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Arts and Culture (Movie Reviews)

One man proves the human spirit is immeasurable in this war drama

Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell: 300: Rise of an Empire) lived enough for three men in his first 30 years. As a teen, the son of Italian immigrants was a petty thief. His brother suggests that instead of running from the police, Louis should put his speed to work. Throwing his energy into training, he earns a slot on the Olympic track team.
    After an impressive performance at the games, World War II interrupts his plans, and Louis becomes a bombardier in the Pacific theater. On a rescue mission, the plane fails, and Louis and two other crewmen wind up on a small raft in the middle of the ocean.
    The castaways endure more than a month at sea before rescue by a ­Japanese ship. Starving, sunburned and half mad, the Americans are cast into a prison camp.
    This true story has lots of epic plotlines, but, alas, it has little character development. Olympics, lost at sea, prisoner of war — each would make a good movie. Combining all three stories into one movie is overwhelming.
    Director Angelina Jolie (In the Land of Blood and Honey) has the difficult task of weaving these three themes into a seamless film. Despite a script by the Coen Brothers (Inside Llewyn Davis), she doesn’t hit the mark.
    Jolie, who became a friend of Zamperini and his family, may be too close to her subject to do it justice. Louis is saintly even as a juvenile delinquent. He always knows the right thing to do, he’s always brave and he never waivers in his beliefs.
    Though Jolie failed to give Zamperini the depth and coherence he deserves, she found a worthy actor to portray the hero. O’Connell pours raw emotion into the role, showing Louis as an iron-willed man who can endure every punch life throws. But by the time Zamperini becomes a POW, Jolie is set on canonizing him.
    Still, Unbroken is a compelling drama. The scenes of Louis’ struggle to survive at sea are the best in the film, offering humor, drama, horror, action and a compelling narrative.
    If you long for the Old Hollywood war films that feature square-jawed do-gooders who never waver from their commitment to God and country, Unbroken is well worth the ticket. If you’re looking for a more nuanced portrayal of Zamperini’s life, pick up Laura Hillenbrand’s biography instead.

Fair Drama • PG-13 • 137 mins.

Great performances marred by poor focus

A story based on real events, Foxcatcher focuses on Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum: The Book of Life), a gold-winning Olympic wrestler who believes he deserves better. His life is cramped and overshadowed by older brother David (Mark Ruffalo: Begin Again). Himself a gold medalist, David has achieved the standing Mark longs for.
    Mark finds his way out in John du Pont (Steve Carell: Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day), the eccentric heir to the du Pont fortune. A lifelong wrestling fan, du Pont seeks to create a competitive wrestling team around Mark.
    Mark accepts what seems like a dream job and moves to the du Pont estate in Pennsylvania. But John du Pont has a tenuous hold on reality. He buys army tanks to drive around his grounds and practices shooting with the police. When du Pont carries a loaded gun into the gym to motivate the Foxcatcher wrestlers, Mark realizes he’s made a grave mistake.
    Concerned for his brother, David takes a position on team Foxcatcher, putting the three men on a collision course.
    Foxcatcher should be a gripping drama about a mentally ill man with enough money and influence to do as he pleases. Instead, director Bennett Miller (Moneyball) offers an unfocused mess of a film that doesn’t know whose story it’s telling, Mark or David’s.
    Du Pont wanders in and out of scenes like an old-money Bertha Mason, remaining largely a threatening but undeveloped presence. He’s the most dynamic and interesting character in the piece, but Miller is uninterested in him. In 134 minutes, he certainly had time to examine the heir.
    Despite confusion, Foxcatcher features three excellent performances. Always a reliable performer, Ruffalo works hard in an underwritten role to give his character emotional depth. A smart family man and excelling athlete who loves his brother, David is so saintly you assume his receding hairline is caused by his halo abrading his forehead.
    As Mark, Tatum uses his impressive physicality to create a brutish character who prefers to avoid thinking. While hulking through the scenes with mouth agape, Tatum displays sparks of deep hurt and fear. His Mark is a tragic figure who understands that he’s trapped but doesn’t know how to extricate himself.
    With the showiest role in the piece, Carell builds du Pont’s mania slowly, making it easy to dismiss him, at first, as a rich eccentric. As his behavior becomes more disturbing, we share Mark’s dawning realization.

