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Arts and Culture (Movie Reviews)

Declaring peace doesn’t stop the horrors of war

Eric Lomax (Colin Firth: Gambit) returns from World War II as a shell of a man. Avoiding people, he rides the rails and collects train memorabilia. On a train years later, he encounters former nurse Patti (Nicole Kidman: Stoker). Smitten, they quickly marry.
    Patti’s illusion of wedded bliss soon shatters. Eric stares off into space. Small things provoke violent reactions. A bit of radio static causes a meltdown. Eric is hostile about his odd behavior.
    Can Patti help her husband find his way back?
    In desperation, Patti reaches out to Eric’s only friend, fellow combat survivor Finlay (Stellan Skarsgård: Nymphomaniac), to learn what broke her husband nearly 40 years ago.
    Eric and Finlay were captured by the Japanese in 1942. Desperate to hear any news of the outside world, they used pilfered parts to build a radio. When the makeshift radio was discovered, the captors made an example of the men. What they did to Eric leaves lifelong scars.
    Finding his tormentor late in life, Eric has a choice: Try to forget or leave Patti to seek vengeance.
    The Railway Man is a moving drama about the lasting effects of battle on soldiers in a time before Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder was known, let alone treated. Horrifying, touching and inspiring, it’s based on the real experiences of Eric Lomax.
    While director Jonathan Teplitzky (Burning Man) bombards you with horrors, faith in humanity gives The Railway Man its power. Veterans and their loved ones band together in unobtrusive support that enables these men to cope.
    As a man reliving torture every day of his life, Firth is remarkable. His performance isn’t showy, but it’s real, and one of the better portrayals of the lasting effects of PTSD ever captured on film. His face and body carry constant tension. In the midst of a violent episode, Firth is able to make his eyes go vacant and wild, showing the feral creature beneath the calm.
    For all their brief courtship, Kidman sells Patti’s deep connection to Eric. Firth and Kidman have an easy chemistry that make it seem possible that she is not afraid of her husband but afraid for him.
    A historic story about finding solace after life-shattering events, The Railway Man is a powerful message of hope. Just one tip: Pick up some extra napkins at the concession stand, lest you have to take your eyes from the screen to ask your seatmate for a tissue.

Great Drama • R • 116 mins.

Hell hath no fury like the trio of women scorned in this crass comedy

What would you do if you found out you were an accidental mistress?
    When Carly (Cameron Diaz: The Counselor) makes a surprise visit to her boyfriend Mark (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau: Game of Thrones), she meets his wife. Horrified, Carly tries to lose herself in work to forget that she was conned by a philanderer.
    Carly’s plan fails when Mark’s wife, Kate (Leslie Mann: Rio 2) appears at her office. But not for vengeance. After marrying Mark, Kate quit her job to become a housewife, blithely redecorating their mansion while Mark slept around. Carly’s appearance snapped Kate out of denial. But with no career, money of her own or friends, Kate has nowhere else to go. Carly is her default.
    Their awkward connection blossoms into friendship when Carly and Kate switch from whining about Mark’s behavior to getting even. Another of Mark’s myriad mistresses makes three scorned women out to ruin one man.
    Equal parts girl power and gross-out comedy, The Other Woman is a wildly uneven entry into the revenge genre. Director Nick Cassavetes (Yellow) arrives at no consistent tone. A farcical comedy of manners devolves into crass physical jokes that are both obvious and, worse still, not funny. As Kate and Carly bond over Mark, the dating scene and how hard it can be for a woman in the world, Kate’s great Dane relieves himself on Carly’s floor. When a movie spends more time on dog poop than on crafting believable characters, it’s a bad sign.
    Writer Melissa Stack (Tependris Rising) offers a slightly feminist twist on girls’ comedy by having wronged women team up instead of fighting. But her characters remain broad stereotypes of, well, broads. As the youngest of Mark’s mistresses, model-turned-actress Kate Upton is cast as the dumb blonde. Her Marilyn Monroe impersonation is adequate, but the character is a stereotype. Diaz’s Carly is a cold career woman. A man helps humanize her because where would women be without the love of a good man?
    Mann elevates Kate above the stereotype through sheer will. She makes Kate a sad, silly woman whose plucky attitude avoids pathos. Mann and Diaz have good chemistry, and although the movie is a vehicle for Diaz, Mann steals every scene she’s in and wrings laughs out of the dated material.
    If Cassavetes had trusted the three leads, he wouldn’t need crude, silly sight gags.

Fair Comedy • PG-13 • 109 mins.

