (voice), Billy Connolly, Stephen Fry, Ryan Gage. Directed by Peter Jackson

Since I read The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkein as a boy, I was hooked not only on Middle Earth but on fantasy films in general. From Tolkein, I went on to read the works of Robert Howard, Fritz Leiber, Terry Brooks, Melanie Rawn, Piers Anthony, David Eddings, Raymond Feist and many others. I became an avid Dungeons and Dragons player in college. In short, I became a fantasy nerd.

When Peter Jackson did the Lord of the Rings trilogy I was in fantasy nerd heaven. All three of the movies were standout films, epic in scope and yet humanized by Frodo and Sam who ironically weren’t human but Hobbits. I looked forward to the new Hobbit trilogy eagerly.

The first two movies I enjoyed but less than the LOTR films; the third one I enjoyed less than the first two. Essentially what happens here is that the Dwarves led by their new King Thorin Oakenshield (Armitage) have taken Erebor back and the dragon Smaug (Cumberbatch) has gone on a rampage, taking out Laketown with fire and destruction. At last Bard (Evans) the Archer with most of the city fleeing for their lives takes out Smaug.

However, the damage has been done. His town is no longer habitable and his people are refugees. They’ll need assistance in rebuilding their lives, and so Bard approaches Thorin to get a share of the mountain’s treasure which Thorin had promised, but Thorin – now mad with greed – refuses and turns his back on them. He also refuses to return to Elven King Thranduil (Pace) artifacts which belonged to him. With little choice, a battle looms between the three armies.

This is where Gandalf (McKellan), who has been a prisoner of the Necromancer (Cumberbatch again) until rescued by Galadriel (Blanchett), Elrond (Weaving) and Saruman (Lee), arrives to warn all the parties that a massive orc army is approaching. When it arrives, the dwarves are in for the fight of their lives, even aided by Dain (Connolly) a cousin of Thorin’s. When a fifth army arrives from an Orc stronghold, it appears that the Elven, Dwarven and Human armies may be annihilated. However, the courage of a special Hobbit named Bilbo Baggins (Freeman) may be the turning point for the entire affair.

Lots of fans have groused at the adding of new material that wasn’t in the original source material in the first place, particularly of Tauriel (Lilly) an Elf created by the filmmakers to have a romance with Kili (Turner). I can only say that while much of the material served to pad out the book which would have never supported three films on its own that for the most part enhances the original material somewhat. I blow hot and cold myself on the matter but it is at least interesting to see Jackson’s take on the background of the book although I still wish that he’d found some way to shoehorn Beorn into the movies. C’est la cinema.

The biggest gripe I have with the movie and the reason why I have given it the lowest rating I have given any of the Middle Earth films is that it is mainly one long battle scene. Everything in the movie is either battle or leading up to it, beginning with the fight with Smaug at the beginning, Thorin’s battle with his own morality and of course the major battle scene that concludes the film which lasts not quite an hour. Sure, there was an extensive battle sequence at the conclusion of the first trilogy, but that film also had the quest of Frodo and Sam interweaving in to relieve the nonstop clanking of swords.

That said, the CGI effects continue to impress, particularly at the increased frame rate and in IMAX 3D which as I’ve said before, is a rare upcharge that’s actually worth it. Also worth it are the performances of Armitage, who is plagued by demons of greed and at last realizes that he is not that guy, and Freeman who is the heart of the Hobbit and at last demonstrates it. At times throughout the series we have seen that there is more to Bilbo than what we see on the surface and never more than in this film. Freeman is a superb actor – those who saw his performance in the Fargo mini-series earlier this year will agree. He is finally coming into his own after years of being stuck in character actor purgatory. I look forward to seeing him continue to get expanded roles in important projects.

While the movie goes full circle in linking to the original trilogy with some off-hand remarks and essentially reuniting Gandalf and Bilbo as the preparations for the party that began The Fellowship of the Ring are underway, in many ways the links to that trilogy are more assumed than anything else. I would have wished for a little tighter of a bond between the two trilogies.

This will be Jackson’s last foray into Middle Earth and in that sense, we do get some closure, saying goodbye to a film series that will always remain close to my heart as a fan and as a critic. It is not the best movie to go out on and really shows quite graphically how the decision to make three movies out of The Hobbit was not a good artistic decision although it must be said it was a sound financial one as the second trilogy will have generated close to three billion dollars U.S. in box office by the time all is said and done.

Still in all, the movie is sufficiently entertaining to be worth seeing if just for the special effects, although those who didn’t care for the first two films in the trilogy or for fantasy in general will continue to dislike this trilogy. For the rest of us, it is a bittersweet occasion as I will miss our trips to Middle Earth and the company of hobbits, elves, dwarves and wizards.