Fair Drama • R • 134 mins.

Silly humor and puns abound in this animated fowl comedy

Penguins who came to prominence as the wisecracking sidekicks in the Madagascar movies are now headlining their first feature film. Bored by the laws of nature, the four set out to find adventure. Voicing the birds are Tom McGrath as Skipper; Chris Miller as Kowalski; Conrad Vernon as Rico and Christopher Knights as Private.
    The quartet fancy themselves secret agents of sorts, and after escaping the confines of the New York City Zoo, the feathered friends set out on their greatest mission yet: breaking into Fort Knox. Instead of gold, the penguins want their favorite discontinued junk food, stored in an ancient vending machine in the depository break room.
    The mission for cheesy treats succeeds, but it catches the attention of Dave (John Malkovich: Crossbones) a zoo octopus resentful at being ignored. Kids and their parents are infinitely interested in the antics of penguins, but cephalopods just aren’t cute enough to hold an audience’s attention.
    Dave escapes the zoo, recruits an eight-legged army and develops a serum that will mutate the world’s penguin population into monsters. How does an octopus become an expert in genetic mutation and engineering? It’s a kids’ movie; don’t think about it too much.
    Narrowly escaping Dave, the penguins move to stop him before he ruins zoos everywhere. The obstacle is The North Wind, a professional animal spy organization led by Agent Classified (Benedict Cumberbatch: The Imitation Game). Classified and his team of highly trained, well-equipped agents dismiss the penguins as bumbling amateurs.
    So the race is on to see which team of do-gooders can stop Dave.
    Filled with puns, slapstick and patently silly situations, kids will delight at the humor while adults are more likely to roll their eyes. If the phrase "Nicholas, cage them" doesn’t tickle your funny bone, Penguins of Madagascar will be a long slog. I love a good pun, but my seatmate was driven to distraction.
    Directors Eric Darnell (Madagascar 3) and Simon J. Smith (Bee Movie) slip in some adult humor so surprisingly clever it might be too obscure for its audience. A cameo by director Werner Herzog is only hilarious if you are familiar with Herzog’s musings on penguins in the documentary Encounters at the End of the World. If you’ve never heard of Herzog, the entire opening joke, which lasts for nearly five minutes, is lost.
    If, like your reviewer, you are a cinephile with a juvenile love of puns — or if you’re under the age of 12 — Penguins of Madagascar is a lighthearted romp. If tough-talking penguins, evil word-playing octopuses and convoluted plots give you a headache, this film is for the birds.

Fair Animation • PG • 92 mins.

