Moviemusing

My mini-movie reviews are dedicated to the principle that movies matter in our American culture. Don’t be a passive movie goer! Engage in critical discussions about what you liked and disliked.

First up, Inception. — Wow, this movie gave me a headache, but in a good way. I was confused, but in a good way. I thought about it after it was over; I read reviews; I truly appreciated all the imagination that went into it. Oh, by the way, I was dreaming when I wrote this mini-review.

Eat, Pray, Love. — Hello, my name is Elizabeth Gilbert, and for a year I traveled abroad and made a deeply personal spiritual journey. I recorded my thoughts in the laptop I carried to remote places. I turned my thoughts into a bestselling book (thx to Oprah). Now millions of movie goers will share my deeply personal spiritual journey through the movie starring America’s sweetheart, Julia Roberts. … Sorry, but the idea of Eat, Pray, Love as a movie for mass audiences rubbed me the wrong way. Roberts was good, but the movie was too long and it stagnated in parts. “Eat, Pray and Snooze” was one headline I saw. Almost! The last third of the film that focuses on her new romance was pretty decent, though.

— I was bound to like this one: its backdrop is the dying newspaper industry; its theme is how to weather long-distance relationships. I can relate to both. Drew Barrymore and Justin Long make a surprisingly cute couple, perhaps because they are often together off-screen. Enjoyable supporting cast. Not to be overlooked are the clever opening titles using newsprint cut-outs and flight maps.

The Social Network — I understand why this movie is both critically acclaimed and doing well at the box office. As a New Yorker reviewer said, it really is emblematic of our place and time. Like, didn’t at least half the audience get into their accounts to say they saw the movie? In addition, it’s got great pacing, dialogue and acting (is that really Justin Timberlake?) and a few ironies and messages that I mused about after the credits, most notably, it’s ironic that the creator of Facebook was such a loner and outcast in college at Harvard. Vengeance is sweet.

Morning Glory — An enjoyable enough movie with Rachel McAdams so full of energy it made me tired. Harrison Ford upstaged Diane Keaton — that’s saying a lot. Still, Broadcast News is better. Especially that scene with Joan Cusack running the tape through the studio on deadline. So classic 20th century broadcasting biz.

Black Swan — A journey through the confused mind of a star ballerina. Is she the “sweet little girl” of her controlling mother’s dreams, or can she convey the combination of virginal and sexual power that the ballet director demands of her to play both the white and black swan of Swan Lake? She seeks perfection and grows paranoid of competition — seriously paranoid. If Natalie Portman doesn’t win an Oscar for this role, I will be disappointed. Her immersion in the role is equal to the work of Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis. Despite her relatively young age, she is an accomplished actor.

127 Hours — One of those movies I couldn’t stop thinking about — love those kind. Love James Franco, too — anytime I tensed up watching the graphic parts, I looked directly at his face and felt carried along by his bravado. What an excellent storyteller Danny Boyle is — the movie focused on the hiker stuck in the slot canyon, his thoughts and hallucinations, and little more. It was just the right length and tone. Too bad the movie will be overshadowed by other great films at Oscar time.

True Grit — Vive le difference from the John Wayne version. I liked hearing novelist Portis’s elegant words coming from the mouths of such excellent actors in their Western garb. Haillie Steinfeld is — remarkably — in every scene. The frontier and frontier justice are not glorified in this version; it’s a raw and dangerous place where true grit is a necessity. The setting is Arkansas, but the cinematography is New Mexico — no wonder it looked pretty.

The King’s Speech — Saw it on DVD with worries that the hype and the Best Picture Oscar might have oversold it (the Forrest Gump effect). Yes, an excellent movie and kudos to the actors. But I like a Best Picture to be one that compels me to see it over again to pick up on what I missed the first time. Maybe even a picture that dives into contemporary issues instead of the safety of history. That’s not this movie — that’s The Social Network.

Water for Elephants — Shout out to Sara Gruen, whose novel on which this movie is based was strong enough not to be tinkered with by Hollywood. Lush shots of Depression-era circus life, dreamy close-ups of Robert Pattinson. BTW, he was so good in the lead role that I forgot about Twilight.

X-Men: First Class — In the mood for a movie on the big screen, I chose it when nothing much else was available and with awareness that it was leading the box office. Turned out, it was good fun, good acting, with wild leaps of derring-do. Oh, and Kevin Bacon!

Super 8 — Spielberg and J.J. Abrams: How could you go wrong? A good summer movie once I let go of counting all the ways it was derivative of “E.T.,” “Close Encounters,” etc. Excellent child actors and lots of truly scary, kids-in-peril moments.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 — I can’t recall being moved to tears in any other HP movie; maybe it was the fact it was the culmination of such a long and successful series, or that the three main actors stayed united and in top form for 10 years, or that the producers doled out great special effects without detracting from the necessary drama and emotion. I was squeamish about the scenes of dead children at Hogwarts. Nevertheless, good stuff, and what an imagination on J.K. Rowling’s part.

The Change-Up — I’m going to have to accept that this is the new American comedy: vulgar and R-rated, yet still getting across a touching message. The Change-Up began with a baby poopy joke and ended with a penis joke. And I laughed through much of the movie. The message: the life you end up with doesn’t matter — it’s what you make of that life.

One Day — I profess being mildly entertained by listening to Anne Hathaway struggle with a British accent (or was it Scottish?) and by watching a few well-done scenes, but otherwise this movie tanked. I smelled the tearjerker ending a mile away (or should I say, “a pedal away”?) And I’m not that good at predicting endings. Plus, couldn’t they have had more fun with the clothing, hairstyles and music over the 20-year span of the story?

