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Arts and Culture (Movie Reviews)

The best actor in the film is a dog, who is saved the trial of lines.

Max is the perfect Marine. The Belgian Malinois is a search dog whose job in Afghanistan is sniffing out weapons, explosives and possible trouble for his platoon. His partner Kyle (Robbie Amell: The DUFF), is more than a trainer; he’s Max’s whole world. So when an ambush leads to Kyle’s death, Max is a broken dog. Afraid of gunfire, aggressive and unwilling to be touched, Max has PTSD and is useless to the Marine Corps.
    Kyle’s family is having a similar reaction. Father Ray (Thomas Haden Church: Heaven is for Real) is stoic. Mother Pam (Lauren Graham: Parenthood) cries as she cooks. The only person who seems unaffected is Justin (Josh Wiggins: Hellion), Kyle’s little brother. A videogame-obsessed teenage terror, Justin is too busy committing petty crimes, BMX biking and sassing his parents to care. After Kyle’s death, Justin’s surliness worsens.
    Brought by Marines to Kyle’s funeral, Max refuses to leave the casket. The dog’s fidelity convinces Pam and Ray to take him home. But the traumatized dog refuses any attentions except Justin’s. Deciding responsibility could help the surviving son, his parents put him in charge of Max’s rehabilitation.
    Max has the best intentions and the worst execution. The movie eschews character development and reasonable plot for plodding moral messages. At fault is the script by Boaz Yakin (who also directed) and Sheldon Lettich. Neither writer trusts the audience to understand the themes, instead belaboring their points with cringe-worthy dialog. The duo also has a limited view of Mexican families, trotting out every possible stereotype from gang association to Chihuahuas.
    The best actor in the film is Max, who is saved the trial of lines. Even veteran actors like Church and Graham can’t make much of this script. Portrayed as the dog’s saviors, the family chains him outside, without shelter or water, in Texas. That’s animal abuse. Ray lectures Justin on the importance of the dog one moment, and the next is willing to shoot him. Graham has the thankless job of being the subservient mother unyieldingly supportive of her men.
    The dog is this movie’s saving grace. Malinois are expressive by nature, and Yakin capitalizes on every ear twitch and head tilt. Max’s antics are amusing, his ability to search grids and leap over obstacles is inspiring and the story of the dogs who have served alongside U.S. troops since World War I is fascinating. Young viewers will be captivated by the pretty dog, but a few violent scenes of war and shootouts may scare them.

Fair Family Film • PG • 111 mins.

Pixar explores the mind and emotions of a girl on the brink of adulthood

Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler: Parks and Recreation) was the first emotion Riley (Kaitlyn Dias: The Shifting) knew. Joy wasn’t alone long, 33 seconds after popping into Riley’s mind, she’s joined by Sadness (Phyllis Smith: The Middle), Anger (Lewis Black: Let Freedom Laugh), Fear (Bill Hader: Trainwreck) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling: The Mindy Project).
    For 11 years, Joy led the team, controlling Riley’s responses to the world and safeguarding her memories. All the emotions love Riley, but Joy is particularly protective, trying to keep the others from making Riley feel anything but happiness. Joy’s nemesis is Sadness, a well-meaning but mopey figure who Joy feels is unnecessary. Excluding Sadness proves harder as Riley ages.
    When Riley’s family moves to a new city, Sadness becomes more assertive. Riley flounders, and Joy blames Sadness.
    After Sadness accidentally corrupts Riley’s core memories, she and Joy are sucked into long-term memory, leaving Anger, Fear and Disgust trying to take over.
    Can Joy find her way back to Riley’s control center? Will Sadness find a way to contribute? What goes on in the minds of little girls?
    Directed by Pete Docter (Up) and first-timer Ronaldo Del Carmen, Inside Out is a funny and honest look at a girl on the brink of adulthood. The filmmakers consulted psychologists to perfect the science of Riley’s mind, but the film doesn’t feel like a lesson. Each facet of Riley is beautifully realized with an explosion of color and imagination. From French fry forests to vampire teen boyfriends, there’s plenty to relish as Joy and Sadness try to find their way home.
    Docter and Carmen rely on their vocal cast to fill in their world. Poehler and Smith are particularly good as foils who must learn to appreciate each other. Black is perfectly cast as anger, and Hader is a shrill delight as fear. But Richard Kind (Happyish) steals the film as Bing Bong, Riley’s imaginary friend long relegated to a dark corner of imagination land.
    Pixar is at its best when it takes on big concepts, such as loss (Up), growing up (Toy Story series) and love (WALL•E). In Inside Out, Pixar delves into the psyche of a child on the verge of puberty who is learning that life is filled with complex emotions. The film captures the death of childhood and the birth of a more multifaceted emotional life, both celebrating and mourning the changes required. The parts of childhood we build upon and the parts we let go shape us, and as Riley’s emotional life becomes richer, her emotions must learn to work together lest they spin her out of control.
    The genius of Pixar is making a film for everyone in the theater, from the wide-eyed kid with a bedtime to the jaded reviewer with a notepad on her knee. The brain crew is colorful, funny and engaging for little ones, and though their deeper struggles and symbols might be lost on the Sesame Street crowd, they will hit home for parents and teens.
    Docter has a knack for finding heart and nobility in every character. This tender treatment of a young girl’s emotional journey is worth a ticket and a few tissues.

