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Ex Machina (2015)
4 out of 10 people found the following review useful:
Sex Machina, 3 May 2015

(Ratings: ☆☆ ½ out of 4)

This film is mildly recommended.

In brief: A visual treat for the eyes, but the mind is deactivated by a dumb script.


Why aren't futuristic robots ever fat and ugly? I just had to ask that question, for whenever I see those female androids in sci-fi movies, they are always stunningly beautiful sleek models of perfection who become clever and resourceful adversaries. That being said, the latest prototype of artificial intelligence is on the market in the indie thriller, Ex Machina.

Computer genius Caleb (Domhnall Gleason) is send on assignment to work on a top secret project in the isolated home of a wealthy CEO for the company. His boss, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), has a specific project in mind: an A.I. that he has created and named Ava (Alicia Vikander). Ava is two thirds human parts (face, hands and feet) and one third metal and plastic, but very well-put-together, so much so that IKEA would like the patent.

Of course, we already sense the foreboding danger before Caleb does. Writer / Director Alex Garland sets up that fact all too obviously with the physical fortress-like setting, its eerie lighting, and the actions of both Nathan and Ava from the outset. Been here, seen that before.

Taking that well-worn successful formula of man's endless obsession with the bots and the bots displaying conflicting human emotion, as was the conceit of Jonzes' film her and Spielberg's A.I., Garland's film never engages its viewer emotionally. There is a nagging remoteness, not only in the fabricated Ava, but in the human characters as well. As written, Nathan and Caleb are suppose to be highly intelligent men, but their actions are self- destructive and juvenile from the get-go. The actors, who do yeoman-like work, should not be faulted, but the four character script surely can garner its share of the blame. (Sonoya Mizuno plays Nathan's mute geisha servant who supplies the frontal nudity to keep the audience awake.) The dialog is an endless existential debate about our humanity (of lack thereof) and it gets rather tedious awful fast.

Garfield the Writer has larger issues he wants to tackle, but the film breaks down to a "them vs. us" mentality rather quickly. The "shocking" reveals and twists aren't very surprising or satisfying. Everyone acts strange throughout. But there is strange, and there is STRANGE and without logical characters and actions at play, there is no basis for credibility or interest.

However, Garfield the Director has created a wonderful look for his film. He efficiently uses reflections in mirrors and glass to give Ex Machina a hallucinatory unearthly feel. The art design works overtime to hide the sci-fi failings of the script. Kudos to the art direction of for Mark Digby, Michelle Day, and Katrina Mackay and Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury's dissonant music score which adds a nice atmospheric touch and keeps the tension there.

While the film is visually exciting to watch, Ex Machina is a hollow replicant of so many other sci-fi droid movies. Its surface is shiny and polished, but there is nothing at its core.

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4 out of 7 people found the following review useful:
All That Glitters..., 23 April 2015

(Rating: ☆☆☆ out of 4)

This film is mildly recommended.

In brief: No Midas touch...a serious-minded film that only scratches the surface of its important subject.


It seems standard practice nowadays that whenever a film is touted "based on true events", it is far from true. Upon researching this biography of Adele Bloch-Bauer and her family, that much is true. The gold standard has been slightly devalued in this noble effort that tells its "true" story in the most melodramatic of ways. Woman in Gold simplifies an important issue (the ethical matter of stolen art during the Nazi reign) and tries to personalize this historic event with stick figures as its characters and the wobbliest of story as its source. While it certainly is engrossing fare, it's a foolhardy result.

Set in Vienna, the film centers on Klimt's masterwork, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I. Once owned by the family and taken away from this Jewish clan and now the property of the Viennese government, the painting is now the treasure in question. A legal fight ensues. In one corner stands our worthy contender, "Saint" Maria Altman (Helen Mirren), who if we are to believe, wants this artwork back in her possession for strictly personal reasons as the painting depicts her dearly beloved grandmother. Taking her case is a young idealistic lawyer, Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds). In the other corner are those nasty governmental bureaucrats who want to keep the work of art for its people as a symbol of patriotism and national pride. And the financial worth of the piece sure doesn't hurt either.

