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Mad Max: Fury Road

George Miller's nightmare post-apocalypse vision is told primarily through kinetic visuals with dialogue provided only when needed. Yet it's so simple a story he's telling that the visuals are pretty much all that are needed; Miller relies on the visceral to move his story along. This all works because the dystopian world Miller and co-scenarists Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris creates is complete, with history, customs and rituals fully developed and identifiable; the viewer doesn't need a whole lot to buy in. This is also true in relation to the main characters, Furiosa (Charlize Theron) and Max (Tom Hardy): they don't have a lot to say but you get them immediately. Miller consistently comes up with imaginative set pieces (there's a knockout sandstorm and a nice monochromatic section is an interesting alternative to the mostly daylight action--the production design is by Colin Gibson) and displays as much Gothic grotesquery as he possibly can: there are alabaster bald children, weird midgets and startlingly obese men on wild display and that guitar player swinging from the front of the truck gave me the creeps; he gets tremendous make-up artistry from a team led by Lesley Vanderwalt, Elka Wardega and Damian Martin; every ugly image--and there are many--is beautifully rendered. Everything is full-tilt here but fortunately John Seale's cinematography and Margaret Sixel's editing are up to the task. Miller has thrown away the campy shtick that was "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome" in order to revisit and fortify the series' original raison d'etre: a despairing view of a world gone insane due to a dependency on oil. Its relevance is just as timely as it was back in the days of "The Road Warrior" and even though it's a heady theme, this entry is just as entertaining as "The Road Warrior" was, only turned up to eleven. The soundtrack is by Junkie XL (he of the remix of Elvis' "A Little Less Conversation") and it's very good.


A very understated tearjerker, well directed by John Crowley, who uses lingering close-ups and hand-held cameras to convey the intimacy of Saoirse Ronan's perceptions, which, in fact, is where the drama takes place. Ronan sparingly uses her alabaster face to be a passive observer of the events that directly involve her, but she also effectively conveys her emotions through slight facial twitches, particularly through her mouth, which alternately tightens and widens based on the conflict of the moment. She plays a young, inexperienced Irish woman who moves to the United States in search of a better life and falls in love with an Italian plumber (Emory Cohen); when an unforeseen tragedy calls her home, she falls for a middle-class gentleman (Domhnall Gleeson) who promises her the better Irish life she yearned for but could not attain. It's set in the Fifties, so proper manners are observed and emotions rarely verbalized and it becomes a flaw of the film: at one point Ronan's shy and conservative character breaks unexpectedly (and confusingly) with the mores of the time; and both her male suitors are a little too perfect, never uttering a wrong comment or doing anything less than honorable. Yet the film has the power to move, owing to both Crowley's commitment to his lead performer (he also gets good work from his male leads and a funny turn from Julie Walters as the Brooklyn boarding house owner where Ronan lives) and an eloquent script by Nick Hornby, based on Colm Toibin's (unread) novel.

Jour de fête

Fun, Poignant And Pointed
Jacques Tati's first feature came as a salve to the horrors of war and its resulting despair (check out the trailer as proof) and the film's sweet sensibility seems designed to make the post-war French audience feel good about itself. It details an innocent, peaceful time in the countryside in which a traveling fair comes to a small village, almost as a reward for surviving the heartache of the previous decade; and the happy villagers flock en masse to forget about their stresses for a day. Tati plays the village mail carrier, a self-righteous but likable beanpole who, after watching a film at the makeshift cinema about advances in American mail delivery, attempts to mimic them in all their ridiculousness using only his trusty bicycle. Tati has no problem poking gentle fun at his character's stuffiness but also delights in the absurdity of the feeling of inferiority the French seemed to have assumed; after years of living under the yoke of the Nazis and then the Allies, their competition with America is presented as needless and silly. (It's not for nothing that Tati's character is named Francois.) As a comedian, Tati seems to derive his influence primarily from Buster Keaton's graceful and perfectly timed stunts, but his take is more wobbly--you really feel the danger of what's happening on screen almost as if it were unrehearsed. (Among other stunts, he rides his bike through a fire and cuts in front of an oncoming car.) While there are no real laugh-out-loud moments, there are plenty of warm chuckles and some really pleasurable recurring gags, particularly with a cross-eyed old man. But where the film shines is in its poignant conclusion, where the promise of a carefree future is personified by the child who adopts Tati's responsibilities after he sheds them to fade into the anonymity of the peasantry. As long as you come into "Jour de Fete" with the right attitude and appreciate it for what it represents, you'll have some fun.

