Movie Reviews
Friday , September 22 2017

2014 Films

(based on non-festival, theatrical U.S. release date)

20,000 Days on Earth.  For me, a recent revisit of Wings of Desire (1987) drove home just how long the Australian-born, Brighton-haunting Nick Cave has been brewing murder ballads and such.  In 20,000 Days on Earth, debut feature directors Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard imbue this overdue documentary of Cave with all of the flourishes of a slick narrative art film, while Cave himself provides a distinctly literary narration on the process of his art/life – all in service of a uniquely conceptual focus on memory and transformation.  Cave has all sorts of memories to share (some more interesting than others), which are presented in both conventional and unconventional ways.  (A story about an unlikely musical collaboration with Kylie Minogue in 1996 evolves into a car ride with Minogue in 2013 with Cave as the conversational and literal chauffeur.)  And toward the end of the film, we get more and more performance footage, impeccably capturing Cave’s own front-row transformations.  To be sure, there are a lot of pieces to like here.  The problem is that the filmmakers’ devotion to that conceptual focus is fueled by too much artsy quirk with little emotional heft, which tends to keep the viewer at arm’s length from the film’s subject; and if you are not already familiar with Cave, his own musing voice overs may start to wear thin.  As a result, like Cave’s music, 20,000 Days on Earth is a bit of an acquired taste, although I’m pretty sure Cave wouldn’t have it any other way.  (Grade: B-)

The Amazing Spider-Man 2.  I’m still sore that the Sony franchise machine intervened to deny me a proper follow up to director Marc Webb’s (500) Days of Summer (2009).  Notwithstanding the attempt to mix in stronger tones, this sequel is generally as one might expect it to be judging from all the other great comic book films crammed with three villains.  However, I’m adding a half a grade for the last 10 minutes – its moment of gravity (so to speak).  (Grade: C)

American Sniper.  (Grade: C)

The Babadook.  Standing alone, the first half of The Babadook is a perfectly constructed genre exercise in horror for the single mother (which is really what single mothers need, right?), as director Jennifer Kent pulls so adeptly upon the strings of tension rather than loading up the scare count.  Unfortunately, Kent abandons that angle as the film turns into a kind of homage to Repulsion (1965), and eventually, a contemplation on grief. Still, with The Babadook being her feature debut, Kent is now on my radar.  (Grade: B)

Bad Words.  With the first scene boldly dropping the viewer right into what would normally be the end of first act (with no clue as to character motivations), first-time screenwriter Andrew Dodge and first-time director Jason Bateman give us a bit more than the trailer promises (i.e., a lot of potty humor).  (Tip: Avoid the trailer, if you can.)  The less that is said about this deliciously biting and odd little film, the better.  Suffice to say, the casting is spot on – from Bateman, whose nice guy looks mix up audience expectations right from the get-go as the inexplicably elusive 40 year-old spelling bee-crasher; to Kathryn Hahn as the wannabe reporter with some distinctive edge/kink that defies exposition; to Rohan Chan as Bateman’s 9-year-old competition, friend, both, or neither; to Phillip Baker Hall as the patriarch of the one of the most venerated institutions in America.  (Grade: B)

Better Living Through Chemistry.  Yes, there’s nothing new about this emasculated male storyline. Yes, the script is a bloody mess. And yes, having Jane Fonda do the narration is a poor substitute for Judi Dench (as was originally intended).  But scanning the new releases, I just couldn’t resist a movie named after a QOTSA song or featuring Sam Rockwell or Olivia Wilde, the latter of whom I seem to be developing a thing for (Drinking Buddies (2013), Her (2013)).  (Grade: C)

Big Eyes.  Aside from one notable sequence (which sticks out like the word “BURTON” in ghoulishly crooked purple script on the bottom corner of a dainty pastel cityscape), Big Eyes could have been directed by anyone. This biopic of the Keane controversy may have been a labor of love for Tim Burton, but it doesn’t show (like, for example, Ed Wood (1994)). And whereas Amy Adams showed up to portray a real person with a striking level of naïveté, Christoph Waltz appears to be channeling a maskless Batman villain.  (Grade: C+)

Big Hero 6.  I probably loved Baymax a bit too much to give this Disney movie the rating it might otherwise deserve.  That said, from the marketing perspective at play, shouldn’t the setting have been San Franshanghai?  (Grade: C+)

Birdman.  Twenty years after leaving a successful comic book film franchise, actor Riggan Thomas (Michael Keaton) takes one last shot at respectability by staging his own adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story on Broadway. As potential-psychotic-breakdown-on-the-eve-of-an-opening-night-performance movies go, Birdman doesn’t reveal much beneath the surface of that psychosis, which really serves as little more than a devil on the shoulder and a door into delusions of grandeur.  The takeaway here is pretty simple: celebrities, artists, and critics are all egoists in equal measure. And the characters rarely rise above their types.  The strength – no, the real fun – of Birdman lies in the experience of it all – namely, the unlikely pairing of the gloriously fluid cinematography and the often cacophonous score, all buttressed by an admirably committed ensemble that knows exactly what kind of film they’re in.   (Grade: B+)

Bird People.  As much as the non-discussable twist of this film sits directly in my wheelhouse, I can also understand why this brand of whimsy has not grabbed hold of all its viewers, and I acknowledge there are a few glitches in the screenplay (including, most notably, the final scene).  (Grade: B-)

Blue Ruin.  (Grade: B+)

Boyhood.   With Boyhood, writer/director Richard Linklater has shot what is essentially a series of episodes chronicling the lives of a divided family of four over the course of 12 years.  One of the casualties of the extended production was the original title – the less loaded, and perhaps more appropriate, “12 Years” – which was changed as a result of last year’s 12 Years a Slave.  Said boy (Ellar Coltrane), who grows from age 6 to 18, is a distinctively passive personality and presence throughout most of the film – serving as a center of gravity, the eyes and ears of the viewer – until he reaches high school, thereby allowing for more Dazed and Confused-esque conversation pieces.  Beyond the sheer novelty of his approach, Linklater is obviously attempting to create a more organic form of narrative; but as engaging as many of the episodes are, the organics are somewhat undermined by certain overly-broad characterizations (e.g., the step-father) and a few sketchy performances.  (Some child casting/direction by Hirokazu Kore-eda would have gone a long way here.)   So even on its own terms, Boyhood is not the quite unqualified and complete success as the first round of critics have declared.  (Grade: B+)

