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Glimpse into life under a caliphate
A young couple is stoned to death for adultery. Several youngsters are publicly flogged for singing and playing music. A young girl is sold against her will into marriage to a much older man. These shocking events are not part of a movie set in Biblical times but rather one that takes place in the present-day Middle East. And they are just a few of the dismaying plot points that make up "Timbuktu," a pertinent and topical French-Mauritanian film that offers a glimpse into what life is like for a group of ordinary people being forced to live under the iron-fisted rule of an Islamic caliphate.
In style and form, "Timbuktu" is about as far from a Hollywood production as any movie on this subject could possibly be. There are no over-the-top action sequences, no phony heroics, no contrived rescue missions or breakneck escapes. Despite the horrors of what it is showing us, Abderrahmane Sissako's film is understated almost to the point of inertia. There is no real "story" per se, just a series of loosely connected vignettes chronicling the daily struggles of the people who call this part of the world home, a place where the presence of modern technology such as cell phones provides an incongruous contrast to the primitive quality of the setting and the unenlightened and decidedly un-modern nature of the caliphate's moral strictures.
What one is most struck by while watching "Timbuktu" is the extraordinary quiet bravery of the people who are persecuted and often killed for the most mind-bogglingly petty of offences. For, make no mistake, the caliphate leaders are little more than schoolyard bullies who have managed, mainly through the acquisition of firepower and the seductive power of religious dogma, to become a genuine threat to those who are their targets.
Also striking is the way in which death in the film occurs in an almost off-hand, matter-of-fact way, underlining the tenuous quality of life in that corner of the world. And the story ends on an inconclusive, life-goes-on note that will have many in the audience tearing their hair out in frustration. Yet, the movie is all the more admirable and heartbreaking for it.
The Loft (2014)
Tolerable, though often overwrought, whodunit
A cautionary tale for all the would-be lotharios among us, "The Loft" features Karl Urban as a renowned architect who entices his four married buddies (Wentworth Miller, James Marsden, Eric Stonestreet, Mathias Schoenaerts) into becoming co-owners of a luxury high-rise condo where they can carry on their marital infidelities free from the prying eyes of their unsuspecting spouses. Trouble starts when, one fine morning, a beautiful young woman is found murdered there, killed possibly by an intruder but more likely by one of the five.
Though the movie becomes a bit undisciplined and even overwrought over the course of its running time (and that includes some of the performances), "The Loft" scores as a fairly engaging and effective whodunit, one that manages to incorporate some relevant and timely reflections on how the over-privileged 1% spend their time and money. The surprise twist ending goes a long way towards mitigating some of the sturm-un-drang excesses that have come before it, though the denouement is a bit flat-footed and heavy-handed when it finally arrives.
All in all, a mixed bag when it comes to storytelling and acting, "The Loft" is, nonetheless, good for a relaxing, two-hour-long escape - if you're in the market for that sort of thing, that is.
Strange Magic (2015)
Substandard animated musical
There's been such a glut of animated features in recent years that it has become virtually impossible for any particular one of them to break through and become the kind of must-see movie "event" that we used to get in the days when Disney alone ruled the roost. A case in point is "Strange Magic," a decidedly low-grade entry in the genre that is as leaden as it is uninvolving, as earthbound as it is unmemorable.
The story is loosely based on Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," a tale of two lands - one good, one evil - filled with fairies and imps and all sorts of other fantastic creatures falling in love and doing battle with one another.
Probably the most distinctive aspect of the movie is that, rather than spending money on a score of its own, the makers of "Strange Magic" have instead opted to fork out the royalty fees for a dozen or so recognizable pop tunes from the 1950s to the present day (including, of course, ELO's "Strange Magic"). In fact, I would estimate that about 80-90% of the movie consists of musical sequences, a high ratio for even the most music-centric of musicals, putting it practically in operetta territory.
Thus your appreciation of the movie may be predicated largely on how much you enjoy the playlist they've brought together for the occasion. Beyond the score, the mise-en-scene is dark, dank and claustrophobic, and the screenplay, based on an idea by none other than George Lucas himself, is strangely lacking in originality and humor.
The heavy emphasis on the love aspects of the tale, as well as the aforementioned over-abundance of musical sequences, will likely make the movie's target audience both listless and fidgety throughout.
Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)
Not as bad as advertised but also not very good
Based on the phenomenally popular best-seller by E. L. James, "Fifty Shades of Grey" tells the story of a shy and sexually repressed - so sexually repressed she's still a virgin - English Lit. major (Dakota Fanning) who falls under the spell of a handsome yet extremely eccentric 27-year-old billionaire and corporate mogul named Christian Grey (a charisma-challenged Jamie Dornan) who just so happens to be heavily into S&M. As Grey slowly introduces her to the world of sexual pain and domination, Anastasia becomes more and more intrigued by what the attractive young man has to offer. But how long can this go on before her natural instincts for self-respect and independence begin to assert themselves and drive the couple apart?
But don't harbor the illusion that their relationship is just about sex; there are trips in private helicopters, as well as iron-clad, no-disclosure contracts to be signed and prescribed diets to be followed. In short, this is a 24/7 master/servant relationship entered into by two willing partners. In fact, the movie underscores the irony that such dominant/submissive relationships are actually built upon the paradox of freely giving up one's freedom in an effort to be more free. The film also explores how being a part of a mysterious and often misunderstood sexual subgroup requires one to present one face to the outside world and an entirely different one behind closed doors - and the often debilitating effect that such a dual existence can have on a person's emotional and psychological well-being.
Though the critics pretty thoroughly savaged the movie upon its release in early 2015, there are a few things I actually found myself admiring about "Fifty Shades of Grey." First, it scrupulously avoids many of the tired clichés and tropes normally associated with romantic movies. Second, it isn't afraid to present characters - Christian, in particular - who are often hard to like and identify with, and the movie appears to be content with that fact. Even beyond his fetishism and affinity for kink, Christian comes across as downright weird at times, and the movie doesn't try to soften or "redeem" him over the course of the story. The authors make it quite clear that Christian is, at some deep psychological level, a pretty messed up person and that many of his proclivities are the result of the abuse he suffered at the hands of an older woman. I'm not sure this is necessarily fair to the people who comprise this particular sexual subgroup, but, at least as portrayed in the movie, it doesn't come across as all that erotic or appealing an avenue of sexual expression, especially when carried over into the non-sexual realm of their lives as well. In fact, Christian's obsessive need to control Ana becomes positively off-putting at times.
Now onto the movie's defects. One of the weaknesses inherent in adapting a piece of erotica like "Fifty Shades of Grey" to the screen is that the simulated sex scenes tend to become more clinical than erotic when visualized on film. Far from tantalizing or arousing us, the sex scenes take on the quality of mere curiosities, with the audience placed in the role of dispassionate observer rather than engaged voyeur. Moreover, to call the movie's pacing glacial would be doing it an injustice. So concerned are writer Kelly Marcel and director Sam Taylor-Johnson with not generating any real excitement or passion that they go overboard in the opposite direction, leaving us checking our watches (or cell phones) instead of becoming fully engaged in what is taking place on screen.
So, in the final analysis, is "Fifty Shades of Grey" an endorsement of the S&M lifestyle, or is it more in the nature of a cautionary tale? For the most part, I think it is the latter (I can't speak for the novel, never having read it). After all, as previously stated, Grey is portrayed as pretty much psychologically damaged, and Ana ultimately rejects the arrangement that threatens to turn her into little more that a slave, even if a voluntary one. The feminist ending also seems to hint at the notion that this is probably not the healthiest relationship for the young woman in the long run. The final shot certainly implies that Ana has opted to sever ties with the man who intrigued her initially. I guess we'll just have to wait for the seemingly inevitable sequel to find out for sure.
Better than the movie's rating would indicate
In computer parlance, a "black hat" is a person who hacks computer security systems not for political purposes but for self-enrichment and malice. And the black hat in Michael Mann's cyber thriller entitled "Blackhat" is one malicious dude indeed, utilizing his skills to not only hack into bank accounts but to cause a meltdown in a Chinese nuclear power plant. Tracking down the culprit becomes the job of the FBI, led by Viola Davis, and Chris Hemsworth, a hacker-with-a-heart-of-gold who's currently spending time behind bars and whose sentence will be commuted if he agrees to help law enforcement track down the culprit. (Naturally, he does).
Though the critical response to "Blackhat" was tepid at best, I found it to be a compelling, nicely understated crime drama, serious and sober, and with those kick-butt action sequences that are the hallmark of any Michael Mann production. Despite the subject matter, the screenplay by Mann and Morgan Davis Foehl doesn't get bogged down in all the arcane minutiae to which such scenarios are prone, and, hence, we don't feel as lost as we often do in such cases.