If you can survive the language, you might enjoy this brash character study

It’s rare to know within the first five minutes whether you’ll enjoy a movie. With Dom Hemingway, you do. Dom’s (Jude Law: The Grand Budapest Hotel) opening five-minute monologue on the legendary status of his genitalia is a crude, rambling moment of bravado for the character and the film, literally letting it all hang out.
    For some, it’s the cue to run. For others, it’s an indicator that Dom Hemingway is a character study bold enough to make its characters unlikeable or ridiculous.
    Now that I’ve warned you what lies ahead, let’s examine the plot.
    Dom is a safe cracker, paroled after 12 years of hard time. He could have made a deal for less time by testifying against his co-conspirators, but he is a criminal of principles. To reward his silence, Dom’s former boss, Mr. Fontaine (Demian Bichir: The Bridge) has agreed to pay a hefty sum.
    Dom’s first act as a free man is to beat the snot out of the man who married his ex-wife. Why? Because he’s Dom expletive Hemingway, that’s why!
    Dom and best pal Dickie (Richard E. Grant: Girls) head to Mr. Fontaine’s French villa for a big pay day and a weekend of debauchery. A punishing night of sex, drugs and poor decision-making, leaves Dom penniless.
    He sobers up to three choices: Return to London in hopes of joining another criminal syndicate; repair his fragmented relationship with his daughter; track down the dirty thief who took his money.
    Can Dom get out of his own way to make a sound decision? No, but it’s fun to watch him try.
    Dom Hemingway is stronger on nudity, imaginative cursing and drugs than on plotting. The plot is the bare sketch of a story, and your involvement with the character minimal. Writer/director Richard Shepard (Girls) is interested in Dom, and he builds his film around absurd situations that invite Dom’s reactive bombast. Stylish editing tricks keep the movie rushing along.
    Law turns in a dazzling performance as an unlikeable crook at the end of his rope. His Dom is a verbose, ferocious loser sustained only by his delusions of grandeur. His unearned confidence would be hilarious if it wasn’t so pathetic. From his chest-puffed swagger to his frantic eyes, Dom is a man desperate to believe the lies he tells about himself. It’s a performance that will likely be overlooked for awards — hard to find a clip of curse-free dialog for the ceremonies — but should be seen.
    Dom Hemingway isn’t a movie for the casual filmgoer; don’t make your hapless critic’s mistake of taking your mother.

Good Dramedy • R • 93 mins.

You won’t want to go through this looking glass

Software developer Alan Russell (Rory Cochrane: Parkland) moves wife and children to a country house after hitting it big. Decorating it becomes his downfall.
    An antique mirror known as the Lasser Glass speaks to him. Alas, this is no ordinary reflective surface. A host to evil souls and supernatural forces, the mirror drives Allan and his wife, Marie (Katee Sackhoff: Longmire) insane.
    Reader, this is why you should shop at IKEA.
    Police find Alan and Marie dead and their two children, Kaylie and Tim, raving about an evil mirror. Tim is sent to a ward for the criminally insane. Kaylie goes to foster care.
    At 21, Tim (Brenton Thwaites: Blue Lagoon: The Awakening) is declared sane. He goes into the world hoping to leave his troubled past behind.
    Kaylie (Karen Gillan: Doctor Who) is not so committed to her brother’s mental health.
    Consumed with rage, she has made it her mission to track down and destroy the Lasser Glass. She has an elaborate plan to steal the mirror, record its supernatural properties and smash it so that the evil can’t spread. Tim reluctantly follows Kaylie to their childhood home. Hanging the mirror to taunt the evil is not a good idea.
    The plot is thin, the lead performances strong and the gore thick.
    If you are at all squeamish, you will writhe in your seat. Though the gore certainly earns the film its R rating, director and native Marylander Mike Flanagan (Absentia) uses it for maximum tension. See Oculus in a theater, where you’re part of a screaming audience.

Good Horror • R • 104 mins.

