The latest John le Carre film thriller receives added heaviness with the knowledge of the death by overdose of actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman. He reminds me of a slightly younger Sir Anthony Hopkins in this tale, set in Hamburg, where Hoffman heads a German intelligence unit. Titles at the film’s beginning reminded us the 9/11 plotters gathered in Hamburg. We infer that Hoffman has this post as punishment for missing the seeds of the 9/11 conspiracy. The plot involves a humanitarian lawyer played by Rachael McAdams hired to help an undocumented Russian who comes to Germany to claim his late father’s hefty estate. Hoffman gets the tip and determines to use the boy to bait a bigger catch — a philanthropist suspected of funneling money to terrorists. Robin Wright — cruel and cool on “House of Cards” — arrives on the scene as an American CIA operative. Wright — as you expect — has the ability to smile as she plunges a knife in friends and foe. “A Most Wanted Man” excels at tension and dread and delivers plenty of both. As with many of le Carre’s movies, sometimes things get hard to follow. The pace of the story lulls you into submission and then BAM — something happens to make your heart race. Does it deliver what it promises? Old school spy thriller with added sadness of Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s death. Is it entertaining? Several knock out punches. Is it worth the price of admission? An adult rainy day movie treat.
Woody Allen goes for a light touch in “Magic in the Moonlight.” Colin Firth enters as a world-famous magician performing in costume as a Chinese wizard. His friend invites him to the French Riviera to debunk a spiritualist working her magic on a wealthy family. Emma Stone plays the young woman who has captures the eye of a wealthy young man using his mother as a mark. First of course can’t figure out how the young woman does what she does and of course romance blooms. The costumes and music of the period add to the fun. “Magic in the Moonlight” feels like the kind of romantic comedies they made back in the day. Allen’s always interesting cast this time includes Marcia Gay Harden, Eileen Atkins, and Hamish Linklater. Does it deliver what it promises? Light comic romance. Is it entertaining? Great fun with a light touch. Is it worth the price of admission? Just for the fun of it.
French filmmaker Luc Besson loves wild international chase movies and he certainly creates one in “Lucy”. Scarlett Johansson begins the story on the wrong side of a drug cartel. They capture her, beat her up and insert a bag of powerful drugs in her stomach. She must transport them or else. By a quirk of fate the bag starts leaking. The more drug that gets in her system, the smarter and more super human she gets. ”Lucy” lays on the mayhem and violence and has an outrageous chase scene. Morgan Freeman joins in as an eminent professor who explains the brain and the small percentage most of us use of it. About halfway through “Lucy” turns goofy and builds to a conclusion so silly it’s hard to imagine anyone happily paying to watch this. Does it deliver what it promises? Superhuman chase thriller. Is it entertaining? Too goofy for me. Is it worth the price of admission? No.
Director Richard Linklater — one of the most creative filmmakers of our time — sets the bar for the coming of age movie. In “Boyhood” he presents a series of scenes filmed over a twelve year period that allow us to literally watch Ellar Coltrane as Mason grow from age six to age eighteen: boyhood to young adulthood. Within this framework, Linklater gives us a window on contemporary life: divorce, adult failings, sibling rivalry, education, and the mystery of finding yourself in an increasingly complicated world. The story centers on single mom Patricia Arquette, raising her son and daughter as a single mom. Ex husband Ethan Hawke returns to Texas from Alaska intending to re-establish his role as a drop-in dad. Arquette marries and divorces a series of flawed men. The family uproots and moves several times. Mason makes new friends and loses old ones. Along the way, Arquette finds her way to a better life and Hawke matures and starts a new life with room enough to include all. “Boyhood” showcases small moments and allows us to fill in the blanks on the big ones: learning to drive, kissing a girl, sorting good advice from bad. I feel like the actors improvised a lot of the dialog which is another way of saying “Boyhood” has a naturalness missing from most films. It leaves me wanting more and hoping Linklater continues this project. As a viewer I’m invested in Eller Coltrane aka Mason and I hope things turn out well for him. Does it deliver what it promises? One of the year’s most profound films. Is it entertaining? Fascinating. Is it worth the price of admission? A must see for this year and many years to come.
Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel play a married couple who have lost the magic in their marriage. “Sex Tape” begins with a montage of the couple’s early days when they enjoyed anytime anywhere non stop sex. Now we find them ten years later with two small children and a fully packed schedule. Jason produces music videos and goes through I Pads as part of his business. Cameron spies his latest I Pad suggests a sex tape. The interesting thing about this turn of events is: the movie begins on a realistic note. All of us remember the early bloom of our various romances when we couldn’t get enough of each other. I bought that and fondly thought back to my own dating life. But I can’t jump to “Sex tape’s” next level: that a sex tape will bring magic back. After the initial set up, “Sex Tape” dissolves into a run of the mill sitcom comedy with many dumb elements including a mean dog chasing Segal, and a leering future boss played by Rob Lowe – who many years ago survived, barely, a sex tape scandal of his own. I liked Rob Cordrey and Ellie Kemper as Jason and Cameron’s best friends. But they can’t keep “Sex Tape” from looking like the desperate project it is. Does it deliver what it promises? Nude back shots of Cameron Diaz. Is it entertaining? Desperate comedy. Is it worth the price of admission? No.
Sequel to “The Purge”—an annual 12 hour amnesty period in which murder and any other crime is legal. Of course we meet a group of kind hearted civilians caught on the streets on the wrong night. The story’s understone include class warfare and a plan by the wealthy to weed out the undesirables. But in this episode the little guys fight back. I hope to someday live in a world where movies like this get purged. Does it deliver what it promises? Crime spree. Is it entertaining? Not exactly the most creative movie of the year. Is it worth the price of admission? No.
