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Women finally get their hero in this ­triumphant DC Comic adaptation

Amazons have thrived for centuries on the island of Themyscira, content to train for battle and broaden their minds with language and philosophy. This matriarchal society follows rules: no men and no leaving.
    But Diana (Gal Gadot: Keeping Up with the Joneses) chafes. Banned from combat training by her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Neilsen: Stratton), Diana learns the art of war in secret from her aunt, the famous general Antiope (Robin Wright: House of Cards). With super strength and powers unmatched by her cohorts, she has the makings of a great warrior.
    Themyscira’s harmony is shattered when a plane crash-lands off the coast, bringing a man and the real world to their shores. Diana saves the man, Steve (Chris Pine: Star Trek Beyond), who she learns is a soldier in something called The Great War. She listens with horror to his stories of mass deaths, human cruelty and suffering. Diana decides that such calamity must have been caused by Ares, the god of war Amazons are sworn to destroy, and sets out with Steve to save the world.
    Based on the wildly popular comic book heroine, Wonder Woman is an astounding departure from the DC cinematic universe. A sincere story about a woman who saves the world, it’s the first quality movie DC has produced since Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight in 2008. With good character work, fun action and a surprising lot of humor, Wonder Woman is the opposite of the shallow, dour orgies of explosions of the studio’s recent past.
    Much of the credit is due to director Patty Jenkins (Exposed), the first woman to direct a film with a budget over $100 million. She develops Diana’s character, introducing a strong but naïve woman trying to understand the foibles of humanity. The focus is on Diana’s finding her place in the world.
    Jenkins also understands the value of a great battle scene. In one goose bump-raising sequence, men watch stunned as Diana charges a machine gun. The scene is socially as well as dramatically significant, as her fights and triumphs will be acted out by a generation of little girls who’ve seen on the big screen that women can do more than supply a love interest for the hero. My theater was filled with young girls clamoring to be the next Diana Prince.
    As the woman behind the Wonder, Gal Gadot turns in a star-making performance. Her Diana is brave, pure of heart and uncowed by social conventions. She stands up for truth and justice, maintaining her beliefs even in the face of horror and cruelty. Characters this earnest can become boring or pedantic, but Gadot makes Diana likeable by showing her inherent kindness. Kindness — not her superior strength or fighting skill — a leader and a hero.
    Wonder Woman isn’t perfect. There are pacing problems, and ancillary characters could be developed further. But overall, this is a heroic effort for both DC and Jenkins. They’ve given the world a great female hero, the first in a big-budget solo film, proving that saving the world is women’s work.

Great Action • PG-13 • 141 mins.

Infidelity might be the best way to mend a marriage

Mary (Debra Winger: The Ranch) and Michael (Tracy Letts: Divorce) are roommates who happen to be married. They barely speak, never eat together and sleep at far corners of the bed. Both seem utterly inconvenienced when they must occupy the same room.
    They have one thing in common: Both are having affairs. Temperamental ballet instructor Lucy (Melora Walters: Beneath the Leaves) throws fits and demands Michael leave his wife. Washed-up writer Robert (Aidan Gillen: Game of Thrones) wants Mary to leave Michael for a new life with him.
    Michael and Mary decide separately to announce the end of their marriage after their son visits from college.
    They’ve made promises to their partners when the unexpected happens. Succumbing to impulse, Mary and Michael discover that their sexual chemistry isn’t dead. Now, they’re sneaking around together.
    The Lovers is a funny, touching and beautifully acted movie about deeply flawed people making terrible decisions. Though the subject seems to be pulled directly from an overwrought drama, writer/director Azazel Jacobs (Mozart in the Jungle) plays it for laughs. He finds humor in the ordinariness of their problems. There are no grand moments or love declarations in the rain. It’s just two middle-aged people looking for a bit more happiness and failing impressively.
    Pacing occasionally falters, dampening the awkward humor. Paramours Lucy and Robert are broadly drawn, so it’s hard to care when Michael and Mary act in ways that could hurt them. Lucy’s tantrums and Robert’s whining make you wonder why anyone would put up with them.
    Nonetheless, The Lovers is saved by its leads. Letts and Winger are wonderful together, offering funny, frank performances. Winger gives Mary depth in her quiet moments, so you can see how trapped she feels in both her life and relationships. This is a woman who wanted more and is realizing she’ll never get it. Letts’ Michael is a man who has lost his dreams and now settles for fantasy. He’s desperate to pretend that his problems are solvable and terrified of making the wrong move.
    With a fantastic cast, deftly witty writing and a concept straight out of a French farce, The Lovers makes ­comedy and drama good bedfellows.