A home on the range ain’t all it’s cracked up to be

Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank: Mary and Martha) is a better man than most. Tending a homestead by herself in the harsh Nebraska territory, she’s made her plot a success. But it’s a hard, solitary life. She longs for a family, but the men of the territory revile her self-sufficiency.
    Cuddy’s world is unforgiving. Wind whips the dead earth across the flat expanses of dry brown, treeless land. It’s an easy place to die, especially for a woman. Harsh winters freeze crops and starve livestock, disease claims the young and the weak, roving bands of displaced Native Americans pick off lone settlers, and unscrupulous men believe any unclaimed woman is theirs to abuse.
    Though Cuddy barrels through her solitary existence, the ugly realities of life in the territory outpost are too much for three other women, who develop prairie fever. Theoline (Miranda Otto: Rake) kills her baby after a psychotic break. Arabella (Grace Gummer: American Horror Story) is catatonic with grief after the loss of her three children to a diphtheria outbreak. Gro (Sonja Richter: The Miracle) has become feral after the death of her mother left her alone with her abusive spouse. The three husbands decide the best thing to do is send them East to their families. Each woman is treated like chattel, a defective cow that won’t produce and is unceremoniously sent back to the seller. Though the men want to be rid of their “fevered” wives, none wants to make the long, dangerous journey East.
    Cuddy, the only unattached landowner, volunteers to shepherd the women across the dangerous Nebraska territory to the safety and civilization of Iowa. Because she’s a woman, the town decides that Cuddy must have a homesman, a male guide. Cuddy finds her own help in George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones: The Family), who is about to be hanged for claim jumping.
    George is glad to trade the noose for a job. He chafes at being bossed by a woman, but he needs the money and the whiskey that Cuddy promises at journey’s end.
    An old-fashioned western with a desolate view of life on the frontier, The Homesman is heart-wrenching and beautiful. As well as acting, Jones co-wrote the script and directed, creating a powerful narrative about the ugliness of humanity and nature.
    Working with cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, Jones makes the planes of the territory a character. Each shot emphasizes the isolation and cruel beauty of the surroundings. The sky is a vast kaleidoscope, but the ground is a dull flat expanse in all directions. Houses sit on the horizon line, looking like they’re about to fall off the edge of the earth.
    In his performance and his shooting techniques, Jones pays homage to classic western tropes. Western fans will recognize images from True Grit, Sergio Leone and John Ford films. Jones’ George is an amoral hybrid of Walter Brennan and Rooster Cogburn. It’s one of the brightest and most nuanced performances he has offered in years. It’s a treat to watch Jones leave his usually austere style to whoop it up as a scallywag who isn’t above a fireside song and dance when the mood — or the whiskey — strikes him.
    In the quieter role of Cuddy, Swank is astounding. She sets her jaw and squints into the wind like a true pioneer, her determination to make a life for herself impressive and fearsome. Her Cuddy is a complicated woman whose steel will belies a sad, sensitive soul. When the loneliness becomes too great, she unfurls a felt keyboard and pretends to play piano. It’s an effective character note and arresting visual metaphor for her life on the prairie: Cuddy has the skill but no instrument, so she must be satisfied with the pantomime.
    A fatalist western that places the human condition somewhere between despair and misanthropy, The Homesman isn’t a film for the popcorn crowds. Filled with wonderful acting — there’s even a Meryl Streep cameo — breathtaking cinematography and philosophical questions, it was made for cinephiles. Buy a ticket and be thankful that you don’t have a home on the range.

Great Western • R • 122 mins.

You say you want a revolution. Well you know, we all want to change the world.

Saved from the Hunger Games quarter quell by rebels in District 13, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence: X-Men: Days of Future Past) is haunted by violence and death. Plagued by nightmares and guilt that she left her pseudo boyfriend Peeta (Josh Hutcherson: Catching Fire), she wakes every night screaming.
    The rebels don’t have time for Katniss’ mental troubles. They need her to join their revolution as The Mockingjay, a symbol of truth and justice fighting the corrupt Capital.
    Can this Katniss inspire the nation?
    A movie about rebellion and sacrifice but mostly teen angst, Mockingjay is a placeholder with some great performances. The problem with any Part 1 is that we know Part 2 is coming. We know the stakes aren’t very high. It’s not likely Katniss will die or any decisive battle be fought when the studio has another movie to release in a year. You’re paying $15 for a prologue.
    Lawrence does a great job encapsulating Katniss’ pain and mental angst — within the confines of the material and her costars. Like a typical teen, Katniss is obnoxiously focused on her love life. Her obsession with Peeta is understandable — or would be were she not surrounded by suffering. When thousands are slaughtered in the name of the rebellion, it’s hard not to get frustrated at Katniss’ kneejerk worry about her boyfriend’s pain.
    It doesn’t help that Katniss is paired with two of the biggest drips ever to slump their way through a love triangle. As Peeta, Hutcherson is wooden, diminutive and blond. As Gale, Liam Hemsworth (Catching Fire) is wooden, tall and brunette. Both mope over Katniss, both do the right thing when called upon and both pout prettily in every shot. Watching Katniss waffle between these two ninnies in the face of the serious circumstances makes her seem silly.
    Fortunately, the boys are on the periphery. Director Francis Lawrence (Catching Fire) wisely fills the film with more capable actors to help star Jennifer Lawrence sell a setup plot. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Woody Harrelson, Julianne Moore, Jeffery Wright and Elizabeth Banks all show up for five-minute cameos. Each is excellent, but the movie becomes a bit of a clip show, reminding you of characters you liked in previous films.
    Still, Mockingjay is probably essential viewing if you’re planning on watching Part 2.