CakeCake is a better than the mere prestige picture for star Jennifer Aniston its trailer might suggest.  In an admirable attempt to avoid cliche, the filmmakers have employed what is essentially a one step forward/one step back approach to plotting its central character’s struggle with pain and loss.  So is this journey sans the destination worth it?  Shrug. … Still, as the credits rolled, I couldn’t help but think about the significance of the gender of the writer/director.  If, six months ago, I had set 50 cinephiles in a room, Bechdel meters ready to go, to view the two big cinematic contemplations on grief of 2014 (the other being The Babadook), I wonder just how many would correctly guess which had been made by a female writer/director and which had been made by male writers and directors.  Is it possible that only a certain range of female-centered story-telling is making it to the big screen, regardless of the gender of the filmmaker?  (Grade: C+)

Calvary.  (Grade: A-)

Captain America: The Winter Soldier.  The current incarnation of Captain America began as a sort of exercise in retro, and the latest installment continues that trend. In this case, you don’t need to wait for the closing credit sequence to realize that Captain America: The Winter Soldier feels a lot more like a 007 entry circa 1977 than a modern superhero movie.  Think gadgets galore, double crosses, audacious car chases, and organizations of enigmatic goodies/baddies bent on nothing less than world domination.  (Indeed, the name of one organization is an acronym, and the other capitalizes its letters like it should be an acronym.)  Sure, there’s a shout out to the Edward Snowden fans, but for the most part, it’s James Bond on steroids – at least until the tiresomely long and ridiculously over-the-top action sequence that seems to be the common denominator for all of these films.  So where does CA:TWS sit on the Marvel phase 2 continuum?  On the plus side, it is not quite as weightless, stakeless, and needless as Thor: The Dark World (2013); on the negative side, the filmmakers’ dogged insistence on taking it all so seriously, while never going into any real depth with its characters or themes, keeps this latest Avengers tent pole from reaching the heights of the (somewhat) fun and subversive Iron Man 3 (2013).  (Grade: C)

Cheap Thrills.  If you have ever written a negative film review based mostly on adjectives like “nasty,” “cynical,” or “mean-spirited,” then Cheap Thrills is probably not in your wheelhouse.  Nonetheless, this debut by indie director E.L. Katz (slightly) transcends its pay grade and has (a bit) more to offer than the purely prurient violence that its title, trailer, and poster suggest.  While other reviewers will undoubtedly classify this film as some sort of an indictment of the upper economic classes, I believe this one is best appreciated as a modern twist on The Devil and Daniel Webster, with David Koechner and Sara Paxton perfectly cast as Mr. and Ms. Scratch.  (Grade: C+)

Chef.  Truth or dare … Truth: For all the eye candy, this movie made me genuinely depressed (too sweet, and too close to the Weinstein recipe, for my palette) … Dare: I dare you to watch this immediately after Swingers (1996).  (Grade: D+)

Citizenfour.  (Grade: C-)

Coherence. = Clue (1985) – the laughs + Enemy (2014) – the budget … Maybe it’s just the stream, but I found that the attempts at creating a natural environment (e.g., shaky found footage aesthetic, sketchy sound design with characters talking over each other) really took away from the experience necessary to indulge in a genre like this.  (Grade: C+)

Cold in July.  Director Jim Mickle (We Are What We Are (2013)) continues to show promise with this western/noir bringing together Michael C. Hall as a frame shop owner, Sam Shepard as a parolee, and Don Johnson as a pig farmer/PI.  Set in east Texas in 1989, Cold in July has the deliberate look of Blood Simple (1984) and score of a John Carpenter film, but it also has its own story to tell – thematically touching ever so lightly upon involuntary relationships between men.  While not a complete success, Mickle does present a rather intriguing mix of tones with the support of a committed lead in Hall.  The drama, the violence, the camp – from moment to moment, inexplicably perhaps, it all seems to work more than it doesn’t.  (Grade: B-)

The Congress.  As anyone who has seen the trailer already knows, The Congress kicks off with an intriguingly meta setup: washed-up actress Robin Wright (okay, so pretend House of Cards does not exist) receives an offer to permanently sell her acting identity to Miramount Studios (get it?), allowing it to use her computer generated image to star in any film they want while prohibiting her from ever actually performing again.  The studio executive (Danny Huston) and her frustrated agent (Harvey Keitel) ultimately talk her out of her insistence on a “no sci-fi” clause (get it?) … Fast forward 20 years into a hippie-dippie futurist’s animated nightmare.  If you can weather through an unforgivably extended hallucinogenic midsection (read: excuse to do crazy sequences that add very little coherence to the plot or themes), you will eventually learn that the entertainment and pharmaceutical industries have merged to create a populace consisting of (1) hobo zombies who choose to live in a chemical-induced fantasyland and (2) all of the others who choose to remain “outside,” hovering above this grim reality in zeppelins.  Or is it really a “choice”? [cue dramatic score]  (Now, if class (2) could just harness the bodies of class (1) for electricity…)  Suffice to say, The Congress is one of the most disappointing films of the year.  I predict that if it finds an audience, it will be of the “cult” variety – several of the members of which will probably prefer to view it baked.  Personally, I wish I had re-watched Pink Floyd’s The Wall instead.  (Grade: C)

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.  Ten years after their release (I mean, “rise”) from captivity, their human captors have been all but wiped out by their own folly, the apes have really propagated and evolved, although social tendencies toward the Shakespearean don’t mix well with an remarkable aptitude for the use of automatic firearms.  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the second installment in this franchise, is arguably the most allegorical of this summer’s blockbusters, with the predominant idea at play being that, human or ape, all it takes is one bad apple and a lot of fear to ruin the party for everybody.  Maybe my point of view is skewed by the fact that I watched action movies for a long time before producers and directors had the CGI crutch to lean on; but within the first 20 minutes, I felt like I was watching two different movies set in two different worlds. One world is a grandiosely-rendered cartoon with few discernible laws of physics.  The other world is natural, organic – its dramatic stakes not dependent on size, volume, or numbers.  On the plus side, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes takes more care with, and spends more time in, the latter world than just about every film in the genre.  On the negative side, there is still this seemingly inevitable need to indulge in unnecessarily ridiculous action set pieces.  (Grade: B-)

