Mini Film Reviews from My Facebook Page

THE FAVOURITE. A splendid and resplendent film from its rollicking, mud-splashed beginning to its artsy and perhaps too easy and open ending. And, what an incredible tour-de-force for the three leading actresses: the lesser known Olivia Colman as Queen Anne; the better known Rachel Weisz as Lady Sarah, the queen’s confidant and lady’s maid (and considerably more); and, the ubiquitous and usually cloying Emma Stone, of whom I had wearied years ago, but still found delightful and downright fun, at least during the film’s first catty hour of dishing, scheming, and ladder climbing. The second hour, however, turned somber and rather painful but no less engaging, as the three women desperately clawed to maintain power, position, and favo[u]r with each other more so than with the equally ambitious and overly manicured men at Court. (To simplify this all as just a lesbian love triangle, though, is unfair to both film and history.) Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos in a style that, with Johnnie Burn’s wonderfully intrusive score, seems to fuse Greenaway with Tarantino, the film is rated “R” and is now playing at The Woodlands Cinemark 17.

THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD. Directed by Peter Jackson (LOTR), this 99-minute documentary draws from over 600 hours of BBC archival footage to show what life in the trenches really was like for British soldiers during World War I. The result is something that is often horrifying, sometimes comical, but always brutally honest, and that I appreciate greatly. My main takeaways: one, nothing I’ve ever read about trench warfare comes close to what I saw today; two, as with almost all wars, poor men fought in the name of God and country to make rich men richer; and, three, I marveled especially at the soldiers who had no teeth, who pottied without t or p, and who fought in kilts regardless of weather. This film also is rated “R” and is playing at The Woodlands Cinemark 17 but note that, after today, there is only one more day of screenings (on December 27).

OPERATION FINALE (PG-13, 122 minutes) When I was 12, I spent the summer with a German family in Munich. Since then, I’ve been fascinated with all things related to WWII, particularly what happened after the war. This film closely follows the real-life abduction in 1960 of Nazi henchman Adolf Eichmann from his Argentine hideaway to be taken to Israel to stand trial, be condemned and executed. Since I already knew the outcomes, my interest lay in how well the story would be told, and the answer is, “okay.” As the evasive Eichmann, Ben Kingsley is fascinating and able to transcend the all-too-obvious script, which, unfortunately, hobbles Oscar Isaac in the larger role of mastermind abductor Peter Malkin. Satisfying overall, but probably would be better as a matinee or Red Box rental.

SEARCHING (PG-13, 101 minutes) A reclusive teenager disappears one night, and her widowed father hacks into her social media and exploits every conceivable form of technology to find her. With a cast anchored by John Cho (HAROLD & KUMAR) as the distraught father and Debra Messing (WILL & GRACE) as the zealous detective, the results are mixed: Cho often proves believable and even compelling, while Messing just smacks of bad acting. While I found both premise and plot intriguing, I just never really cared about anyone or anything, because I spent my energies focusing on how the film itself was crafted: screen capture here, hidden cams there, social apps galore, and IMs popping up throughout. For me, this is a classic case of form upstaging content…but I’ll be delighted to incorporate clips from it later this semester, when I introduce Brecht and his emotionally distancing use of theatricalism.

PAPILLON. As a young teen in rural Georgia, Henri “Papillon” Charrière’s memoir was about as thrilling as anything that I could check out from the public library. Schaffner’s 1973 film was almost as captivating, although I found Hoffman’s DEGA curiously more compelling than McQueen’s PAPILLON. Disappointing, then, it was this afternoon to see the current remake featuring hotter-yet-somehow-less-satisfying actor Charlie Hunnam in the title role. The 136-minute great escape(s) movie itself is impressive: beautiful art direction and strong production values, apt direction (Michael Noer) and skilled editing…a by-the-book action flick from word go. The problem, though, lies in the screenplay and writing that cannot wrestle this epic tale and, instead, bumbles from superficial, to cliche, to overly condensed, to downright juvenile and somewhat embarrassing. (How many stash-it-in-the-ass prison references and moments do we need?!) Further, there never is enough chemistry on any level between Hunnam and his DEGA (Rami Malek) to make this Papi’s many sacrifices and his inextinguishable want to live believable. Hunnam deserves better writing, but he also needs to escape this disconnected acting-in-a-vacuum that crippled his ARTHUR and that has disconnected me from his earlier and absolutely riveting work in SONS OF ANARCHY.

