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Arts and Culture (Movie Reviews)

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.
    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.

Growing old is easy; growing up is hard

When their friends start procreating, Cornelia (Naomi Watts: Insurgent) and Josh (Ben Stiller: Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb) find themselves adrift amid Mommy and Me classes and talk of nursing.
    Cornelia is a successful documentary film producer; Josh is a less-successful documentary director and film professor. A couple who enjoyed art, travel and wine, they’d continue enjoying life if everybody stopped asking them why they don’t have children.
    Twenty-five-year-old Jamie (Adam Driver: Girls) comes as opportunity knocking. Jamie and his wife Darby (Amanda Seyfried: A Million Ways to Die in the West) represent everything Cornelia and Josh feel their lives are missing: spontaneity, creativity and openness to new experiences.
    The older couple ditches the uptown baby crowd for the Brooklyn Bohemians. They’re drinking Argentinian potions to cleanse their souls. Josh trades his T-shirts and jackets for skinny jeans, wing tips and fedoras. Cornelia spurns cookouts at Connecticut weekend homes for hip-hop dance classes and block parties.
    Writer/director Noah Baumbach (Frances Ha) is known for his unflattering but funny looks into lives fraught with ennui. While We’re Young goes a step further. Do people really want children, or do they think they should have them? What happens if you don’t follow the rules? Will you be shunned for wanting something else?
    As the couple rejecting their 40s to relive their 20s, Stiller and Watts are fantastic. Stiller is funny as floundering Josh, who is obsessed with success, though he can never seem to grasp it. He doesn’t want to admit he’s aging, and when he sees Jamie’s creative flair, he is inspired to abandon his current life.
    Watts is the real revelation. Her Cornelia is perfectly happy in her mature 40-something life, until her best friend becomes a mother — and a stranger — and Cornelia an interloper in Mommy-themed activities. She embraces Jamie and Darby to forget her own miscarriages and escape the reminder that she is no longer valued because she doesn’t have children. It’s less a mid-life crisis than a desperate quest to be seen the way her friends used to see her.
    Funny, embarrassing and insightful, While We’re Young is the perfect film for moviegoers who feel adulthood is a rigged game.

Good Dramedy • R • 97 mins.

Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing

To make a film in the Fast & Furious franchise you need three things: Flashy cars, hulking biceps lathered in baby oil and heart-pounding action sequences. What you don’t need are actors or plot.
    Furious 7 keeps this tradition alive with a film so filled with screeching tires, machismo and surprising sentiment it almost distracts you from the abysmal performance of the lead and ridiculous plot.
    In a London hospital, Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham: The Expendables 3) stands over the broken body of his baby brother Owen (the baddie from Fast and Furious 6). Swearing vengeance on Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel: Guardians of the Galaxy) and his crew of racers, Deckard hunts them down one by one.
    He kills one and hobbles Hobbs (Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson: Hercules), Toretto’s law enforcement ally, before finding Dominic. Toretto goes on the offensive, reuniting his team for one last ride — just as in the past three movies.
    Dominic’s brother-in-law and partner in crime Brian (Paul Walker: Brick Mansions) is facing his own crisis. Now a father and husband, he’s chaffing at driving a minivan instead of a muscle car. He tells his wife Mia (Jordana Brewster: Dallas) he misses the bullets, and she worries that he’s unhappy with family life.
    Can Brian settle into domesticity? Can Toretto and his gang defeat Deckard? Who is buying these idiots million dollar cars to destroy?
    Director James Wan (Insidious: Chapter 2) continues a brainless and still popular formula as old as Sylvester Stallone.
    The problem with Wan’s brand of mindless action is that it’s toothless. To earn the lucrative PG-13 rating, he must make a hardcore action film that’s kid-friendly. As a result, bullets and fists fly, but it’s a bloodless affair with seemingly few consequences. Women are dressed as sex objects, but to ensure parents bring their teens, there is no actual nudity — just plenty of up-skirt shots.
    Wan does surprisingly well within the restrictions on violence and nudity. Two of the hand-to-hand combat scenes are brilliantly choreographed and paced. The fight between Johnson and Statham is a brutal highpoint with both actors throwing everything they have at each other. But the real star of these movies has always been the cars. When we’re watching preposterous physics-defying car chases, it’s a fantastic spectacle that perfectly complements a fistful of popcorn.
    Impressively, Wan manages to inject a little sentiment into this ode to macho posturing. His tribute to Walker, who died while making the film, is both touching and fitting to the franchise. Wan and the editors should be credited for cobbling together Walker’s final performance using doubles, digital editing and the few scenes filmed before his demise.
    What Wan and his team of talented editors couldn’t fix, however, was Diesel’s performance. Blank, meaty and potato-like in both expression and demeanor, Diesel is an abysmal actor. His lack of a human personality was less noticeable in the first films; here, with the addition of exemplary supporting actors, you notice. Both Statham and Johnson crackle with charisma, and international action superstar Tony Jaa commands the screen in a nearly wordless performance.
    In spite of the wealth of action talent, Wan chooses to subject us to Diesel’s lumbering attempts at acting for seemingly endless stretches of film. Pairing him with Johnson and Statham seems like a cruel joke.
    With fantastic action and a bit of heart, Furious 7 isn’t nearly as bad as it could have been — if you can ignore Diesel.