Our Idiot Brother — A surprisingly good comedy about family relations with an adorable Paul Rudd. The lines uttered by a great ensemble of actors seem to be very savvy, very on point. “Idiot” is an arguable descriptor for the main character. The only flaw, if you could call it that, was casting Zooey Deschanel and Rashida Jones as lesbian lovers. Not that they weren’t funny; I just wasn’t buying it.

Contagion — Wash. Your. Hands. Seriously. (See review of this excellent movie in The New Yorker.)

The Descendants — Another great tragicomedy, if that’s a word. Almost every scene will ring a bell for someone dealing with family dynamics. I liked a line from Time on the enjoyment of seeing George Clooney in a warm bath of vulnerability.

My Week With Marilyn — I found the premise a bit gimmicky and can’t imagine anyone embodying Marilyn Monroe on the big screen. But I enjoyed watching Michelle Williams give it a very good try.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo — Wild scenes of female derring-do, role reversal, woman as hacker extraordinaire: all go into making this a notable film, even if I flinched at the graphic sexual violence.

The Muppets — Nostalgic stuff for baby boomers and Generation Xers. Made me wonder if it was entertaining enough for the little ones. Loved the cameos, and the cast (including Chris Cooper of all people as the villain) looked like they were having fun.

The Artist — On the face of it, I’m not likely to become immersed in a silent black-and-white film with a French actor. I’m too spoiled by modern movie-making. So even though I wasn’t thoroughly entertained, I was highly appreciative of what this film was trying to accomplish. It’s been said that cinema only got worse after the talkie arrived….

The Iron Lady — A somewhat boring movie carried valiantly by Meryl Streep. An American treasure in a movie about a British iconoclast. Can’t imagine anyone other actor with the ability to embody Thatcher the way she did.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close — I hesitated to see this movie, knowing full well that it couldn’t top Foer’s fabulous book. But I needed something to tug on my heart and let the tears fall. Unlike the three women behind me, though, I did not sob — maybe because I was so familiar with the plot. Critics said this movie was emotionally manipulative, to the detriment of its dramatic punch. I think that the movie, with its courage to face the personal horrors of 9/11, wasn’t all it could be, but it will stand the test of time. An Oscar nominee for best picture — probably a good call.

The Hunger Games — I had to see what all the fuss was about and, to my surprise, it was well done, with emotional resonance, suspense, action, romance, sociopolitical parallels and clever star turns, namely, Sutherland, Banks, Bentley, Harrelson. I hope Jennifer Lawrence doesn’t mind being stuck in the starring role in the inevitable sequels — she’s quite believable. Most important, the novels and the movies champion strong young women. Tres cool.

The Avengers — Who, me? Miss a summer movie blockbuster? Not if it stars Robert Downey! The lineup of actors lend a mix of humor and gravitas to the comic book tinged special FX extravaganza. Also, I am glad the producers gave Johansson enough to do, instead of making her just a pretty face. The action scenes started to bore me, so I concenTrated on the relAtionships and was entertained.

Prometheus — The mythology connection attracted me to this movie. Oh heck, it was that dashing Michael Fassbender, who begs the question, Can one love an android? I enjoyed the special effects and vision of an alien world. The plot, however, becomes muddled and illogical midway through.

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World — I am willing to overlook some of the trite characterization for two reasons: the movie had a lot of heart and it didn’t wimp out when it came time for that titular end of the world. Oops, spoiler alert. Overused archetype to remember — manic pixie girl or something like that, originating with Portman in Garden State.

Moonrise Kingdom — Wes Anderson has a brilliant eye for moviemaking. I have heard it described as turning every scene into a dollhouse miniature, and I certainly was in awe of the detail, the framing, the composition and the painterly quality of several shots. Combine the artistry with a cute slash absurd plot, and you’ve got an Oscar worthy movie. Ok, I am going out on a limb here.

The Dark Knight Rises — Forever to be linked to the mass shooting in Aurora, this third movie in the Christopher Nolan franchise with Christian Bale is still a heck of a movie. The plot is a little too dense but the characterizations, the mood and the twists at the end are admirable. Oh yeah, special effects too.

The Words — A little puzzled by the story within a story within a story framework, I turned to Roger Ebert, who also was lukewarm about the film while praising the actors. Ebert pointed out the literary allusions to Hemingway, which redeemed the movie for me somewhat. Zoe Saldana almost stole the show from Irons, Quaid and Cooper.

Argo — Ben Affleck is director and star and steered this with a firm hand. It’s a nail-biter in the best sense. Scenes in Iran were so realistic I was feeling paranoid. Great cast, even those in small roles.

Lincoln — Some may be upset with the liberties that Spielberg took with history, but to bring one of the greatest moments in America – the Thirteenth Amendment – to the screen, along with giving us a realistic depiction of the greatest president, makes for a stirring movie. Maybe it was the anticipation of seeing the perfect Daniel Day-Lewis or the subject matter itself that brought tears to my eyes in the first few minutes. Top-notch actors, some agreeing to quite small roles.

Breaking Dawn, Part 2 (Twilight series finale) — I liked the opening credits, the sex scene and the climactic fight scene. The rest was like bad movie popcorn that you can’t stop eating. It makes me squirm to think how much fortune and fame Meyer has amassed over a mediocre series mostly based on people standing around and looking pretty. The Flick Filosopher called it Meyer’s extended masturbation fantasy about doing it with a vampire. Have to say, the reviews were almost more entertaining than the movie.