BLACKKKLANSMAN. Anxious about today’s gatherings in DC to mark the one-year anniversary of Charlottesville, I went to see Spike Lee’s newest “joint” about the real-life Ron Stallworth, who, as an African-American undercover detective during the early 1970s, managed to infiltrate and “join” the KKK and expose many of its members and their violent plans to “restore” white America. From the trailers I had seen earlier this summer, I thought this would be a dark comedy—if you’ll pardon the pun—and it was at times, just as it was well-produced and competent storytelling with many memorable moments of effective acting (John David Washington as the real Stallworth and Adam Driver as “white” Stallworth) and painfully poignant filmmaking, most notably during the Stokely Carmichael face-montage speech. I would have preferred more of those moments during the film’s second half, when art played second fiddle to overt and too obvious didacticism. Yes, I agree with Spike and EVERYTHING he (and his committee of writers) had to say about the relevance of Stallworth’s story with our current tragedy. Preach it, yes, but know that I’m already in the choir, as seemed to be everyone in this afternoon’s all-white matinee audience. And know that a heavy heart doesn’t always require such a heavy and predictable hand. Yes, please, fight the good and necessary fight and do whatever you can to save us from this nightmare, but also take note of Daveed Diggs’ BLINDSPOTTING, which enrages and awakens, all while making art.

While I’ve heard the buzzwords “shook” and “woke” all summer, I can think of no better words to describe the two films I experienced this afternoon.
In Debra Granik’s two-hour LEAVE NO TRACE, the brilliant but under-hyped Ben Foster plays a homeless, PTSD veteran WILL who lives (tracelessly) with his teenage daughter TOM (played by newcomer Thomasin McKenzie) in an Oregon forest, until they’re discovered, forced back into society, and then flee again (and again), until their relationship must take a u-turn that is as poignant, painful, and beautiful as anything I can recall.
On its surface, Carlos Estrada’s BLINDSPOTTING is about racial profiling, police killings, and cultural appropriation, but its 95-minutes reveal more about the complexities, nuances and grayness of race than any statistics, polls, or documentary possibly could. Although the plot line is circular and somewhat predictable, the many “truths” revealed by black parolee COLLIN (HAMILTON’S Daveed Diggs, who must get an Oscar nod for this!) are as surprisingly fresh as they are fierce, fast, and fearless. If you see this film, let me know if you were able to breathe during the basement scene at the end…I was paralyzed.

—a long hiatus here—

LOGAN is proof again of Hugh Jackman’s many and seemingly incomparable talents as well as my lack of understanding of this marvel-ous genre and its x-traordinary heroes. While the 135-minute film is enjoyable and deserves better than my cheap puns, it left me feeling a bit dismayed and, overall, unsatisfied. On one (clawed) hand, I appreciated Wolverine’s psychologically complex journey and the actor’s nuanced, vérité performance, and I understand the need to bring closure to this long-lasting and profitable franchise; on the other hand, I couldn’t escape my distracted preoccupation with the film’s gruesomely graphic violence (some parents with kids walked out early) and my utter lack of empathy for the ingénue heroine Laura, who somehow went from mute to glossolalic during my first trip to the toaletă.

GLITCH. Just finished GLITCH on Netflix. Only six episodes and obviously low-budget, this Australian short series is more novel and less predictable than most supernatural tales I’ve binged. The storytelling is suspenseful and fun as it lets your imagination fill in the gaps, and the Aussie actors deliver compelling characters, even when the writing and editing falter. No spoiler here: I’m still musing over a line in the final episode: “The meaning of life is that it ends.” Hmmm. And the series ends without really ending. (A second season is promised for 2017.) A satisfying distraction on an anxious weekend.