Excellent Animation • PG • 94 mins.

Behind a great man, a woman more qualified

CIA top agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law: Black Sea) is handsome, smooth and comes out on top in a fight. Fine’s secret isn’t training or a vodka martini, shaken not stirred. Behind Fine’s success is CIA analyst Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy: Mike and Molly).
    Cooper who gathers intel, memorizes building plans to lead Fine in and out, warns him when bad guys approach. Though qualified as a field agent, Cooper is content to be the voice in Fine’s ear, eschewing credit to support the man she secretly loves. Fine barely notices, treating her like Siri, a neat toy that can answer all his questions.
    An intelligence leak leads to Fine’s death at the hands of crime boss Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne: Annie), who has uncovered the identities of all the top CIA operatives. Reeling from Fine’s death, Cooper volunteers to track Rayna and the portable nuke she’s marketing. The CIA is desperate enough for an operative Rayna’s people won’t recognize to overlook her 10 years out of the field.
    Cooper is issued a cover identity, a gun and a mission.
    A mashup of James Bond and Inspector Clouseau, Spy is a hilarious comedy buoyed by smart writing, enthusiastic performances and snappy action. Writer/director Paul Feig (The Heat) crafts a comedy that empowers, a rarity in blockbuster filmmaking. Spy has plenty of obscene humor, sight gags, physical comedy and witty dialog, but the director’s feminism sets it apart. Feig is interested in how often women allow themselves to be overlooked. In Spy, all of the women are capable, funny and smart; they just don’t know it until they’re tested.
    In the real world, too, McCarthy has long needed a film worthy of her talents. Usually her weight is the punchline. Forced to fall over, act like an oddball or hit on men who react with revulsion, she has spent much of her career as a side show. In Spy, she’s allowed to be a person, not a shtick. Her Cooper is a smart, funny woman who discovers that she’s a natural in the field.
    McCarthy carries the film and has a great supporting cast backing her up. As the ruthless, snobby Rayna, Byrne is delightfully snarky. She spars admirably with McCarthy and manages to make Rayna somewhat likeable in spite of her evil ways. The real surprise of Spy, however, is action hero Jason Statham as rogue spy Rick Ford. Usually a snarling, serious presence, Statham proves himself to be a comedic talent by lampooning his man-of-action image. He spews ridiculous tough-guy talk and takes pratfalls like a champ. His chemistry with McCarthy crackles as he competes with her to take down the criminals.
    A few jokes and sequences fall flat, as Feig has a tendency to push a joke a bit too far. But the laughs greatly outweigh the groans in this rare R-rated comedy that’s both smart and funny. Buy a ticket to see Melissa McCarthy show the James Bond wannabes what a real spy looks like.

Great Comedy • R • 120 mins.

It’s a disaster!