Good Dramedy • R • 94 mins.

Better than average for a series that should have ended with the first film

Henry Turner (Brendan Thwaites: Gods of Egypt) grew up knowing that his father, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom: Unlocked) was cursed to spend eternity as Davey Jones’ replacement at the bottom of the sea. Obsessed with freeing dad and reuniting his family, he scours the legends of the sea for a loophole to allow his father to surface.
    Now he’s recruited once-legendary pirate Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them). Sparrow is now a drunk with a half-built boat seeking treasure to sate his mutinous crew. But self-preservation allies him to Turner’s cause, for he has unwittingly broken the curse that doomed his sworn enemy Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem: The Last Face) to a watery grave.
    Completing the mission is Carina (Kaya Scodelario: The Maze Runner), an orphan whose personal obsession is finding Poseidon’s trident. With the rising dead on their heels and the sea threatening to swallow, are they goners?
    Dead Men Tell No Tales is unique in the Pirates franchise because its director and crew seem to be serious about movie-making. The action is exciting, special effects (especially the waterlogged zombie sailors on Salazar’s crew) are glorious and performances okay.
    Depp is back in fighting form, restoring the wiles to a man searching for redemption.
    He gets fantastic support from Geoffrey Rush (Gods of Egypt) as Captain Barbossa, his frenemy. Rush is an old hand at camping up the morally ambiguous character, making his violence and rotted teeth charming affectations. He hops through each scene on a bejeweled peg leg and holding a gun.
    Bardem gleefully snarls his way across the seven seas, making his Salazar seem a formidable foe. His quiet gravitas and striking eyes emphasize Salazar’s threat. By embracing the madness, Bardem steals nearly every scene, roaring death threats as he menaces all around him with a half-rotted face.
    Alas, the love story is no better than ever, with no chemistry between Thwaites’ Turner and Scodelario’s Carina.
    The plot is so ridiculous that it’s almost impressive with it mash-up of Da Vinci Code clues to a treasure, silly histrionics and about eight extraneous story lines.
    Think twice before taking small children, as there are some creepy zombie pirates and plenty of intense fights.

Good Action • PG-13 • 129 mins.

Ridley Scott is more interested in philosophy than chills in this latest sequel

Leaving Earth in search of a habitable planet, The Covenant carries a crew of married couples plus 2,000 colonists and a few trays of embryos. While the crew and passengers hypersleep, android Walter (Michael Fassbender: Assassin’s Creed) cares for the ship.
    A disaster ends the crew’s slumbers.
    The crippled Covenant’s luck improves when the crew finds a habitable planet nearby. Shall they take a look?
    The one voice of dissent is Daniels (Katherine Waterston: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them), a just-made widow who is second in command. Her objections overruled, Daniels reluctantly accepts a mission to see if this mystery planet is suitable for humans.
    The team finds the planet perfectly habitable yet deserted. The only being they encounter is David (also Fassbender), an android from the ship Prometheus, who has made this empty Earth a lab for his experiments. The crew’s curiosity about the missing Prometheus is tabled when xenomorphs show up to eat them.
    Where is the thrill? Director Ridley Scott, creator of Alien, seems to have forgotten the elements that made his 1979 film a triumph: tight plotting, interesting characters and a realistic threat that was not easily escapable. Today’s Scott is more interested in philosophic debates. It’s difficult to take his weighty subjects seriously as murderous xenomorphs pop up. Dialog is so silly that the audience giggled through talk on the meaning of life, the purpose of survival and the quest to discover our origins.
    Adding insult to injury, we must wait nearly an hour for the aliens, during which time, Scott fails to develop his characters so that later none of their deaths have impact. The one bright spot is Fassbender, who gives both androids distinct personalities and wants.