THE LEGEND OF TARZAN. If you liked the look of the last four Harry Potter flicks, then you’re apt to like David Yates’ new TARZAN, which offers enough sumptuous flora, fauna, and flesh to keep you drooling for 109 minutes. Barring the copious CGI, which is palatable until the ridiculous climax, this is grand scale, old fashioned, action adventure movie-making well deserving of big screen and big sound, although to be honest (and to use an overworked metaphor) the forest here (or jungle) is greater than its trees: the story, dialogue, score, and performances are all passable, but no more. But the look…now that’s worth every penny (or $8 for this matinee!). Although I’m completely over Christoph Waltz playing over-ticked villains, I was happy to spend a too hot summer afternoon distracted by this lanky Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård) and his long-lashed Jane (Margot Robbie).

LOOK WHO’S BACK (ER IST WIEDER DA). If you’re befuddled about Trump’s meteoric rise and the crumbling of the GOP, and if you have Netflix and don’t mind reading subtitles, then you should add this to your summer viewing. Akin to BORAT in its mockumentary following of an unsavory but fascinating miscreant (in this case a resurrected Hitler), the two-hour German film offers a (seemingly) real-world context for understanding how the masses can be duped by a charismatic leader, no matter how outrageous or offensive he is…but only if given the chance by the media. Released in 2014, well before the Trump charade began, this is easily the funniest and most terrifying flick I’ve seen in ages.

THE MAN WHO KNEW INFINITY. Visually stunning period biopic about Srinivasa Ramanujan, the Hindu math genius who “divined” the formula for infinity and eventually became a Cambridge fellow, all while enduring the loss of home and love, rampant racism, and terminal tuberculosis. While well crafted, the film’s vast scope results in too many overly compressed scenes and awkwardly distilled dialogue and fails to capitalize fully on the talents of a stellar cast that includes Jeremy Irons and Toby Jones. Still, Dev Patel as the young savant demonstrates all the charisma, nuance and likeability that we met in SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE. Though not in the same league as THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING, the 108-minute film is worth seeing and on a big screen to appreciate the impressive art direction.

LOBSTER. In this here-and-now but fictitious society, all adults must be in coupled relationships; opposite or same-sex doesn’t really matter, although hetero is the norm. Unmatched individuals must check into a “hotel” for a limited number of days to play a dating round-robin that includes gourmet meals, performances by the staff (theatrical and sexual) and daily field trips to hunt down rogue singles, which rewards an additional day of stay for each kill. Those still solo at the end of their stay are transmogrified (surgically?) into an animal of choice. Almost unrecognizable under 40 extra pounds, Colin Farrell’s David chooses a lobster, at least until he runs into Rachel Weisz. If all of this sounds bizarre, it is. I would dare say this is one of the strangest films I have ever seen–picture Wes Anderson coupling with Peter Greenaway–yet it is curiously exhilarating given its novelty and absolute lack of predictability. Do opt for a big screen with good sound to savor the equally bizarre score.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR. Amused as I am by all the kerfuffle about sex and politics surrounding the film’s namesake, I’ll just say that it’s the “best” superhero flick I’ve seen in ages, but that’s not necessarily saying that much. Yes, the first 30 minutes dragged, but even the sock-bang-powie felt more filler than fun, and the profusion of heroes added to create the “civil” in this war grew more gratuitous than gratifying. Thank goodness, though, for the delightful reincarnation of Spiderman, who provided much levity in this overly serious and overly long (2 1/2 hours!) headbutt. While I know my Marvel-ous friends enjoyed it immensely, I felt like a fast-foodie after a seven-course prix-fixe: sated but not quite satisfied.

THE REVENANT. Enticed by its recent Globes (picture, director, and actor) as well as its unrivaled Oscar noms (12 total), I sat spell-bound by all 2 1/2 hours of what may be both the most grisly (I’ll resist the pun) and most beautiful film I’ve seen in ages. DiCaprio and Hardy merit any award that has or will come their way; however, it’s the directing (Iñárritu of BIRDMAN fame), cinematography, and score (Sakamoto and Noto, both new to me) that win my vote. I just wish I had experienced it in XD (or IMAX or Real 3D) for max effect.

