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Arts and Culture (Movie Reviews)

Disney gives kids a talk on racism that parents also need to hear

In the metropolis of Zootopia, predators and prey have evolved past biological impulses. Lions and lambs live together in harmony and work for the future of all mammal kind.
    Everyone lives in peace, but not all things are equal. Predators tend to jobs that require forceful personalities, such as police officers or poli­ticians. Prey cluster in service fields. So Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin: Once Upon a Time) is laughed at for dreaming of joining the Zootopia police force.
    A tiny bunny with a quick mind and bold spirit, Judy isn’t an obvious choice for a force full of powerful wolves, elephants and lions. But she doesn’t let her size or status stop her. Judy finds ways to outwit and outmaneuver other classmates until she’s tops at the Police Academy.
    But prejudice endures, and her police captain (voiced by Idris Elba: Beasts of No Nation) refuses to give her cases. To prove herself by cracking a case that’s stumped fellow officers, she teams up with Nick (voiced by Jason Bateman: The Gift), a con artist fox.
    Can a fox and a bunny work together? Or are they doomed by biology?
    In the era of Black Lives Matter protests, Zootopia is a timely story about the insidious nature of bigotry. The film explores the hurt wrought by harmless assumptions and teaches kids the dangers of judging on preconceptions.
    The most interesting part of the message is that everyone is guilty of stereotyping. Good people aren’t good because they’re without prejudice but because they can acknowledge poor behavior, apologize to those they’ve hurt and change. It’s a message that should help parents start a very tricky talk about discrimination.
    Zootopia also offers small viewers a great female role model. Judy is tiny and weak, and she fails a lot. But she doesn’t stop trying to achieve her dream. A fiercely independent bunny with a great work ethic, Judy remains kind and caring to all. It is wonderful for children to see that she can be both kind and tough without compromising who she is or what she believes.
    Bateman’s Nick is the sly foil to Goodwin’s perky bunny. Because he’s a fox, he’s assumed to be a liar and a thief. And that’s what he’s become, in a direct lesson on the consequences of stereotyping.
    Even little ones who are too small to understand Zootopia’s range of social commentary will enjoy the animal puns, silly humor and gorgeous animation. Zootopia doesn’t carry the same emotional impact as a Pixar film, but it more than makes up with meticulous animation, family-friendly humor and its timely, believable message. 
    If you’re looking for a way to open a conversation with your kids about racism and the harm it causes, Zootopia will help you get the ball rolling.

Great Animation • PG • 108 mins.

One man soars toward his dream in this winning underdog tale

Eddie Edwards (Taron Egerton: Legend) isn’t a winner. With braces on his legs and thick glasses covering most of his face, Eddie doesn’t look the Olympian. Yet that’s his dream, and when the braces come off, training begins.
    But for what? He starts chucking javelins, attempting high jumps and lifting weights. Eddie breaks plenty of pairs of glasses — but no records — as he fumbles toward Olympic glory.
    Eddie’s mother is endlessly supportive. His father wishes Eddie would stop with this nonsense and become something respectable, like a plasterer. Eddie perseveres, deciding to go for gold as an Olympic ski jumper.
    Three problems get in the way: First, Eddie has never ski jumped. Second, no ski jumper has represented England in the Olympics for decades. Third, ski jumping is one of the most dangerous winter Olympic sports; an inch off on a landing can shatter a jumper’s legs or spine.
    His first few runs are disastrous. He’s the laughing stock of the slopes. Practiced at ignoring ridicule, he continues his dangerous pursuit. Eventually he catches the eye of ski jumping burnout Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman: Pan). Eddie and the former Olympian team up for an unconventional story of Olympic glory.
    A multitude of sports movie clichés should make Eddie the Eagle unwatchable. Yet Jackman and Egerton’s winning chemistry make the film charming. Director Dexter Fletcher (Sunshine on Leith) lets his actors do most of the work. His big burst of originality is the montage of young Eddie seeking his sport.
    Taron Egerton brings a marvelous oddity to the role of Eddie. He is a twitchy, nerdy little man, but his many quirks belie his steely nerve. You can’t help rooting for him and might well break into applause during his death-defying jumps.
    Jackman gives one of his best performances in years. Instead of shouting and gesticulating, he pulls back, making Bronson’s a sardonic figure instead of a clown.
    A sweet story of one man’s journey to Olympic greatness, the film will leave you cheering.