Fair Action • PG-13 • 137 mins.

Truth doesn’t matter if you yell loud enough

Who do you trust? When experts debate on television an issue like climate change, do you believe that both are qualified?
    Most often, the debaters are experts in speaking, not science.
    It turns out that the news is just another TV show. Lively debate, doubt and fear-mongering make for great ratings. There is little incentive to seek out facts when bread and circuses bring in money and viewers.
    In 2004, science historian Naomi Oreskes became interested in a phrase common in the Global Warming debate: “No consensus has been reached among scientists on the matter of climate change.” Oreskes read through every scientific paper on climate change published in journals from 1993 to 2003. Out of 928 articles, she found none that refuted climate change.
    If there was no disagreement in the scientific community, where did this dissent come from?
    Hint: It’s not science.
    Pundits are hired by think tanks and corporations to argue their case, not sift through the facts or do independent research. To that end, they manipulate data, suggest that scientists have a hidden agenda and lie. These experts also become the faces for volunteer groups backed by major corporations that depend on the status quo for their profits.
    Based on a book by Oreskes and Erik Conway, Merchants of Doubt is a documentary that takes a troubling look at how easy it is to lead people away from the facts. Using the tobacco industry and the climate-change debate as his two main topics, director Robert Kenner (Food Inc.) examines how corporations manipulate citizens, government and the law to further their interests.
    Kenner interviews scientists who have been battered by the press and professional spin-doctors. Ill prepared by a life of research to deal with slick PR men, many of these researchers look befuddled when confronted by misinformation. James Hansen, one of the fathers of the climate change movement, admits that he wasn’t prepared to become the face of global warming. Nor was he prepared for the backlash. Death threats, smear campaigns and aggressive politicking.
    Those on the other side seem to enjoy being contrarians. All pundits readily admit to Kenner that they don’t conduct research; they merely interpret. Marc Morano, founder of Climate Depot, seems to revel in the fight if not the facts. He enjoys going after scientists who question his view that global warming is a liberal hoax, often publishing their personal email addresses and encouraging his followers to send hate mail.
    Kenner’s only misstep is his over-reliance on metaphor. To liken pundits to magicians performing card tricks, he uses a repeating motif of shuffling decks and sleight of hand. The framing device seems silly compared to the seriousness of the issues.
    Like most documentaries that take a bold stand, Merchants of Doubt will likely make you angry. Whether you’re furious at the pundits or Kenner’s take on climate change largely depends on what side of the debate you fall.

Good Documentary • PG-13 • 96 mins.