The Martian

The Geeks Shall Inherit Mars
Dull and far too long, Ridley Scott's space opera has virtually no suspense and little by way of emotional involvement; where tears of joy should be flowing, all you feel is cold and disinterested. Matt Damon (usually reliable; here, vapid and one-note) plays an astronaut/botanist who is left for dead on Mars by his crew (led by Jessica Chastain, equally monotonous--where is the adventurous actress from "The Tree Of Life" and "Zero Dark Thirty"?) and is forced to use his gee-whiz skills to survive while NASA figures out how to get him back. There seems little at stake in Scott's dramatic telling: every calamity that befalls the main character is simply another setback which seems to have no impact on him: you're given the notion that rationing is forcing him to thin out, yet Damon's physique never changes; and for all the talk in Drew Goddard's screenplay about the tremendous stress Damon is under, he shows very little sign of it. Goddard's script (based on Andy Weir's wildly popular novel, unread) is filled with lots of technical jargon and celebrates the geekiness of the characters (the absentminded genius geek here is played by a wasted Donald Glover) but they're not nearly interesting enough to sympathize with or even caricatures you can laugh at. And the film's basic conceit--long-term survival on another planet--seems too spurious to make an entire film from; you're left to assume the science of the endeavor has its basis in fact and that the jargon bandied about is enough above the average viewer's head (at least it is to this head) to seem realistic. But who knows? Sure, "Insterstellar" had just as much conjecture as "The Martian" but Christopher Nolan's sincerity and heart won you over. Here, Scott's technical bravura is on full display but he has little interest in being anything other than a technician--what should be a lush, romantic, crowd-pleasing adventure instead is rendered limp and hollow, an exercise gorgeous to look at and not much else.

Bridge of Spies

Especially with his adult entries, Steven Spielberg has made a claim for being perhaps America's most elegant filmmaker, with shrewd choices in material coupled with effective storytelling skills highlighted by precise framing and expert use of tracking cameras (in collaboration with his superb cinematographer Janusz Kaminski). "Bridge Of Spies", while not quite reaching the Hitchcockian suspense and psychological depth of "Munich", nonetheless is a very fine example of Spielberg working with commitment and intensity to provide the mature film-goer a satisfying, thoughtful experience. Here, the Cold-War plot (based on true events) is fairly cut-and-dried: a Russian spy (Mark Rylance), unsuccessfully defended by attorney Tom Hanks, is used as a negotiating tool to retrieve downed spy pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) and, against the wishes of the CIA spook (Scott Shepherd) fronting the mission in Berlin, a student trapped on the other side of the Wall (Will Rogers). Working from a beautifully written script by Matt Charman and the Coen Brothers (supressing their smarm for a change), Spielberg underplays the action, working off body and facial nuance and well-timed, eloquent dialogue. The performers act with grace, particularly Hanks, continuing his transformation into the elder statesman of Hollywood film, and Rylance, whose placidity in the face of abandonment and death is appealing and entertaining. The only thing marring the film is Thomas Newton's score: while understated, it appears at inappropriate moments, distracting from the action on screen. But this is a minor quibble. The overall result is plausible and accessible--a very admirable addition to the impressive yet under-appreciated Spielberg canon.