Rescue pilot Ray Gaines (Dwayne Johnson: Furious 7) has saved countless lives. But he was unable to save his daughter from drowning on a family trip. Haunted by memories, Ray drove away his wife Emma (Carla Gugino: Match) and his surviving daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario: Burying the Ex). Now he longs to have them back.
    What could possibly mend this broken family?
    How about a catastrophic earthquake along the California coast?
    When the earthquake strikes, buildings topple, streets open into gaping maws and thousands struggle for survival. This would be a compelling scenario — if our hero cared. Instead of doing his job as a firefighter, Ray reroutes his helicopter — effectively stealing it — to rescue his wife and daughter. What’s a few hundred lives when your ex needs you?
    The biggest fault in San Andreas is lack of tension. Director Brad Peyton (Journey 2: The Mysterious Island) choreographs a massive earthquake with computer graphics and stirring music. But there is never any question about the outcome. You know Ray will save his wife and daughter and that they will reunite.
    It is possible to make a good disaster movie. The original Poseidon Adventure (1972) showed us how to use disaster to explore a group of characters — before devastating us by killing them. It’s a tried-and-true formula ignored by modern filmmakers. Why develop interesting characters when you can use computers to animate destruction? In these bloodless disasters, we watch cities crumble without the bother of emotion.
    Because the stakes are so low, performances are uneven. Johnson, who’s played this role so many times he could do it in his sleep, isn’t so much acting as flexing his natural charisma. A great star with a commanding presence, he has yet to find a project worthy of his personality.
    Gugino isn’t as lucky. As the damsel in distress, she’s forced to stare admiringly at Johnson, follow mutely behind him and panic so he can manfully calm her. Though she can hit the right hysterical notes, it’s an embarrassing role for a reliable character actress.
    Loud, silly and wholly unsatisfying, San Andreas is the type of film giant tubs of popcorn were made for.

Ridiculous Action • PG-13 • 114 mins.

Focus on the future; forget the plot

As a little girl, Casey Newton (Britt Robertson: The Longest Ride) dreamed of reaching the stars. Her father (Tim McGraw: Country Strong), a NASA engineer, always told her it was possible. But as Casey enters high school, that dream seems light-years away.
    Her dreams fall before her eyes when NASA tears down the Cape Canaveral launch pad near her home and lay offs her father. It seems the world has stopped dreaming and stopped reaching for the stars. The environment is crumbling, violence around the world is skyrocketing.
    Just as Casey is about to give up on her dreams and the world, she discovers a mysterious pin. Touching it transports her to the futuristic Tomorrowland, where energy is clean, people are happy and space exploration is a high school requirement.
    Fascinated, Casey seeks to know more. She finds Frank Walker (George Clooney: The Monuments Men), a former child prodigy who lived in Tomorrowland. He has grown into a bitter hermit exiled after inventing something bad. Though he refuses to speak to her, Casey’s presence tips off Tomorrowland security, which rushes to contain her.
    Can Casey elude the security forces? Will Frank take her to Tomorrowland? How can a movie be beautiful and boring at the same time?
    Tomorrowland promises excellence. Robot henchmen, a girl who can lift a car, ray guns, hover trains, George Clooney. Yet it’s overlong, oversimplified and sometimes just plain dull.
    For all its attempt to say big things, Tomorrowland lacks nuance and depth. Director Brad Bird (Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol) builds a stunning world, but the philosophical questions he ­raises, though sophomoric, are never answered — even explored. The premise of keep dreaming, everyone! would look great on a poster outside Tomorrowland in Disney World (which is the inspiration for the film).
    The biggest problem is that Bird builds a visually sumptuous future world but denies us exploration rights. Plenty of panning shots show us technology, but we only meet one inhabitant, the film’s antagonist. Without people, the beautiful visuals are a hollow façade.
    Not all is lost. Clooney and Robertson have excellent chemistry, so the film comes alive when they interact. The problems arise when the film attempts to expand on the world beyond them. Supporting players fall flat, plotlines go nowhere and motivation is murky.
    Tomorrowland isn’t a failure, but it wastes a lot of its potential. We could hope such an advanced society would be better at telling its story.