Fair Action • PG-13 • 123 mins.

Hero-worship deflects Jon Stewart’s aim for a great movie

Iranian-born journalist Maziar Bahari (Gael García Bernal: El Ardor) has great hopes for his homeland. Living in Canada and working for Newsweek, Bahari specializes in reporting on Iranian politics. In the week leading up to the country’s 2009 elections, he returns to Tehran optimistic that Mir-Hossein Mousavi will be elected president and usher in a more moderate era. The younger generation shares his hope.
    Their hopes are dashed. Fanatically conservative leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is re-elected in a seeming landslide. Iranians take to the streets decrying the election as a fraud and demanding a recount. The government responds with violence, slaughtering protestors.
    Bahari sees it all from behind the camera. Knowing the risk, he gives his footage of the deadly protests to the BBC. The night after the footage leaves the country, Bahari is dragged from his mother’s home and imprisoned.
    Accused of being a spy for the West, he is thrown in solitary confinement where his only human contact is with an interrogator who identifies himself as Rosewater.
    Can Bahari keep his integrity? Or will the government break him as violently as they did the protestors?
    A compelling true tale of one man’s struggle to maintain his sanity under torture, Rosewater scratches at greatness but ultimately settles for mediocrity.
    If you’ve watched a news program in the last 10 years, you won’t be surprised to learn that the repressive Iranian government isn’t a fan of protests or a free press. First-time director Jon Stewart’s choice of graphics adds to the sense that he’s creating an extended news report.
    Stewart also fails to give his subject — hence his lead — much character. Bahari is so unrelentingly saint-like in his persecution that it’s hard to relate to his humanity. Like most saints, Bahari is most interesting when he’s suffering. When he’s free, he’s simply a good guy: He doesn’t judge the political climate, he makes friends wherever he goes, he looks on the bright side, he loves his wife, he chats with friendly ghosts. Add some singing animals, and he’s starring in a Disney movie. His motives are unexamined and his naiveté is improbable. How could Bahari be so shocked by his false imprisonment when his father and sister were held captive for years on trumped up charges?
    Stewart has sacrificed his great movie to hero-worship.

Fair Drama • R • 103 mins.

Who needs superpowers when you have a robot?

Hiro Hamada (voiced by Ryan Potter: Supah Ninjas) is not a nerd. Sure, he graduated high school at 13, but he bypasses higher education for a more lucrative career in robot battles, where his apparently innocuous bot dismantles the fiercest opponent with ease. When Hiro’s hustle runs afoul of both bot-fighting thugs and the police, his older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney: Revolution) decides enough is enough.
    Tadashi forces his little brother to visit his college, which Hiro reviles as Nerd School. He is surprised, however, when he meets Tadashi’s fellow nerds. Students are working on amazing projects utilizing lasers, chemicals and robots. Hiro’s hero, robotics innovator Robert Callaghan (James Cromwell: Murder in the First) is the head of the school.
    Inspired, Hiro ditches the bot battles. But just as he wins a slot in the exclusive school, Tadashi dies in a freak accident.
    Overwhelmed with grief, Hiro resumes his old lifestyle. But his pain activates Tadashi’s passion project, a health bot named Baymax (Scott Adsit: St. Vincent) who cannot be deactivated until his patient is satisfied with his care. Hiro wants nothing to do with the bot, but Baymax is unyielding.
    As Hiro bonds with Baymax, he discovers that Tadashi’s death might not have been accidental. Hiro plans to catch the killers by reprogramming Baymax and recruiting Tadashi’s classmates. Using science, they become superheroes.
    A story about love, grief and revenge, Big Hero 6 is a superhero movie for worshipers of brain over brawn. Directors Don Hall (Winnie the Pooh) and Chris Williams (Bolt) give their movie substance as well as spectacle. They spend time cultivating the Hiro/Tadashi relationship, ensuring we feel Hiro’s loss, crushing grief, need for revenge and moral quandaries.
    The brothers’ relationship gives the story its emotional context. Star power comes from the inflatable health bot. Uncomplicated, slow-moving and rotund, Baymax is a robotic Pooh Bear. As voiced by Adsit, he is both childlike and wise, the perfect companion for a grieving boy. When Hiro attempts to change the bot’s basic programming, Baymax reveals that he might be more complex than he seems.
    Big Hero 6 is a kids’ film with big ideas. But it doesn’t always give time to developing them. The plot can feel rushed, and the main mystery is easily solved by anyone over the age of 10. Tadashi’s friends rarely rise above stereotypes (the tough girl, the neat freak, the idiot and the girly-girl), but top-notch voice work gives them personality.
    The story for this animated Disney film is adapted from a Marvel comic book.