Flight — Denzel Washington, looking bloated and dazed, keeps us alternately cheering and not cheering for him as he must shirk his superhero complex to tackle his alcoholism. It’s his flight from boozing and arrogance that the movie is really about, despite the spectacular crash scene.

Les Miserables — One of the most beloved Broadway musicals is brought to the big screen with fantastic authenticity as the actors sing live with hidden mics — no overdubs in editing. The result is that when Anne Hathaway, Hugh Jackman and others sing — unbelievably well and almost continuously — you can’t help but be moved by their joy and misery, with big emphasis on the latter, of course. Along with other audience members I was sniffling through several scenes. The set design is pretty incredible too, especially the last scene reuniting characters at the barricade, with heavy symbolism about revolution and overcoming the odds.

Life of Pi — Probably like many others who had read the novel I was puzzled as to how this spiritually infused story about a shipwreck survivor and a Bengal tiger could become a movie. But director Ang Lee pulls it off with oceans of special effects that bring out the magical realism of the story. The anguish, joy and frustrations of Pi on his archetypal journey to manhood are quite well presented by the young Indian actor who plays him. Great CGI tiger too. OK, I cried at several points.

The Guilt Trip — A few Jewish stereotypes are to be expected in a movie starring Barbra Streisand and Seth Rogen as mother and son. The road trip aspect gives it many unexpected turns in a framework of mommy issues and smotherhood. The laughs (and a few tears at the end) didn’t feel forced, and the humor is less scatological than most comedies today. You know it had to be a good role for Barbra to agree to it after so many years of much smaller roles.

This is 40 — I might have liked this seriocomedy a little better if the director would have been upfront and called it The Judd Apatow Variety Show. The movie runs way too long at 2 1/2 hours, seemingly to accommodate several bits from favored comedians. On the other hand, there is much about aging, sex and relationships that I could relate to. Leslie Mann is too whiny, but I am on her side anyway. Albert Brooks gets in a few ‘Jewy’ jabs — funny stuff.

Silver Linings Playbook — Despite how well this movie has been received, it’s sure got a clunky title. I would have called it ”Robert De Niro Can Do Anything,” as he is so believable playing Bradley Cooper’s father. Jennifer Lawrence won the Oscar, although I thought her performance lacked nuance at times. All in all, it was fun watching the actors tackle issues — comically –regarding mental health. I can overlook a few scenes of overwrought dialogue and a sappy ending.

The Place Beyond the Pines — A cast including Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper plus indications that the movie strives for an epic-journey feel are what drew me into seeing this. The acting was indeed superb and the movie seemed to be aiming for elements of Shakespearean tragedy — of the father and son dysfunctional relationship sort. It didn’t quite all hang together but I admire the director (a CU alum) for aiming high.

Disconnect — The pervasiveness of the Internet is the theme here, with the emphasis on the dangers of connectedness that can lead to online bullying, identity theft and other ills. So the tone is a bit moralistic, but the lessons are valuable to younger viewers. Surely they can identify with one character’s vulnerability and eventual suicide attempt. Enjoyed seeing Jason Bateman in a dramatic role.

The Great Gatsby — I am not in love with this movie: Leo is too old for the role, it isn’t as good as Luhrmann’s R + J, the musical numbers are jarring, it runs too long, and it takes liberties with the novel that I didn’t think were necessary. Still, it will make high school English teachers happy, as it’s safe enough for the classroom and helps illuminate the many themes of Fitzgerald’s work. It’s better than the Redford version, and Tobey Maguire makes a great Nick. All in all, it’s jazzy that F. Scott is back in style.

Frances Ha — I am sure that Greta Gerwig as the title character is highly relatable for those in their 20s who feel stuck in some way. Frances is always on the move, literally and figuratively and ironically. It’s an enjoyable movie for all stages of life, though, with parallels to the HBO series Girls and to Woody Allen’s Manhattan.

Cloud Atlas — Although I saw this on DVD, I wish I would have seen it in the theaters. It’s a densely layered, unchronological series of stories from past, present and future, with several lush scenes. The conceit of using a handful of actors in many different roles was well executed. Roger Ebert wrote a beautiful review.

Star Trek Into Darkness — ”Thrill ride” pretty much sums up this flick, even if it is a bit hyperbolic. The high-action scenes in deep space and inside the Enterprise alternated nicely with character development and emotional tugs at the heart. Loved the scene where Uhuru and Spock have a lovers’ quarrel with Kirk listening as they hurtle toward getting the bad guy. I also liked the way — in this second movie installment — that the actors have settled so well into their roles, making the faces we know so well from ’60s TV almost irrelevant.

The Way, Way Back — It’s a coming-of-age story with several good bits of dialogue between characters. But some of the characterizations — especially those for Steve Carell and Allison Janney — seem forced and overwrought, or in the case of the mom, Toni Collette, underdeveloped, which leads to a movie that falls flat in the end. The two main teenage characters are right on target, though. Significance of the title? I still don’t know.

Blue Jasmine — It’s being called one of Woody Allen’s best seriocomic tales — this extrapolation of what it’s like to be Ruth Madoff. I read that, in directing Cate Blanchett, Allen stepped aside and let her do her thing. An Oscar will be the outcome, I’m almost sure. Supporting actors were excellent as well.