Poor Sci-Fi/Horror • R • 122 mins.

This mother-daughter comedy is good for a few laughs

Emily Middleton (Amy Schumer: Inside Amy Schumer) is a train wreck. Fired from her retail job and dumped by her boyfriend, she’s reduced to posting selfies on Instagram. Her digital success has not earned her friends, so her only willing companion on a non-refundable trip to Ecuador is her mother, Linda (Goldie Hawn: The Banger Sisters), the one person who has never told her no.
    A bit of a shut-in who still takes care of Emily’s agoraphobic man-child of a brother, Linda reluctantly agrees.
    Emily’s delight gives way to annoyance at her mother’s overprotectiveness and prudish travel rules. Convinced an adventure will chill her mother out, Emily forces her to experience “the real Ecuador.”
    They are promptly kidnapped.
    Alone and terrified, mother and daughter team up to overcome their captors, the unforgiving jungle and their own strife. Are they doomed to be a cautionary tale for other tourists?
    Crude, funny and shallow, Snatched is much like Emily’s character. Director Jonathan Levine (The Night Before) pushes for laughs that are increasingly outlandish. A slapstick sequence involving a tapeworm would be more at home in an Adam Sandler film.
    Schumer has made a career of playing drunken messes, and her role here is no exception. It’s a funny character, but one that becomes successively frustrating the more outrageous her antics become. In her previous film, Schumer had something to say about the pressure women feel to fulfil a “cool girl” archetype. In Snatched, she has nothing to say.
    Hawn is a bright spot as Schumer’s uptight mom. She gamely throws herself into even the most ridiculous gag, wringing laughs out of some truly lame material. It’s good to see the comic legend back on the screen, even if she deserves better material.
    The movie’s real problem is its portrayal of Latin populations. The native people Emily and her mother encounter are either maniacal criminals or simple folk. It’s an insulting portrayal and one that reeks of racism.
    Cultural ignorance and appropriation aside, Snatched lands many of its jokes. When Schumer rambles like the world’s most awkward fish out of water, it’s downright fun.

Fair Comedy • R • 91 mins.

An arms deal goes hilariously wrong in this spirited spoof

In the 1970s, the IRA needs weapons to fight the English. Chris (Cillian Murphy: Anthropoid) and Frank (Michael Smiley: Rogue One) are charged with procuring machine guns. Gun broker Justine (Brie Larson: Kong: Skull Island) makes arrangements with fellow broker Ord (Armie Hammer: Nocturnal Animals) to meet with notoriously odd gun dealer Vernon (Sharlto Copley: Powers).
    The Irish are willing to overlook Vernon’s quirks until one of his henchmen starts a fight. First fists and then bullets fly. Trapped in a warehouse where everyone is armed and hoping to be the last one standing, each criminal decides how to survive.
    As the hours tick by, loyalties change, wounds increase and ways out diminish.
    Free Fire is a gore-filled, funny shoot ’em up reminiscent of early Tarantino. It combines gleeful, violent slapstick, snappy performances and clever writing with substance. In this old-fashioned gunfight, you care who lives to tell the tale.
    Director/co-writer Ben Wheatley (High Rise) makes the best of his small budget. Confining the action to one open space raises the tension while inviting you to explore. Each wide shot has several things going on, so you’ll have to choose where to focus your attention.
    The best part of the film, however, is Wheatley’s peculiar sense of humor. It’s rare to laugh so much in a film that features so many gunshot wounds. The zany incompetence of criminals is mined for all it’s worth by Wheatley, who shows that owning a gun doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a good shot. As these excitable yahoos shoot at each other, winging some and missing others, fans will be reminded of over-the-top comedy in Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs. Wheatley also has a great sense of timing. The film clocks in at a swift 90 minutes, meaning that plot and character are developed quickly and sparingly.
    Wheatley also made the excellent decision to pack his film with excellent character actors. Copley is the clear standout as a boisterous, moronic and arrogant gun dealer hilariously incompetent at just about everything. Hammer is also impressive, delivering deadpan lines as bullets zing by him with so much charm you almost forget he’s trying to kill people.
    In spite of its charms, Free Fire isn’t a bullseye. Some characters could have been cut or refined to streamline the storytelling a bit. Wheatley is also a little too pleased with his quick cut style, which can sometimes confuse the action. But in spite of a few dramatic snags, this film kept the audience at my screening in stitches as the bullets flew.