Good Animation • PG • 108 mins.

Michael Keaton wows in this darkly funny drama

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton: Need for Speed) was in style about the same time as acid-wash jeans. The superstar lead of the popular Birdman film series did not fare well as a real actor. His fall was fast from blockbuster action star to bad bit parts.
    Now nearly forgotten, soft in the middle and desperate to prove his relevance, Riggan has mortgaged his home and sunk his assets into bringing his favorite book to Broadway. He plans to adapt, direct and star in the production, reclaiming his legendary standing.
    The only problem? Birdman.
    As Riggan navigates a thousand little crises prepping for opening night, he hears the voice of Birdman. Forget the artsy-fartsy façade, Birdman advises. Go back to the big-budget action flicks that made you a star. With a vicious critic eager to eviscerate the play, a method actor (Edward Norton: The Grand Budapest Hotel) more interested in truth than finishing a performance and an acerbic daughter (Emma Stone: Magic in the Moonlight) fresh out of rehab, Riggan thinks better of Birdman’s suggestions.
    When he develops the ability to move things with his mind, his destiny seems to be his for the making. Is he really Birdman?
    A fascinating mishmash of fact and fiction, Birdman feels like the cinematic equivalent of improvisational jazz. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu (Biutiful) uses crafty camerawork to make the film look like one continuous shot. We feel like we’re inhabiting the same space as the characters rather than observing them. We drop in, follow them around and occasionally leave them behind in search of more interesting people. The practice gives the film a breathless quality, as if Iñárritu has us jogging behind the action.
    As the titular Birdman, Keaton is a revelation. He was Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), so his own story partially mirrors Riggan’s. Since the 1990s, Keaton has wasted his talents on thankless roles and bit parts. Birdman illustrates just what we’ve lost. In it Keaton gives two performances, one as Riggan, one as Birdman, who Keaton carves out as a distinct secondary antagonist, the devil tempting him back to easy cash and artistic drudgery.
    Keaton surges through the movie with a manic energy that is endearing as well as unsettling.
    Birdman is not a film for the popcorn crowd. It is not an unofficial Batman sequel. Iñárritu forces us to work out metaphors and contend with complex characters. If you’re up for an unconventional challenge, this movie will reward you with excellent acting, interesting scripting and breathless cinematography.
    Birdman proves that Keaton ranks with the best actors who ever protected Gotham City.

Great Drama • R • 119 mins.
 