The Big Short

An Archetypal Black Comedy
Adam McKay's adaptation of Michael Lewis' very readable recounting of the financial meltdown in 2007-8 hews closely enough to Lewis' book, but the spirit here is more manic and hysterical and the dour worldview that Lewis infuses in his work is amplified, focusing on the dire effects the meltdown had on the average citizen--there's a despair here that makes this an archetypal black comedy. McKay and his co-scenarist Charles Randolph change the names of some of Lewis' oddball personalities and some of their motivations, the most notable being Ryan Gosling's jaded, arrogant Jared Vennett, based on the book's bond salesman Greg Lippmann, a minor but important character, who here serves as the narrator best suited to the cynicism the film stews in. McKay serves up his story with all the cinematic tricks he can find, with lots of freeze frames, blackouts, whizzing cameras, newsreel footage (the frenetically entertaining editing by Hank Corwin helps tremendously), characters breaking down the fourth wall to address the audience and real-life celebrities brought in to explain some of the more complicated points of the sordid financial products being marketed. But he hits his comedic marks most of the time and when the film needs to emphasize the tragic nature of the crisis, the shift is effectively jarring. The powerhouse cast (in addition to Gosling, there's Christian Bale, Steve Carrell and Brad Pitt) is uniformly excellent--Pitt, as a reluctant colleague to two young bumbling novice investors, is often hilarious--but it's Carrell's troubled investor, here known as Mark Baum, who really shines: with a delicate commitment in his eyes, Baum sees beyond the immediacy of the debacle into the soul-sucking Wall Street machine and agonizes over its effect on modern society. Thanks to McKay's pointed anger you feel Carrell's realizations and sense of resignation on a more cerebral level uncommon in most modern performances and it helps the film achieve an unusual power. Recommended.

The Hateful Eight

Good But Problematic
Quentin Tarantino's last two features were revisionist histories of the antebellum South and World War II and "The Hateful Eight" is nothing if not a revisionist approach to the film western as studio Hollywood has presented it and the way it has been consumed by the movie-going public. Tarantino pulls out all the stops here, at least in its initial engagement, lovingly presenting it in eye-popping anamorphic 70 mm that highlights his careful staging and Robert Richardson's equally detailed cinematography, with the first quarter of the film taking place in a Wyoming blizzard and the remainder in an overstuffed cabin. (The production design is by Yohei Taneda and the set decoration is by Rosemary Brandenburg.) The large-scale presentation finds Tarantino creating a post-Civil War scenario in which the players are Tarantino's forte: dirty, cold-blooded sadists (the film is hyper-violent to say the least) that an old school presentation this large would never have considered. And the first half features some of Tarantino's most expressive writing: having gotten his revenge on Nazis and slave owners, he can turn his attention to detailing strong characters and while racism remains an important theme in Tarantino's work, the film is ultimately about his love of storytelling; and his cast commits to him with absolutely no false notes. But it's here where he slips up, with a second half that seems filled with arbitrary characters and flashbacks to create story continuity (and where the topic of racism provides a slip in that continuity); and while the story's not exactly a mystery, the way the narrative is delineated seems somewhat unsatisfactory, with viewers unable to fill in the gaps by themselves--by leaving Tarantino to explain it all to us, he renders much of "The Hateful Eight" somewhat pointless.

A New Leaf

A Noble Disappointment
Elaine May's directorial debut may be a disappointment but it's a noble disappointment: there's no question that May found herself working in then-uncharted territory, trying to find a naturalistic, semi-improvisational comedic style not generally seen in films of the period. Clearly her influence can be found in the works of masters like Albert Brooks (especially in the use of long takes) and the urbane Woody Allen that would emerge with "Annie Hall". But that doesn't solve the problem of "A New Leaf", which meanders along at its own fitful pace and with May's interests kept pretty much private; she doesn't seem to want to let the audience in on her inner workings and what's important to her never really translates to the viewer. Walter Matthau plays a roué who finds himself suddenly broke and must find a wealthy wife in order to settle his debts, finding her in May's naive, clumsy spinster. May's screenplay, her first, never allows her characters to come alive: Matthau hides behind a wall of continual indignation and May, with her staring and stammering, just isn't that funny; the two are played too broadly to connect with each other, let alone the audience. As an artist, May knows what she wants but struggles to develop it and the darkness she hints at (Matthau constantly contemplates murder) doesn't become a plot point until the end and then becomes an unwanted pathos. (That darkness would later find fuller expression in "Mikey And Nicky".) While it's apparent that her approach to comedy is a new one, here she hasn't yet developed the chops that would make "A New Leaf" work.