Dear White People.   When I first saw the trailer to Dear White People (easily my favorite of the year), I was hooked by the pitch of exploring contemporary issues of race outside of the thematic vacuum that seems to have become the politically correct norm.  In this sense, the film is a partial success.  But as it turns out, at least half of the funniest lines of writer/director John Simien’s satire/meta-satire are compressed into that well-edited trailer, and the film itself is not as consistently humorous or provocative as it needs to be.  And as cinematic as Simien’s style is for the genre (notwithstanding a few too many hat tips to Spike Lee), there is a certain sacrifice – namely, dealing in hard truths, as opposed to fostering sympathetic characterizations – that is necessary to sell a truly biting satire that Simien the writer is unwilling to make.  (Grade: B-)

Devil’s Knot.  (Grade: D)

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and Her.  (Grade: B)

The Double.  If you must see one crazy doppelgänger film this year, I suppose I would recommend Enemy.  That said, director Richard Ayoade’s shoestring adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s The Double, co-written with Avi Korine (Harmony’s brother), does have its charms. The first half is extremely watchable, due mostly to the committed performances Jesse Eisenberg as the protagonist/antagonist and Mia Wasikowska as the object of his desire, and is about as faithful an adaptation of an 1846 novella as one could expect from a director so unapologetically influenced by Brazil (1985).  But with Dostoyevsky’s psychotic prose and specific historical/political context all but stripped away, we are ultimately left with an examination of loss of identity in an uncaring world (of which the appearance of the protagonist’s doppelganger is just one manifestation that lies between his misplacement of his “supplementary ID” and the formal de-recognition of his public existence).  The dark play that ensues is all well and good – that is, until the endgame devolves into existential/romantic smaltz.  (Grade: B-)

The Drop.   (Grade: B)

Edge of Tomorrow.  (Grade: C+)

Enemy.  (Grade: B+)

The Fault in Our Stars.  Since I am not a 16 year-old girl, it’s difficult to watch an adaptation of the most recent mega-teen-fiction, The Fault in Our Stars, without falling prey to the real-time inner critic … OK, so you’re going to dis one of the best teen romance films of all time right out of the gate? … Ansel Elgort is really not working for me … So we go from reality check to sweet cheese in the time it takes to climb the stairs of the Ann Frank House?… This box-checking to the novel is really dragging this out about 30 minutes too long … And then comes the phone call in the middle of the night. … Damn you, Shailene Woodley. Damn you.  (Grade: B-)

Fed Up.  Not nearly as compelling, uncompromising, or comprehensive (in breadth or depth) as Food, Inc. (2008), Fed Up is essentially U.S. food/diet problems in the 21st century for dummies.  (Spoiler alert: In case you didn’t already get the memo in the last 10 years, it’s not about the fat, it’s all about the sugar, and it’s all the fault of corporate marketing.)  The problem with this film is not the intent; the problem is that a complex combination of issues involving science, the marketplace, ethics, psychology, sociology, and politics is ridiculously oversimplified to any viewer who has even a casual knowledge of the subject matter.  (For example, the relevance of exercise in childhood obesity is all but dismissed; the role of the government in subsidizing the corn and sugar growers is glossed over as “inadvertent”; etc.)  Ironically enough, narrator, producer, and “journalist” Katie Couric and company attempt to be just as manipulative – and think we viewers are just as stupid – as said corporations.  To wit, the mantra of Fed Up is singular – “save our children” – with nary a mention of, for example, recent links between high-sugar diets and the emergence of unique and pervasive health problems such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.  So a good deal of the 92-minute runtime is devoted to parading out about half a dozen of teary-eyed diabetes-inflicted children, who the filmmakers dubiously ask us to take at face value when they tell us how hard they are trying to exercise and eat healthy.  The target audience is clearly mothers aged 24 to 42, so the parents of said children do not get much of the blame for their choices.  As far as one can tell from the talking heads, it’s not really about choices – all those evil corporations are just so effective at pulling the strings of our children and our government officials.  In the service of its demographic, even the hypocrisy of Michelle Obama (with her Let’s Move! campaign) gets laid out in admirable detail only to be soft-peddled at the end of the film.  (Parting message: She’s just doing the best she can.)  The net effect is exactly what an advocacy documentary should not be – inert.  (Grade: C)

Filth.  If Danny Boyle and Abel Ferrara got together and made a movie in the mid-90s … well, that sounds a lot more interesting than this actually is.  (Grade: C)

Force Majeure (Turist)Force Majeure is yet another film recently released in the arthouses with a trailer that oversells its comedic aspects (e.g., The Skeleton Twins).  After a promising first act that effectively satirizes the banality of the modern bourgeois nuclear family, the film takes an unfortunate left turn into the banality of The Loneliest Planet (2012) and its shallow and tired contemplations on male-ness.  By the time we get to the concluding sequence, any sense of thematic coherence has been lost.  And that’s a shame, because Ruben Östlund (as director, at least) obviously has a worthy voice for visual storytelling.  (Grade: C+)

Foxcatcher.  Go to tick a couple off your award-season checklist; stay for the wonderful brotherly relationship stuff (Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo).  (Grade: B-)

Frank.  Drawing upon a few tropes from Almost Famous (2000) and This Is Spinal Tap (1984), Frank is an admirable – if not entirely successful – attempt to explore the juxtaposition between the truly (and perhaps, truly insane) avant-garde and contemporary self-obsessed, attention-seeking, anybody-can-be-an-artist culture.  And really, there is no better place for this particular exploration to end up than the circus that is the SXSW Music Festival.  (Grade: A-)

The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden.  The main narrative of this documentary is intriguing enough.  It starts in 1929 with a man and woman abruptly leaving their lives (including a marriage) behind in Germany to find a paradise in seclusion on one of the then (almost) uninhabited islands of the Galapagos.  Over the next five years, the couple find there is no escape from themselves or the ills of society, as two other groups arrive on the island with their own ideas of paradise.  Obviously the fillmmakers feel a deep reverence for the few who have made a home in the Galapogos, and that gives rise to the primary problem with this 2+ hour documentary – too many irrelevant/barely relevant biographical tangents, most of which tend to distract or complicate rather than enrich.  (Grade: C+)

The Gambler.  I cannot fully articulate why, but I kinda liked this, warts and all.  So many of the reviews dismiss this “remake” of the 1974 film starring James Caan as just another addiction story, but it’s ambitions are much more existential.  Although the plot centers around a college professor (Mark Wahlberg) who gambles himself into a $250,000 hole, the entire cast is comprised of people who simply cannot help themselves (in various ways and to varying degrees).  The affliction even manifests in otherwise meaningless conversations with a pawnbroker and a banker, where the lines between text and subtext all but disappear.  And although Wahlberg appears to be grossly miscast in his first scene in a classroom, as the film progresses, it also becomes more and more apparent that explicabilIty is not at the top of director Rupert Wyatt’s list, for better or for worse.  (Grade: B)

