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A possible future camp classic?, 3 March 2015

A Russian-émigré scrubwoman named Jupiter Jones who's actually the reincarnation of a galactic queen.

An elfin-eared, perpetually shirtless Channing Tatum zooming around on hover-boots.

A race of genetically-advanced super humans who've achieved eternal youth by harvesting inhabitants of "lesser" planets (Earth included) inside the massive, swirling storm on Jupiter.

These are just a few of the elements that have found their way into the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink screenplay that Lana and Andy Wachowski ("The Matrix") have concocted for "Jupiter Ascending," an eclectic sci-fi extravaganza that is just preposterous and goofy enough to be entertaining.

Mila Kunis plays the earthbound royal, while Tatum is the human/canine hybrid assigned to protect her from the evil forces dead set on denying her her rightful place on the throne.

With eye-popping art direction and computer-generated special effects, the look of the film (even if a bit too derivative of the "Star Wars" prequels) is never anything short of spectacular. Meanwhile, the script achieves moments of genuine originality and creativity, even if it frequently appears to be on the verge of collapsing into eye- rolling, giggle-inducing silliness. In fact, the movie is probably a tad too accomplished on a technical level for it to ever achieve the status of a true camp classic (though Kunis' wedding headdress comes pretty darn close). But, then, only time will tell on that score.

Oculus (2013/I)
1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Mirror mirror on the wall, 18 February 2015

Mirrors, with their ability to both reflect and distort reality, have served as sources of inspiration for many a horror story writer.

In "Oculus," the object in question is an ornately framed 500-year-old mirror that's allegedly been causing all sorts of havoc in the lives of those who've owned it. The last owners were a family of four in Alabama whose father (Rory Cochrane) went crazy, murdering the mother (Katee Sackhoff) and nearly killing his son and daughter before the son blew him away in self-defense. Fast-forward to the present day: Tim (Brenton Thwaites), the traumatized boy, now 21, has just been released from a mental institution, while his older sister, Kaylie (Karen Gillan), has tracked down the mirror for the express purpose of proving to the skeptical world that it was indeed the nefarious mirror and not her father that was responsible for the tragedy.

Like most horror films, "Oculus" is better in the setting-up stage than in the playing out. The mirror aspect of the story suggests that things might be different here from the typical haunted house tale, but eventually the clunky, nuts-and-bolts aspects of the story come to predominate and the result is under-whelming.

Some creepy moments early on but a disappointment overall.

Rio 2 (2014)
Relatively undistinguished entry in a crowded field, 9 February 2015

"Rio 2" is a sequel to the original computer-animated hit from 2011. When Blu (Jesse Eisenberg) and Jewel (Anne Hathaway), two macaws living happily with their three children in Rio de Janeiro, learn that a group of their own kind have been discovered deep in the Amazon jungle, they pack up and head out on a vacation to visit their old homestead and introduce themselves to their long lost kin.

What is essentially an avian version of "the city mouse and the country mouse," "Rio 2" is bright, spirited and colorful, with just enough of an ecological message to lend it a social conscience. Yet, for all its virtues, the movie comes across like the assembly-line product it is, marked by stereotypical characters and lackluster storytelling. The cluttered cast includes Andy Garcia, George Lopez, Jamie Foxx, Bruno Mars, Rita Moreno, and Tracey Morgan as an assortment of compatriots, villains and sidekicks, but the movie itself might have benefited from a more disciplined and focused approach to the material.

Taken 3 (2014)
2 out of 6 people found the following review useful:
Threadbare action flick, 5 February 2015

Liam Neeson returns as ex-CIA operative Bryan Mills in "Taken 3," a half-hearted man-on-the-run thriller that has even less distinction than your average weekly TV procedural.

In this installment of the lucrative series, Mills is framed for the murder of his ex-wife, so he spends his time trying to both prove his innocence and find the actual culprits.

After some tedious exposition detailing Mills' bumpy relationship with his ex-wife (Famke Janssen) and daughter (Maggie Grace), the Luc Besson/Robert Mark Kamen screenplay lapses into a predictable pattern as, scene after scene, Mills out-smarts and out-maneuvers a seemingly endless supply of dimwitted cops and snaggle-toothed Russian villains.

Even the action scenes are ludicrous and substandard.

The third time may well be the charm in other areas of life, but that adage rarely applies when it comes to movie sequels. Even the poster for the movie has the good sense to declare "It ends here." From their lips to God's ears.

Boyhood (2014/I)
0 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Taking the long view, 4 February 2015

More than any other filmmaker working today (with the possible exception of the "Up" documentaries' director, Michael Apted), Richard Linklater takes the long view of life. He certainly demonstrated that with his romantic trilogy, the "Before" series, which focused on the relationship of two lovers at widely variant periods in their lives. And now he's upped the ante again with "Boyhood," redefining what it is that cinema can be and do.