13 HOURS: THE SECRET SOLDIERS OF BENGHAZI. I weary quickly of shoot-em-ups and am overly wary of burqa baiting, yet I found myself curiously engaged in this 2 1/2 hour action-adventure remake of the Benghazi tragedy. With more holes in the storytelling than the battered Libyan walls as well as a tendency toward emotional over-manipulation (gushing score and tears aplenty), the film is horrifically violent, but the sweaty machismo of its cast easily displaces any over-concern.

TRUMBO. Two-hour biopic of Dalton Trumbo, the “red scare” black-listed but Oscar-winning screenwriter of SPARTACUS, EXODUS, and ROMAN HOLIDAY. Well-crafted by director Jay Roach (of BORAT fame/notoreity) but a bit slow at times, the film affords plenty of history, ugly as it is, while balancing Bryan Cranston’s bravura (as Trumbo) with Diane Lane’s subtlety (as his dutiful wife) along with whatever delicious hell Helen Mirren serves up as Hedda Hopper. A very good film worth full ticket price now playing at Market Street in The Woodlands.

BROOKLYN. Based on Colm Tóibín’s novel, BROOKLYN follows a promising but unemployed young Irish woman’s new start in America and the romance that blooms when she falls for a charming but under-educated young Italian plumber. Directed by Tony-nominated stage director (!) Tony Crowley, the film is visually stunning and emotionally captivating. I cannot recall when I last felt such on-screen chemistry as between the two young leads (Saoirse Ronan and Emory Cohen), nor when I have shed so many tears, not from sorrow, but from sheer joy. A great film worth full price and seeing twice, now playing at Market Street in The Woodlands.

BRIDGE OF SPIES. I presume that any Spielberg-directed film will be good; the question is, will it be great? With this latest venture, my answer is no; it is well crafted and eminently watchable, but it lacks that certain something that has made so many of Spielberg’s others great. Based on the real-life exchange of a Soviet spy (played by a delightfully understated Mark Rylance) for U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers (some pretty boy with limited lines) as wielded by an cunning but cold-prone insurance lawyer (here an off-puttingly glib Tom Hanks), the 135-minute story is told well if a bit unevenly, but the outcomes are preordained, and the overwrought score, unfortunately, reduces this Cold War history to odd Hollywood melodrama that isn’t quite idiosyncratic enough to bear the imprimatur of the Coen brothers (co-writers with Matt Charman) nor thrilling enough to landmark this time-tested genre.

SICARIO. Spanish for “hitman,” Sicario follows a conscientious young female FBI agent (Emily Blount) on a covert (and illegal) operation to destroy a drug kingpin in Juarez, Mexico. Superbly crafted by Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve, the film’s two-hour story is as absorbing as it is unsettling; however, I was as intrigued by Emily Blount’s subtle and unpredictable acting choices as well as Jóhann Jóhannsson’s lush but unobtrusive score. No regrets for the trip and paying extra to see it on XD.

PAWN SACRIFICE. Docu-drama about the tumultuous life of American chessmaster Bobby Fischer, played convincingly (and with many skin blemishes) by Tobey Maguire, accompanied by a strong supporting cast. Overall, a competently made film that just doesn’t seem to have enough material to sustain the nearly two-hour span. I spent much of the film preoccupied with Maguire’s contact lenses, Liev Schrieber’s manufactured hairline, Lily Rabe’s hideous wig, Peter Sarsgaard’s odd vocals…and…

STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON. Docu-drama about gangster rap group NWA (Niggaz Wit Attitudes) from its violent beginnings in Compton through its splintering into the solo careers of Ice Cube and Dr. Dre and the premature death of Eazy-E. For me, this is filmmaking at its finest: brisk and relentless storytelling (almost 2 1/2 hours!), raw and riveting acting, deliberate but unpretentious directing balanced with assertive but tight editing, all threaded together by a booming score that knows when to be quiet. I’d give Oscar nods to each of the three leads as well as to Paul Giamatti as the group’s shady manager. Easily the “best” and most satisfying movie I’ve seen all summer.