Hemsworth fits the "strong, silent" antihero figure to a tee, and he's backed up by a first-rate cast.
"Blackhat" suffers from an anticlimactic third act and an obligatory but less-than-compelling romance between Hemsworth and Tang Wei as the sister of Hemsworth's college-roommate-now-turned-Chinese-hacker- specialist (Leehom Wang), but action movie fans should have no trouble relishing this above-average thriller.
Black Sea (2014)
Gripping underwater drama
How do you make an old-fashioned submarine movie set in peacetime? Simple, you just do what the makers of "Black Sea" have done. You concoct a tale of a group of men who use a rickety old sub to dive to the bottom of the sea to loot a sunken German U-boat of $182 million dollars worth of gold bars (apparently, a payment from the Russians to the Nazis to keep the latter from invading their land, a bribe that, needless to say, never reached its destination, and, thus, never had its intended effect).
A rugged Jude Law is the seasoned salvager who's just been laid off from his job. When he learns of the existence of the treasure, Law agrees to lead a motley crew (half English, half Russian) on the risky mission. Soon, dissension has developed among the men, mainly along nationalistic lines, which threatens to "submarine" the endeavor early on.
With an original screenplay by Dennis Kelly, the movie is slow to engage, but once it does, it becomes a thrilling underwater adventure tale, filled with breath-bating suspense and gripping human drama. The logistics of the mission are fascinating in and of themselves and they are beautifully executed by director Kevin Macdonald, backed by a crew of amazing movie-making technicians.
For some added sociological dimension, the movie also manages to go all Occupy Wall Street on us, taking a swipe at the powers-that-be who get the downtrodden and desperate - i.e., the men on the sub - to "do their dirty work for them."
As submarine sagas go, "Black Sea" is no "Das Boot," but it'll do in a pinch.
Black or White (2014)
Imperfect but with some redeeming features
As movie genres go, the race-based social drama has always been a bit of a minefield for those willing to try to tiptoe their way across it. The risks are many. Either you wind up indulging in offensive stereotypes, or you go so overboard in the opposite direction that you transform some of the uglier realities of life into a sugarcoated pill largely designed to make the audience feel better about themselves and the world around them.
I'm here to report that "Black or White," written and directed by Mike Binder, makes it through the minefield largely intact, but there are definitely a few minor explosions along the way.
Based loosely on a true story, the movie features Kevin Costner as a recently widowed grandfather of a mixed-race child (Jillian Estell) whom he and his late wife raised as their own when their daughter died in childbirth. Now that he's on his own, some interested parties are beginning to question whether Elliot is truly fit to parent the child full-time.
Elliot's main challenger in this regard is Eloise's paternal grandmother, Rowena Jeffers (Octavia Spencer), a successful small business woman with a large and thriving family, the sole exception being Reggie (Andre Holland), the girl's father, who is both a crack addict and a habitual lawbreaker. However, Elliot has his own trouble with addiction, in his case alcohol, which pretty much neutralizes his argument against having Reggie in little Eloise's life.
Despite a certain slickness in its execution, "Black or White" achieves some truth by not picking sides, by allowing all the concerned parties to make their case without undue favoritism or judgment. Yet, in scope and execution. the movie ultimately feels too "small" for the subject it's attempting to tackle, a condition highlighted by the film's unfortunate slide into cheap melodrama towards the end.
"Black or White" is ultimately a minor addition to the long list of movies that have explored race relations lo these many decades, but its evenhandedness and sincerity make it one of the good ones.
Lively and colorful blend of live-action and animation
"The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie: Sponge Out of Water" brings the beloved fry cook and all his friends from the undersea world of Bikini Bottom to the big screen. The story is set in motion when a live action, tale-spinning pirate steals the formula for Sponge Bob's famous Krabby Patties, leaving the denizens of the community without their favorite - and, apparently, only - food and turning Bikini Bottom into an aquatic wasteland in the process. SpongeBob (Tom Kenny) and his buddies spring into action, determined to retrieve the recipe and save the town, even if that means venturing into the inhospitable world that lies just above the water's surface.