Any other director dealing with the theme of a boy becoming a man would have used flashbacks, makeup, and different but similar-looking actors to represent the lad at various stages of maturation and growth. Not Linklater. Instead, he chose to begin filming his opus in 2003 with a six-year-old actor named Ellar Coltrane and to return to the project at various intervals during a ten-year period, eventually putting it all together into a single two-hour-and-45-minute film called "Boyhood." The movie also features Linklater staple Ethan Hawke as Mason's dad, Mason Sr.; Patricia Arquette as Mason's mom, Olivia; and Lorelei Linklater (Richard's daughter) as Mason's older sister, Samantha.

Spanning a full decade, the narrative flows seamlessly from one period to another - so seamlessly, in fact, that it often takes us a few moments to realize we've jumped ahead in time. Linklater often references key political/cultural touchstones of each era (i.e., presidential elections, music videos) to help orient us as to when the events are taking place and just how much time has passed.

The risk of a high-concept movie such as "Boyhood" is that it will become all about the gimmick and little else. Luckily, Linklater has more in mind. Mason (along with his sister, Samantha) is the product of a broken home. Mason Sr. and Olivia are already divorced when the story begins, with Mason Sr. playing the role of "weekend dad" that has become so much a feature of modern family life. As the years pass and Mason transitions from childhood to adolescence, he has to cope with not one but two abusive step dads, a life of constant flux and instability due to constant moving, and all the rites of passage a young man must go through on the journey to adulthood: alcohol and drug use, first love, first sex, first breakup, etc. As a bright, observant kid, Mason prides himself on his free-thinking, nonconformist way of looking at the world. He indulges in moments of introspection, pondering his future and his place in the world and casting moral judgments on the generations that have come before him - with that combination of unearned cynicism and naïve optimism that belong uniquely to teenagers just starting out in life.

The movie captures well the way in which young people are often at the mercy of adults. Mason is the recipient of a steady stream of lectures and words of advice from the adults in his life, some well-intentioned but some decidedly not. In fact, the movie makes clear that adults often take their own inadequacies and frustrations out on kids, who essentially are not equipped, either physically or psychically, to fight back and defend themselves. Conversely, the movie also shows, through Hawke's character, just how hard it is for a part-time dad to develop a deep enough relationship with his child to be able to impart crucial life lessons to him or her.

For it should be emphasized that, despite the title, the adults are as crucial a part of the fabric of the story as are the kids. Single parenthood, a succession of failed marriages, creeping middle-age malaise - there are just some of the life experiences experienced by both Mason Sr. and Olivia as time passes and the story plays itself out.

It should be noted that the concept Linklater has come up with has one inherent pitfall that he could, perhaps, not have fully predicted or appreciated when starting out on the project. And that is the issue of what happens if the child actors that you start out with aren't necessarily the best actors for the roles in the later stages of the story. And this is what appears to have happened here, for both Coltrane and Linklater are much better in the earlier stretches of the film than they are towards the end. This problem could have been avoided if the director had taken the more conventional route of hiring different actors all at one time. But it was important for the director to stay true to his vision, so the resultant weakness can be easily forgiven.

What one is most struck by when watching "Boyhood" is just how much patience it must have taken for Linklater to be able to sit on all this footage for such a long time - with crossed fingers, no doubt, that nothing too untoward would happen to his performers in the meantime.

There are sure to be a handful of naysayers who will argue that not enough "happens" in the film, that for a movie of such scope and ambition, it is notably lacking in "major" events and epic revelations. But that seems to be the whole point of Linklater's work (as it was in the "Before" series as well) - to provide as accurate a keen and unadorned observation of everyday life as any mere mortal could be expected to do, and to make the point that while we often measure our lives in terms of the "big" moments, it is really all the "little" moments that, when rolled together, truly define who we are. With "Boyhood," he has more than succeeded in that endeavor.

1 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Life in a dream state, 17 January 2015

Inexplicable and psychically jarring, "Under the Skin" has the seductive power of a nightmare. Written by Jonathan Glazer and Walter Campbell and directed by Glazer, it is an "art" science fiction film that wanders between the visionary and the pretentious but mainly succeeds at what it's trying to do - which is to get under your skin with its unsettling implications and mood.

Scarlett Johannson plays a strangely emotionless young woman who cruises around Scotland in a van, luring unattached young men back to her place, where they disappear into some kind of liquefied oblivion, leaving only their skins behind.