Good Action • R • 90 mins.

Silly romance mars an important subject

In the mountain villages of Turkey, Mikael Boghosian (Oscar Isaac: X-Men: Apocalypse) is an apothecary with dreams of earning a medical degree. Financing his studies with the dowry from an arranged marriage, he promises to return to his fiancée in two years as a doctor.
    In Constantinople, he lives with his uncle, a wealthy merchant. The life of luxury and the family nanny, Ana (Charlotte Le Bon: Realive) distract him from his classes. Beautiful, free spirited and worldly, Ana is everything Mikael’s fiancée is not. He falls in love but keeps silent because he is honor-bound to marry another.
    Ana, meanwhile, is enjoying an affair with brash American A.P. reporter Chris Meyers (Christian Bale: The Big Short), who anticipates Turkish government will seek to rid the country of its Armenian population.
    As the nationalist movement takes root, Mikael is forced into a work camp where he is starved, beaten and stripped of hope.
    A movie about a genocide still unacknowledged by the Turkish government, The Promise had promise. Instead of exposing the consequences of xenophobia, Director Terry George (Standoff) settled for an Armenian retelling of Doctor Zhivago.
    Miscalculating the appeal of this tiresome romance, he treats us to shot after shot of pretty people pining for other pretty people.
    The male leads, both proven actors, are wasted. The movie soars when their characters discover what the Turks are doing. Devastated by what’s been done to his people, Isaac’s Boghosian plays for heart. Bale’s Meyers is the righteous crusader, fighting to find proof of the war crimes and alert the world.
    Unfortunately, the important story plays background to one of the more tedious romantic triangles in cinema history.

Fair Drama • PG-13 • 132 mins.

Bright colors and silly humor will entertain children but test adults' fortitude

The Smurfs are pretty bored. Seeking adventure are best friends Brainy (voiced by Danny Pudi: Powerless), Clumsy (Jack McBrayer: The Middle), Hefty (Joe Maganiello: Drunk Parents) and Smurfette (Demi Lovato: From Dusk Til Dawn: The Series). Papa Smurf (Mandy Patinkin: Homeland) tries to keep them from getting into too much trouble. It’s a simple life, until an accident shows the young Smurfs a world outside.
    While smurfboarding in the forbidden forest, Smurfette sees a figure that looks like her. The figure drops a hat that is identical to Smurfette’s, and for the first time ever, Smurfette wonders whether she and her blue brethren are really alone. Before she can investigate, Monty, the pet vulture of Gargamel (Rainn Wilson: Adventure Time), kidnaps Smurfette and flies her to the evil wizard’s lair.
    Gargamel has spent years trying to capture the Smurfs so he can turn their magic to his own use. When he learns there might be more Smurfs, he becomes obsessed with finding them. Fearing that Gargamel might find these new Smurfs before they do, Smurfette, Clumsy, Hefty and Brainy set off for the forbidden forest.
    Animation is a tricky genre no longer dismissible as children’s entertainment. Many studios are producing nuanced movies with complex characters, inventive stories and gorgeous visuals. Smurfs: The Lost Village is not one of them. Made solely for its young audience, it features whacky visuals, lots of physical humor and characters defined by their names. At my showing, younger viewers were enthralled with the funny voices, silly antics and pretty colors.
    However, if you’ve ever voted, ordered an alcoholic drink or driven, this film was not made for you.

Poor Animation • PG • 89 mins.