The painting becomes the MacGuffin in this film that brings on the conflict and unites both parties in their battle over ownership. Alexi Kaye Campbell's misbegotten screenplay sees the issue in only black and white terms, with its stilted arguments and painted in the broadest of brush-strokes that never resemble anything remotely realistic. There is no balance in this weighty matter with all sympathies going to our stoic heroine from the outset.

Adequately directed by Simon Curtis, the film carries its self-importance as its main pedigree. Adele is a feisty and strong-willed character, a predictable combination for the crowd- pleasing audience to root for and Dame Helen energizes the proceeding with her finely nuanced portrayal of a woman determined to fight injustice. But the film's lack of reality is the real crime in question. (Granted the tale spans decades, yet it should still adhere to the facts more closely...which it does not.) Mr. Reynolds is miscast in the crusader role, part nebbish and part idealistic hero as written, although the actor is never that convincing in the latter. Also in the cast are Daniel Bruhl as Hubertus Czernin, an ally to the cause, Tatiana Maslany as the younger Adele, Max Irons as her husband, and Henry Goodman as her father (in flashbacks), all contributing greatly to their underdeveloped characters. More support is given by Charles Dance, Elizabeth McGovern, Frances Fisher, Jonathan Pryce, and Katie Holmes as Pam, all talent wasted.

Woman in Gold is a riveting tale. The subject matter alone is compelling, but it remains pure fool's gold in its filmmaking efforts. See this docudrama for the glowing Ms. Mirren and the glorious artwork on display. They're priceless.

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0 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
May the Force be with You, 14 April 2015

This film is highly recommended.

I finally was able to see this 2014 foreign film, Force Majeure (online at ITunes) and it was quite impressive filmmaking. Surprisingly overlooked for a well deserved Oscar nomination, the film is worth your viewing efforts to hunt down and see.) Here is my review:

Force majeure is a legal term that perfectly defines this film: A common clause in a biding contract that free both parties from liability for their action due to circumstances beyond their act of God exemption. That is the bone of contention between a married couple, Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) in the excellent film by the same name.

On a holiday, a Swedish family survives a deadly avalanche...barely. They might have escaped their chance occurrence with this force of nature temporarily, but those repercussions deeply resonate with each family member due to the father's panicked "me first" survival reaction. This incident becomes one lasting memory of a family vacation that will affect this clan from years to come.

Solidly written and directed by Ruben Östlund, Force Majeure is the darkest of comedies. It takes direct aim at today's modern family and their interwoven and frayed relationships. Anger, resentment, and disappointment shrouds their happy time together as unforeseen events occur at a ski lodge in the French Alps. The film resembles Ingmar Bergman's film, Scene from a Marriage, in its episodic structure and subject matter of a marriage in tatters. Östlund's film may tackle the same territory but there is a more satirical edginess and more forgiving tone to his film.

Östlund paces his film leisurely, first focusing in on the stark formidable whiteness surrounding the resort, almost foreshadowing the unexpected event to come and capturing the familiar familial moments of loving calm between parent and child. The contrast of before and after incidents, especially between husband and wife, triggers the palpable tension that follows as father falls from grace caused by his cowardly actions.

The film takes the point of view of responsible adults acting irresponsibly and questions our perceived notion of role models. There is a deeper serious tone underlying life's absurdities, those things not within our control, and the film succeeds in varying degrees on that theme.

The two leads are outstanding. Both Ms. Kongsli and Mr. Kuhnke expertly juggle the dramatic and comedic elements for their roles and are quite believable as the warring spouses. Production values are top notch, especially the cinematography by Fredrik Wenzil who brings an ideal surreal quality to the film.

At times, Force Majeure does become a tad preachy and overstates its message of our baser human flaws. Also, the film's concluding act seems contrived, more of a plot device to tie up loose ends which weakens the impact of the film's consistently sharp observations about the human comedy called Life. That being said, Force Majeure is still a powerful force of filmmaking to be reckoned with. GRADE: B+

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'71 (2014)
5 out of 9 people found the following review useful:
The Troubles of War, 7 April 2015

This film is highly recommended.

In brief: A gripping war thriller that matter-of-factly tells its tale of a soldier caught behind enemy lines.