Of A Piece
As was apparent from his previous film, "The Dark Knight Rises", Christopher Nolan has become the preeminent hack in Hollywood--and that's meant as a compliment. Nolan is a committed romantic: the only difference between him and, say, William Wyler, is that Nolan dresses up his love stories with astonishing visual effects and complex plots with a heavy emphasis on spiritualism. "Interstellar" is Nolan's most accomplished work yet, with a far more satisfying mise en scene than his previous non-Batman work, the tedious and frustrating "Inception", and he finds a more effective means to discuss what is fast becoming his major theme: time's effect on relationships, from the largest (all humanity) to the smallest (families) and his aw-shucks notion of transcendent love is sweet and satisfying. Though there are no real standouts, Nolan gets good performances from Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain and, in supporting roles, Casey Affleck and Nolan stalwart Michael Caine; they're good but where Nolan is going for tearjerking tenderness, the actors don't quite deliver. Still, Nolan's script (written along with his brother, Jonathan) is beautifully written and thought-provoking and the mammoth but necessary effects (an homage to Kubrick, sharply filmed by Hoyte Van Hoytema) are as outsized as Nolan needs them to be. Everything feels of a piece here and, as in "Inception", you have to pay close attention. But this time it all flows together exquisitely.


Sweet And Satisfying
Jon Favreau has written and directed a film that makes no bones about being a crowd-pleaser and the casual and loose feel sends its audience away feeling good in all the right ways. Favreau plays a chef whose run-in with his restaurant's owner and a food critic causes him to abandon his career; but it also allows him to reconnect with creative side and, just as important, his broken family, particularly his young son (a talented Emjay Anthony). There are some trenchant observations about social media and marketing but it really has more of a sweet side and it makes its mark in building affection for its well-intentioned characters; the emotions are heartfelt and sincere. Favreau is very likable and he builds a fine all-star supporting cast that includes Sofia Vergara, John Leguizamo, Oliver Platt, Dustin Hoffman, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Sedaris and Robert Downey Jr. (and for us "BBQ Pitmasters" fans, a cameo by Aaron Franklin); everyone turns in fun, relaxed performances--they seem relieved to be in a film that has no hidden agenda and has goodwill in place of cynicism. Yes, it seems that with the exception of some profanity it could be a made-for-TV movie with the happiest of endings; and yes, the second half almost turns into a travelogue. But this time that's nothing to be ashamed of and it's gratifying to watch a film that in this day and age wants to do nothing more than entertain--which it does in a highly satisfying way. There's some really nice cinematography from Kramer Morgenthau and a very, very cool soundtrack. An emphatic recommendation.

Out of Sight

The Chemistry Is Not Quite There
Director Steven Soderbergh and writer Scott Frank mix up the sequencing of the usually straightforward-to-a-fault novelist Elmore Leonard but that's about the only thing that sets it apart from other films taken from Leonard works. I have not read the novel on which the film is based but Frank's script hews closely to the Leonard oeuvre in its utter predictability in character, plotting and the sophisticated banter between criminals and cops that lacks any real world credibility. George Clooney plays an escaped bank robber who develops a relationship with the federal marshal (Jennifer Lopez) on his trail. (Typical of Leonard's cool cucumbers, the word "love" is never mentioned.) Soderbergh seems to be seeking the same kind of off-kilter, casual chemistry between his leads that Stanley Donen was able to find with Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn in "Charade" but Clooney and Lopez don't seem to jell--they seem to be nervous around each other. When they meet-cute in the trunk of a getaway car, it should be a tense and electric moment the film can expand from but instead comes off as awkward and strained with Lopez in particular unsure of how to react. The rest of their interactions are spent trying to recover from that failed moment. As usual, Soderbergh knows how to entertain his viewers with visual flair; he gets great support from Anne V. Coates' fluid editing and while Elliot Davis' camera-work is not as eloquent as Soderbergh's own, it does have its flashes, particularly in the night scenes. Lopez and Clooney are surrounded by a powerhouse cast that includes Don Cheadle, Ving Rhames, Dennis Farina, Albert Brooks, Steve Zahn, Luis Guzman, a wasted Michael Keaton, an uncredited Samuel L. Jackson and a young Viola Davis (heck, even Nancy Allen is in there) and the film has its game moments, but the sum of its' parts are better than the whole.