Fair Fantasy • PG • 130 mins.

Embrace the madness

In a post-apocalyptic desert, a man flees a hoard of irradiated bikers. The bikers, pale and riddled with tumors, need “blood bags” — men with clean blood — to stave off the effects of radiation sickness. Max (Tom Hardy) is caught and hanged from a makeshift IV poll for the draining.
    Thee bikers serve Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a ruthless warlord. Controlling the only clean water source, he forces the locals to serve him or face certain, excruciating death. His brainwashed biker “war boys” gladly do his bidding. Non-irradiated women are forced to become his brides as he attempts to breed a “clean” bloodline for his empire.
    But Immortan’s loyal war party driver Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) takes an unexpected detour to free his brides, driving them to safety in a fabled green land. His war boys follow.
    Will Max join Furiosa to save the women? Or will his survival instinct keep him out of the fray?
    A two-hour chase, Mad Max: Fury Road is a loud, crazy blur of twisted metal and mutilated flesh. It’s also one of the best action movies made in the last three decades. Director George Miller, who helmed the original Mad Max franchise, expounds on the visual insanity of the earlier film. Every frame is a painting, each camera movement chosen to help Miller choreograph the on-screen chaos. This type of gonzo filmmaking won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s a bold, complete vision that is impressive to behold.
    Fury Road is also a deceptively simple film with a lot to say about gender politics, disabilities and religion. Miller makes Max an observer of the world, a would-be hero who routinely fails. The real hero is Furiosa, a one-armed woman who brazenly defies a brutal dictator to save enslaved women and expose Immortan Joe as a false idol.
    As Max, Hardy is pitch-perfect in what could be a generic role. Though he’s nearly silent for the first hour, Hardy is able to imbue Max with both emotion and humor. Hardy’s Max is driven to survive at all costs but is still haunted by those he couldn’t save — the perfect hero for a land that has lost all sense of morality.
    A colossus of a film, filled with metaphor, gore and intense action, Mad Max: Fury Road crafts an insane yet fascinating world. Look deeper for interesting commentary on society, or sit back with a bucket of popcorn and enjoy the greatest chase movie of the new millennium.

Great Action Movie • R • 120 mins.

A feminist love story set in an un-feminist time

Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan: Skylight) has no place in Victorian society. Uninterested in being a governess and resentful of the roles forced on women in 1870s’ England, she escapes to her aunt’s small farm. There she works the land, rides astride instead of sidesaddle and generally acts in ways that would give proper women the vapors.
    Her wild nature attracts farmer Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts: The Loft), who woos her with lambs and promises of a stable life. Bathsheba likes Gabriel but loves her freedom and rejects his proposal.
    An unexpected inheritance grants Bathsheba even more freedom. She is given her late uncle’s massive farm estate and with it a small fortune. Now in want of nothing, Bathsheba sets about becoming a gentlewoman farmer. Though her staff and the town are skeptical of a woman managing money, crops and livestock, Bathsheba proves a brilliant businesswoman and capable farmer.
    With money, land and freedom, Bathsheba sees no reason to take a husband. But suitors flock to her side, hoping to be the one to tame the wild woman. Her neighbor, wealthy farmer Mr. Boldwood (Michael Sheen: Masters of Sex) becomes obsessed with Bathsheba after she sends him a Valentine as a joke. Soldier Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge: Effie Gray) tempts Bathsheba with promises of passion and sex. And Gabriel, who lost his farm in a tragic twist of fate, returns to Bathsheba’s side to work as her shepherd and offer her advice.
    Which of the men will Bathsheba choose? Why should she choose any?
    Thomas Hardy’s 19th century novel Far From the Madding Crowd is a bit of pastoral soap opera. Director Thomas Vinterberg (The Hunt) honors Hardy’s love of the pastoral but shifts the focus to Bathsheba’s independence. Each frame of the film is a painting, bringing out the beauty of the countryside and the occasional brutality of farm life. A stunning sequence involving the death of a flock of sheep is both horrifying and oddly poetic as filmed by Vinterberg.
    Because Vinterberg is cramming several hundred pages of plot into 119 minutes, the film jumps around a bit. Book readers will know how much time has passed between scenes, but moviegoers may be confused. Still, the director captures the spirit of Bathsheba and the world she inhabits.
    As the independent Bathsheba, Mulligan is a revelation. She gives her all the follies of youth, including impetuous, bratty behavior, without making her seem willfully cruel. This Bathsheba is a smart, strong girl, whose fire and drive make her a heroine worth rooting for.
    Representing the three men who hope to tame her, Schoenaerts, Sheen and Sturridge are all excellent foils. Typically cast as a bruiser, Schoenaerts is surprisingly tender as Gabriel. Sheen is a ball of manic nerves and odd ticks as the obsessive Boldwood. Sturridge gets the least to do as Troy, but he manages to excrete an oily charm.
    A beautifully shot, brilliantly acted tale of love, lust and sheep, Far From the Madding Crowd is a great companion to the Hardy novel. Like the men who surround her, you’re likely to fall for Mulligan in this stunning film.