One day, she picks up an Elephant Man-type figure on whom she ultimately takes pity, releasing the disfigured man before he can be fully disappeared into the who-knows-where. This unaccustomed lapse into human compassion forces her to go on the run, though from whom we're never quite sure. In fact, we are never made privy as to why she does what she does, only that she is inexorably compelled to do it. And that's where the movie becomes problematic. On the one hand, one appreciates the writers' refusal to spell everything out for the audience, thereby deepening the sense of mystery and challenging us to think for ourselves. On the other hand, with virtually no context for the woman's actions, we're essentially set adrift with just some truly creepy and disturbing moments and some truly stunning visuals to grasp onto. Indeed, the movie is marked by long stretches with little or no dialogue, often requiring the images alone to carry the story.

Perhaps, Johannson is the cold, soulless femme fatale character stripped (figuratively as well as literally) to her basic essence. Or perhaps not. Frankly, I'm just spit-balling here.

But does it really matter in the long run? Why not simply sit back and allow oneself to be transported to the strangely off-kilter world of enigmatic plotting and surreal, painterly landscapes that the filmmakers have fashioned out of Michel Faber's 2000 novel.

"Under the Skin" is for looking at and connecting with on a visceral level - and the sooner you stop fretting about What It All Means, the sooner you'll able to more fully appreciate its hypnotic power.

Solid entry in the series, 12 January 2015

"Captain America: The Winter Soldier" is a solid sequel to 2011's "Captain America: The First Avenger." Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have come up with an entertaining plot that offers a modicum of character development to go along with all the mayhem, chase scenes and CGI effects that are the life's blood of the modern- day action flick.

In this installment, '40's relic Steve Rogers (he even has an all- American name) is still adjusting to life as a superhero in the 21st Century when he discovers that S.H.I.E.L.D, the fictional spy agency, has been infiltrated and taken over by a traitorous organization known as HYDRA. Rogers has no idea who he can and cannot trust as he endeavors to save S.H.I.E.L.D. and the world at large from certain destruction. Enter the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), a manufactured super being similar to Rogers, who just happens, however, to fight for the other side.

As the granite-jawed, all-American-boy hero, Chris Evans possesses a good-guy earnestness and a disarming charm that fit the character nicely, and he's matched by such stellar figures as Robert Redford, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, etc.

It's all in good fun, and the time passes quickly, but, when all is said and done, you probably won't remember much about "The Winter Soldier" a few hours after it's over. But, then again, that's not exactly what modern Hollywood blockbusters are all about anyway.

4 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
Piecing together the puzzle of a life, 10 January 2015

The documentary "Finding Vivian Maier," written and directed by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel, tells the fascinating tale of a woman who lived and died in obscurity - then, through a serendipitous fluke of fate and an undiscovered talent for photography, became well known and celebrated long after her death. So much so that they even went and made a movie about her.

The saga began when Maloof, a young historian/filmmaker, bought a box of negatives at an auction in 2007. The negatives, it turned out, belonged to a woman named Vivian Maier, born in 1926, who had spent most of her adult life taking pictures of the world around her - more than 150,000 of them to be exact. Vivian never shared her work with the people in her life, even though the images were of a quality to rival some of the world's greatest and most famous photographers. Intrigued by what he had unearthed - the treasure trove included many 8 MM films as well - Maloof decided to re-create the life of this talented woman by seeking out those who knew her and using their knowledge of her to help piece it all together. It seems that Vivian spent her life as a nanny to the well-off families of Chicago; in fact, she was hired by no less a figure than Phil Donahue to look after his four children for a short time.

Through the movie, there emerges a portrait of an eccentric, intensely private woman, who never married and was seemingly devoid of family, who kept her personal background a secret, frequently used pseudonyms, affected a phony French accent (despite the fact that she was a native New Yorker), voiced strong opinions on politics and society, and traveled the world with only a camera for a companion, continually documenting, through both stills and film, the world as she and few others saw it.

One of the interviewees describes Vivian's work as reflecting "the bizarreness of life, the incongruencies of life, and the unappealing- ness of human beings." Yet, what comes through most vividly in her work is its humanity, her ability to capture the essence of people from all ages and walks of life in a single moment in time.

However, if you thought "Finding Vivian Maier" would turn out to be one of those unalloyed "feel good" movie experiences, you'd be sadly mistaken. For not everything we learn about the woman behind the camera is uplifting, charming and inspiring. In fact, the movie takes a decidedly dark turn in the latter half, as a number of the children she oversaw recount some of the abuse - both physical and emotional - they suffered at her hands.

She is described by some who knew her as "damaged" and "past eccentric,' riddled with mental illness, paranoia, and a compulsion for hoarding.

She became more and more isolated from the world as she entered old age, reduced to dumpster-diving for food. and becoming increasingly reliant on the kindness of strangers before death finally came for her in 2009.

Yet, now her work adorns the walls of many an art gallery the world over, as ever-increasing legions of admirers come to appreciate her talent.