The Walk

Bad First Act; Immersive Second
The first half is pretty terrible, owing to a thin, dull and cornball screenplay (by director Robert Zemeckis and Christopher Browne) that makes virtually no attempt at character development and the awkward performances (with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as tightrope walker Philippe Petit and Ben Kingsley as his mentor adopting unconvincing European accents). In fact, the first half seems primed to rush the audience to the second, which features the Main Event: the preparation and execution of Petit's 1974 high wire walk between the World Trade Center towers. But if the first half is disappointing, the second more than makes up for it, primarily in the film's raison d'etre, the actual walk, which immerses the viewer in the disorienting, heart-pounding experience in all its glory. It's here that Zemeckis reasserts himself as one of Hollywood's premier showman whose ability to deliver oversized entertainments has few peers. And it's also here, particularly in the moving conclusion, that Zemeckis' artistry emerges as he makes Petit's story personal by introducing the great overarching theme, time and its relation to the individual, that has informed his greatest and most resonant films, "Cast Away" and "The Polar Express".

Gone Girl

Long And Indifferent
Scenarist Gillian Flynn and director David Fincher deliver an adaptation of Flynn's novel that takes an intense, slow burn story and somehow remakes it into a dull, suspense-sapping film that goes on far too long. Filming in the dark style that has become his trademark, Fincher treats his material with seeming indifference, apparently not finding enough compelling material to engage with and he settles for competent performances without nuance from leads Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike. Flynn's screenplay doesn't help: the twisting, devious plot as told by unreliable narrators that delighted and disturbed in her novel here gets a hurried treatment that seems to trivialize important episodes. Yet it's bloated where the novel was propulsive. Flynn's book was a cynical but identifiable take on marriage in America, marred by a fizzled, inert ending; yet here by the end she has turned her thesis into something larger and uglier, a violent war waged by calculating women against unwitting men.


Far From A Disaster
There's not a lot of story and what story there is is half-formed, but this is an amusing Melissa McCarthy vehicle that, with its its love of happy endings, has its heart in the right place. The most interesting thing about McCarthy is that while she plays towards audiences that associate overweight comedians with physical gags (and there are plenty on display), it's when she opens her mouth and riffs about whatever's surrounding her that her true genius comes out and there's a sparkle that's irresistible--she's funny, smart and endearing. McCarthy and director Ben Falcone (her real-life spouse) wrote the screenplay and there doesn't appear to be anything on their minds except providing an entertaining experience, but that's okay: McCarthy is an absolute pleasure to watch. She's supported by a powerhouse cast including Kathy Bates, Dan Ackroyd, Gary Cole, Allison Janney, Sandra Oh and Toni Collette and most of them are wasted; but Susan Sarandon, as McCarthy's grandmother, is loose and likable even as McCarthy and Falcone take a half-hearted stab at making her the villain. Not something you'd quite call decent but far from disastrous.

Whatever Works

Ultimately Works
An improbable story whose talkiness would possibly be better served on the stage as opposed to the screen, "Whatever Works" nevertheless serves as a fitting summary of Woody Allen's view of life: existential yet weirdly optimistic, especially in its' happy conclusion, where the individual contours to whatever fate delivers. Larry David (kudos for resisting the usual Allen imitation) plays an ornery, solitary genius who somehow marries a ditzy Southern belle (Evan Rachel Wood, terrible) and together they face the challenges brought upon them for being so mismatched, especially when her separated parents (Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley, Jr.) relocate to New York. What's primarily disappointing about "Whatever Works" is that Allen's vaunted wit is scarcely apparent here: though it tries really hard, it just isn't that funny. The film's premise needs to be a lot stronger to compensate for the shortfall dialogue but isn't. Still, you leave with a satisfied feeling as David's straightforward addresses to the audience go a long way toward elucidating Allen's points in a way that we can tie together without feeling Allen's usual condescension. I'll give Allen that.