Gloria.  I’m not exactly sure what to make of how this slice-of-life film about a mid-50s divorcee brings back such specific memories of my short-lived college girlfriend.  As the filmmakers cue up that ubiquitous, celebratory Gloria song (the 80s one, not the 60s one), while the title character spastically gyrates in ecstasy on the dance floor, I have to wonder: Is the neo-feminist baby boomer message here that you’re never too old to have the emotional maturity of an 18 year-old?  Because there’s not much more to this character being studied (not that her male counterpart is that multi-dimensional either).  Although Gloria may be a novel portrayal of the contemporary middle-aged woman (as Oscar-nominated movies go), it is not really that interesting – especially when the few memorable details in between the predictable behavior/consequences also tend to be so on the nose (e.g., a dancing skeleton that prompts a life-is-too-short-to-hold-grudges phone call).  The whole affair is just kind of sad, but not much else. (Grade: C)

God’s Pocket.  Actor Richard Jenkins has a lot of things going for him – but game is not one of them – especially with the lines given to him here as a half-drunken, balding, unkempt, washed-up, 60 year-old reporter/columnist.  Here we are supposed to believe that he is a local rock star who beds a hot Temple grad by mumbling some nonsense in a bar.  And we are also supposed to believe in his powers to almost instantly seduce Christina Hendricks’ mildly grieving mother with such doozies like “your husband doesn’t know what to do with you,” while shortly thereafter, writhing and drooling on top of her like a flaccid piece of blubber.  If his character had any charisma in the Pete Dexter novel from which God’s Pocket is adapted, it is all but lost on screen … This is but one of the many unconvincing and feeble elements comprising this comedy of errors set in the eponymous, insular, blue-collar (read: white trash) neighborhood where first-time director (and co-writer) John Slattery wants us to believe anything can happen.  And by “anything,” I mean that post-Tarantino combination of random bad luck and abrupt scenes of violence.  It was a wise move to put Philip Seymour Hoffman on the cover poster, because he’s easily the best part of this film.  But as the cuckhold semi-outsider schmo who must navigate the semi-craziness of God’s Pocket to arrange his son’s funeral, he’s not given much help in the screenplay.  Indeed, Hendricks in particular seems to be phoning in every line she delivers, perhaps as a favor for a friend (Mad Men co-star Flattery).  So this is the last film that I get to see Hoffman in for the first time?  So disappointing.  (Grade: C-)

Godzilla.  (Grade: B)

Gone Girl.  (Grade: A)

Goodbye to Language 3D.  (Grade: D-)

The Grand Budapest Hotel.  (Grade: A)

The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza).  The title should not be read as anything more than a hint of just how ostentatious this film really is. That is, with what must have been a healthy budget supplied by the Rome tourism bureau, filmmaker Paolo Sorrentini is so intent on displaying his impeccable sense of visual and audio composition that he hopes you don’t notice the soulless script.  The Great Beauty is essentially the episodic journey of Jep, a 65-year old socialite-player-writer (in that order), as he contemplates his own life and mortality among a surprisingly uninteresting and unengaging rogues gallery of friends and acquaintances, new and old. By the time we reach the second hour, I suppose we are supposed to be wondering whether Jep will bed the triple-D 40-something daughter of his friend (spoiler alert: she’s also a stripper!); but I just found myself rooting for Jep to put us both out of our misery.  The pre-production marketing agenda is so obvious: 8 1/2 (1963), but friendly for the 21st century user.  (So instead of a surreal carnival parade, we get hip hop-style music video-ish interludes where older Italians (creepily) work it right alongside all the younger Italians.)  And the art film narrative formula seems so cynical: meander randomly through pleasing settings with inoffensively quirky characters; punctuate occasionally with on-the-nose dialogue and/or motif; repeat to fill out 142-minute run time.  But whom am I to say The Great Beauty is not a stunning success on its own terms? After all, the Oscar voters picked it over The Hunt (2013), and the BAFTA voters picked it over Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013), so …  (Grade: C-)

Guardians of the Galaxy.  1. Gotta love a superhero willing to die for his mix tape.  2. Best Marvel post-credits sequence ever.  (Grade: B-)

Happy Christmas.  An irresponsible sister (Anna Kendrick) comes to live in the basement of her older brother (director Joe Swanberg), her sister-in-law (Melanie Lynskey), and their two-year old son (Jude Swanberg).  But, you know, that sounds more interesting than this film actually is.  After the dramatic evolution that was Drinking Buddies (2013), Happy Christmas marks Swanberg’s return to all of the familiar Mumblecore indulgences – the “authentic” blue-collar aesthetic, the jagged editing, and of course, the improvised dialogue that is about as engaging as eavesdropping on two random 20-somethings seated next to you at a coffeehouse.  (Grade: C-)

Harmontown.  Comedy writer-turned-podcaster Dan Harmon takes his schtick out on the road with his girlfriend, his co-host, and a Dungeon Master.  As much as I was a fan of the first three seasons of Community (a show which Harmon created, wrote, and was fired from), I do wish this documentary had been less an exercise in naval-gazing and more an exploration of the gulf between the performance and the commoditization aspects of comedy.  (Grade: C+)

Hateship Loveship.  As much as I anticipated Kristin Wiig’s first dramatic lead role in a feature film, her take as the wallflower housekeeper/caretaker turns out to be not so dramatic.  The unfortunately-titled Hateship Loveship is exactly the sort of quiet film that would have fit into the 90s indie scene – a bit too quiet, and missing a few too many beats, to convince (much less compel).  (Grade: C)

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part 1.  (Grade: D+)

Ida.  In a recent interview, director/writer/provocateur John Waters commented that in most instances when people talk a lot about a film’s cinematography, it’s usually because the film as a whole is a failure.  Ida is a perfect example.  Set in Poland about 15 years after the Holocaust, the title character is an orphaned young woman forced to leave the nunnery to meet an aunt – and confront a past – she never knew before taking her vows.  As positive reviewers have commented upon ad nauseum, right out of the gate, the viewer is well aware of how Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski evokes cinematic presentation of a bygone era (the square-frame “Academy” format in virtual black-and-white) and shows a mastery of the geometry of placement that would rival the likes of In the Mood for Love (2001).  And the sky is grey even when the sun is shining.  For this kind of film, Pawlikowski has tone down in spades.  As for fleshing out characters (beyond brooding) or any other compelling elements (emotionally or thematically), not so much.  (Grade: C+)