A city can outlive the atrocities of war. Time may all but erase the memory of bloodied injuries and its once escalating death toll as new generations push those events further to the back of their minds. Warsaw. Hiroshima. Berlin. Dresden. Saigon. All places that were war zones that now camouflage the suffering and only hint at the wounded lives and destruction that came before.

'71 visits such a a time and a place. Belfast. The Troubles. Catholic vs. Protestant. A most unholy holy war. Caught in the crossfire is Private Gary Hook (Jack O' Connell), a soldier separated from his British Army band of brothers. Hook combs the mean streets, searching for a safe haven until he can be rescued and encounters various people on his journey, both sympathetic and otherwise.

Well directed by newcomer Yann Demange and written by Gregory Burke, 71 depicts that sorrowful event. The screenplay focuses on Hook's ordeal and doesn't add much details about the turmoil between the fighting factions. The dialog is minimal, although some of it was lost on me with its thick Irish brogue. (Subtitles would have enhance the movie-going experience.) Characters and their motives remain either murky or purely of the black and white variety. What the film lacks in character development, it more that makes up in its tension-filled scenes of warfare.

The chase scenes are riveting. Taut editing by Chris Wyatt and an effective score by David Holmes ratchet up the suspense. Tat Radcliffe's hand-held camera work brings the moviegoer directly in the line of fire and cause us to immediately empathizes with the lost soldier and his dilemma. O'Connell's performance is more intrinsic and physical. The actor's strong screen presence says more than words itself. He becomes the common man, easily identifiable and emotionally grounded. Fine supporting work by Killian Scott, Sean Harris, Richard Dormer, Charlie Murphy, and Sam Reid add to the film's impact.

Demange's images of the war-torn village and its bombed-out ruins show a powerful vision and the director expertly handles the war scenes of escalating violence, with sudden bursts of savagery that left me gasping aloud at times. He is definitely a talent to watch and I look forward to his next venture.

In this time of terrorism and religious extremism, '71 is a lasting testament to us all. The film recalls an era of violence, a time of lives lost and corrupted, under the guise of religion freedom, that needs to be remembered in order to avoid repeating those mistakes once again.

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It Follows (2014)
7 out of 53 people found the following review useful:
Misled, 30 March 2015

(Rating: ☆☆ out of 4)

This film is not recommended.

In brief: An admirable attempt at rebooting the horror genre that gets lost in translation.


Teenagers + Sex = Death. The Unholy Three make a deadly combination whenever horror films are concerned. Pay heed: Have sex and you will become the next victim! Freddy, Michael, or Leatherface will absolve you from sin with a quick slice-and dice maneuver. It's the movie code. The latest supernatural fright-fest, It Follows, takes that common premise for a little spin. Oh, sex is still on the menu, but now, it can possibly save your life, making a no- win situation into a win-win. Let me explain without giving too much away.

Maika Monroe plays Jay, the teen in peril as an invisible force is set to kill her off. She has been cursed via a sexual transmitted encounter with her boyfriend. Now, a shape-shifting apparition will follow her to her death unless she can find another sexual partner to infect ASAP to stop this chain reaction. It is this dilemma that becomes the basis for the film and its minimal scares.

David Robert Mitchell shows promise. He is more skilled as a director than screenwriter. He gives his low budget film some nice highs with his strong imagery and adds moody suspenseful sequences that owe a great deal to John Carpenter and Wes Craven. Complete with an effective synthesized score to ratchet up the tension, the film has an eerie nightmarish atmosphere. Mitchell wisely downplays the monster, leaving much to the viewer's imagination. However, he still goes for too many cheap scare tactics with abrupt sound effects that go bump in the night.

It Follows doesn't quite follow the formula we moviegoers have come to expect. Which is good. However, what is bad is that the movie loses its focus midway in a script that is in need of some major rewrites, especially when logic is constantly lost along the way. There are too many dumb actions from our heroine and his friends, plus odd anachronistic items that make one wonder about the era and time-frame of the film when one should be more engrossed in the story. (Is it the 60's, 70's, or 80's?) Some leaps of logic occur in the flawed screenplay: Must teenagers always run to a deserted location in the middle of the night when being hunted? Are there any police or adults around to help? Has no one notice some strange deaths that are happening in the community?