The Innovative Action Scenes Are Enough
The screenplay, by Alan Trustman and Harry Kleiner, has virtually no substance and is frequently embarrassing when it tries to be profound, but that doesn't stop "Bullitt" from being an exciting film. The key is the collaboration between director Peter Yates, editor Frank P. Keller and director of photography William A. Fraker; together they create the fascinating action scenes that are the film's raison d'etre, using shots that go on a couple of beats longer in order to fill the screen and put the action in context, particularly the famous car chase that remains the gold standard. Being the Sixties, with realism taking hold, Yates finds his freedom shooting on location and takes pleasure in random crowd shots that add to the sense of being in the moment. Steve McQueen is, well...Steve McQueen, only with less personality and the supporting cast, including Robert Vaughn and Jacqueline Bisset, aren't any better; in fact the acting is uniformly terrible. But when the action is this good, acting doesn't matter.

Die Ehe der Maria Braun

While it's never less than interesting, Rainer Werner Fassbinder's allegory about the post-war economic German Miracle is somewhat slow and stifling, designed to constantly remind the viewer that an allegory is indeed what it is and to discount the notions of love that the writers (there are several, including Fassbinder) push to the fore. Hanna Schygulla is good as the lead symbol, a war bride whose calculated sexual aggressiveness (a symbol of West Germany's rapaciousness) brings her to prominence in industry while she pines for her husband, who is imprisoned for murder. The points Fassbinder's trying to make are a bit obtuse and perhaps not designed for American viewers (those are his prerogatives, after all) but the early scenes of the country immediately after the war are fascinating and he's aided immensely by the great Michael Ballhaus' restless camera. After prosperity begins, Fassbinder relies more on words and the visuals become more traditional and blander and it's also here where the melodrama escalates, sometimes pretentiously.

The Theory of Everything

An Eloquent Screenplay
Screenwriter Anthony McCarten figures out what he wants to say towards the end, and even if his conclusions are somewhat literal, it helps immeasurably to bring "The Theory Of Everything" to its warm conclusion. McCarten's eloquent screenplay (based on Jane Hawking's book) and director James Marsh seem to want to match Stephen Hawking's theories about time's beginnings and, at the end, by running the films's main events in reverse, they cleverly compare the relationship between Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and his first wife, Jane (Felicity Jones) to the big bang theory. McCarten's most interesting topic is perhaps the oddest when it comes to a biography of Stephen Hawking--sexual infidelity--and though he answers his questions about it childishly (he equates unfaithfulness with deathly illness in order to lay on the guilt), it's somewhat refreshing to find a film that eschews the traditional hagiographic view of romance when icons are involved. Redmayne and Jones are good enough, though you get the sense that there's no real degree of difficulty in their acting; in fact, as far as Redmayne is concerned, there's the distinct feel that acting is all he's doing.

Best in Show

A Fine Character Study
There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, but it's the finely observed character studies that make this gentle mockumentary by Christopher Guest so enjoyable. Guest, along with co-writer Eugene Levy, populates the world of dog shows with identifiable people and while they often draw caricatures (particularly a married couple, played by Michael Hitchcock and Parker Posey, who project their fears, hostilities and parenting efforts upon their Weimariner; and Michael McKean and John Michael Higgins as an over-the-top gay couple), the ensemble has such affection for the characters you're happy to accept them for who they are. This is because the improvisational aspect of the dialog makes everyone seem real; you feel as if you know and sympathize with them as they struggle to succeed, as in the case of Levy and the sublime Catherine O'Hara, playing a couple who find they can't afford a hotel room and are put up in a utility closet by the well-meaning hotel manager (wonderfully played by Ed Begley, Jr.). Even those meant to be identified as "villians" (dog handler Jane Lynch and owner Jennifer Coolidge) understand their characters so well it's impossible not to like them. The film is immensely entertaining and seems to fly by, so much so that it belies its reasonable ninety minute run time.