REASONS TO GO: A pretty solid farewell to Middle Earth. Freeman and Armitage do solid work. Terrific effects.
REASONS TO STAY: Too much battle which gets numbing after awhile. Lacks relief from the constant battle scenes.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence mainly of the fantasy warfare sort, some scary monsters and other frightening images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lee Pace, who plays the father of Orlando Bloom in the film, is actually two years younger than Bloom.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/4/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Into the Woods

New Releases for the Week of December 19, 2014


The Hobbit The Battle of the Five ArmiesTHE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES

(New Line/MGM) Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett, Richard Armitage, Luke Evans, Evangeline Lilly, Orlando Bloom, Jed Brophy, Stephen Fry, Ian Holm. Directed by Peter Jackson

The journey of Bilbo Baggins comes to an end as the greed of Thorin Oakenshield puts the fragile peace of Middle Earth at risk whilst in Mordor a shadow stirs, awaiting the presence of the One Ring. In the meantime, with Smaug wreaking havoc on Middle Earth, armies of orcs, elves and humans converge upon the Lonely Mountain. Can the three races unite to defeat the forces of darkness,?

See the trailer, clips, interviews, footage from the world premiere and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D (opened Wednesday)
Genre: Fantasy
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence and frightening images)

Annie

(Columbia) Quvenzhane Wallis, Jamie Foxx, Cameron Diaz, Rose Byrne. A painfully cheerful and terminally optimistic orphan literally runs into a cynical New York City billionaire who is also running for mayor in a hotly contested race. Realizing that his association with the plucky little girl is helping his cause, he decides to spend more time with her. But gradually she wears him down and pulls from inside him the best part of who he can be. Based on the 1982 movie which in itself was based on the hit Broadway musical.

See the trailer, clips and a music video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)
Genre: Musical
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG (for some mild language and rude humor)

Night at the Museum: Curse of the Tomb

(20th Century Fox) Ben Stiller, Robin Williams, Ben Kingsley, Rebel Wilson. The wax figures that come to life after the New York Museum of Natural History closes are in big trouble; the magic that animates them is beginning to fade. Desperate to save his friends, Larry the security guard races around the globe to find out what’s happening and reverse it before the magic is gone forever.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, a featurette and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)
Genre: Comedy Fantasy
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG (for mild action, some rude humor and brief language)

PK

(UTV) Aamir Khan, Sanjay Dutt, Anushka Sharma, Boman Irani. A mysterious stranger comes into the city, asking questions nobody usually bothers to act. He has a strange, child-like quality that is endearing to some and troubling to others. His journey will take him into a world of love, laughter and letting go.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard
Genre: Dramedy
Now Playing: Touchstar Southchase

Rating: NR

Point and Shoot

(The Orchard) Matthew Vandyke. An American who suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, eager to find what adventure is left in the world gets on his motorcycle and takes off to North Africa. His road trip takes him to places and situations he could never have prepared himself for, including fighting in the Libyan Revolution – and being captured and held prisoner for six months.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex, AMC West Oaks

Rating: NR

Wild

(Fox Searchlight) Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Thomas Sadoski, Michiel Huisman. Based on the true story of Cheryl Strayed, a woman whose heroin addiction, reckless behavior and sexual promiscuity led to the destruction of her marriage. Having hit rock bottom in every sense of the word, she impulsively decides to hike the thousand mile Pacific Crest Trail despite having no experience in it and being woefully unprepared. Channeling the memory of her mother, she sets out with only the force of her will to see her through. Witherspoon is considered a lock to garner a Best Actress nomination for her performance here.

See the trailer, interviews and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Downtown Disney, Cinemark Artegon Marketplace, Regal Winter Park Village, Regal Oviedo Mall and other local theaters
Rating: R (for sexual content, nudity, drug use and language)

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug


A merry company indeed.

A merry company indeed.

(2013) Fantasy (New Line/MGM) Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, Aidan Turner, Evangeline Lilly, Orlando Bloom, Lee Pace, Benedict Cumberbatch, Stephen Fry, Luke Evans, Cate Blanchett, Sylvester McCoy, Mikael Persbrandt, William Kircher, James Nesbitt, Dean O’Gorman, Stephen Hunter, John Callen, Peter Hambleton, Jed Brophy, Mark Hadlow, Adam Brown, Manu Bennett. Directed by Peter Jackson

It’s not the destination, it’s the journey but that isn’t always true. Sometimes the journey really begins when the destination is reached.