Great Drama • PG-13 • 119 mins.

A highbrow popcorn flick for the masses

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.: The Judge) dreams of a world without The Avengers. He’s been secretly experimenting with artificial intelligence in hopes of creating a legion of AI peacekeepers to safeguard the world from aliens, disasters and humanity. He sees this legion as his new legacy, erasing his years in the weapons industry.
    When The Avengers recover the scepter of Loki, Stark and his science buddy Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo: Foxcatcher) examine its power source. What they discover is Ultron (James Spader: The Homesman), an artificial intelligence capable of thought without programing. Stark wants to upload immediately; Banner wants to investigate.
    Stark — who has apparently read no science fiction — wins. Upon evaluating the human race, Ultron makes his assessment: Humanity needs to evolve or die. To begin the fix, he targets a group that regularly injures people and destroys towns: The Avengers.
    Whoops.
    Can Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Hulk and Iron Man rid the world of Ultron? Or is the team that swore they’d protect Earth going to cause its destruction?
    Age of Ultron is an action-adventure movie following in the grand tradition of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis. It isn’t about the plot; it’s about watching charismatic actors throw punches and dodge projectiles.
    Director Joss Whedon (Much Ado About Nothing) squeezes some surprisingly nuanced writing into a film where a large green man tosses cars at a man in a robot suit. The concept is an old one: What makes each superhero special also holds him or her prisoner. Captain America is a man lost to time; he needs a war to find a purpose. Banner has vast power when he becomes the Hulk, but he’s horrified by the collateral damage incurred by his uncontrollable episodes. Black Widow is an assassin with a bloody past for which she can not forgive herself, no matter how much good she does.
    The biggest drawback to Age of Ultron is time. There are too many characters, too much plot and ultimately too much movie. Whedon’s expanded the universe, and its new characters detract from characters we know. The result is a movie epic in scale but shallow in story.
    Filled with quotable lines, fun action and a clever villain, Avengers: The Age of Ultron is the rare mass-market film that can please most audiences. Whether you’re into historical jokes or physical comedy, Age of Ultron has something that will please you.

Good Action • PG-13 • 141 mins.

Is humanity suited to play god?