Good Sports Comedy • PG-13 • 106 mins.

A flawed but funny romantic comedy

Four New York women explore the complexities of love.
    Alice (Dakota Johnson: 50 Shades of Grey) moves to the city to find herself. But single life in the big city is rough, and she can’t get her boyfriend back. Alone and hoping for a grand romance, she restarts her search for Mr. Right.
    Alice’s sister Met (Leslie Mann: Vacation) is at the other extreme. This independent Ob/Gyn looks for happiness in work rather than love. When she decides to have a baby, she visits a sperm bank and prepares for single-motherhood. Pregnant and content, she meets a younger man who makes her rethink singlehood.
    Coworker Robin (Rebel Wilson: Pitch Perfect 2) lives for hookup. Drinking and sleeping her way through the city, Robin offers to be Alice’s guide to single life.
    Lucy (Alison Brie: Doctor Thorne) lives over Alice’s favorite bar. So determined is she to find the right man that she designs algorithms to help her navigate dating sites. Then a promiscuous bartender tempts her to follow her heart rather than her chart.
    Will any of these women find love? Or is life in the city heart-crushing?
    A surprisingly progressive romantic comedy, How to be Single suffers from a single problem: Alice. The lead of this ensemble piece is such a boring, spineless mope that it’s amazing she’s capable of making friends, let alone attracting love. It isn’t Johnson’s fault; she does what she can with terrible material. It’s insipid characterization by director Christian Ditter (Love, Rosie)
    The other actresses are more entertaining, and the film works best when Ditter lets them riff. Mann is the most likeable, while Wilson takes a page from John Belushi’s playbook, acting the buffoon. Brie is an odd case. She is charming but separate from the other women, popping up now and again like a Jack-in-the-box.
    Though uneven and underwritten, How To Be Single offers some interesting options. Each woman gets a happy ending, though perhaps not the one she imagined. Some find that romance isn’t the only route to love and satisfaction. Love can flourish with a good friend, or within yourself. It’s a powerful message that subverts the notion that marriage is the narrow road to happiness ever after.

Fair Romantic Comedy • R • 110 mins.

Deadpool

This Ferris Bueller of superheroes shows the Marvel squares how it’s done

Former Special Forces soldier Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds: Self/less) is a terrible hero, eking out a living as a mercenary. His main interests are having sex with his girlfriend Vanessa (Morena Baccarin: Gotham), starting bar fights and cracking wise.
    Then Wade is diagnosed with terminal cancer. To buy time with Vanessa, he signs up for experimental treatments at a shady corporate facility. Unsurprisingly, Wade is subjected to terrible things.
    The experiments leave him disfigured but able to quickly heal and regenerate tissue. Vowing vengeance, Wade dons a red costume, grabs a gun and introduces himself as Deadpool.
    Director Tim Miller makes his feature debut with a clever take on a hackneyed story. Miller subverts your basic hero-origin story by exaggerating all of the familiar tropes. The film mocks everything from the X-Men to star Reynolds’ disastrous performance in The Green Lantern. The opening credits set the tone, mocking superhero actors, crew and concept.
    The only Marvel character aware that he’s in a comic book, Deadpool also knows he’s in a movie. He pauses the action to talk directly to the audience and joke about Marvel franchises. He is, in essence, the Ferris Bueller of superheroes. Reynolds runs with it, creating a hero who’s sarcastic, violent and oddly loveable. He and his character thrive on outrageousness, which works well in a film that revels in the ridiculous.
    The supporting cast, including cameos by a few X-Men, help make Deadpool light fun. An especially odd sequence featuring his adventures with a cab driver morphs in no time from silly to sick. Deadpool’s shocking humor works because the whole cast trades barbs as easily as they trade blows.
    Deadpool is not for the faint of heart or the easily offended. Action, comedy and vulgarity are the standards this film rises to, with plenty of naked people, curse words and exploding heads to keep the popcorn masses enthralled. But if you’re tired of the milquetoast brand of superheroes mass-marketed with every new Marvel release, Deadpool will energize you.