For the company of dwarves under Thorin Oakenshield (Armitage) that couldn’t be more true. After the events of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, they must travel through the Mirkwood, a once-green and pleasant forest grown dark with corruption. There be spiders in them words, big ones the size of Volkswagens. There are also wood elves, led by the dour King Thranduil (Pace) who isn’t exactly on Thorin’s Christmas list – when Erebor originally fell, Thranduil failed to aid the dwarves in their hour of need, turning his thin aristocratic back on them. Thranduil’s isolationism mirrors that of America and Great Britain (for that matter) in the pre-World War II days when the original book was written and reminds us that Tolkein wasn’t just writing a children’s story – there was plenty of allegory to go around too.  Among the wood elves is a familiar face – Legolas (Bloom) who happens to be Thranduil’s son. Also there is Tauriel (Lilly), an elf Legolas is a bit sweet on. She also is the object of attention for Kili (Turner), one of the dwarf company.

Also on their tails are a party of Orcs led by the gruesome Azog the Defiler (Bennett) who appears to be answering to a mysterious Necromancer (Cumberbatch). Gandalf (McKellen), fearing the worst, goes to Dol Guldur accompanied by fellow wizard Radagast (McCoy) to investigate and gets more than he bargained for.

Meanwhile the company has made their escape from the elves with Tauriel and Legolas hot on their trails and make it to the human village of Laketown where they receive aid from Bard (Evans), a ferry captain who is dissatisfied from the corrupt regime of Laketown’s master (Fry). Still, Thorin manages to convince the Master that a dwarven presence in Erebor will only mean prosperity for Laketown. They are sent on their way with weapons and provisions leaving behind Kili who is gravely hurt after an Orc attack.

Once at the Lonely Mountain, the company will need to find the hidden doorway into Erebor and Bilbo (Freeman) will have to search for the Arkenstone, a powerful talisman and symbol of the right of the King Under the Mountain to rule Erebor without waking Smaug (Cumberbatch again) which is beastly difficult when you consider how much a dragon loves his treasure. Can Bilbo retrieve the jewel before Smaug becomes fire…and death?

To tell the truth I was more impressed with the visuals of the first movie than the overall film which I thought was more exposition than action. I’m pleased to report that’s thankfully not the case here where the film moves at a more suitable pace for fans of the original trilogy. There’s also more of Middle Earth to be explored (we’d already been in Rivendell and the Shire where the first film was primarily set) and a lot more action sequences.

Freeman remains a pitch-perfect Bilbo although he’s given less to do here. While Thorin and Balin (Stott) remain the primary focus within the dwarves, Kili gets a lot more attention here while we get to spend a goodly amount of time with new characters Tauriel, Bard and Thranduil although returning Legolas gets his share of screen time as well.

Once again the visuals are remarkable, particularly in the IMAX 3D High Frame Rate presentation, which is one of those rare instances where the upcharge is worth it. Of special note is Smaug, who is done through motion capture but the detail to his look is so exquisite you can see the individual scales as his muscles ripple under his skin. This may well be the most life-like CGI creature ever captured on the big screen.

Some Tolkein purists are grousing about the character of Tauriel who is a whole cloth invention of the filmmakers but I for one appreciate the inclusion of a female character in a book that was distinctly male-centric. Personally I don’t get that kind of complaint. It’s not like it’s headline news that the film version of a classic book is going to be different. That the movie version is different does nothing to diminish the original source material. You can still read it; it’s not like once the movie shows up in the local multiplex all the copies of the book are confiscated and burned. If you don’t like the movie version, don’t watch it. It’s really that simple.

This is definitely fine holiday entertainment. Jackson’s Middle Earth films may not have the same appeal as they once did but that doesn’t mean they aren’t entertaining enough to be worth your time and money. This is a great improvement over the first movie of the new trilogy; if the second film makes the same kind of improvement we’re in for a crackerjack of a time in 2014.

REASONS TO GO: A distinct improvement over the first film in the trilogy. Smaug is an amazing creation.

REASONS TO STAY: Still lacks the heart of the first trilogy. Cliffhanger ending abrupt and unsatisfying.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some seriously frightening images and plenty of fantasy violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tauriel is a complete invention of the filmmakers and doesn’t appear in any of Tolkein’s writing. She was brought in to add female characters into the film as the book has very few of them.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/26/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lord of the Rings; The Fellowship of the Ring

RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: The Godfather Part III

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows


Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Robert Downey Jr. always gets offended when someone disses Iron Man

(2011) Adventure (Warner Brothers) Robert Downey Jr. Jude Law, Noomi Rapace, Jared Harris, Stephen Fry, Rachel McAdams, Eddie Marsan, Paul Anderson, Kelly Reilly, Geraldine James, William Houston, Wolf Kahler, Affif Ben Badra. Directed by Guy Ritchie

 

When the game is afoot, there is nobody you want on the case more than Sherlock Holmes. Still more than 100 years after his debut there has been no detective to equal his keen deductive mind and razor-sharp observation skills.