If I Stay.  You can categorize If I Stay firmly within the Teen Girl Fantasy Fulfillment genre: What teenage girl wouldn’t want to have a boyfriend in a band that opens for The Shins? … Or want her cool parents sitting outside her bedroom door while she practices the cello, saying things like “It’s not like she’s trying to get something, she plays music because -” and “we made her!”? … Or watch all her friends grieving as her consciousness wonders around a hospital during a coma finding reasons to live? … In terms of my own fantasy fulfillment, if I had a teenage daughter, I would like to think that she would find this particular story to be as vapid as I did … That she would much prefer Chloe Grace Moretz spewing obscenities and kicking ass … And that she would scoff at the soundtrack as a subpar knockoff of Jeff Buckley.  (Grade: D)

The Immigrant.  Comparisons have been made to Coppola, Cimino, and even Fellini, but suffice it to say that The Immigrant is simply Old Hollywood melodrama as seen through New Hollywood eyes – that is, inhabited by three-dimensional characters and stripped of most of the histrionic text.  That said, in this tale of a Polish Catholic immigrant who lands in the den of iniquity that is New York City circa 1921, many of the traditional elements of melodrama remain in tact.  And for all that has already been said of director James Gray’s sense of composition (and rightfully so), none of it would work as well as it does without the exquisite performance of Marion Cotillard. With most of her emotion bubbling just beneath the surface, Cotillard simply glows in this palette.  Ironically, her presence in the film tends to highlight one of its few weaknesses – the casting of Gray favorite Joaquin Phoenix (We Own the Night (2007), Two Lovers (2008)) in a role that demands a bit more of the right kind of charisma than Phoenix can muster.  (Who is contemporary cinema’s 30 year-old Daniel Day-Lewis?)  (Grade: B+)

The Imitation Game.  Of the seven Oscar-bait biopics released just this season, I suppose The Imitation Game should rank near the top of the list – not just for the distinctly above-average performances, but for the message it ends up conveying. That is, while there will always be those few human beings of all types who care enough to devote themselves wholeheartedly to an idea (regardless of the costs or benefits), heroism is nothing more than a narrative that those in power choose to tell, only when they choose to tell it.  (Grade: B-)

Inherent Vice.  My initial reactions to director Paul Thomas Anderson’s stoner noir are: (1) the promo poster should have the subtitle “follow this, cult!”; and (2) I truly hope this is a transition film for Anderson (a la Punch Drunk Love (2002)).  (Grade: C+)

Interstellar.  (Grade: B-)

Joe.  (Grade: B-)

Jodorowsky’s Dune.  As one who laments the loss of DVD special features with the ascendance of online film distribution, I was looking forward to this documentary of one of the most infamous films that never was – surrealist director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s mid-1970s attempt at adapting Frank Herbert’s sci-go epic Dune.  Not being a fan of the one Jodorowsky film I’ve seen (El Topo (1970)), and after hearing why he refused to enlist special effects master Douglas Trumble (too much of a technician and not a “spiritual warrior”) and how he would have ended the film (“I was raping Frank Herbert! Raping him!”), I’m still left with the opinion that, at best, the world missed out on a campy cult classic. And other than bringing together Dan O’Bannon and H.R. Geiger (Alien (1979)), I don’t think there’s much of an unsung legacy to this aborted project.  That said, director Frank Povich does an admirable job at compiling a persuasive narrative and balancing the most essential substantive and procedural facets.  (Grade: B-)

Laggies.  While Laggies has its moments, the holes in the script – which really come down to straining the credibility of the film’s two most fundamental relationships – make for a disappointing follow-up to director Lynn Shelton’s Your Sister’s Sister (2012).  (Wait, wasn’t that Touchy Feely (2013)?)  (Grade: C-)

The Lego Movie.  Sweet and clever … I know it sounds like a cat poster, but it’s true.  (Grade: B)

Leviathan.  Well, it’s definitely Russian. And when it comes to pessi-cinema, I have to say I prefer the Danes.  (Grade: C+)

Life After Beth.  I remember reading once that, psychologically speaking, going through a big break up is similar to mourning a death. And that idea underlies the setup of this ex-girlfriend-turned-zombie comedy. But notwithstanding some fun performances, the fatal flaw of Life After Beth is not this premise, the genre, or the necessary mix of tones – rather, it is a script that consists of little more than an incoherent hodgepodge of beats and gags.  (Grade: C)

Life Itself.  (Grade: B)

Like Father, Like Son (Sochite chichi ni naru).  (Grade: A-)

Listen Up Philip.  While Jason Schwartzman’s take on the bitterly honest (to a fault) title character carries a certain degree of charm and insight (which can probably only be appreciated in a fictional context), I am really not sold on the jumpy narrative rhythm and the verite-ish visual style of writer/director Alex Ross Perry. As a whole, the film left a prevailing feeling of emotional and intellectual emptiness (and not in a good way). That said, if a filmmaker is going to use a narrator rather intrusively and Alex Baldwin is not available/too obvious, Eric Bogosian (one of my favorite monologists) is a nice choice.  (Grade: C+)

Locke.  Within the first few shots of Locke, it is evident that while Thomas Hardy’s title character is in the construction business, writer/director Steven Knight is in the deconstruction business.  Knight’s latest work begs the question of just how many elements of cinematic narrative can be stripped away while still maintaining an audience’s interest for 84 minutes.  Without giving too much away about a film that depends on having so little, I will simply say that the trailer for Locke is a brilliant little lie.  (Grade: B-)

A Long Way Down.  Adapted from the Nick Hornby novel, A Long Way Down follows four individuals who, by coincidence, converge on the same London rooftop to commit suicide on New Years’ Eve.  As the story progresses, we may think we know why each of them are there, but there may be more beneath the surface.  (sigh)  It’s never enjoyable to see a cast like this (including Imogen Poots, Aaron Paul, and a personal favorite of mine, Toni Collette) in a movie like this.  I am certainly not a Hornby hater (e.g., High Fidelity (2000)), but my issues with this unengaging film are so broad that it’s not even worth articulating beyond (1) writing, (2) pacing, and (3) managing tonal shifts.  On the plus side, I feel much better about my life-long proclivity for confusing Pierce Brosnan with Sam Neill.  (Grade: D+)