Great Action • R •108 mins.

This old west melodrama could do with more bullets and less monologues

When Jane Hammond’s (Natalie Portman: A Tale of Love and Darkness) husband returns to their remote homestead full of bullet holes, she knows that the Bishop Boys have found them at last. These outlaws have searched for years for the couple, vowing bloody vengeance. With her husband wounded and bleeding in their bed, Jane must leave to seek help.
    Taking her daughter to a friend’s home for safekeeping, she tracks down former fiancé Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton: Black Mass), a gunslinger whose talents earned him fame in the Civil War. Bitter that Jane married another man, Dan  tells her she’s on her own.
    Wasting its potential, this Western drama needs more grit and fewer flashbacks. Director Gavin O’Connor (Warrior) fails to offer a strong point of view. He’s made a love story, a revenge story, a survival story and a Western. He overreaches. By including everything, there’s little to care about in a plot so thin.
    Jane’s character is especially undefined. She veers from delicate, traumatized flower to grim-jawed gunslinger. There’s no justification for her moods, and her reactions are often out of sync with her previous behavior. She has no problem shooting a man in one scene, then argues the sin of killing. Portman does what she can to keep Jane consistent, but it’s a losing battle.
    Most unforgivable is the grand showdown between Jane and the Bishops. O’Connor builds up to the gunfight admirably, but the confrontation gets perhaps 10 minutes of screen time.
    Neither effective melodrama nor thrilling Western, Jane is the type of film one might watch on a lazy Sunday when the remote is too far out of reach to bother flipping channels.

Fair Western • R • 98 mins.

Four Coast Guardsmen attempt an impossible rescue in this stirring drama

In an intense Nor’easter, The Pendleton cracks in half off the coast of Cape Cod. The men on the stern watch in horror as massive swells swallow half of their oil tanker. As they’re taking on water fast, engineer Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck: Interstellar) knows that they have only hours afloat.
    But all the Coast Guard’s large boats are working to save another oil tanker.
    A small Massachusetts town sends out the only boat left, a 35-footer captained by Bernie Webber (Chris Pine: Z for Zachariah). Webber and his team of three volunteers know the mission may mean death. Even if they can pass the treacherous breaking waves at the mouth of the harbor, their tiny boat will be tossed like a bath toy by the 40-foot swells.
    With thrilling cinematography, stirring performances and lots of over-emphasized Massachusetts’ accents, The Finest Hours is a crowd-pleasing drama. Director Craig Gillespie (Million Dollar Arm) contrasts the human drama with the vast sea, its relentless power gorgeously shown in the initial breakup. Like the crew, we watch helplessly as water surges into the ship.
    Gillespie relies on archetypes to expedite the plot. Bernie is a quiet, almost timid man seeking to prove his mettle on this mission. Sybert is a stalwart engineer who refuses to give up. The performances of Pine and Affleck go a long way to humanizing these familiar types. Affleck in particular infuses Sybert with a crushing sense of reality. He holds little hope, but he also knows that panic will worsen their last hours.
    As Bernie, Pine plays surprisingly well against type. In a Jimmy Stewart-type role, he drops his usual confidence to offer a good take on an aww-shucks hero.
    Not high art or metaphor, The Finest Hours is a modern rarity: a good movie with mass appeal. Thrilling sea rescues, rolling waves and heroic performances offer a two-hour excuse to gobble popcorn and root for the good guys.

Good Drama • PG-13 • 117 mins.