This unusually good sequel finds the apes, who evolved in the original as part of experiments to find a cure for a world-wide flu epidemic, living in a colony in the woods outside San Francisco. They’re smart. They communicate with sign language, expression, and simple words. The apes have evolved, while the humans who remain have dissolved as society crumbles. Those huddled in the remains of San Francisco, led by Gary Oldman, sends a team into the woods looking for a hydroelectric dam that could bring power back to the city. Caesar, leader of the apes, confronts the humans and scares them within an inch of their lives. So much that one of them shoots one of the animals. The apes leader—Caesar—counsels peace and forgives the shooting. Jason Clarke negotiates with Caesar for access to the dam. Clarke and Caesar try for peace but their meeting ultimately ends in war. Caesar–created by Andy Serkis–expresses the emotions of a peace lover pushed to the opposite. Serkis performance gives Caesar humanity and depth of feeling. For an action adventure special effects summer movie filled with so much violence I wondered how it kept a PG 13 rating, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” makes a powerful anti war statement. Does it deliver what it promises? Great story telling and message. Is it entertaining? Thrilling. Is it worth the price of admission? One of the summer’s best.
Snowpiercer manages to take a goofy idea and make it thrilling, while advancing the art of the science fiction movie. As in most of these kind of stories, the future looks pretty bad. Snowpiercer begins with voice over broadcasts of a scientific breakthrough that will solve global warning. As we listen we learn the breakthrough backfires and touches off a world-wide freeze. Everybody dies, except for a lucky few who wind up on “Snowpiercer”—a train run by an eternal engine over tracks that span the globe. The train makes the global trek in exactly one year. Since the world has frozen, this train runs fast enough with a sharp enough point at the head to pierce the global ice and keep running. The train’s eco system is perfectly balanced: The rich sit up front, and the very poor huddle in the back. Occasionally the Snowpiercer police charge the back and take one or two children over the protests of the impoverished. Chris Evans — remember him as Captain America — plots with the aid of the veteran actor John Hurt — to take over the train. The revolution comes and the rabble move forward car by car — with bureaucrat Tilda Swinton as their hostage. Swinton adds wild craziness to the story — with her high-pitched voice and protruding teeth and increasing anxiety as she loses control of the masses. South Korean actors Song Kang-ho and Ko Asung play a father daughter team with the smarts to open the electric doors separating each car. As the fighters kill and maime their way toward the engine, we see aquarium cars, farm cars, sauna cars, and orgy cars as well as an elementary class indoctrinating rich kids against the poor. Oh yeah, it’s an allegory. Directed by Korean Bong Joon Ho, “Snowpiercer” has nothing in common with the usual stuff that chokes the cineplex week after week. “Snowpiercer” dishes up a story both goofy and thrilling. I came out of this with my head spinning. Does it deliver what it promises? One of the most unusual movies of the year. Is it entertaining? Wild and crazy. Is it worth the price of admission? For those who thrill to something new and different.
Not long ago, Roger Ebert published his autobiography “Life Itself” in which he tells the story of his childhood in downstate Illinois, his discovery of journalism at the University of Illinois, and his great break going to work first as a reporter than as the film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. That position won him the Pulitzer Prize and got him a chair on a public television movie review show which he shared with his fellow critic and newspaper rival Gene Siskel. The two didn’t like each other. They wrote for competing newspapers. They had deeper differences that came out in sometimes nasty exchanges. Viewers loved it, because Siskel’s bickering with Ebert sounded familiar—like friends or couples talking after a movie. The show went national and two stars were born. Steve James, the Chicago documentarian whose films include “Hoop Dreams”, began this work as Roger Ebert entered rehab for an ankle fracture. Ebert would go home only for a few days and spent the rest of his life in treatment. James’ story balances the life of a man who loved movies, who found his calling early, who used his voice to help new and struggling filmmakers with the story of a man at the end of his life struggling with his disease and the medical procedures dealing with it. Ebert began his career a heavy drinker, ultimately declaring himself an alcoholic. Single until the age of 50, he found his soul mate at an A.A. meeting and ultimately mellowed, even finding accommodation with Siskel, who died first of a brain tumor in 1999. Ironically Siskel feared Ebert would leave their partnership and go out on his own. Ironic because once Siskel died, the two-man review show never recaptured the Siskel-Ebert chemistry. Cancer took Ebert’s lower jaw and silenced his voice. But Ebert looked to the future, embracing technology. He found a voice synthesizer which allowed him to speak. And his website showcased some of Ebert’s finest writing during his dying years. ”Life Itself” sometimes gets overpowered by the scenes of Ebert’s hospitalization and decline. But it captures a grand life filled with passion and love and change and growth. Anyone who loves movies should watch this tribute to the greatest and most powerful critic of our time. Does it deliver what it promises? Roger Ebert remembered in all his humanity. Is it entertaining? A fascinating life. Is it worth the price of admission? For everyone who loves movies.
“Begin Again” tells a messy story about music and musicians and love and loss and creativity and tells it in a highly entertaining manner. The story begins with Keira Knightley called onto the stage of a small club where she sings a song she’s recently written. We feel she fails to put it over, but Mark Ruffalo, a just fired record label owner/promoter hears it differently. The two form a creative partnership with the intent of producing an edge of the envelop album. During their time together we learn both character’s back story, including Keira’s relationship with a narcissistic musician and Ruffalo’s failed marriage to Catherine Keener and its effect on their teenage daughter Hailee Steinfeld. ”Begin Again” touches some of the same feeling that made “Once” so powerful a few years ago. Both directors share the same director—John Carney. ”Begin Again” deals with feelings and emotions and creativity and does it in a very winning manner. Does it deliver what it promises? Unexpected love story. Is it entertaining? A delight. Is it worth the price of admission? Yes.