The Imitation Game

Kind Of Insulting To The Hero...And The Viewer
Benedict Cumberbatch is pretty good throughout but it seems he gets the best lines of Graham Moore's oh-so-witty screenplay early on; after that it's simply a run-of-the-mill Weinstein Brothers presentation, burnished with the usual prettiness that makes it nothing more than Oscar chum. (In fact, it's a perfect example on how the politics of Oscar campaigns trivialize the whole thing.) The film concerns itself with the tortured life of Alan Turing, whose machine eventually cracked the "unbreakable" Nazi Enigma code. Moore writes him as a compilation of idiosyncrasies and throws everything together into a blur that appears to be Asperger's Syndrome mixed with childhood trauma and homosexuality--it all seems so easy to diagnose that very little of it ultimately rings true, and when Moore tries to develop Turing's emotional growth midway through, you know the jig is up as to what the film expects you to feel. It's kind of an insult to Turing to simplify him so easily and to the viewer for not being respected enough to deal with complexity. There's a fair amount of suspense generated (what will be the "aha" moment that allows Turing and his group of math whizzes to crack the code?) but a dull Soviet spy subplot clutters the overall feel of the second half. With Keira Knightly, who specializes in period pieces in which she generates zero interest. The director is Morten Tyldum, also showing very little in the way of differentiation. Recommended only for Cumberbatch's performance, which keeps you engaged through his puppy-dog expressions; if the script gave him more opportunities to be as much fun as he is the beginning, the film would have been far more successful.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Entertaining, Accessible, Rigorous
Dazzling and imaginative, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's tour de force soars because this time around, he's less of a moralizer and much more of a philosopher. Inarritu employs every visual trick in his repertoire (the film's signature is that it seems unedited) but enjoyably employs them in the service of a fable set in a Broadway theater. The result feels refreshingly immediate, urgent; in such a setting, the questions asked feel worthwhile. What's really interesting is that the questions themselves deal with a topic specific to a target (read: educated) audience. Inarritu and his collaborators (writers Nicolas Glacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo) concern themselves with art and all sorts of questions related to it: why is it made, who is it being made for, how does it relate to the the individual as well as the collective? Michael Keaton, wonderful in a performance imbued with a gravitas he seldom draws upon, plays an action-movie actor attempting redemption by directing, starring and adapting Raymond Carver for the stage; in order to realize his vision, he must run a harrowing gauntlet consisting of an antagonistic, preening actor (Edward Norton, loads of fun), a relationship with a co-star (Andrea Riseborough), a daughter fresh out of rehab (Emma Stone) and a critic hell-bent on destroying him (Lindsay Duncan). Inarritu works with a magical realism (Keaton is able to use telekinesis to manipulate his surroundings and is responsible for some of the stresses that befall him) but the film, taking place as it does in a familiar setting, seems grounded throughout even when the open-ended (yet fulfilling) conclusion is just as magical; rather than the clean resolutions that restored the world in "Babel", here it's the individual, alone and detached from every surrounding antagonist, that makes a messy breakthrough and the result speaks to every member of the viewing audience. Entertaining and accessible but also rigorous, it's about time a film played to an engaged audience and not only to the multiplex masses. Kudos to Antonio Sanchez' brilliant drum score, which continuously yet subtly comments on the film's content.

Jersey Boys

Really Enjoyable
A real treat. What makes Clint Eastwood such a great filmmaker is that even when he has no real personal involvement in a project he's still able to create a solid, beautifully crafted entertainment--he proves that when the time comes, he can let go of the serious themes that are so crucial to his oeuvre and simply enjoy the moment. Adapted from the jukebox musical by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elise (who wrote the musical's book), Eastwood, retaining the conceit of having the performers address the audience, opens up the play's sparse staging to capture an essence of Jersey in the Fifties (with an affectionate nod to Scorsese); he easily highlights the humor in the development of the Four Seasons from hoodlums with talent to a polished professional quartet and masterfully paces the film as it transitions to more melodramatic, yet equally compelling, conflicts. You can tell Eastwood really likes this material. Although some may find the characterizations cheesy, they're performed with eagerness and sincerity, with particular notice to be paid to Vincent Piazza as Tommy DeVito, whose id proves to be the group's undoing. As it was onstage, the songs are the thing (although, as Frankie Valli, John Lloyd Young's falsetto seems a little rough) and their significance in popular music cannot be overstated; indeed, a case could be made for writer/producer Bob Gaudio being one of the most important musicians of the twentieth century.