Abandon all hope, you who enter the Divis Flats

British private Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell: Unbroken) wants a station in Germany. He wants an easy assignment and money to provide for his son, in care while he’s serving. Instead he’s sent to Belfast, where the IRA is waging a bloody war against the British Crown.
    Fresh out of training and uneasy in the tense streets of Northern Ireland, Hook tries to keep his head down and collect his check. Wish again.
    An inexperienced officer leads his platoon into a riot. Sent into a swarm of protesters to retrieve a stolen gun, Hook sees his comrade’s head blown off and his fellow soldiers beating a hasty retreat — without him.
    An easy target in his British fatigues, Hook flees, evading IRA gunmen and angry citizens. To survive the night in Divis Flats, an IRA stronghold, he must also avoid IRA spies and steer clear of the roving gangs of Molotov cocktail-wielding rioters.
    Hook’s run through the Flats drives a wedge in the already segmented IRA. The old-school members are horrified at the murder of a soldier and fearful that killing Hook will bring the British in bloody invasion. The young IRA want blood and don’t care whose.
    With a soldier stranded in enemy territory, the British military turns to undercover agents. But the spies have their own agenda, a planned counter-strike against the IRA. Hook’s death might just further their plans.
    Can anyone leave Divis Flats alive?
    Director Yann Demange (Top Boy) uses handheld cameras to follow Hook on his dashes through the shadows as the city burns around him. Though handheld can become pointlessly shaky, here the technique compliments Hook’s frenetic journey through the night. Demange also keeps his film looking authentic by using a muted color palate and soft focus that looks like it was shot during the 1971 Belfast riots.
    At the heart of ’71 is O’Connell, who is masterful as the frantic Hook. In his previous starring role in Angelina Jolie’s run-of-the-mill Unbroken, O’Connell was forced into the generic hero role. In ’71, Demange unleashes O’Connell on the screen with brilliant results. Hook is a barely competent kid utterly terrified of the men with guns chasing him. A man without a plan, he simply reacts to what’s happening around him with more luck than skill. When he must fight, his barely contained panic fuels his blows.
    Don’t bother to buy popcorn; you’ll be too breathless to eat it.

Great Drama • R • 99 mins.

An old story marred by modern filmmaking

Jimmy ‘The Gravedigger’ Conlon (Liam Neeson: Taken 3) was once the most feared man in New York. Suspected of having killed dozens for his best friend, mob boss Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris: Frontera), he’s eluded all efforts to pin a body on him.
    Jimmy’s crimes have caught up to him in other ways. He can’t sleep because of dreams of people he slaughtered. His son Michael (Joel Kinnaman: The Killing) will have nothing to do with him. Jimmy drowns his guilt in booze, stumbling from bars to his hovel of a home.
    To the Maguire mob, he’s a washed-up old man who used to be somebody. But he’s still Shawn’s best friend, and the ruthless mob boss tries to help him fight his demons. Shawn always saves him, no matter how drunk, belligerent or broke.
    Until Jimmy kills Shawn’s only son.
    Jimmy takes the shot to save his own son Michael, who happens to be the only witness to a Maguire murder. Now nearly insane with grief, Shawn orders every killer he’s ever worked with to hunt down Jimmy and Michael.
    Michael must in turn trust the ­violent father he has shunned for decades.
    Can the duo patch up their relationship while avoiding every thug and dirty cop in New York?
    At heart, Run All Night is an old-fashioned crime story about family ties, vengeance and the mark violence leaves on families. With subjects so rich, it’s a shame that director Jaume Collet-Serra (Non-Stop) values style over substance.
    Collet-Serra seems to be directing a video game set randomly throughout New York’s five boroughs. The movie is filled with aerial views of the city that zoom into minute details at nauseating speeds. He has no interest in justifying his slapped-together action sequences. When Jimmy and Michael are trapped in a seeming dead end, Collet-Serra cuts away to the cops. By the time he cuts back, the Conlon boys have escaped. How? The director doesn’t care, so why should you? The only one who seems to be paying attention to the action is Neeson. Jimmy’s ankle is injured in a fall, and to his credit, Neeson remembers to lumber along in at least 60 percent of the subsequent scenes.
    Female characters also follow the video game tradition, speaking only when they are nagging the beleaguered main characters.
    In Collet-Serra’s fantasy version of New York City, traffic is minimal unless there’s a car chase, there is ample street parking and all trains run on time. The citywide manhunt for the Conlons never affects traffic patterns. With transportation so simple, why don’t father and son hop a train out of town?
    Run All Night is redeemed by its leads, two veterans who know how to mine good material out of poor direction. Neeson and Harris play beautifully off each other. Neeson can pull off the dangerous dad in his sleep, but he perks up when Harris joins him on screen. Harris manages to make Shawn frightening, intimidating but oddly human. He clearly loves Jimmy, but this he can’t forgive.
    If only the director had focused on their relationship …

Fair Action • R • 114 mins.

With actors this delightful, who needs a plot?