A mouse and a bear prove families come in all sizes

Do you fear the big bad bear?    
    Since babyhood, mouse Celestine (Mackenzie Foy: The Conjuring) has been warned by her elderly guardian (90-year-old Lauren Bacall: The Forger) to avoid bears. Mouse society lives in intricate cities in the sewers, just below a bear metropolis. Mice venture topside only at night, sending their young ones to search bear dwellings for useful items.
    One of the procurers, Celestine is too curious to accept the tales of evil bears on faith. She’s enamored with the large bears and interested in their world. She dreams of meeting a bear, maybe making a friend.
    Celestine gets her wish when happenstance traps the little mouse like a rat in a trash can. Her savior is Ernest (Forest Whitaker: The Butler), a down-on-his-luck bear in search of a quick meal. At first, he proves the Big Bad Bear stories true, trying to snap up Celestine in his massive jaws.
    But Celestine isn’t as easy to eat as Ernest hopes. She offers her ursine attacker a deal: She’ll help him find delicious treats if he stops trying to digest her. Celestine shows Ernest how to break into a candy store, where he feasts on marshmallows, honey and taffy.
    Soon, Ernest and Celestine team up for another heist, this one on her behalf. As the interspecies Bonnie and Clyde become a wanted duo in both their worlds, Ernest retreats to his hibernation cabin until the heat dies down. Alone in the world, Celestine decides that a gruff and grumbly bear is better company than the police.
    At first, neither is happy with this living arrangement, but the odd couple eventually forms a family dynamic. Celestine brings out nurturing and selfless qualities in Ernest. In turn, Ernest admires Celestine’s artistic ability and encourages her to paint.
    But will an interspecies police force ruin their happy home?
    Based on the popular Belgian children’s books, Ernest and Celestine is a delightful animated film about avoiding society’s labels and finding a family that fits you. Filled with visual gags and sly humor, it’s a film to charm all ages.
    The movie takes a painterly approach to animation, eschewing slick 3D graphics for a watercolor palate. The animation, which is often minimalist, lets you focus on the characters and makes the movie seem like a literary illustration sprung from the page.
    Originally released in Europe with French dialog, this version is by directors Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar and Benjamin Renner, who carefully cast American actors to dub the story. Whitaker’s low growling voice makes him an inspired choice for Ernest. Film fans will also appreciate the voice of the 90-year-old Bacall, who is commanding and funny as a slightly deranged mouse matriarch.
    You’ll have to go Baltimore or D.C. to catch this one, but it’s worth the trip. C’est Merveilleux!

Great Animation • PG • 80 mins.

No competition for the Greatest Story Ever Told

After Cain murdered Abel, humanity fell into two factions: the sons of Cain and the sons of Seth. Marked by his misdeeds, Cain’s descendants are greedy and base. They’ve traded their faith in the creator for a life of sin. Lead by the ruthless Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone: Lords of London), the people of Cain have built industrial cities and violated Earth.
    Seth’s descendants have taken a nobler path, living off the land, taking only what they need and upholding the rules of God. Their path is righteous, but it’s not very successful. Tubal-cain and his men have killed the sons of Seth, ensuring that goodness dies with them.
    Or so the evil king thought. Surviving is one last heir, Noah (Russell Crowe: Winter’s Tale), who has lived in hiding after witnessing the murder of his father. Over the years, Noah has built up a family and lived as the creator dictated. His fealty is rewarded with a vision: God will send a great flood to the world, killing all impure life. Noah’s job is to build a vessel and save innocent life from destruction.
    Over 10 years, Noah and his family construct an ark as animals arrive two by two. But the grand migration of fowls and beasts attracts the attention of Tubal-cain, who is on the lookout for land that isn’t ash. On finding the ark, Tubal-cain organizes an army to take it before the water rises.
    Part environmental parable, part Bible story and part bizarre fantasy epic, Noah is a confused, beautiful mess. Don’t expect the Sunday school story that you remember. Director Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan) gives us stunning visuals and a mixed up story. He has more good ideas than time — or ability — to explore them. The environmental story he begins is forgotten halfway in for CGI technology. Thus Aronofsky falls under the spell of The Watchers, angels who fell to Earth and were punished by having their angelic form covered with rock and molten mud. Neither impressive to look at nor interesting as characters, The Watchers are silly creatures of the type you might enjoy in Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter.
    When Noah pauses from spectacle, it offers some great acting. Crowe — who’s had a questionable run of late — is amazing as a devoted prophet. He imbues Noah with an intensity that teeters on the edge of insanity. As his foil, Winstone’s Tubal-cain believes he is as powerful as God, able to give or take life as he sees fit.
    If you’re interested in a few scenes of interesting Biblical debate or in considering how far computer-rendering technology has come, Noah is worth the price of admission. If you’re looking for deeper meaning, skip a film that wades in shallow waters.

Fair Fantasy • PG-13 • 138 mins.