Take the bus instead of riding with this comedy

Rookie cop Ben (Kevin Hart: Get Hard) is still hoping to prove himself to his future brother-in-law James (Ice Cube: The Book of Life), one of Atlanta’s toughest cops. Ben’s urgency to insert himself in James’ cases typically ends in gunfire.
    When a mission ends in disaster, James has one chance to salvage his drug case: travel to Miami to apprehend a hacker who knows who’s supplying Atlanta’s dealers. James prefers to work alone, but he acquiesces to his sister’s pleas and takes Ben along.
    Will he kill Ben on the way?
    Bland, unoriginal and offering barely a laugh, Ride Along 2 is so perfunctory that it’s a wonder the actors don’t have scripts in their hands. The film rehashes the plot of the first film, losing the chemistry Ice Cube and Hart built.
    Director Tim Story (Think Like a Man Too) doesn’t bother with pace, plot or scene, though he does lovingly pan over wet bikini bodies every few minutes to make sure people are paying attention.
    Hart, who has made a career of being the shortest, loudest person in the room, continues his shtick. He screams, flails, bugs his eyes out and falls over. Though the physical gesticulations are eye-catching, Hart seems oddly flat. As he mumbles his way through the dialog, you can almost see him calculating the residual checks he’ll earn from this heartless sequel.
    Story seems to have an odd effect on funny men, sapping their timing. Hart isn’t the only struggling comedian. Neither can Ken Jeong (Dr. Ken) find a consistent tone. Sometimes sleazy, sometimes hysterical, his hacker is unfunny and perplexing.
    Oddly, straight man Ice Cube is the best comedian, as he growls at Jeong and snarls insults with just enough venom to get laughs.
    Ride Along 2 is typical of the mid-January junk studios dump on unsuspecting viewers.

Poor Comedy • PG-13 • 102 mins.

One man battles nature and the human ­condition in his quest for revenge

In the 1820s, the part of the Louisiana Purchase that became the Dakota territories was a dangerous place. White men seeking furs risked running afoul of native tribes, vicious animals and inhospitable weather. Scout Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio: The Wolf of Wall Street) knows the perils, for he and his half-Pawnee son have spent their lives leading white men in and out of the wilderness to find fortune.
    When a trapping party runs afoul of the Arikara tribe, the men scramble into the mountains. Glass is mauled by a bear. Ribs exposed, bones broken and bleeding profusely, he is unlikely to survive the night.
    Daunted at the prospect of hauling the injured man over the mountains, the trappers appoint two men as a burial party to wait with Glass and his son.
    The funeral doesn’t go as planned, when the remaining trappers kill Glass’s son and toss them both into a shallow grave. Overcome with rage and grief, Glass drags himself from the frigid ground and begins a 200-mile journey toward vengeance.
    Filled with gore, cruelty and lots of ratty facial hair, The Revenant is a revenge Western for the modern age. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman) contrasts the cruelty of man with the cruelty of nature in this epic tale. We also see the plight of native peoples in 1800s America, robbed of their lands, animals and basic rights, resorting to violence against white invaders. Iñárritu carefully contrasts the plight of the Arikara with Glass, both on quests to reclaim stolen dignity.
    Essentially the story of one man’s revenge against nature and man, The Revenant is a showcase for DiCaprio. He carries the story well, but his acting style of shouting his way through emotional scenes gets distracting. In his rare quiet moments, he is more effective. These glimpses do more to make him human and relatable than his unending parade of broken bones and oozing wounds. As the principal antagonist, Tom Hardy (Legend) does what he can with a role so evil he should have horns sprouting from his scalp.
    The real star of The Revenant, however, is the staggering cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki (Birdman). His sweeping landscapes and gorgeously composed frames make all 156 minutes a treat. The cold gray land that envelops Glass becomes a character unto itself, harsh and unforgiving as he struggles to overcome it.
    Filled with stunning images and interesting plotlines, The Revenant is a must-see for those with a strong stomach.

Good Drama • R • 156 mins.