We’re the Millers — If it weren’t for the supporting players and the well-timed raunchy jokes they delivered, I might not have liked this comedy and its spin on “Vacation.” Jennifer Aniston might have thought that playing a stripper would be a hoot, but I was embarrassed for her. And Jason Sudeikis was just not enough of a lead actor — too smirky for me. So it’s a good thing there was Nick Offerman and Kathryn Hahn to provide the laughs. Emma Roberts was well cast too.

Fruitvale Station — Every scene contributes to character development and creating tension in this well-made Sundance film chronicling the controversial story out of Oakland from a couple of years ago — a young black man fatally shot by a BART officer for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Did his race play into the confrontation? Probably. Michael B. Jordan from the Friday Night Lights series is excellent, portraying the young man as struggling to become a better person. Octavia Spencer also shines as his mother. An Oscar nominee?

Don Jon — Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the star, writer and director, gets away with a ribald but uneven story about a young man addicted to porn and mistaking lust for love. He gets away with it because he is so darn charming in the role. Is the character he’s portraying a catch or not, I kept wondering. A good role for ScarJo, but seeing Tony Danza ham it up is the real treat. The Julianne Moore part of the story seems tacked on, to help impart the message about young men’s misguided views on romance.

Gravity — Sandra Bullock and George Clooney stranded in space! My oh my, even the trailer had me gripping the armrests. The movie did not disappoint; in fact, it is a cinematic achievement, deservedly breaking box office records. Its ability to help the viewer experience the eye-popping, dizzying and alienating characteristics of space is simply amazing. I will be seeing it again soon.

Captain Phillips — I guess the existential question would be, How do you want to die? Drown at sea, get shot by hot-headed Somali pirates, become asphyxiated inside a tiny yellow lifeboat? The tension swiftly mounts and doesn’t relent till the very end, as we watch Tom Hanks (superb in the role, of course) come out of shock and realize he made it. Great movie, although Gravity still wins this month’s contest.

Enough Said — A middle-aged woman who could have come out of a Seinfeld episode (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) taking a chance on love makes for an amusing plot. The bittersweet part is seeing the late James Gandolfini as the male lead, in his second-to-last role. Scenes with intimate discussions among friends and family were relatable and funny. Some of the dialogue in this dialogue-heavy movie is still rolling around in my head, and that’s a good thing.

Last Vegas — A good movie to see with the AARP crowd, as all become sucked in by the charms of its stars — Kline, Freeman, DeNiro and Douglas. Several tender, realistic moments regarding the aging process are surprisingly affecting, and a couple of one-liners had me laughing. Mary Steenburgen is a good reminder of why I should abandon dreams of a singing career and never sport long black hair against a pale face and wrinkles.

12 Years a Slave — Directed by the black British filmmaker Steve McQueen and starring an excellent British actor whose name I can’t spell but ought to commit to memory, this film doesn’t aim to be a history of slavery in the 19th century, or much like the miniseries “Roots.” And any depiction of the cruelty wielded against slaves by plantation owners and overseers is magnified many times over. It doesn’t hold back, and there are certain scenes that leave an indelible mark. At the moment, I am thinking of the scene where Michael Fassbender forces Solomon to whip a fellow slave over her leaving the grounds to get a sliver of soap from a neighbor. The movie opens a wound as to the history of free black men in the North who were sold into slavery in the South, most of whom never regained their freedom. The real-life Solomon was an exception, and he later recorded his 12 years of hell.

American Hustle — The convoluted plot is a Mixmaster of con artists, lovestruck losers, politicians, FBI agents, sheiks and mobsters in a loose retelling of the Abscam scandal of the late ’70s. If it weren’t for the costumes, music and incredible acting of its five stars (and Louie C.K.!) I might possibly have zoned out. The opening scene with Christian Bale adjusting his combover could be a metaphor for the concepts of pretense and disguise — or just the launchpad for an exercise in good moviemaking.

The Wolf of Wall Street — More tour de force acting, this time by Leonardo diCaprio in a role loosely based on a drug- and sex-fueled stock market genius of the early ’90s, Jordan Belfort. I flinched a bit at the rampant scenes of drug abuse and raunchy sex, but I figure a Martin Scorsese movie can get away with anything — even an indulgent running time of three hours. (It will be interesting to see how each of these last three movies do in the Oscar nominations.)

Inside Llewyn Davis — I left the theater wanting more of a plot from this Coen brothers’ portrayal of a singer who can’t catch a break as part of the early ’60s folk music revival. But a day later, I am appreciating its circular development and rich characters, with some great almost-cameos by several actors. And the mournful music is given room to breathe and get under your skin. Literary allusions to The Odyssey and Greek mythology (the hero as Sisyphus?) are par for the course.

Her — Wow. Another excellent movie as the Oscars approach. Ironically, it elicits comparison to Gravity, with themes of isolation and disconnectedness, and both are set in the near future. Still, I am tempted to categorize this as an art film, even with the appearance (a deliberate word choice for its half-truthiness) of name actors Phoenix, Adams and Johannsen. It can make your brain hurt, thinking about the human condition and about the scary potential of computer programming. Another cerebral movie that demands a second watch. And the Jonah Hill spoof on SNL is priceless.

The Monuments Men — It’s a World War II movie as far as the actors’ demeanor and appearance, sets, uplifting music and patriotic tone, but the battlefields are the many places where the Germans hid masterpieces of art — 5 million of them. There’s excellent rapport among the actors, with George Clooney as leader, intoning the reasons for saving art and therefore culture and history. The plot and character development are a bit lacking, but it’s great that this piece of history is now a hit movie, with the potential to reveal more stories about these soldiers, who really were called the Monuments Men and numbered in the hundreds.