THE GIFT. Rarely do I see a film without reading about it first, but the rating on Rotten Tomatoes (92%) was enough to entice me and my brother on a spur-of-the-moment matinee hunt yesterday. Despite an overly long start (exposition is tricky in psychological thrillers), the payoff in what turns out to be a 108-minute long revenge tragedy was well worth the wait. The story is compelling and the acting nuanced and convincing. Jason Bateman proves he has chops; we already knew Rebecca Hall had ’em. The real “gift” of the film, though, is realizing that its star Joel Edgerton (Ramses in the recent EXODUS) also wrote and directed it.

WILD TALES. Written and directed by the 40-year old Argentinean Damián Szifron, this bizarre and darkly comic collection of stories captures people at their breaking point as they fall over the proverbial edge. That my late-80s parents would sit, marvel, wince, and laugh through two hours of subtitles speaks volumes. For me, I had enough jaw drops, bug eyes, and belly laughs to mandate a repeat viewing in the near future. Available on Red Box…even in rural Georgia.

TERMINATOR GENISYS. Bad spelling and bad storytelling, but not without x amount of summertime fun. Two hours of overly convoluted time-warping that makes ROCKY HORROR look like reality tv. Young Sarah is just too young and old Arnold just too old to come across as anything but self-parody, which he does and does often. Fortunately, Jai Courtney lives and breathes, seethes and seeps in almost every scene. JAI COURTNEY…proof that Australian pheromones can leap through two-dimensional cellulose into a live audience. There’s your science fiction.

PERFUME: THE STORY OF A MURDERER. Richard Roeper: “Hated this movie. Hated it.” So, of course, I had to watch it. Marvelously bizarre and visually resplendent tale of a perfumer turned serial killer in order to extract the transcendent and transformative scent of the perfect woman. My favorite moment came when Alan Rickman, as a grief-stricken father, grumbles to the condemned killer: “When the crowd is finally tired of your screams and wandered home, I will climb up through your blood and sit beside you. I will look deep into your eyes… and drop by drop I will trickle my disgust into them like burning acid until… finally… you perish.” But, of course, he doesn’t. The ending is beyond description and belief but is almost smellable through the screen. By Tom Tykwer, the director of RUN LOLA RUN. Two and a half hours and available on Netflix.

THE BABADOOK. This 94-minute Australian horror flick made almost every “best” list from 2014 and was released on Netflix this week. I usually avoid this genre for fear it will disturb my already precarious sleep; however, last night’s storms provided the perfect out for an under-the-covers, peeping-through-my fingers viewing. Lots of genuinely terrifying, goosebumps moments due to the creativity of director/writer Jennifer Kent and her marvelous actors playing the mother and son who are haunted by this horrific storybook creature. Followup: Yes, I had a terrible night’s sleep, thanks to my own moaning and groaning, wall banging Babadook next door, who evidently thought the storms would mask his late-night sexual Olympics. Wrong.

THE WOMAN IN GOLD. Engaging but uneven docudrama about Klimt’s famous portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, which was stolen by the Nazis and, after a prolonged court battle with the Austrians decades later, eventually returned to its rightful owner, in this film played with nuance and humor by Helen Mirren. Ryan Reynolds struggles to keep up as her lawyer, but the mismatch is obvious and makes the flashback scenes of pre-war Vienna more satisfying historically and artistically. (Doesn’t really matter, though; I could watch Mirren peel potatoes or scrub toilets and be perfectly happy.)

IT FOLLOWS. A heteronormative sex parable masquerading as a horror film. Moral: if you have sex outside marriage, it will “follow” you (aka, f**k you up). Be terrified…but only if you’re young, good looking, white, and straight. With nothing to fear, I spent most of the 94 minutes absorbed with the overwrought but fascinating score as well as Maika Monroe’s utterly committed and convincing portrayal of the “followed” heroine.

FAST & FURIOUS 7. Big boys with big toys and so many “fast and furious” but mind-numbing chases and fight sequences that, well before the two-hour melodrama ended, I began fantasizing about My Dinner with Andre. Given Walker’s untimely demise, his character’s glaringly ironic comments about the future proved too awkward and distancing for me to invest in either the overly contrived story or its lackluster characters, most notably Vin Diesel, still stuck in Groot mode. I did appreciate the simple but touching tribute to Walker, which ended the film but not necessarily the franchise.