Two women run from society in this stirring drama

Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara: Pan) has the life she’s supposed to want. A sales clerk at a fancy department store, she has a devoted boyfriend with marriage and kids on the horizon. She wants none of it.
    When Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett: Cinderella) wanders into Therese’s store, the clerk’s world shifts. The beautiful and mysterious Carol flirts with Therese, and the young shop worker longs for a different life. Carol is everything Therese desires: beautiful, composed and a member of the New York elite.
    But Carol’s veneer of cool confidence and glamour hide a tumultuous life. After years of repression, she is ready to divorce her wealthy husband and embrace life as a lesbian. In the 1950s, lesbians were viewed as deranged deviants. She must choose between years of misery with a man she doesn’t love or social exile.
    Desperate to escape Harge and the prying eyes of New York society, Carol flees across the country while her daughter enjoys Christmas vacation with her in-laws. She asks Therese to come along.
    Can the potential lovers find a place that accepts them? Or are they doomed to travel the highway forever?
    An atmospheric character study, Carol is a slow-burn drama that rewards audiences with meticulous sets, in-depth character development and excellent acting. That is a nice way of warning you that not much happens in Carol. Billed as a thriller, this film by director Todd Haynes (Mildred Pierce) is more a period piece than a whodunit. He is more concerned with creating a tone and a specific look than refining pacing.
    His detailed recreations of the people and places of the 1950s are fascinating, and his relaxed style allows the performances to shine. But he’s a bit too languid with the story, allowing it to drag.
    As the title character, Blanchett holds the screen. Carol projects a veneer of breezy style and wit. But just below the surface is a woman fighting her confines.
    Mara is excellent as the repressed Therese, who never knew there was a life outside of heterosexual marriage. Her awakening is more joyful than Carol’s. Mara makes the most of Therese’s innocence and wonder.
    Gorgeous, well-acted and slow-moving, Carol isn’t for everyone. But if you’re an aficionado of nuanced acting, elaborate costume design and emotional depth, this film won’t disappoint.

Good Drama • R • 118 mins.

Quentin Tarantino’s Western has the good, the bad and the bloody

A blizzard traps eight strangers in Minnie’s Haberdashery just outside Red Rock, Wyoming. A cowpuncher, an English hangman, a Mexican cook and a Confederate general huddle in the drafty lodge, waiting for the storm to break.
    Last to arrive are bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell: Furious 7), his prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh: Anomalisa). The price on Domergue’s head is high, and allies have sworn to free her.
    Ruth analyzes the threat each stranger poses. Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson: Chi-Raq), a Buffalo Soldier turned bounty hunter, seems unlikely to aid vitriolic racist Domergue. Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins: Justified) is a different story. The son of a Confederate raider who hates blacks and northerners alike, he’s likely to be dangeously sympathetic to Domergue.
    As the blizzard builds, so does the tension, and as bodies drop, Domergue is confident her escape is eminent.
    Violent, crass and oddly beguiling, The Hateful Eight invites extreme reactions. Writer/director Quentin Tarantino (Django Unchained) — who has a penchant for brutal, unlikeable characters — has stacked the deck with some of the vilest characters he’s yet conjured. Racists, women beaters, rapists, murderers are all here. Hateful Eight beguiles the audience with America’s worst.
    Sergio Leone’s great spaghetti westerns inspire this film. Longtime Leone collaborator Ennio Morricone provides the soundtrack. Leone can also be felt in the sweeping landscape cinematography that makes the film look desolate but beautiful. Tarantino shot the film in 70 millimeter, an extreme wide angle that offers sweeping scale and excellent picture quality. Choose a 70mm screen, and set aside a large chunk of time, as this epic is three hours long, including overture and intermission.
    The weakest part of The Hateful Eight is the script. Tarantino revels in the grotesque, and his grindhouse sensibilities are beloved by fans. But Hateful Eight is too much of a good thing. Tarantino tries so hard to shock that disgust becomes annoying after the second hour. Always a fan of racial epithets, his script uses his favorite pejorative so often that, instead of marking his characters as racists, it makes Tarantino seem a snotty adolescent getting away with saying taboo words. Violence and sexual assault are so common that the horror of the acts is largely lost.
    Saving The Hateful Eight from parody are some excellent performances. As Domergue, Leigh manages to be funny, intimidating and sympathetic. Leigh’s feral performance relies on physical traits, but she never lets you forget that this murderess is fierce and smart. You can see her plotting at every moment. Goggins, who has made quite a career playing evil southerners, shines as a racist dolt who learns some harsh lessons about the ways of the world. He makes even the most ridiculous lines work through sheer force of will. Jackson is also in fine form, offering his usual brand of brash pontificating.
    Too bloody for general audiences, too crass for highbrows, Hateful Eight is pure Tarantino. But if you’re a fan, this movie is pretty bloody good.

Good Western • R • 168 mins.