A delightfully demented tale of murder, theft and the service industry

As the concierge of The Grand Budapest Hotel, M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes: The Invisible Woman) believes in offering his guests the best service. In the case of wealthy older women, Gustave’s services include wine, candlelight dinners and himself. The women get a boost in confidence; Gustave gets cash and returning customers.
    Among the hotel staff, Gustave is a legend. Suave, mysterious and unflappable, he runs the hotel with an uncompromising commitment to its patrons. He recites romantic poetry at staff dinners, insists on high standards of conduct for his subordinates, bathes in his favorite cologne and is involved in even the minute details of daily life at the Grand Budapest. This dashing figure enchants Zero (Tony Revolori: Shameless), the hotel’s newest lobby boy. Never one to turn down a fawning admirer, Gustave takes Zero under his wing.
    When one of Gustave’s regular paramours, octogenarian Duchess, drops dead, Gustave and Zero travel to the funeral to pay respects. Hoping for a few thousand dollars from the will, Gustave instead is awarded a priceless painting. Her family is not pleased.
    Police are called, accusations are thrown and the Duchess is eventually discovered to have been poisoned. Son Dmitri (Adrien Brody: Third Person) frames Gustave and sends his henchman (Willem Dafoe: Out of the Furnace) for the painting.
    The Grand Budapest Hotel is a madcap comedy fusing dark violent themes with light quirky sensibilities. In director Wes Anderson’s (Moonrise Kingdom) quirky aesthetic, characters are notoriously nonplussed by the whirlwind of crazy events around them. A severed head is usually a gruesome sight. Put that head in a wicker picnic basket with a ribbon and some festive tissue paper, as Anderson does, and it becomes a macabre joke. Anderson’s sensibility isn’t for everyone, but his world of stylish lunacy is a refreshing change from typical fare.
    As the center of the film’s twisting narrative, Fiennes is a wonder to behold. Dapper even in prison rags and suave to a fault, he’s the Cary Grant of concierges. His manic energy is fascinating as he wrings every bit of charm out of a role that makes him a lecherous jerk.
    Supporting Fiennes is Anderson’s typical cast of character actors, including Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Jason Schwartzman and Adrian Brody. In small parts, each contributes to the controlled chaos. The standout is Dafoe, who manages to be utterly terrifying and hilarious as he murders his way through the movie.
    Funny, slightly gruesome but always entertaining, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a decadent treat.

Great Dramedy • R • 100 mins.

It’s like watching a car crash in slow motion

Based on the popular but story-bare video game series, Need for Speed follows racer and mechanic Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul: Breaking Bad). A small-town racer trying to keep his father’s auto shop afloat in a tough economy, Tobey scrapes by winning local street racing competitions. But his monetary problems need a long-term solution.
    Along comes Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper: Fleming), the small-town rich kid who made good. We know Dino is evil because he wears black and sneers at everybody.
    Dino challenges Tobey to a street race using supercars that aren’t street legal. When the race goes south, a friend is barbequed in a crash. Tobey tries to save his friend while Dino, who caused the accident, frames Tobey.
    After two years in prison, Tobey is back. How will he exact vengeance on the man who sent him to prison and caused a car wreck that killed his best friend? By racing him in another illegal street competition.
    Again, you don’t need to be smart to star in your own street-racing movie.
    Need for Speed is guilty of the cardinal action-movie sin: It’s boring. Races are dull, acting uninspired and story pathetic. It’s a failure on every possible level. Director Scott Waugh (Act of Valor) has a terrible sense of editing, and his rapid cuts drag out action sequence into mind-numbing eternity.
    A toddler with a set of Matchbox cars could have devised a more complex, plausible and compelling story than writers George and John Gatins.
    Paul emerged from Breaking Bad as one of television’s most promising actors. Here, he gives a performance worthy of a thesaurus of pejorative descriptors. If this performance is indicative of what he’s capable of on the big screen, he had better go running back to LA before pilot season ends.
    You don’t buy a ticket for a movie titled Need for Speed expecting tight plotting or even amazing acting. At best, you’re paying to see some exciting car chases, flashy cars and attractive actors. This one stalls at the gate, delivering boring race footage, terrible acting and a cast who seem to be counting the seconds until Waugh calls cut and puts them out of their misery. Mine continued for two hours and 12 minutes.

Abysmal Action • PG-13 • 132 mins.