AMERICAN SNIPER. Like so many soldiers in so many wars, my own father included, real-life sniper Chris Kyle did what he felt he must, and he did so to the best of his ability. He didn’t see himself as a hero, nor does this film–as I saw and understood it–attempt to make him one. What made Kyle noteworthy is as remarkable as it is horrifying and, moral judgements aside, compellingly dramatic. Although I am saddened that there is such a story to tell, I have no qualms with that story being told. I also have no difficulty separating my own personal politics and abhorrence of war from my artistic appreciation of Clint Eastwood’s clear storytelling and thoughtful direction and Bradley Cooper’s exquisitely human and seemingly accurate portrayal of Chris Kyle.

THE IMITATION GAME. Gripping biopic about Alan Turning, the British mathematical genius who broke the Nazi’s Enigma code. Nearly two hours, the film jumps back and forth in Turning’s too short life, yet the story is clearly and poignantly told, much thanks to the talents of Benedict Cumberbatch and an excellent supporting cast that includes Keira Knightley and Matthew Goode. Exquisite period art direction and costume design, all undergirded by a beautiful, minimalist score. For me, easily one of the best films of 2014. 

FOXCATCHER. Yes, the critics have heralded Carell and Tatum for stretching with these roles, but, for me, the film was just too slow, one note, and UNSETTLING for me to finish. I spent most of the (first) hour I saw distracted by bad makeup, bowlegs, and bulges (or lack thereof) and, once home, another (second) hour reading about the DuPonts, Schultzes, and (spoiler alert) the murder and subsequent trial. Crazy on a Portugese-inbred-royal family level.

BIG EYES. Based on the 1960s (con) artist Walter Keane, who achieved considerable fame, commercial success, and eventual notoriety by passing his wife’s big-eyed paintings as his own. A fairly interesting story but odd material for director Tim Burton, whose usually delightfully idiosyncratic imagination seems crippled here by the reality of this story and its odd-but-not-odd-enough characters, played with fascinating nuance by Amy Adams and embarrassing histrionics by Christoph Waltz. Perhaps worth a matinee ticket.

INTO THE WOODS. An enjoyable and laudably faithful first act (’til the “earthquake”) followed by a very disappointing second act that lost its footing due in part to the omission of “No More” (and a fundamental misunderstanding of the Narrator/Mysterious Man). Disney clearly banked on Hollywood stars who could act their parts, even when they really couldn’t sing Sondheim’s demanding score. (Anna Kendrick and Emily Blount are unexpected exceptions, though.) Overall, for me, neither a hit nor a miss, but well worth a big screen experience with good speakers.

EXODUS. Two hours and 22 minutes of puzzling over Ridley Scott’s bizarre casting choices. Christian Bale as Moses I can buy in this (almost) psychologically believable (yet tedious) revision, but BREAKING BAD’S Aaron Paul as a do-nothing, say-nothing Joshua? And Ben Kingsley (Gandhi!) skulking silently in the background only to be abused by his nasty, mascara-ed Egyptian overlords, who are all out-nastied by Sigourney Weaver, who sadly demonstrates that some things (or actors) just do not get better with age. Egads. What I did appreciate, though, was the film’s refusal to define the inexplicable as miracle or science (or hallucination), which pretty much worked until the fleeing Hebrews had to cross the Red Sea. At that point, ALIEN seemed less incongruous. Epic, perhaps, but not compelling or spectacular, even in 3D.

THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING. “As long as there is life, there is hope.” The incredible, inspiring, and often heart rending love story of Stephen Hawking and his former wife Jane based on her memoir “Traveling to Infinity.” Beautifully written, filmed, and edited, the two-hour movie is a tour-de-force for actor Eddie Redmayne as we see his Hawking disintegrate from a robust doctoral student at Cambridge to the wheelchair-bound, computer-voiced genius we have known for decades. Felicity Jones is equally compelling as the “love conquers all” wife, but Icelander Jóhann Jóhannsson’s lush score often felt too manipulative. Still, I enjoyed the film immensely and feel it was well worth the crowded drive to The Woodlands.