The Longest Week.  If you scan the new releases on Netflix streaming and you see this comedy starring Jason Bateman, Olivia Wilde, Billy Crudup, and Jenny Slate and ask yourself, “How have I never heard of this film?” I can assure you there are good reasons.  Without professing to know anything about the actual filmmakers involved, I suggest that you imagine a trust fund baby from the Upper West Side – no, actually make that the Upper East Side – starting his second year of college (gender designation intentional) who is so obsessed with Woody Allen and Wes Anderson and so delusional about his own sense of quirky profundity (e.g., “love is like communism – a good idea that just didn’t work out”) that he endeavors to become a screenwriter/director.  By Woody Allen and Wes Anderson, I mean only Woody Allen and Wes Anderson; and by “obsessed” and “delusional,” I mean like Rupert Pupkin.  Now imagine The Longest Week is this character’s first feature film.  (Grade: D)

Love Is Strange.  As the credits roll, I can’t help but think of Roger Ebert’s characterization of movies as “empathy machines.”  With this scant story of a gay couple (John Lithgow and Alfred Molina) who marry after 39 years together, but are forced to live apart by circumstances beyond their control, what we get is (as advertised) Yasujiro Ozu channeled through a Woody Allen milieu.  With confidently tempered performances, cinematography, and scoring, director/co-writer Ira Sachs feels no particular need to hit all the necessary beats or tie up all the loose ends.  And for that, Love Is Strange feels all the more natural and resonant.   (Grade: B)

Merchants of Doubt.  When it comes to maintaining a functioning democracy, the most important documentary of the last year is not Citizenfour – it is Merchants of Doubt.  Ostensibly, in both alarming and entertaining terms, director Robert Kenner (Food, Inc. (2008)) exposes the pivot by ex-tobacco lobby spin doctors to the climate change debate.  In its totality, however, Merchants of Doubt transcends the well-tread notion that politicians have been and always will always be whores and brings attention to the symptom of a much larger problem in cultural and political discourse – the destructive force of ideology.  As skeptic libertarian Michael Shermer puts it in the film, “The further down the road someone gets in terms of their commitment behaviorally and ideologically involved with a social group, a tribe – ‘our tribe, we doubt climate change that’s what we do’ – [sic] but whether you care about that or not, your tribe believes a whole bunch of other things that you believe, so you buy the package.”  The odds of a FoxNews devotee taking an intellectually honest look at the data on climate change are about as good as an MSNBC devotee doing the same with the Ferguson grand jury evidence – in both cases, the narrative has already been set, and the facts (or lack thereof) simply cannot get in the way of a good story.  As former Republican Congressman Bob Inglis suggests in a conversation with a conservative radio show host, because both sides routinely deal in dogmatic hyperbole and the attention toward the climate change “originated with the liberals,” the other tribe and its corporate backers have been able to characterize climate change as a political issue as opposed to a scientific one.  That said, there is a continuing battle for hearts and minds of the people in the “middle” – or more accurately, those who do not particularly care about being in either tribe, but may just care about a future for humanity that goes beyond their household budget, their jobs, and their life expectancies.  They need to get acquainted with agnotology.  They need to know who people like Marc Morano really are and what “think tanks” like the George C. Marshall Institute do.  They need to know that the merchants of doubt have been deposed before and can be deposed again.  In this respect, Merchants of Doubt may just usher in a new subgenre – the post-advocacy documentary – as a proxy for a decreasingly robust media that has substituted true objectivity with the intellectually lazy, but far more marketable and inexpensive, assumption that there are always two equal sides to every story that need to perpetually clash.   (Grade: B+)

Now, how can we get Kenner to do a doc on the anti-vaccination movement?

A Million Ways to Die in the West.  Although the Ryan Reynolds cameo alone is almost worth the price of admission, even for a Seth MacFarlane fan, this spoof is just way too self-aware and way too circa 2013 for its own good.  (Grade: C)

The Missing Picture.  Rithy Panh uses mixed media (hand-crafted figurines combined with restored archival footage) to fill in the “missing picture” in this textual/visual memoir of his family’s “re-education” by the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979. On the one hand, I can appreciate the technique and purity of artistic intention – i.e., this seems to be an entirely cathartic exercise for Pahn, and I don’t think he cares much about creating something that people will want to watch. On the other hand, on a purely subjective level, I felt a bit distanced from the subject matter and cannot honestly say that I was that moved by the piece as a whole.  (Grade: B-)

A Most Wanted Man.  Let’s just call this one an above-average spy thriller of the simmering variety, elevated by the swan song of Phillip Seymour Hoffman.  (Grade: B-)

A Most Violent Year.  (Grade: B+)

Mr. Turner.  As compared to the slew of other biopics vying for awards this season, Mike Leigh’s lovingly rendered Mr. Turner displays more empathy than reverence.  To be fair, Leigh’s choice of subject matter (British painter, J.M.W. Turner, 1775-1851) frees him from the expectations of having to preach about Big Important Things (e.g., Selma) or Raise Awareness (e.g., Still Alice).  Still, given its semi-episodic structure, I’m not sure Leigh really needed 150 minutes to accomplish his objectives.  (Grade: B)

Neighbors.  Kudos to the most engaging actors in the whole film – Zoey and Elise Vargas – who together played an infant child of two people who you could never believe would actually copulate.  Seriously, they’re really great.  (Grade: C-)

Nightcrawler.  Writer/director Dan Gilroy is clearly preaching, but with tense car chases and a distinctly ironic score, he also wants us to have fun at the sermon. … Lesson 1: There’s a fine line between a driven, business-savvy young man and a soulless sociopath. Unfortunately, Jake Gyllenhaal’s decidedly enigmatic take as an opportunistic, ambulance-chasing camera-for-hire doesn’t really bridge that gap to close the deal. … Lesson 2: Local TV news coverage is all about fear-mongering to the white middle/upper-class. Notwithstanding Rene Russo’s thankless performance as a desperate late shift producer, the on-the-nose stinkers she has to deliver oversells the stale product.  (Grade: C+)