You can do a lot of terrible things, but don’t kill a man’s dog

John Wick (Keanu Reeves: 47 Ronin) is hanging on by a thread. Numbed by the death of his wife, he goes through his daily routine on autopilot. Anticipating her husband’s reaction to her demise, Wick’s wife planned a companion for his recovery: a beagle puppy named Daisy.
    As Wick warms to the pup, a trio of Russian gangsters warms to his tricked-out Mustang. They break into his house, beat him senseless, kill poor Daisy and abscond with the car.
    They picked on the wrong man.
    Before Wick was a hapless widower, he was a hit man for the Russian mob. Criminals called him the Boogeyman. John gave up his kill-crazy ways for marriage. With wife and dog gone, Wick has nothing holding him back. So what if his target is Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen: Game of Thrones), son of Viggo (Michael Nyqvist: My So-Called Father), the head of the Russian mob.
    Brutal, fasted-paced and funny, John Wick is an action film with brains and brawn. The directorial debut of two former stuntmen, David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, the film specializes in a fluid action style that’s exciting and beautiful. There are no garbled clashes of steel and bullets; each fight, car chase and shootout is carefully choreographed.
    Stahelski and Leitch also take great pains to make their movie light. Sure, plenty of blood flies through the air as John slices his way through New York and New Jersey, but the film has a wry sense of humor. Everyone knows the legend of John Wick, from cops to hotel clerks to mobsters, and everyone acknowledges that John’s vengeance will be brutal and most likely unstoppable. Most stay out of his way. Those that don’t grimly acknowledge they’re cannon fodder before engaging him.
    As the eponymous Wick, Reeves embodies an eerie quiet rage. At 50, he still has the physicality and fighting skills of a much younger actor, making him a credible threat when he takes on a room full of baddies. His balance of cool detachment and cold calculation makes Wick likeable yet frightening. When his cool exterior cracks, it reveals an all-encompassing wrath.
    It’s never a question that he will get his revenge. The question is how many necks he’ll have to snap along the way. John Wick is a campy action flick that uses style to make up for substance. It isn’t going to revolutionize cinematic storytelling, but you won’t mind as you watch Reeves barrel through the mob crews of New York.

Good Action • R • 101 mins.

Violence and horror make a surprisingly beautiful war story

Working in a tank is a special kind of hell. For five men the cramped chamber of a motorized cannon is their home, their battlefield and, often, their coffin. With limited visibility, thin armor and light firepower, Sherman tanks were often easy targets, especially against the superior German Tigers.
    The crew of the Fury has so far beaten the odds. Led by Don ‘Wardaddy’ Collier (Brad Pitt: The Counselor), the team has survived combat in Africa, France and Germany. As they roll toward Berlin, they lose their trusted gunner in gruesome fashion. The replacement is a typist named Norman (Logan Lerman: Noah), who’s never been in a tank and is terrified by the prospect of battle.
    As Fury rolls toward combat in the heart of Nazi territory, the seasoned four must make Norman a soldier if they are to survive.
    A brutal, beautiful film about the monsters war makes, Fury offers truths rarely shown in movies about the Greatest Generation. Director/writer David Ayer (Sabotage) looks at these men with respect and sadness, examining the complicated mix of violence and family they depended on to survive.
    As men who have seen it all and wish they hadn’t, Pitt, Shia LaBeouf (Nymphomaniac), Jon Bernthal (Mob City) and Michael Peña (Gracepoint) are realistic versions of stock characters. Pitt is the tough-as-nails leader whose sadistic streak covers the heavy toll of combat. The religious man, LaBeouf quotes scripture to comfort himself in the face of death. Bernthal is the wild man whose chosen analgesic against the horrors is outrageous behavior. Peña is the drunk scrounging ruined towns for his solace.
    Ayer makes Norm our stand-in. With him, we’re thrown amid the Fury crew, no training, no get-to-know-you talks. He must kill or risk his crewmates through inaction.
    Fury doesn’t shy away from the unsavory. Grady gleefully instructs Norman that women will sleep with him for as little as a candy bar. These are desperate women, terrified of the men with guns who could invade their homes, demand their meager possessions or worse. Faced with the choice of rape or rewarded submission, they take the candy bar.
    While Ayer revels in the ugliness of war, he and cinematographer Roman Vasyanov (Charlie Countryman) find ways of making even the claustrophobic tank scenes beautiful. Gripping battles unfold in painterly shots that embody the immense scale of war as well as its personal tolls.
    Fury is easily the best combat film in a decade.

Great Drama • R • 134 mins.