The Grand Budapest Hotel — I eagerly awaited this Wes Anderson movie and was not disappointed. In fact, I would see it again tomorrow, simply for the pleasure of enjoying all of its Wes Andersonisms. It’s so refreshing to experience an American movie with light, lively and idiosyncratic cinematic brushstrokes versus the usual heavy-handed scenes of violence, sex and angst. Reviewers are describing this comic/suspenseful romp with phrases like ‘snow globe,’ ‘dollhouse,’ and ‘nesting doll’ — all of which recall earlier Anderson films. I noticed a playfulness with shapes and lines like tightly framed rectangles and circles and camera-panning across a line of faces, along with bird’s-eye shots and soft-focus establishing shots. The list goes on. Oh, the script and actors are terrific too.

The Other Woman — I wish this movie about a wife and mistress teaming up to ruin a pathologically unfaithful husband would have been more consistent in its message about female empowerment. Cameron Diaz carries the movie as the successful attorney archetype, aided by Leslie Mann as the screechy Stepford wife. The actor playing the husband is awful and not terribly handsome. My fellow moviegoers were digging the plot despite its uneven turns from raunchy to poignant; I only laughed a few times. Several scene stealers, though: Don Johnson, Nicki Minaj, Kate Upton’s boobs, Thunder the Great Dane-size dog, and the scenery in the Hamptons and the Bahamas.

Million-Dollar Arm — The critics have not been kind to this latest Disney movie, but a feel-good plot and Jon Hamm freed from his Don Draper slickness are an irresistible combo for me. A few happy tears were shed; I reaffirmed my belief that they don’t get much more handsome than Hamm. My only major critique is the heaping-on of too much schmaltz at times, slowing things down. But the Indian actors playing the baseball recruits are naturals, and the respectfulness toward Indian ways impressed me. A cross between “Jerry Maguire” and “Slumdog Millionaire”?

Blended — I will continue to valiantly defend my right to love Adam Sandler movies. Sure, they have their crude, cheap-shot moments, but I would argue that an overall good-heartedness in plot and character motivations lifts them up to decent comedies. And the presence of Drew Barrymore always helps. Although this tale of step-families and romance that gets off on the wrong foot is not as good as the other Barrymore-Sandler outings — The Wedding Singer and 50 First Dates — I could see that Sandler was going for a less polarizing family movie. The South African setting was cool too.

22 Jump Street — I had skipped “21 Jump Street,” but was assured by my daughter that the sequel would make me laugh, and it did — many times. Plus, Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum? I could handle two hours of silly by way of their perfect “bromance.” Turns out the script offers plenty of physical comedy mixed with word-play jokes and various inside quips about the usual superfluousness of sequels. In fact, the hilarious end credits — supposed posters of even more Hill-Tatum sequels — is worth the price of admission alone.

Begin Again — A few things nagged me about this romantic comedy-drama, notably Keira Knightley’s thin singing voice, the inclusion of Adam Levine and Cee-lo Green as a masked commercial for “The Voice,” and the over-reliance on booze and cigarettes to suggest bad behavior. But overall, the scenes of New York, the good acting and the sweet pop-rock music won me over, coming together for a theme we don’t see often enough in movies: the healing power of music.

Lucy — Scarlett Johansson stars in a sci-fi movie that is also a fast-paced, over-the-top thriller about fighting Chinese drug lords and learning the dangers of a drug that replicates brain cells, giving the title character mental and physical superpowers. Oh, there’s some philosophy about human existence thrown in too. Some of the CGI sequences warrant another viewing in slo-mo, but there’s no need to over analyze the holey plot.

The Hundred-Foot Journey — Food porn mixed with two slowly stirred romances and a dash of heavenly French countryside describes this pleasant if somewhat cliched movie. All the actors looked marvelous, though, and Helen Mirren’s French accent was interesting. The short scenes of racist backlash against the Indian family could have used more development, as it is eerily reflective of the anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry taking place in France right now.

This is Where I Leave You — The novel by Jonathan Tropper has more of a farcical edge than the movie, for which he wrote the screenplay. With great ensemble acting, the movie version is more intent on pulling heart strings as it follows seven days of sibling rivalry, mommy and daddy issues, and unrequited romantic love while three brothers and one sister — plus Jane Fonda as an almost-Jewish mother! — sit shivah for their father. I’m still processing how accurately this movie reflects a typical Jewish family, if there is such a thing. The actors playing the two main characters seem to be trying hard to affect Jewishness — Jason Bateman grows a beard and Tina Fey parts her hair down the middle and wears little makeup. Believable enough.

Fury — Saw this to indulge my husband’s interest in World War II, and I appreciate the narrative about the hardships of men in Sherman tanks, outgunned by the more sophisticated German tanks. The battle scenes are intense and ultraviolent, and the interactions between the five men of Fury’s crew (every tank had a nickname) are overdrawn at times. But helmets off to Brad Pitt, Shia LeBoeuf, Logan Lerman and Michael Pena for making their characters believable.

Interstellar — I’m not sure what draws me to movies about space, but this was another memorable one, with deeper issues than “Gravity” (like, the end of the world as we know it). The first half-hour of establishing Matthew McConaughey’s bond with his daughter as well as Earth’s imminent demise is riveting, then things drag a bit as the science behind the hero’s interstellar mission is dealt with. Other issues, such as sacrifice and selfishness, emerge. A loud, organ-like score intensifies the thrill ride — until it gets a bit annoying. Still, the ending, after three hours of warping through time and watching the actors age (and not age) is emotional and resonant.