Night Moves.  I always thought “ephemeral” was such a strange word – such a glorious sounding term to describe something that is transitory, fleeting, and well, meh. You can probably guess where I am going here … Night Moves director Kelly Reichhardt has such a wonderful command of atmosphere – both visual and aural – and is so fiercely loyal to point of view.  (If a character is looking up at a distant shore or across the street through a window, we never get a cheat-y zoom.)  But here, the point of view is that of a relatively emotionless, quiet young environmentalist (Jesse Eisenberg) who conspires with an even younger spa attendant (Dakota Fanning) and a hardened groundskeeper (Peter Sarsgaard) to destroy a dam near Bend, Oregon.  As others have aptly described the film, the first half flows along the lines of The East (2013), and the second, Crime and Punishment.  (What’s with Eisenberg and all the Dostoyevsky stuff lately?)  At what should be one of the most dramatic moments (relatively speaking), Eisenberg’s Josh overhears an intimate interaction between the other two members of the trio; but not only are we unsure of whether his reaction is that of jealousy, but we are also unsure of just who the object of his jealousy might be.  By following an almost-blank-slate of a character almost exclusively for the duration, we may be left without much of an emotional connection to what’s on screen.  And combined with the fact that not much really happens in terms of plot, the net effect of this semi-thriller/semi-mood piece is rather … (Grade: B-)

Noah.   I used to include Darren Aronofsky among the very few directors working today who has not made a bad film.  That will no longer be the case.  Aronofsky takes quite a lot of liberties with – but adds no illumination to – this Judeo-Christian version of the cleansing flood myth.  In this interpretation, Noah is spun into a vegan tree-hugger who’s not afraid to get his hands bloody to protect creation.  But so what.  It’s not just the much-criticized CGI used to render the “Watchers” that brings down this epic into eye-rolling territory; it’s the limitations of the narrative itself.  When the “Creator” is established as the ultimate decider of fates (and is, well, kind of a dick), it’s hard to take Aronofsky’s stabs at humanizing this tale to heart.  Whereas Aronofsky’s last attempt at a grand statement (The Fountain (2006)) was a mixed blessing, at least it left the viewer with something to grapple with.  There’s little to chew on with Noah, notwithstanding the 137 minutes it takes to tell it.  (Now, if Aronofsky had taken on the Book of Job and really dug into the the god/devil thing, that might have been something interesting to watch.)  All that said, I can recommend one segment of this film (1:24:25 to 1:27:40) and would personally put it ahead of the opening sequence to Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life (2011).  (Grade: C-)

Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1 and Vol. 2.  (Theatrical Version: Grade: B+; Director’s Cut: A-)

Obvious Child.  Newcomer Jenny Slate has received quite a lot of pre-release buzz for this comedy centered around the events leading up to a struggling stand-up comedienne’s abortion.  Kudos should go to co-writer/director Gillian Robespierre for dealing with the “issue” in this unlikely context – like any other real-life plot point rather than some sort of sacred cow (from the perspective of either the Right or the Left).  There’s also a refreshing imperfection to the dialogue, which Slate and company convey with just the right degree of awkwardness, that contributes to the feeling of hanging out with a group of funny friends (rather than professional actors).  That said, for a film that often tries so hard (even meta-textually) to be an anti-romcom, it is a bit disappointing to see genre cliches being used in a non-ironic way (e.g., drunken voice mail message to ex sequence) and an ending that peters out the narrative in such a remarkably unremarkable fashion.  (Grade: B-)

The One I Love.   If I told you anything about the plot of The One I Love before you had a chance to see it, either you or I (or both) would probably disappear under mysterious circumstances.  Let’s just say it’s a love story as told by Rod Serling – um, I mean, writer Justin Lader and director Charlie McDowell (in their feature debut).  Beyond the genre mixing, it’s not surprising that this post-Mumblecore film will most likely have to be viewed on demand, as Lader and McDowell eschew the Romantic Genre 101 need for symmetrical storytelling when the couple (Mark Duplass and Elizabeth Moss) finds itself in the proverbial fine mess.  Instead, Duplass and Moss are given the opportunity to play individuals who are not on the same page, and the audience is forced to keep on guessing to the very end.  (Grade: B+)

Only Lovers Left Alive.  No doubt about it.  Director Jim Jarmusch knows how to create wonderful moments, and there are quite a few bits that appealed to me on a subjective level in this uncharacteristic foray into the vampire set (e.g., the opening scene for guitar fetishists).  But when all is said and done, Only Lovers Left Alive is a rather bloodless affair – a kind of half-assed contemplation of how we daft “zombies” (humans) are ruining the world.  The possibilities of exploring this genre in interesting and subversive ways (as one might expect from a filmmaker like Jarmusch) is largely squandered by a meandering script, as are the performances of a rather impressive cast.  Like Woody Allen used time travel in Midnight in Paris (2012), Jarmusch uses immortality primarily to mine for cheap laughs based on shallow readings of historical characters (e.g., John Hurt’s Christopher Marlowe as a sick and dying (?) vampire).  (Grade: C+)

The Overnighters.  Talk about Gone Girl all you want, but the first rule of The Overnighters should be “don’t talk about The Overnighters.” A pastor attempts to help the influx of workers who show up in a small North Dakota fracking town – that’s all I knew, and that’s all you should know going into this documentary.  About two thirds of the way through, I had a review written in my head about the economical and impactful editing and about how well director Jesse Moss juggles all that lies both above and just below the surface.  And then came the punch in the gut.  (Grade: A)

Palo Alto.  Existential malaise may very well be the impetus to the unfathomable behavior of those imprisoned in the purgatory of adolescence, but it can also make for some really boring cinema. As an episodic chronicle of the lives of four suburban 16 year-olds, the SAT word that best describes Palo Alto is “ephemeral.”  The primary problem is the source material adapted from the eponymous collection of short stories penned by the film’s adult star, James Franco.  (One literary critic from Publisher’s Weekly characterized the collection as “amazingly underwhelming,” which is equally apt for this adaptation.) And while first time director Gia Coppola certainly has an eye worthy of her name, her choices here don’t always help the film’s listless air (e.g., the abrupt invocation of Ingmar Bergman 101 in lieu of what should be a [insert any adjective describing an emotion here] sex scene).  At one point, two characters are watching an infamous clip from Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) (conspicuously reshot with a stand-in for Phoebe Cates), which only serves as a reminder of the broad range of movies in this genre – of varying tones and textures – that are more insightful.  And for such a decidedly humorless entry, there seems to be a curious lack of urgency. Indeed, to those who have seen Kids (1995), Bully (2001), or Thirteen (2003), the future of the American teenager portrayed by Franco/Coppola may seem positively rosy.  (Grade: C+)

The Rover.  (Grade: A)

St. Vincent.  Given the promo poster and trailer, I was pleasantly surprised.  Sure, we’ve seen this sort of bitter-old-man-redeemed-by-child story before, and several of the hokier moments are unearned.  But inconsistent Boston accent and all, this might be one of Bill Murray’s essential performances, and it’s pretty refreshing to see Melissa McCarthy tuned down a few notches.  (Grade: B-)