Quietly Powerful
Ava DuVernay's retelling of the events leading up to the march from Selma to Montgomery is an elegant, well-crafted film that, while breaking no new ground (and seeming to contradict well-researched data on Martin Luther King's relationship with Lyndon Johnson), is subtly moving. Like Dr. King, DuVernay prefers to work with words rather than depend on visuals and the result is a series of quiet, well-reasoned arguments (the articulate screenplay is by Paul Webb) that bring out the dignity of the topics and of the performers; when the necessary counterpoint of violence is shown, it only serves to underscore the importance of the discussions and DuVarny smartly keeps these sequences short. As a director, she makes good choices, preferring to film in the familiar sepia tones that we seem to associate with the civil rights movement (the cinematography is by Bradord Young); and she knows when to closely involve us (with the use of hand-held cameras) and when to wisely stay out of the way in order to let her performers shine--which they do, particularly David Oyelowo as King and Carmen Ejogo as his wife. They get so lost in the characters you can't help but be pulled in; one focus of the film is on the stress that the movement places on their marriage and the actors' convincing ability to unify on every level is one of the film's quiet triumphs. "Selma" is a labor of love for DuVernay and while her facts may be questionable, as a filmmaker, she gets it right.


Daniel Bruhl Is About All There Is
Daniel Bruhl's intelligent performance as Austrian race car driver Niki Lauda is about all there is to recommend in director Ron Howard's film about the rivalry between Lauda and English driver James Hunt (a preening Chris Hemsworth). Bruhl's focused, steel-eyed stare and effortlessly executed diction is filled with a sly sense of irony and sets apart what could have been a routine impersonation of a cold, clipped Germanic workhorse. After all these years, Howard still can't figure out how to deliver action without having to explain it to you and, as such, relies heavily on screenwriter Peter Morgan's heavy-handed exposition to tell you what you need to know. Morgan accomplishes this by having sportscasters yell into microphones about how the action taking place is so exciting; the result is condescending. Other than Bruhl, there isn't much else to recommend, with a couple of Howard's collaborators worth noting, cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle and composer Hans Zimmer, turning in lesser work than they are capable of. Being a racing movie, it's edited within an inch of its life by longtime Howard colleagues Dan Hanley and Mike Hill; but their work is at least clean enough that you can reasonably follow along. Which is all Howard requires from you.

American Sniper

A Deeply Personal Piece Of Bravura Film Making
Clint Eastwood's powerful meditation on war fits squarely with the themes that have informed his body of work, primarily the belief that with the absence of God, it is up to the individual to do God's work. There's a lot going on in Eastwood's and screenwriter Jason Hall's examination of Chris Kyle, considered the most "successful" military sniper in American history (and portrayed by Bradley Cooper in a performance that elevates him from above-average to outstanding): he's a patriot but also an employee, a man who has found his career and is simply doing his job. There is some very graphic imagery to reinforce war's hellish nature but there's also an awful lot of banality: Kyle and his colleagues spend time during lulls in their missions discussing the mundane things that people typically talk about during work breaks. Eastwood and Hall are clearly admirers of their subject (the film's final images prove that point) and they do give him the benefit of the doubt (the film's sole flaw is that it acknowledges Kyle's PTSD while stateside yet by the conclusion he's inexplicably cured), but they're realists when it comes to the job he's hired to do and make no bones about his lack of concern about the morality of his mission. (As one character astutely points out, he carries a Bible with him but never opens it.) The film is galvanizing in its combat scenes; they move with an immediacy and adrenaline that surprises you, considering Eastwood's age. But he never blinks. Tom Stern provides the excellent cinematography, filming with a brightness that sharpens the action. (The film's final battle, though, takes place during a sandstorm, blanching and obscuring everything--it's harrowing.) Like all great Eastwood films, "American Sniper" stays with you after it's over, encouraging you to meditate about everything it's trying to tell you (it's about a lot more than has been discussed here) and inviting you to argue back at it. It's a conversation well worth having.

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