BIRDMAN. Michael Keaton (yes, Beetlejuice) gives a virtuosic, Oscar-worthy performance as a has-been comic-book screen actor (the “Birdman”) now turning to Broadway to establish himself as a “legit” artist. Directed by Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu, the two-hour movie was shot at NYC’s St. James Theatre (in just 30 days!) and feels like one continuous, long shot. With its stellar supporting cast and its assertive and eclectic score, this is perhaps the most stimulating and artistically satisfying film that I’ve seen since INGLORIOUS BASTERDS.

NIGHTCRAWLER. Very engaging, two-hour thriller featuring a super-skinny Jake Gyllenhaal as a genius but psychopathic news chaser. Completely lacking moral compass, “Lou” is delightfully unpredictable and frighteningly believable, thanks to Gyllenhaal’s highly nuanced and often humorous portrayal. Rene Russo makes a welcome big screen return as an opportunistic and ratings-starved producer, while Riz Ahmed is equally convincing as Lou’s desperate and homeless sidekick. A creepy but fun roller-coaster ride for an otherwise forgettable Halloween weekend. Well worth full-ticket price but not in need of any extras (XD, IMAX, 3D, etc.).

WHAT IF. Proof that Daniel Radcliffe has acting chops, as does his romantic opposite, Zoe Kazan. A definite “chick flick” with an absolutely predictable ending but well written and acted, nevertheless. I wish the “super” realistic choices (Chantry’s animations) had been extended, but I applaud the director’s wanting to keep the relationship honest. A good matinee for escaping the afternoon heat.

A MOST WANTED MAN. A smart, engaging, and well-crafted spy thriller (John Le Carre) that, unfortunately, exacerbates our paranoia of Islam AND our distrust of anything connected with government. PSH looks awful, but his character is convincing, and his acting still is compelling to watch as is that of Rachel McAdams. Good storytelling but be prepared for an ending that will leave you feeling artistically satisfied but morally hollow.

THE GIVER. Another dystopia saved by another good-looking youth. Yawn. Saw it yesterday, and all I can recall today is that Meryl Streep must have been prepping for Into the Woods at the same time.

THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY: A familiar theme with predictable story and happy-ever-after ending, but I still loved it. The leads, including Helen Mirren, are stellar, and Charlotte Le Bon and Manash Dayal are downright dreamy. Nothing wrong with a feel-good Dreamworks/Disney flick to end the summer. If this doesn’t make you want to go to France or at least eat Indian food, then nothing will.

MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT: I expect Woody Allen to be quirky with both his writing and directing, but this film was just too incongruous and ill-paced to have any magic for me. The costumes were gorgeous, and there were some laugh out loud lines, but the editing and acting (even Colin Firth!) were so awkward as to read as “bad,” while so deliberate as to seem a stylistic choice, as if Allen were imagining how Wes Anderson would direct Chekhov.

“Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter” (“Our Mothers, Our Fathers”). A 2013 German mini-series about five real-life friends during WWII. Controversial for its take on history but absolutely spellbinding for its storytelling and acting. I sat glued to the television for all 4 1/2 hours. Available on Netflix with English supertitles as “Generation War.”

BOYHOOD: 12 years of shooting the same cast while following the story of one (fictitious) boy from first grade until he graduates from high school. The film is long (nearly three hours) but not predictable, impressionistic rather than conflict driven, fascinating given the real-time aging process, and a bit wearying given the boy’s own ennui. A protracted but engaging concept piece…if only the trees had been as interesting as the forest.

SNOWPIERCER: In a deeply frozen, post-apocalypic world, the soylent green-eating “have nots” at the back of a train are led by Chris Evans to fight their way through Tilda Swinton and the other well-feds toward the front. The train-as-world metaphor quickly wore thin for me, and seeing the film on an iPad on a plane diminished the spectacle; however, I still enjoyed it.