Whiplash — There are plenty of personal takeaways from this surprisingly tense and compact movie: jazz musicians are under-appreciated; college can be lonely; the perseverance to be a top jazz drummer literally takes blood, sweat and tears; teachers can be real bastards sometimes; and don’t let anyone quash your dreams. These ideas could have been treated like cliches in this movie, but instead they are freshly examined and wonderfully brought to light by the performances of JK Simmons, Miles Teller and Paul Reiser (the quintessential worried Jewish parent). I’m waiting to see if “the two worst words in the English language are ‘good job’ ” becomes one of the great all-time movie lines. Note to self: download Charlie Parker’s “Whiplash.”

American Sniper — Rereading my mini-reviews from 2014, I’m going to say this was the best movie I saw in a theater this year, with “Interstellar” a close second. And they are so different: one a space odyssey and the other rooted in a true story about a soldier’s patriotism and bravery. Bradley Cooper is not Bradley Cooper, in the best sense. The dynamics of soldiers serving successive tours, self-doubts about the Iraq War, and PTSD are all there, in full force. The ending, using actual footage of Chris Kyle’s funeral procession, is unshakably sad. Note: This was our Christmas movie at the historic Cinerama in Hollywood. During the scene where Kyle’s wife pointedly asks him if he’s OK, an audience member, probably a vet, shouted, “Of course we’re not OK. We were in the f–ing war!” Ushers escorted him out. Also, we spotted three men in Navy SEALS jackets as we walked out. We should have high-fived them.

The Imitation Game — I am willing to join the ranks of “Cumberbitches” after seeing the brilliant performance by Benedict Cumberbatch as computing age pioneer, genius, and unsung WWII hero Alan Turing. His immersion in the role (I read that one scene toward the end was emotionally wrenching for him during filming), the conflicts with coworkers, and the use of historic war footage keep the film from being dry, given its scientific subject. Keira Knightley shines as Joan Clark, a trailblazing mathematician.

 Wild — Speaking of amazing performances: Reese Witherspoon? Indeed. I was eager to see this movie, having read the memoir by Cheryl Strayed for a recent NAU class. I liked the book better, which is not to say the movie was deficient, just that I was so immersed in Strayed’s account of her redemption through hiking that I will probably read it again someday. While the book gave me everything I needed to understand Strayed’s internal journey, the movie succeeds on insights into the external journey — the hardships of the trail, encounters with strangers, the physical toll and the overarching beauty of the wilderness. I felt an emotional tug every time the camera landed on a Pacific Crest Trail sign — the consummate symbol of way-finding. Strayed herself is in the very first scene, BTW. 

 Boyhood — Saw this on DVD a few days ahead of the Oscars, knowing that it was a strong Best Picture contender. The watch-the-actors- age device, over 12 years, really works, especially considering how the movie opens, with the boy staring up at the clouds, and ends, with the young man embarking on his next journey. There’s amazing verisimilitude for moms, dads, sons and daughters — and everyone in our family had at least one personal takeaway while empathizing with the characters.

Woman in Gold — In a way, this is two movies. The frame is the real-life Maria Altmann, who escaped Nazi-era Austria for Los Angeles, decades later to discover that the now-famous Gustav Klimt portrait of her aunt did not rightfully belong to Vienna’s state museum but to her. A young attorney argues her repatriation case, all the way to the Supreme Court. The inset tale is the younger Maria’s life with a family of artists and how she escaped with her new husband. The street scenes of Nazi marches, the episodes of anti-Semitism and the emotional havoc of forced emigration are so powerfully filmed that the movie would have been rather dry without them. Tatiana Maslay as the younger version of Helen Mirren is excellent. I read that Andrew Garfield was to have taken the Ryan Reynolds role, but Reynolds almost pulls off the nebbishy lawyer.

The Avengers: Age of Ultron — I spent way too much time worrying whether all the megastars in this movie get a fair amount of real acting time vs. comic book hero feats by stunt doubles and trying to figure out who is voicing the AI machine Ultron (James Spader!) Anyway, the acting is good, with Scarlett Johansson, Robert Downey Jr. and others occasionally posing semi existentialist questions about how humanity will die off. Got a little bored with the action scenes. Obviously, this wasn’t made for my demographic. Still, it was a good diversion on the big screen. 

Aloha -It’s not the best Cameron Crowe movie, by far, but it has a number of touching, funny scenes, variously focused on Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams, Bill Murray and John Krasinski. How to go wrong with a cast like that? Layer it with Hawaiian mythology, military/corporation shenanigans, regrets about love, and fighter pilot careers and you have a tangle of underdeveloped story lines. The “scenery” of these charismatic stars on the big screen was great, but I was wishing for more scenery of Hawaii. 

Love & Mercy — Wherein I learn that you don’t need to be a Beach Boys fan to appreciate the genius of Brian Wilson and that an abusive father, auditory hallucinations through most of his life, and a manipulative psychotherapist were just a few of the hardships in his past. As a biopic, the movie focuses on the band’s rise in the ’60s and Wilson’s practically comatose years two decades later. Both Paul Dano and John Cusack are mesmerizing as the two Brians; Elizabeth Banks is central to Wilson’s later recovery, and she’s great too. Beach Boys aficionados will love the attention to detail during scenes at the recording studio and in live performances. 