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a success, thanks to the assistance of former housekeeper Muriel (Maggie Smith: Downton Abbey) to proprietor Sonny Kapur (Dev Patel: Chappie). With retired British ex-pat pensioners filling nearly all the rooms, Sonny seeks to expand his empire by buying a second hotel. To realize his dream, Sonny must court rich American investors.
    The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel must pass an undercover hotel inspection before the American company will put up the money. Meanwhile, Sonny is planning his wedding to Sunaina (Tina Desai: Sense8), who has had about enough of playing second fiddle to a hotel.
    Marigold’s residents are also considering some major changes. Widow Evelyn (Judi Dench: Philomena) is considering a relationship with her long-devoted admirer Douglas (Bill Nighy: Pride). Sexy Madge (Celia Imrie: What We Did on Our Holiday) must choose among her wealthy lovers. New couple Norman (Ronald Pickup: Call the Midwife) and Carol (Diana Hardcastle: Good People) must decide on — or against — fidelity.
    The arrival of two new guests — writer Guy Chambers (Richard Gere: Time Out of Mind) and Lavinia (Tamsin Greig: Episodes) — brings upheaval. Is one of them the inspector? Can Sonny love a hotel and a wife? Will the Marigold’s guests start a second life in a new home?
    The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is the cinematic equivalent of one too many candies: over indulgent, too sweet, but enjoyable.
    This time, director John Madden seems to have forgotten what drew crowds the first time. In Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, he spends entirely too much time on the younger generation. Sonny’s woes are of little interest compared to the pensioners finding a new spark in their lives.
    When Madden turns to the greying residents of the Marigold, the old magic returns. Dench and Smith, chums on and off the screen, light up the movie with their interactions. Dench is sweetly funny as a woman who finds success in business and love at 80. Her stumble toward independence is delightful and touching.
    Smith delivers the acerbic, wry performance she has become famous for in her golden years. She could arch an eyebrow and deliver a hilariously cutting insult in her sleep; no one can do it better. In the sequel, however, Madden chooses to expand her role, exploring her relationship with Sonny. Muriel has progressed from casually racist ex-pat to fiercely protective maternal figure to Indian Sonny. Their relationship is the backbone of the story and far more poignant and interesting than Sonny and his love.
    The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is not as much fun as the first, but it has charm enough to make you glad you checked in.

Good Dramedy • PG • 122 mins.

Loaded with two charming leads, this movie doesn’t quite pull off its con

Nicky Spurgeon (Will Smith: After Earth) has a charming smile and a light touch. He’s adept at cons from lifting wallets to convincing investors that an empty warehouse is the Federal Reserve. A third-generation conman, Nicky has managed to stay successful in the game by staying isolated.
    When he meets Jess (Margot Robbie: The Wolf of Wall Street), a beautiful con clumsily targeting horny men, he sees potential. Jess becomes his student in the true art of the hustle.
    Soon his able pupil can emerge from crowded streets laden with wallets, watches and jewels. When their professional relationship turns romantic, Nicky panics. Explaining that love is dangerous in their business, he tosses Jess a pile of cash and takes off.
    Three years later, Nicky is working a scam on a billionaire racing magnate when he spots Jess. His deft touch fails. Distracted and lovesick, Nicky tries for both Jess and the money. His dangerous play could cost him his life and the girl.
    If Focus were a conman, it wouldn’t be a very good one. In a movie about misdirection and distraction, plot is convoluted and the numerous twists are telegraphed obviously by writer/directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Crazy, Stupid, Love). Experienced moviegoers will pick out twists long before they’re revealed. Watch for shots that last longer than they should.
    Nor does the film offer tension or propose stakes. The pair never seems in real danger, even when a gun is pointed at their heads. Nicky seemingly never makes a misstep, which creates a sense of invulnerability. Since Nicky is infallible, there’s no need to worry about him; everything must be part of his plan.
    Though the plot fizzles, the herculean efforts of the stars keep Focus watchable. Up and coming Robbie sparkles as Jess, who she makes an eager student who thrills at every watch she slips off her marks. Her enthusiasm and charm are beguiling, and she is susceptible to panic, which makes her interesting.
    As the man who has a plan, Smith’s Nicky is smooth to a fault. Smith fails to give Nicky vulnerability, but he succeeds in reclaiming his shine as a movie star. He’s slick, cool and exceptionally likeable as he hustles through the movie. Focus is an effective reminder of why Smith became one of the biggest stars of the screen, standing he lost in the wake of After Earth and Men in Black III.
    The stars work well together, too, and we fall for the way they play off each other.
    Focus isn’t a good crime film, but it’s an enjoyable romantic comedy. Buy a ticket for Smith and Robbie’s sexy banter. But don’t let them near your wallets.

Fair Romantic Comedy • R • 105 mins.