While there is much to admire in the film's execution, the overall effect plus an unsatisfying ending only make It Follows just another victim in the horror genre.

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3 out of 8 people found the following review useful:
Second Class Accommodations, 28 March 2015

(Rating: ☆☆ out of 4)

This film is not recommended.

In brief: A dull sequel that is essentially a cut-and-paste job of its original 2012 predecessor.


The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is truth in advertising; It is second best. Compared to its original source, this film lacks any spark of originality or joy. Instead the filmmakers follow its successful tried-and-true formula by hiring its wonderful British cast of thespians once again, bringing in the same team of talent behind the camera as well (screenwriter Ol Parker and director John Madden), and playing up the same colorful Indian locations and elder problems. Nostalgia reigns foremost and there is never much excitement or emotional engagement as there was in the first film. While this sequel still entertains, it remains weary and fatigued like its aged travelers. What was once wry and droll is now dry and dull.

The film still amuses, mostly due the actors who inhabit the likable characters as they reconvene at the hotel. Enter some new characters and unforeseen problems. Sonny (Dev Patel, overacting, overdoing the comic shtick, and absolutely annoying this time around) and Mrs. Donnelly (a typecast Maggie Smith, again bringing some class to her condescending role) want to expand The Best Marigold Hotel and need corporate financing to do so. This brings some new residents into the scheme of things: Lavania (Tamsin Greig), a mysterious visitor, and Guy (Richard Gere), a possible hotel inspector, but definite love interest to Sonny's mother, Mrs. Kapoor (Lillete Dubey).

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is well-crafted but there are just too many underdeveloped subplots involving the various hotel guests and their romantic escapades that range from the downright silly to somewhat poignant. These stories are handled in such a forgettable slipshod manner, never building any real tension or interest.

There is not much to recommend, except a fine cast including Judi Dench and Bill Nighy and a concluding Bollywood number that has energy and style. The film is trivial in pursuit of a decent plot and rather lazy inert filmmaking that relies so much on the prior film's success as a come-on to its older target audience who should be disappointed with this installment.

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel left me wanting better room service. It still was a diverting trifle but, this time around, the accommodations were less than stellar and the trip was far from memorable.

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Love Hurts...One Way or Another, 28 February 2015

(Rating: ☆☆ ☆ out of 4)

This film is recommended.

In brief: The film's opposing narrative structure affects its emotional impact, but two fine performances and a lovely score more that compensate for those creative limitations


Due to the film's episodic nature, I just didn't have any emotional connection with the main characters in The Last Five Years: Cathy (Anna Kendricks), a struggling actress, and Jamie (Jeremy Jordan) an up-and-coming writer. This was due to the film's gimmicky format in which one character begins this musical character study as a shrewish and depressed harpy while the other appears to be a likable happy-go-lucky chap. Their attraction to each other seems out of kilter from the start (or in this case, the finish). Yes, their personalities change throughout the relationship, but their initial first impressions tend to cloud the story as it unfolds.

Many who do not know the original source material may be caught off guard by the film's narrative structure. Its main conceit is exposing a love affair told in directly opposing views and time-frames, parallel lives in a parallel world. Sometimes, it works beautifully, other times not so much. The film's choppy structure will keep the average moviegoers at a safe distance wondering if the characters are suffering from nasty mood swings or bi-polar anxiety. (I knew about the play, but I still had some confusion with the reversal.)

The musical is well performed by its talented twosome (although the original Off Broadway duo, the awesomely talented Sherie Rene Scott and Norbert Leo Butz , are far superior to their younger replacements). Ms, Kendricks is charming and in strong voice. She carries Cathy's vulnerability and self doubt to wondrous effect. Mr. Jordan (heaven knows) offers fine support and his Jamie is a multi-layered conundrum of ego and naivety. They have the needed chemistry to make the drama and the music work.

The music score by Jason Robert Brown has many tender and romantic moments even if some of the numbers seem overdone and stagy, especially when other extras are in the scene and suddenly break into dance or become living tableaux. Particularly glaringly out of place is The Schmuel Song, a song which does little to advance the plot and should have been left on the cutting room floor. Writer/ Director Richard LaGravenese skillfully opens up the film and gives it a shot of reality by utilizing the NYC settings to maximum effect. His screenplay captures love in all of its various stages, from the sweet to the bittersweet to the bitter (or vise versa).