Spy — I’ve gotta hand it to Melissa McCarthy: she knew she had to grow beyond “fat lady” roles so she tackled this comedic sendup of James Bond movies with not only spot-on comic timing, but also with moxie, sexiness, female empowerment and heart. The violence is almost over the top, but the pace and the jokes are great. The end is a set-up for a sequel, which hopefully will provide a better stunt double for McCarthy (see the motorcycle chase).

Inside Out — This is perhaps the best animated film I’ve seen outside of the Disney classics like The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, and Fantasia. Every scene is a lesson in such values as family, friendship and teamwork as the various emotions of an 11-year-old named Riley run the controls inside her mind. So imaginative! I would gladly see the movie again, especially for the emotion Joy’s (voiced by Amy Poehler on fire!) journey through the land of abstract thought, where she and her companion are drawn and redrawn to represent movements in modern art. The marbles representing memories are also an incredibly cool idea. 

Mission Impossible – Rogue Nation — This might have been an exercise of redemption-seeking by Tom Cruise (he does his own stunts, he looks fab!), but it turns out to be a boost for feminism, of all things. Rebecca Ferguson matches him almost kick for kick (with a stunt double) and is as entrenched in spydom and conspiracies as he is. For that alone, it’s a great movie, with nail-biting actions scenes aplenty.

Trainwreck – What a great year for women in comedy, and what a coup for Amy Schumer. I laughed and cried through most of this Schumer-written, Judd Apatow-directed rom-com, and it was two hours long! It’s bawdy and bright, with incredible cameos. I just wonder how much it appeals to moviegoers not familiar with Schumer; the movie is doing well, though, so she might grab an even bigger audience with her next movie. 

The Martian — A mesmerizing science fiction movie for the masses, on par with “Gravity” and “Interstellar,” with an appealing Matt Damon as the botanist stranded on Mars. I still like the other two better, for their poetry and existentialism, but Ridley Scott imbues the movie with touching symbolism about the miracle of life in unexpected places. I like this list from Entertainment Weekly: “This film contains the following: GE, for Gloria Estefan, J for joyriding, KS for ketchup shortage, and FI for Fonz impression.” Who says Mars can’t be fun? The line for the ages: “I’m going to have to science the shit out of this.”

Bridge of Spies — If it weren’t for the star power of Tom Hanks and the directorial genius of Steven Spielberg, this movie might well have slipped off everyone’s radar, being a drama about the Cold War with minimal action sequences. But after a slow start it soon offers many twists and turns about spy games and more importantly, it sheds light on the quietly heroic actions of real-life attorney James Donovan. Loved Spielberg’s highly detailed re-creation of 1957.  

Room — A garden shed with only a skylight becomes both prison and sanctuary for a young mother and her 5-year-old son. The escape scene is one of the most hair-raising sequences I’ve seen in a long time. Brie Larson and her young costar are ultra-believable, with the story raising questions about what really constitutes the world, the strength of family, and a mother’s guilt. It needs more of a backstory on William H. Macy’s character, but otherwise it is superb. (This was the last movie I saw at Harkins Camelview 5 before its demolition.)

Spotlight — As proven with “All the President’s Men,” the hard choices, teamwork, roadblocks, grunt work, secrets and lies, and sleepless nights that make for investigative journalism can be gripping cinema. Here, it’s the Pulitzer Prize-winning work of the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team in cracking open the scandal of priests as child molesters.It’s a must-see for budding journalists. The entire cast is strong, but I was mesmerized by Michael Keaton’s performance as the head of the team. Another Oscar?

Star Wars: The Force Awakens — Much hoopla and hype preceded Part 7 of George Lucas’s intergalactic saga, but director J.J. Abrams and the actors portraying the young new protagonists Rey and Finn deliver adrenaline-fueled action sequences and the requisite syrupy dialogue. The addition of the original three cast members helps heap on the nostalgia and reinvigorate the franchise. Loved seeing this in the new, futuristically designed Harkins Camelview 14. 

The Big Short — As long as I’m not required to explain exactly what the financial crisis of 2008 was all about, I’m fine in saying this is a highly entertaining movie with a stellar cast. The idea of cameos in which celebrities offer funny Cliff Notes on mortgage and banking jargon is clever, as is the insertion of just enough of the main characters’ back stories. Watching out for John Magara (from OITNB) to appear in additional juicy supporting roles. 

Carol -From street scenes and classic cars to costumes and props, “Carol” splendidly recreates the early 1950s, and it’s beautifully filmed with its soft focus and attention to light. The sex scene goes out of its way to show the tenderness between two women. Where I felt it could have done more is in addressing the alienation of the lesbian community of that era. It seems to get short shrift next to close-ups of Cate Blanchett being the regal Cate Blanchett. But on that note, Rooney Mara is a pleasant surprise, doing a lot of the heavy lifting. And there’s that John Magara again! As another theater goer noted upon exiting, though, was there a plot here? 

The Lobster – I was drawn to this oddball black comedy by the cast – which included Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz- and of course, they are great. It’s a sendup of a dystopian society where single people are sent to a hotel for 45 days to find a suitable partner, or to be turned into the animal of their choice. Somehow, the plot works, and in fact, resonates with messages about relationships and oppressive social norms. Most romantic moments: Farrell and Weisz using hand signals and foot stomps to signal their illicit love for each other.  

Me Before You – I felt like seeing a chick flick, and I got a chick flick. One hankie, maybe two. Although I wonder why the filmmakers didn’t aspire to something less schmaltzy given the capable cast and the underlying issues of following your bliss, selfishness vs. selflessness and  – spoiler alert! – assisted suicide. Emilia Clarke and Sam Claflin act through their eyebrows and smiles almost to the point of annoyance, but Claflin does sweetly remind me of Christopher Reeve. Would see it again just for the scenery from Pembroke Castle in Wales and Paris.  