Mixed feelings about the JERSEY BOYS film. Most interesting is the fact that the “boys” are stage actors who previously played these roles on Broadway or a national tour. (John Lloyd Young won the Tony for his “Frankie” in 2006.) The results are hit and miss, as is Clint Eastwood’s direction. Vincent Piazza as “Tommy DeVito” best makes the leap and is very good throughout; perhaps his stints on BOARDWALK EMPIRE helped. Art direction is impressive, but hair and makeup are just plain awful. Overall, I enjoyed this (overlong) film, mainly for its nostalgic value.

Can recommend INTO THE WHITE (2012), which is based loosely on a real incident in 1941, when some shot-down British and German flyers were stranded together in the snowy wilds of Norway and had to overcome their enmity in order to survive. Mostly in English and available via streaming on Netflix. I also saw but cannot fully recommend THE RED BARON (2008). The dogfight scenes are solid but the narrative line is mucked up by clumsy jumps in time and a sappy love story. (For some reason, I’m kinda on a Volker Bruch/German war films jag this week.)

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES: A very compelling and enjoyable action-adventure that effectively employs CGI special effects to enhance the believability of the apes and the viability of the story. (Not sure, though, that the 3D experience added that much more.) While Gary Oldman is underused, Aussie actor Jason Clarke shines as the simian-sympathetic human.

THE FAULT IN OUR STARS A tear-jerker, indeed, but not as contrived or manipulative as I had feared, although the score occasionally overshoots. The young leads have great chemistry and are honest and compelling. I didn’t read the book, so I don’t know how the film compares.

EDGE OF TOMORROW A really fun and often funny action-adverture flick with Tom Cruise, still dashing at 51, and Emily Blunt, who is good but feels a bit too legit and out of place in such spectacle. (She’ll always be the Young Victoria to me.) The well-writen first half surpassed the second, which defaulted to special effects.

A day of over-the-top, controversial but brilliant films. Just finished all four hours of Lars von Trier’s NYMPHOMANIAC, Volumes I and II. Brilliant, horrifying, beautiful, revolting, fascinating, graphic, provocative, excessive, memorable. And earlier, I saw Alain Guiraudie’s INCONNU DU LAC (STRANGER BY THE LAKE). Also excellent but sure to offend most. Google for more details. For my artsy-fartsy and free-thinking friends, I strongly recommend both…but probably in the privacy of your homes with the volume turned down. If you are interested, read about the innovative use of body doubles in both films for the sex scenes. Also note that, if you watch NYMPHOMANIAC, you really need to see both volumes in sequence to appreciate the work as a whole.

May movies…waiting for summer school to begin…
★★★★BELLE: exquisite writing, beautiful art direction, touching story and themes, stellar acting (give Gugu Mbatha-Raw the BAFTA now)
★★★★FILTH (on demand): brazen but brilliant; from the same folks who did TRAINSPOTTING; it opens next week in cinemas here
★★★CHEF: great first half (tight, character-driven writing and acting) but rather predictable and too feel-good second half; an outstanding and surprisingly high-profile cast
★★★XMEN: my favorite of the X series: the most character-driven; I’ve already noted my awe of McAvoy and Fassbender
★★CAPTAIN AMERICA: watchable at the time, but I’ve already forgotten it
★★GODZILLA: strong first 30 minutes with Bryan Cranston; CGI snooze-fest after that
★★SPIDERMAN 2: the actors were better than the material; I need to start taking Sally Field’s vitamins
NEIGHBORS: more embarrassing than funny; I hope none of my students saw me there
Bottom line: I’m so over special effects, good guy/bad guy movies, and dumbed-down, predictable stories and characters…but I love the $3 matinees in Huntsville!

Our family Christmas movie was SAVING MR. BANKS, which we saw last night. Beautifully produced movie with some solid performances and touching moments but such cumbersome writing and so unnecessarily long. Overall, a sweet snoozer.

Saw AMERICAN HUSTLE last night and can strongly recommend it: smart writing and brilliant acting. The entire cast is terrific; however, Christian Bale really shines. Comic irony and laughter throughout. Easily the most fun I’ve had at a movie all year. (FYI: The previews don’t really let you know that it’s a dark comedy about a sting operation. Also, it’s 2 1/2 hours long and not family friendly.)