Holmes (Downey) is investigating a series of terrorist bombings in Europe, mostly involving France and Germany. He is also preparing to be best man at his old friend Dr. Watson’s (Law) wedding. As distracted as Holmes is he nearly forgets to put together Watson’s stag party which he does only at the last minute, inviting only his brother Mycroft (Fry) and none of Watson’s friends.

He also has an ulterior motive for where he has scheduled the stag party; one of the clues he has discovered has led him to gypsy fortune teller Madame Simza Heron (Rapace). He arrives in time to foil a murder attempt by acrobatic Russian Cossacks but this leads him no closer to the truth. He only has his powers of deduction to lead him to who is behind all of this – Professor James Moriarty (Harris). But what is he up to and why?

The need to find out the truth will lead Holmes to tear Watson away from his honeymoon for one last case which will take him to the basements of Paris to the castles of Switzerland. At stake is the peace of Europe, which if disturbed too much will lead to a catastrophic war, one which Moriarty seeks to profit from and one which Holmes seeks to prevent.

The plot is slightly more convoluted than what I’ve presented but in the interest in keeping some of the twists hidden I’ve kept it deliberately vague. There are some cross-references to the industrial military complex and a few to modern economic issues. This is pretty much a mishmash of about half a dozen Conan Doyle-penned Holmes stories, primarily “The Final Problem” but there are elements from “The Sign of Four,” “Valley of Fear” and “The Greek Interpreter” among others.

Once again this isn’t your granddaddy’s Holmes; Ritchie and Downey bring him a little closer in some ways to how Conan Doyle originally wrote him (while Holmes in the stories wasn’t primarily a fighter, he certainly lacked in social skills) but this isn’t the urbane deerstalker-wearing sleuth depicted by Basil Rathbone whose performance has essentially defined the role ever since.

The action sequences, as befitting a sequel, are much more elaborate than the first and sometimes that’s a good thing (as is a gun battle on a speeding train, or a frantic escape through a forest while under heavy artillery fire) and sometimes, not so much (as in a Holmes solo fight against a group of thugs early on in the movie). Ritchie’s trademark of using extreme slow motion and extreme fast motion to stylize his fights is here in spades; there were times I wish he just filmed the sequences straight but I have to admit the forest sequence was made more powerful because of it.

Downey and Law are at the core of the film; their relationship is what powers the movie and thankfully the chemistry between them that the first film established is still going strong here. Their by-play makes for some of the best moments in the film, and is at times delightful. Downey plays Holmes as even more disreputable in this film than he is in the first; although there is little contact with Inspector Lestrade (Marsan) who is only in a single scene this time out, nonetheless Ritchie enhances Holmes’ keen sense of observation with camera and digital tricks meant to give us an idea of how Holmes sees the world. Downey plays into this nicely which is one of the best things about the movie.

Harris makes a competent Moriarty, definitely giving us a glimpse into his own intelligence but keeping his character rather bland. You would expect that a master criminal, a “Napoleon of crime” would want to fly under the radar somewhat so the flamboyant villains of other films in that sense don’t really work in real life, if you can call the Holmes films that.

There is plenty to delight those who like action-packed spectacles including some amazing sets (the castle in Switzerland is nothing short of astonishing) and some fine acting. However, be warned that the plot is pretty much the same as other movies we’ve seen set in the same time period where the hero attempts to stop Europe from being plunged into a massive war that it would be plunged into anyway – twice. Too bad Holmes wasn’t around to stop Adolph Hitler. Now that would make for an interesting movie!

REASONS TO GO: Great chemistry between Downey and Law. Harris makes a fine albeit bland Moriarty. Some action sequences are spectacular.

REASONS TO STAY: The slo-mo/fast-mo action juxtapositions get a bit old. The “bringing Europe to the brink of war” saw is also a bit stale.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some action violence and brief drug use references.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At the beginning of the film, the camera pans over typed excerpts of stories Watson has been working on; these are from the Sherlock Holmes stories “A Study in Scarlet” and “A Blue Carbuncle.”

HOME OR THEATER: Definitely better on the big screen.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Adventures of Tintin