The time-tripping, dimension-bending plot is jam-packed with so many random and off-the-wall concepts and moments that it feels almost as if it were dreamed up by the writers (no fewer than five in addition to director Stephen Hillenburg are listed in the credits!) while on one hell of an acid trip. But that's what makes it so much fun - that and an assortment of clever puns, rip-roaring action sequences and a seamless blending of live action and animation.
Entertaining even for SpongeBob newbies.
The Boy Next Door (2015)
Has Hollywood no new ideas anymore?
Sort of a gender-reverse version of "Fatal Attraction," "Swimfan" and the like, "The Boy Next Door" features Jennifer Lopez as an older woman with a shaky marriage who gets involved with the smooth-talking, lantern-jawed teenage hunk who's just moved into the neighborhood.
Of course, Lopez is an "older" woman in the same sense that 26-year- old Ryan Guzman - who looks like he just stepped off the cover of Men's Fitness Magazine - is a teenager, but we'll let that slide. At any rate, Noah enrolls in one of Lopez' classes - he's a big fan of the Greek classics, you know - so he can benefit further from Ms. Peterson's "expertise" and "instruction." (In case you were wondering, Lopez is no more convincing as an English teacher than she is as an older woman). And, oh yea, did I mention - as if I needed to - that Noah turns out to be a bit of a raging psychotic?
Well, before you know it, Noah has become the unlikely best friend of Lopez' dorky son, Kevin (Ian Nelson), and he begins filling the impressionable lad's head with subversive thoughts about his dad (John Corbett), whose plan to reconcile with his wife makes him a direct threat to Noah's rather poorly-thought-out plans to start a new life with this less-than-cooperative Mrs. Robinson. You can pretty much write the screenplay yourself from there.
More a premise for a MLF porn movie than a feature film in its own right, "The Boy Next Door" piles one implausibility on top of another on its way to a preposterous conclusion.
Still Alice (2014)
Moving film on an important subject
Proving once again why she is one of our greatest living actresses, Julianne Moore earned a richly deserved Best Actress Oscar for her work in "Still Alice," a poignant tale of a 50-year-old linguistics professor who is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's.
Alice Howland is leading a seemingly charmed life when she is suddenly and unexpectedly cut down by a disease that we all too often think of as an exclusively late-in-life condition. In addition to her thriving and fulfilling career, this vital and intelligent woman enjoys a seemingly rock-solid marriage to a physician (Alec Bladwin), three reasonably well-adjusted adult children (Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish, Kristen Stewart) and the prospect of a couple of grandchildren on the way. All that, however, comes crashing down on her when she begins to exhibit subtle but disturbing and ultimately undeniable issues with memory and vocabulary retention. When her worst suspicions are confirmed, Alice and her loved ones are forced to come to terms with the reality of the situation and to make plans for how best to deal with it.
For Alice, the greatest fear is loss of control, identity and self, as day by day she slips ever further into mental oblivion. For her family members, the challenge is to find the means of coping with both the immediate and the long term burden of caring for Alice - and the grim prospect of eventually losing her to the disease. For John, her husband, after an initial period of denial, the answer is finally to flee to a new job in a new city, while their younger daughter, Lydia (Kristen Stewart), finds meaning by putting her own petty grievances on the back burner and ultimately embracing her role as caregiver to her mother.
Given its grim and terrifying subject matter, "Still Alice" could easily have sugarcoated the realities of Alice's condition and played upon the heartstrings of the viewer in an attempt to make it more palatable to an understandably anxious audience. Instead, as written and directed by Wash Westmoreland and the late Richard Glatzer, the movie, based on a book by Lisa Genova, wins us over with its matter-of-fact honesty and its determined refusal to wallow in both unwarranted optimism and tear-wringing schmaltz. Alice may indeed be facing an unspeakable tragedy, but, thanks to Moore's subtle, thoughtful performance, she evokes empathy rather than pity, understanding rather than concern.
It would be dishonest to somehow suggest that this is not a difficult film to sit through at times, for we all bring our own personal fears and experiences to it. But it seems to me an essential movie, one that opens pathways to understanding while at the same time engaging us in a very human drama on an issue so many of us will one day have to deal with, either as a victim or the loved one of a victim.
Incidentally, "Still Alice" makes a fine companion-piece to the equally impressive "Away From Her," a 2007 film on the same topic with Julie Christie a match for Moore as the Alzheimer's afflicted main character. Check that one out as well.