For all its speculation, the movie demonstrates at least a certain amount of self-awareness by admitting that it may be a trifle unfair to judge a person and the life she led based entirely on how others saw and felt about her, without the person being given a chance to clarify or defend herself.

In a way, Vivian Maier is a stand-in for all the nameless, faceless people who surround us unnoticed, the vast majority of people who live their lives in relative obscurity and leave little real mark on the world after they're gone. Except, thanks to the fickle finger of fate and her own unique talent, Vivian did leave a mark, one that will be admired and appreciated for generations to come.

The Raid 2 (2014)
2 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
A good movie but some streamlining would help, 7 January 2015

A dubbed-into-English martial arts epic from Indonesia, "The Raid 2" is the sequel to the original film from 2011. In this installment in the series, Officer Rama (Kiko Uwais) is sent undercover to expose law enforcement's corrupt dealings with several warring crime families.

Plot-wise, it's the oldie about the mob boss son (Arifin Putra) who feels his dad just doesn't sufficiently appreciate his true talents for gangsterism, so he joins up with some rival families to take out the old man and install himself as the new kingpin supreme.

First of all, is it just me, or does any action movie, no matter how good it is, really need to run on for 148 minutes? The result of such an exhausting length is that the quality moments - and there are plenty - are inevitably diluted by distention, languorous pacing and unnecessary padding. That's a shame because the fight scenes, though blood-soaked and sadistic in the extreme, are very well staged and executed. Ditto for the car chases. But they're ultimately no match for the muddled, often incoherent plotting that comes to dominate so much of the movie.

There's a terrific 100-minute movie buried in there somewhere. I just wish director Gareth Evans had exercised sufficient restraint and self- discipline in the editing room to bring it forth.

Noble subject, imperfect presentation, 18 December 2014

Not surprising, given its subject matter, the movie "Cesar Chavez" is both inspiring and depressing in roughly equal measure - depressing because it portrays a society sadly built on the exploitation of the disenfranchised and powerless, and inspiring because it reminds us of the power of both the individual and the collective to change the course of history for the better.

In terms of structure and execution, this is a fairly standard biopic of the man whose name has become virtually synonymous with collective bargaining and civil rights. The movie begins when Chavez is already a family man, working as an organizer for a Latino civil rights group, the Community Service Organization. We're briefly informed of the fact that Chavez was born in Yuma, Arizona, but that, as a child, he was forced to migrate to California when his family lost their farm in the depths of the Depression. The trauma of being ripped away from the land he loved and compelled to work as a laborer in the field for virtually no money never left Chavez and, indeed, it became the defining force of his life. Thus, he returned to those fields years later for the purpose of organizing his fellow workers into a union (eventually to be known as United Farm Workers), taking on the massive power structure that, through a combination of greed and racism, kept them virtually enslaved to their masters.

What strikes one most while watching "Cesar Chavez" is the tremendous courage displayed not only by Chavez and his family but all the workers in standing up to the verbal abuse, physical violence, racism, jail time and threatened loss of employment that was regularly thrown at them in an effort to get them to back down and accept their inhumane working conditions without question or complaint. When striking didn't get them what they wanted, they turned toward mass marches and boycotts, the latter of which was particularly effective in winning the general public to their side and eventually bringing the growers to the bargaining table and ultimately acceding to their demands - no easy task given that many of the local politicians, law enforcement officials and judges were already in the pocket of the wealthy growers. Luckily, the movement also boasted some powerful allies from around the country, i.e., politicians like Senator Robert Kennedy and the United Auto Workers Union. The movie also captures the fact that Chavez frequently had to contend with members of his own group who often felt that passive resistance was inefficient in achieving their goals and wanted to employ more direct and violent methods in taking on their oppressors.

Like many movies that attempt to capture the totality of a famous person's life, "Cesar Chavez" often falls short of the mark. Because the movie's running time is so limited, certain aspects of Chavez' life inevitably get short shrift. The relationships with his wife and long time partner, Helen (well played by America Ferrera), and with his oldest son are sketchy at best. Famed union activist Dolores Huerta (Rosario Dawson), who worked beside Chavez in many of his endeavors, tends to get shuffled into the background a bit more than is warranted given the prominent role she played, an obvious casualty to the limits of time. Michael Pena bears an impressive physical resemblance to Chavez, but he lacks the fire-in-the-belly necessary to convey the true essence of a man who inspired millions and changed the world. John Malkovich, on the other hand, effectively portrays an unsympathetic grape-grower without resorting to overstatement and caricature.

Writer Keir Pearson and director Diego Luna faced a daunting task in bringing Chavez' story to the screen. That they only half succeeded is perhaps more inevitable than it is regrettable given the self-imposed constraints of the medium they were working in (a TV miniseries might have given the subject more justice). But anyone with an interest in Chavez in particular and the fight for human rights in general should definitely watch this film.

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