Code writer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson: Unbroken) gets the break of a lifetime when he wins a contest to meet his boss, tech genius Nathan (Oscar Isaac: A Most Violent Year). The trip of a lifetime begins oddly: Caleb is loaded onto a helicopter, flown to the middle of nowhere, dropped off in a field and told to follow the river.
    He arrives at Nathan’s secluded cabin, where he’s given a keycard and a nondisclosure agreement. If Caleb signs, Nathan promises to reveal the real reason behind the trip; if he refuses, Nathan will hand him a beer and wish him the best.
    Eager to impress his boss and find out what innovations await, Caleb signs. Nathan in turn spills the beans: The spacious woodland home isn’t a residence; it’s a research facility. Nathan has invented the first artificially intelligent machine, and he wants Caleb to administer a Turing Test to determine whether his creation has consciousness.
    Upon meeting the machine, Ava (Alicia Vikander: Seventh Son), Caleb is astounded by the technology. He is also charmed. As Caleb and Ava bond, Nathan’s erratic drunken behavior and the facility’s frequent power outages grow worrisome. During one blackout, Ava implores Caleb not to trust Nathan.
    Creepy, tense and deeply thoughtful, Ex Machina is sci-fi for thinking moviegoers. Writer/director Alex Garland (Dredd) creates an uneasy world heavy with film reference and metaphor. So much is owed to 2001: A Space Odyssey that it wouldn’t be out of place to hear HAL’s voice boom through the sparse white and gray rooms. Garland also uses his directorial debut to show off a talent for camera work. Each frame is carefully constructed to build tension. Glass walls reveal vast yet claustrophobic space. Objects are a little off center in the frame, throwing the viewer off kilter.
    Garland’s greatest triumph, however, is his script. It works equally as rumination on the nature of invention, debate on what makes us human or metaphor for misogyny in the modern world. Viewers can dig deep to follow these themes or simply enjoy the interplay among three characters trapped in a small space.
    As Caleb, Gleeson is full of admiration and moral certainty. Once he begins to question, Gleeson lets his character unravel spectacularly. In the showier role of Nathan, Isaac is superb. He slinks into rooms, leers and drinks, his huge bushy beard making him a Howard Hughes-like figure.
    However, Vikander is the star of the film. As Ava she manages to imbue her character with childlike wonder, intelligence and burgeoning sexuality. Vikander’s nuanced performance makes Ava’s sexuality part of her embrace of humanity and learning about interaction. She is both heartbreaking and frightening as a machine who may be more human that the men evaluating her.

Great Sci-Fi • R • 108 mins.

Who knew ghosts could get WiFi?

On the anniversary of a friend’s suicide, Blaire (Shelley Hennig: Teen Wolf) and Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm: About a Boy) are too busy sexting to mourn. When their steamy Skype session is interrupted by friends, the teens are annoyed. When a stranger joins the group video chat, they are disturbed.
    Assuming the faceless presence is a glitch, they try rebooting, then force-quitting, but the intruder remains. Most reasonable people would now close their laptops for the night, but these are not reasonable people; they are teens. So they continue the chat.
    Next, the presence types.
    The intruder claims to be Laura Barns, the friend who killed herself after an embarrassing video appeared on the Internet. Laura doesn’t want to fondly reminisce; she wants to know who in her inner circle did the upload.
    The teens aren’t convinced until Laura spills secrets. First comes humiliation of the friends one by one. Then it wants blood. As the teens drop, Blaire and Mitch try to figure out who is holding them hostage on Skype and how they can get out with their lives.
    The scariest element of Unfriended might be how well this cyber horror movie is executed. The entire film takes place on Blaire’s desktop as she toggles between chat windows, Facebook, the Internet, iTunes and Skype. The camera never moves; we never change locations. Yet director Leo Gabriadze keeps the plot of his feature film debut moving and the tension high.
    All physical action is restricted to the Skype windows, so we can select which character to watch.
    For a movie about the Internet generation, Unfriended has a lot of reading. Key plot points are cleverly uncovered as Blaire responds to messages, before deleting the revealing information she typed and changing her text to words more vague. If you can decipher her hieroglyphic-like text speak, you’ll find interesting character notes in her writing. If you’re over the age of 30, you may want to bring a teen along to translate, as no subtitles are offered.
    The film makes only one major misstep: The teens are such vapid, annoying little twits that when the blood splats across webcams, it’s hard not to root for the vengeful party. The teens have two basic emotions: nasty narcissism and voice-cracking hysterics.
    When everyone is screaming it can be a little overwhelming, and none of the characters generates anything close to sympathy. Still, there is a reason slasher films kill off sinners, jerks and fools: the audience enjoys gore without guilt.
    Unfriended is a surprisingly successful twist on the slasher genre that will speak to teens and entertain their parents. It might even convince teens to put their mobiles down, lest they too find the ghost in the machine.

Good Horror • R • 83 mins.