You don’t have to be an artist to paint like a master — just a genius

Many have tried to copy Johannes Vermeer’s detailed and fascinating works, but it took a CEO from San Antonio with no artistic training to do it. An electrician and amateur inventor, Tim Jenison is the CEO of the wildly successful video technology company NewTek. He is not, however, a painter.
    Jenison was fascinated with the works of the 17th century painter. Vermeer was an oddity of his time because he didn’t sketch his paintings, instead working oil on canvas to achieve realistic images of Dutch domesticity. No documents survive to reveal Vermeer’s techniques; his process and the formulas for his paints are a mystery lost to the ages.
    To Jenison’s eye, Vermeer’s style resembled a compressed video image: reflecting true light values, showing single point focus and capturing amazing detail. Jenison theorized that Vermeer used a lens and camera obscura setup to get such realism. Using a small mirror and a technique he invented for matching shades, the untrained Jenison was able to create stunningly realistic paintings.
    So it was possible to paint using optics and mirrors. But did Vermeer do it that way?
    To test his theory, Jenison used his optics setup to recreate Vermeer’s The Music Lesson. This wasn’t simply a case of repainting a masterpiece; Jenison was out to prove that Vermeer could have used optics to achieve his results. Jenison visited Vermeer’s home, took measurements of his studio space and got to work.
    He recreated Vermeer’s studio, hiring experts to rebuild every stick of furniture, recreate the light that would have streamed through the windows and sew exact replicas of the clothing of the models. Jenison made his own lens, using techniques that would have been available in the 17th century, hand-polished the optics and learned how to hand-mix oil paints. With all the elements in place, it was time to test his hypothesis.
    A documentary that argues art and technology should be united instead of viewed as separate studies, Tim’s Vermeer is a tribute to inventive minds and determination. Directed by Teller (of magical duo Penn and Teller), the film is a joyful look at the dedication, obsession and ultimate triumph of Jenison and Vermeer. Narrated by Teller’s partner Penn Jillette, the film explores what makes an artist but finds no single answer.
    Capturing Jenison’s tenacity while giving the audience a hefty art history lesson, Teller manages to keep the film light and entertaining. He interviews all the right art historians to make his argument that Jenison’s methods are not only possible but probable.
    The real proof of Jenison’s thesis is his recreation of The Music Lesson. Teller painstakingly documents every exacting step Jenison takes to reach his goal. The commitment is part technology, part madness and all art.
    You’ll need to go to Baltimore or D.C. to catch this documentary, but it’s well worth the trip. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself buying a small mirror and some oil paints after you see it.

Great Documentary • PG-13 • 80 mins.

Liam Neeson texts with a terrorist in this silly but enjoyable drama

Bill Marks (Liam Neeson: The Lego Movie) needs a few belts of liquor before he goes to work in the morning. Marks is an air marshal entrusted with guarding passengers on international flights. He’s afraid of flying and desperate for another drink, but he tries to white-knuckle his way through.
    The one perk of the job is his seat: Apparently air marshals sit in first class and enjoy all the amenities. When his cell phone beeps mid-flight, he expects new orders from his boss. Instead it’s a text from a passenger threatening to kill one person on the plane every 20 minutes until a ransom of $150 million arrives.
    It might be a joke, but Marks has to be sure. He alerts the crew, sets his watch for 20 minutes and looks for who’s making the threats.
    The first body announces the 20-minute mark. Marks is convinced the threat is real, but TSA and Homeland Security suspect Marks himself. With only a flight attendant and fellow passenger to help him, Marks seeks to stop the killing and find the killer. But as he gets closer, the passengers begin to suspect his motives.
    Non-Stop is a ridiculous locked-room thriller with a tenuous grasp on physics and logic. Astoundingly, neither the breach of Newton’s laws nor facts keeps Non-Stop from being an entertaining film.
    Director Jaume Collet-Serra (Unknown) makes the most of the confined setting of the film. Every shot reminds you of just how small aircrafts can be, making the whodunit storyline tenser. Well-choreographed fights are staged in claustrophobic plane bathrooms, cabins and aisles.
    There are drawbacks to using text message exchanges to build tension. Texting is a passive form of communication, forcing you to read plot points with an autocorrect feature. It’s hard to make texting riveting, and the movie feels silly when Neeson grimaces at his phone, punching keys dramatically.
    As the man who kicked off the so called geri-action genre, Neeson is adept at making the ridiculous entertaining if not believable. Neeson is also a great brawler, rushing his opponents and throwing rapid, brutal punches. His dramatic training lets him give gravitas to even the silliest lines of dialog. Mark Wahlberg couldn’t get away with saying “I’m not hijacking this plane! I’m trying to save it!”
    This fun but mindless action would be great to catch on a plane.

Good Action • PG-13 • 106 mins.