Ghostbusters – A reboot of the 1984 classic with four female leads, it’s entertaining enough, although I wonder about trading the campiness of the old “scary” scenes for the CGI-fueled special effects here. The intensity is not safe for young children. Anyway, pop culture critic Andi Zeisler writes in the LA Times that every feminist has an obligation to see the movie, and I agree. The cameos by original cast members are fun, Chris Hemsworth’s bodaciouness is played to the hilt, and I think I have a girl crush on Kate McKinnon.  

Hell or High Water – Despite the drawls, Levi’s, cowboy hats and lush cinematography to suggest the dusty plains of West Texas, this is not a Western per se, but a saga about Robin Hood-type bank-robber brothers reminiscent of Bonnie and Clyde. It’s stylish and fascinating the way their character flaws and motivations are peeled away as the movie unfolds. An unexpectedly top-notch movie, aided by the likes of Jeff Bridges and Chris Pine. 

Allied – Despite the occasionally jarring juxtapositions of WWII spy games and shootouts against a love story that leads to marriage and domesticity in picturesque Hampstead Heath, Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard make it all highly entertaining. The London and French Morocco scenes are meticulous re-creations of wartime and its physical and psychic effects. And the sandstorm love scene is unforgettable. 

Arrival – It was helpful to not know much about this movie before going into it. Thus, the surprises of the alien ships, their form of communication and the bending of time – all of which were quite poetic, even when I wasn’t making comparisons to “Interstellar.” This is perhaps the better movie, because there’s no question that the female protagonist (Amy Adams, so good as the brilliant linguist) will save the day. And she does so in an un-male way, through emotional connections and hard-won communication – not violence. Plus, there’s a suspenseful yet lovely “Close Encounters” type scene where Adams enters the ship, which sets up the climax. 

Fences – Possibly the two finest actors today, Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, take us inside a troubled marriage in the 1950s while mining a number of volatile themes — women’s longing for self-identity, racial discrimination, working class blues, male pride, authoritarian parenting, family loyalty and mental illness. As Washington and Davis reprise their roles from the 2010 Broadway revival of August Wilson’s play, the film version starts off a bit stiffly, but soon invests us fully in their characters. 

La La Land – From the opening frame of “Filmed in CinemaScope” and the introductory musical number reimagining a clogged LA freeway, I knew I was in for a visual feast. Los Angeles really shines, and the chemistry between Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling is a sweet throwback to classic moviemaking. I was so swept away by the song-and-dance scenes that I actually squirmed at the change of mood during the long all-dialogue scene that portends the lovers’ split. Luckily, the clever number at the end – a meta vision of happy Hollywood endings – made it all better, and I left the theater wishing I could sing and dance to the movie’s signature tune. 

Moonlight – This would have been worthwhile to see in a theater, but I’m glad I saw a promotional copy on TV right before its dramatic, last-minute win as Best Picture at the Oscars. It is filmed and written with a poet’s sensibility – three stanzas, or acts, to represent three phases in the young protagonist’s life, with spare dialogue. When words are spoken, they often sting. It’s a doubly important film for having an all-black cast in a rough, urban setting and for addressing gay male identity. 

Beauty and the Beast — As a live-action movie starring a surprisingly perfect Emma Watson, is it better than the beloved animated feature? In some ways, yes. It offers greater character development as well as incredible costuming and effects that make the Beast less beastly. Having Dan Stevens in the role doesn’t hurt either. Add Ewan McGregor as Lumiere and others stars to the mix, the scary CGI-created wolves, the lovingly detailed castle and incredible renditions of the songs (“Be Our Guest” is humorously over the top) and you’ve got a renewed appreciation of movie magic. It’s an all- ages film, just on that count. 

The Lost City of Z — Many aspects of the true-life adventures from the book about early 20th century Amazon explorer Percival Fawcett are glossed over in the movie, said the friend who saw the movie with us. Still, the journey into the jungle is viscerally documented, and the movie establishes Charlie Hunnam as ready for movie stardom. Robert Pattinson is almost unrecognizable, but does well in the role of Fawcett’s aide-de-camp.  I wish Sienna Miller’s role had been more fully developed, instead of the focus on her as the all-supportive wife during Fawcett’s years of travel. 

Gifted — The plot involves a 7-year-old math savant and the question of who should raise her: the uncle, as the suicidal mother wanted, or the grandmother, who could give her all the benefits of living in Boston, including tutors from MIT. The movie is more compelling than I expected, raising questions about the nature of a normal childhood and the elitism of intellectuals. It leaves a lot of questions unanswered about the family’s dynamics, but it wins viewers over with the chance to watch McKenna Grace, who must be an acting prodigy, and to see Chris Evans in a different, non-superhero light. I could have done without the abandonment scene, however. 

Wonder Woman — News flash: A big-budget comic book movie with a female superhero can be just as successful as one with a male superhero. In fact, it’s close to breaking box office records. The unknown and exotic Israeli actress Gal Gadot is perfectly cast; it just wouldn’t have worked with someone famous. The director is a woman, too, taking plenty of license in both the Amazon island scenes and the World War I scenes to let women dominate the slick and ferocious battle tableaux. I look forward to the sequel, which probably won’t have Chris Pine (sob), but might sneak in a Lynda Carter cameo. 

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