Humans prove to be the real animals in this dramatic war film

In 1939 Warsaw, the Zabinski family — Jan (Johan Heldenbergh: The Tunnel) and Antonina (Jessica Chastain: Miss Sloane) — run a popular zoo.
    Their world is destroyed by invading German tanks and planes. Carpet bombings of the city empty cages, loosing wild animals on the city to be shot down by the Nazis.
    Trying to salvage the remainders of their zoo, the Zabinskis recognize the greater atrocity around them. As Jews are ordered to move to the ghetto, Antonina and Jan put their empty zoo to good use, hiding Jews from the Nazis.
    It’s a dangerous gambit. The Nazis rule by day, transforming cages to storage. By night, the Zabinskis pack their basement and the animal tunnels with people, praying that they’ll be quiet enough to avoid detection.
    The plan works, and the zoo fills with endangered people.
    Still, stress tears the couple apart. Jan goes into the ghetto every day, pretending to collect trash to feed the pigs but instead smuggling out as many men, women and children as his truck will hold. He is haunted by the crimes he witnesses and the conditions people endure.
    Antonina, meanwhile, has caught the eye of Hitler’s head zoologist (Daniel Brühl: The Promise), who shows up at random in hopes of wooing the keeper’s wife. She endures his pawing, but Jan cannot.
    Can the Zabinskis keep their new charges safe?
    Based on the bestselling novel and true story, The Zookeeper’s Wife is a moving but flawed Holocaust drama. Performances are fantastic. But director Niki Caro (McFarland, USA) fails to knit a cohesive whole; time is especially jumbled.
    While Caro adapts Holocaust narrative clichés — children loaded onto trains, burning ghettos and violated women — he uses them effectively. With an extended sequence of Nazi killing of exotic animals, including a bald eagle, he breaks new ground in portraying Nazi evil.
    As the heart of the film, Chastain is a marvel. Strong, kind and willing to make dangerous decisions for the greater good, her Antonina is both an emotional support for traumatized people and their fierce protector. Antonina’s impossible position — beguiling a Nazi to protect her family and her charges — invokes a plot too charged for many movies to dare.
    See it for excellent performances and insight into the history of the resistance in Poland.

Good Drama • PG-13 • 124 mins.

With astronauts this dumb, it’s hard not to root for the alien

The astronauts aboard the International Space Station expect to make history. Hurtling toward them is a probe that has collected what may be proof of life on Mars.
    Station biologist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare: Rogue One) finds a long-dormant single-cell organism among the dust samples. After cursory study, he tries to do the impossible: Resurrect a creature that has been dead for millennia. After a few tweaks to the shuttle’s environment and some nourishment, the cell, named Calvin, comes to life.
    Derry is thrilled, seeing Calvin as key to unlocking medical secrets. Earth is cheering the momentous discovery and lauding the astronauts as heroes. But as Calvin evolves day by day into a more complex organism, the other astronauts worry.
    Eventually, Calvin escapes the lab, as all horrific alien beings must. The critter then begins hunting down veteran astronaut David (Jake Gyllenhaal: Nocturnal Animals), safety specialist Miranda (Rebecca Ferguson: The Girl on the Train), mechanic Rory (Ryan Reynolds: Criminal), navigator Sho (Hiroyuki Sanada: The Last Ship) and captain Kat (Olga Dihovichnaya: House of Others).
    Can the crew stay alive? More importantly: Can they keep Calvin from finding a way to Earth?
    A movie so predictable you’ll swear you’ve already seen it, Life ruins the inherent tension of a horror movie set in a confined space with poor character development, hackneyed dialog and stale plot. Director Daniel Espinosa (Child 44) unsuccessfully tries to build tension using every horror cliché in movie history.
    Pursuit by an alien that disintegrates a body in minutes leaves little room for nuance. Characters reduced to stereotypes — from the serious doctor with a secret to the wise-cracking mechanic — might as well be picked off by an angry alien.
    Nor are any of them capable of doing a job in a rational way. Biologists stick their fingers within striking range of alien species, astronauts panic and no one thinks about escape pods until it’s far too late. Espinosa works so hard to keep the astronauts from escaping their predicament that the creature and its abilities become mythic.
    In fact, there’s an argument to be made that Calvin is the hero of this film. It is smarter, stronger and more interesting than any of the bipeds. Tumbling through space without needing much oxygen, it figures out every trap the astronauts plant and eventually learns how to navigate a space ship. Calvin is not only proof of life on other planets but also proof that human beings are the dullards of the universe.

Poor Sci-Fi Horror • R • 103 mins