The Last Five Years may not always succeed; much depends on your own musical tastes. But it is worthy of your attention, especially if you are a lover of musical theater.

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2 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
50 Ways to Bruise Your Lover, 24 February 2015

This film is not recommended. (Rating: ☆☆ out of 4)

In brief: 50 ways to bruise your lover...and an audience as well.


Floggers's time to beat a dead horse! 50 Shades of Grey has arrived, a guilty pleasure that quickly becomes a guiltless displeasure.

But first, let me digress...Years ago, my sweet elderly mother drove out-of-town to see the racy Saturday Night Fever, a popular R-rated film. Her desire to see this film proved greater than her actual enjoyment but, at least, she was able to experience it first hand and no one she knew would know her dirty little secret. Her reputation remained purloined and intact. I bring this up as that film was nearly forty years ago and not much has changed with the latest sexual romp being Fifty Shades of Grey. The beat (or the beatings) goes on, even with its wall-to-wall contemporary pop soundtrack.

We now return to our regular scheduled review: Fifty Shades of Grey is a dull boring affair. The sex on screen is strictly rote, badly wrote. Most of this carnal action has been seen countless times in other sex films. You know the routine: quick cuts of breasts, rears, and even quicker glimpses of genitalia interspersed with arched backs and stylized poses in various states of undress, all looking for unattainable ecstasy. The sex is sanitized for the masses. After all, it has a R-rating. It's the softest of soft porn.

Fifty Shades of Grey celebrates sexual diversity while condemning that sexual choice with Puritan fanaticism. It's smug, condescending, and pure fantasy. The filmmakers plays both sides hoping men can relate to that male dominance angle while women can empathize with their sensual desires. (I won't get into the debate of degrading women or the issue of sexual domination and violence. This film degrades mankind in its silly treatment and romantic disillusion of pleasure and pain.)

James Dornan and Dakota Johnson play the mismatched lovers, Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele. Grey is handsome, sexy, and rich. He is "the world's most eligible billionaire bachelor". Ana is a young awkward and naive virgin, ready to be plucked and educated in the fine art of lovemaking. They stare longingly at each other. They breathe heavily and talk dirty. They strip down often, moping more than groping. The endless droning and groaning at the height of their sexual passions is repeated often between their trips to the infamous "red" room, a private boudoir filled with the all of the latest S&M equipment that money can buy. Ana continually bites her lips. Christian plays the piano whenever he needs a Zen moment since he never can crack a smile. He showers his pretty woman with expensive gifts and demands of obedience. She complies. And so it goes. On and on.

Their mating dance becomes downright laughable. and their dialog is just awful. The actors are so intense and deadly serious, uttering this nonsense with every spoken sentence ending in large exclamation points. Both Mr. Dorman and Ms. Johnson are physically attractive performers, but their acting never rises to any level of reality. That they were able to say their lines with the straightest of faces, at least, shows some acting restraint. (I wish them all the luck in the future with more challenging roles than these one-dimensional characters allow.)

The director, Sam Taylor-Johnson, does an adequate job, but she seems as obsessed with the excesses of Mr. Grey's vast empire as our darling Anastasia. This is a big budget picture after all, even if there is no real money shot. The director carefully places her camera strategically out of view of any male frontal views. (But there is still a fleeting glimpse of Ms. Johnson's private area that goes pubic, I mean public. So much for woman's liberation.)

As Mr. Grey so eloquently states at one point in the movie, "I'm fifty shades of f**ked up." So is this movie.

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1 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
A Most Vehement Film, 7 February 2015

This film is mildly recommended. (Rating: ☆☆☆) Let us begin... Now is the winter of our discontent...strike that... Then was the winter of our discontent... Specifically New York City, 1981.

A good honest man was hard to find back then. And it seems that the only good honest man existing in this universe is Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), a shrewd entrepreneur fighting the forces of corruption that are rampant all around him. From businessmen to cops, from lawyers to politicians, no one is immune to the avarice and vice that were so prevalent of this era.

Abel wants to live the American Dream. He is in the oil supply business and his successful start-up company has been having difficulty delivering their product as his trucks are being hijacked and the oil stolen. No one can or will help him. His pleas go unnoticed. Perhaps one reason may be that Abel's company is under investigation by an ambitious district attorney (a fine David Oyelowo) and his business expansion efforts are being severely hampered financially. His wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), fears for her family's safety and believes in violence as any means of self-protection. But her husband is a moral man who appears to be far too naive to his violent bedfellows in this world of business.  A Most Violent Year is a slow-moving crime drama that is far too convoluted that needed. The wheeler-dealings and money transactions, at times, preempt the more interesting action and mystery elements of J. C. Chandor's literate screenplay. Some characters serve as mere plot devices used to help the logistics of the story. The end results are intriguing but never amount to much excitement. One invests much time and effort in the film only to be somewhat let down by the lack of cohesion.

As a director, Chandor captures the eighties look with wonderful period details. The hair, make-up, and clothes give the film a wonderful style of authenticity. He also assembled a fine cast to make his clever dialog evoke a vital sense of naturalism. There is no question about Chandor's filmmaking skills and passion. Unfortunately, this film doesn't emotionally involve the movie-going audience due to his leisurely pacing and some script contrivances.

However, it is the film's acting that is exceptional, with strong support from Albert Brooks, Peter Gerety, and Alessandro Nivola. Giving an especially memorable turn is Elyses Gabel as a frighten driver and loyal friend to Abel and the talented Ms. Chastain. Her nuanced acting allows her character to use Anna's sexuality to full advantage in order to hide a hard-as-nails interior most effectively. But the film belongs to Mr. Isaac who brings a Travolta / Pacino swagger to his complicated role and controls his character's moments of inner turmoil with sudden burst of violence that delineate a man on the verge of a breakdown. (The actor's subtle touch toward the film's bloody climax more than shows Abel's transformation from the tragic occurrences that befall him.)

A Most Violent Year may not fully achieve its goal of uniting story and image, but it is a well- crafted film worth seeing. GRADE: B-

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The Judge (2014)
1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
The Verdict is In, 4 February 2015

Rating: ☆☆ This film is not recommended.

There is a scene in The Judge where the two characters, a father and son, walk in different directions from each other. That serves as a heavy-handed metaphor for their stormy relationship (and that's not even counting a real storm later in this film either). That moment sums up this overstuffed film whose many subplots go in all sorts of different directions.The filmmaker, David Dobkin, is addled with a weak screenplay that can't seem to make up its mind whether it wants to be a courtroom drama or a family melodrama about a dysfunctional Midwest clan.

The main plot of the film seems to be a) a slick city lawyer named Hank (Robert Downey) returns home to an ailing and distant father, Judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall) who b) may have killed a man during a hit and run accident. Those two stories never gel. Add to that, c) a romantic entanglement with a former girl left behind with a past secret, d) an unhappy brother who never amounted to much, d) a low-functioning younger brother who is obsessed with his camera and e) another ambitious lawyer out to win his case against Hank's father. Neither do all this other plot points come together well.

What does work is the fine acting by the Roberts. Downey takes on a serious acting role, a nice change of pace from his action hero work, and reminds moviegoers how skillful an actor he can be. Of course, playing opposite an acting legend like Mr. DuVall does up the game. Duvall reprises his Great Santini character as the dominating father figure, but he excels in his quieter scenes as a man coming to terms with his own morality. Although the film cannot stay clear of clichés, their scenes together still resonate with tension.

The other actors are left with underdeveloped characters to play. Vincent D'Onofrio, Vera Farmiga, Jeremy Strong, Dax Shepard, and Billy Bob Thornton bring their A game to their film roles.

The problem with The Judge is its troublesome screenplay by Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque that constantly rambles from one subplot to the next and never builds to a satisfying conclusion. The family drama is predictable fare and the courtroom case is fairly predictable also. David Dobkin's direction keeps everything moving but with nowhere to actually go. So what we are left with is a well acted film in search of a better script.

I rule that less would have been more in the case of The Judge. GRADE: C+

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