The Selfish Giant.  Rather than attempting to articulate some sort of objective argument about what is probably a subjective reaction, I will just say that while I am very much a fan of The 400 Blows (1959) and Ratcatcher (1999), I am clearly not on the bandwagon with The Kid with a Bike (2011) or The Selfish Giant (2014).  To me, in all honesty, the former feel honest and transcendent, and the latter, manipulative and contrived.  (Grade: C)

Selma.  All of the talk about this film being more about the people of Selma than a single leader proved to be one of the biggest overstatements of this Oscar season.  Selma the film is a one chapter MLK biopic; but the fact that it’s just one chapter doesn’t mean that it feels any less like an exercise in box-ticking than any other seven biopics vying for coveted trophies.  And with dialogue that rarely deviates from preachy mode, a moment of doubt here or a reference to extramarital affairs there doesn’t change the fact that the filmmakers are far more interested in repackaging the Big Important Things About Big Important People than exploring the lives of human beings, or humanity itself, with any sort of depth or nuance.  (Grade: C+)

Serena.  Good or bad, this Depression-era MacBethian melodrama is perhaps the most inexplicably ignored film released in the last year.  To make my case, let’s start with the award-winning novel by Ron Rash, which generated a script by Christopher Kyle (K-19: The Widowmaker (2002), Alexander (2005)) that made the lauded “Black List” and initially caught the interest of director Darren Aronofsky.  Eventually, Susanne Bier (Oscar-winning A Better World (2011), Oscar-nominated After the Wedding (2007)) was tapped to direct, and Jennifer Lawrence signed on for the lead role.  At the time shooting began, Lawrence had just wrapped up another little movie called Silver Linings Playbook and asked Bradley Cooper to co-star.  Round out the cast with Rhys Ifans and Toby Jones and what could possibly go wrong?  Well, as Lawrence and Cooper’s collective stock suddenly rose, the legion of producers and executive producers (the most notable of whom include Mark Cuban) reportedly took a more creative interest in the low-budget Serena.  Bier spent 18 months in the editing room, which included dealing with sound issues caused by background noise during shooting in the Czech Republic (note the ever present, anesthetizing score). … At the end of the day, the resulting film is remarkably unremarkable.  Setting aside Bier’s penchant for subtext (for better or worse), as a threshold matter, the abbreviated beats of the story just don’t work and flow, which is really the death knell for the kind of narrative that would normally be the stuff of a Jack White song.  I cannot speak to the source novel or Bier’s original intentions; but from a single viewing, it seems like the the primary culprit here is Kyle’s script (which had, perhaps, remained unproduced for a good reason).  Specifically, I just cannot imagine some of this dialogue sounding right in any context. … All that said, Lawrence is a consummate professional who certainly commits herself to the role.  And especially later in the film, Bier captures Lawrence’s dark energy quite well.  It’s a real shame they didn’t have better material for a collaboration.  (Grade: C-)

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For.  With nine years passing since the R-rated cartoon-noir Sin City (2005) tore through the metroplexes and a nine month delay in its release date, I suppose it would hardly be fair to call the Sin City: A Dame to Kill For a disappointment.  That said, this passionless sequel doesn’t even rise to the level of “more of the same.”  Watching the high-stakes gamble that was Sin City unfold was distinctly dirty fun, even if all the chips on the table were clichés and stereotypes.  But the dark energy of that original is all but sapped from this sequel – the unique style now mere affectation for uninspired storytelling.  At its best, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For feels like an exercise in going through the motions, and at its worst, self-parody.  Of the new actors, Eva Green is the only one who seems to have brought the right stuff to her role, and one has to wonder who thought Josh Brolin could replace Clive Owen in any film (except, perhaps, Owen himself).  Of the returning actors, no additional mounds of makeup could bring back the missing menace of Mickey Rourke’s Marv, and even Jessica Alba comes across like a shadow of her former self.  To this fan of the original, the whole proceeding felt kind of flaccid.  (Grade: D+)

The Skeleton Twins.  Sometimes the mess we make for ourselves is so grim that the best we can do is reach out for that now estranged person with whom you happened to grow up in the same house. Well, that’s the setup of this finely acted film, which is neither as upbeat or comedic as the trailer or the casting might suggest, nor as deserving of the sniffy reviews it’s received thus far (heavy-handed motif and all).  (Grade: B-)

Snowpiercer.  I suppose it would be somewhat reductive to observe that Chris Evans seems to think he’s in The Road Warrior (1981), Tilda Swinton in Brazil (1985), Vlad Ivanov in The Terminator (1984), and Ed Harris in Matrix Reloaded (2003).  Somewhat.  Suffice to say, Snowpiercer starts out as a deceptively predictable allegory, but then takes an abrupt left turn into the realm of fantastical yarn en route to its ultimate destination – cult film status.  Did you really think director Bong Joon-ho’s English language debut would be some straight-up comic book flick?  Sorry, Harvey.  (Grade: B)

Starred Up.  I’m not sure that I bought the ending of this prison drama, and the last shot in particular is a bit too on the nose, but the performances are pretty stellar all the way around. (Tip: If you can, set the close captioning on.)  (Grade: B)

Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon.  Supermesnch is a respectable first documentary – actually, more of a personal love letter – from Mike Myers to super-manager, Shep Gordon.  Although sycophantic might be too strong a word, suffice to say, one is left with a distinct feeling that there is another side to this particular biography.  (Grade: C+)

Teenage.  Starting in 1904, director Matt Wolf traces the evolution of the teenage demographic with great breadth and little depth. As it turns out, the exercise proves to be unremarkable. Unless one is simply not aware of the major events and trends of the 20th Century, there’s not much here that the grown-up viewer hasn’t already seen and heard in a context that has little to nothing do with teens specifically (e.g., flappers, jitterbug, war, segregation, etc.), and the teenager’s point of view on these events and trends (such as it is) adds little to nothing to enlighten. Moreover, the seamlessly inserted fake archival footage (like grainy B&W and color home movies) doesn’t help matters, as one starts to wonder if the numerous diary entries read by numerous actors (often with overdone affectation) – the film’s only narration – may also be partially fabricated. (By the time the credits started rolling, I just didn’t care.)  (Grade: C)

The Theory of Everything.  Full disclosure: While this film had not yet made it to the marketing stage, I was aware that is was not based on the 1999 autobiography by Stephen Hawking’s first wife, Jane Wilde Hawking, but the less scathing 2007 rewrite.  I was also aware of the circumstances surrounding Jane’s conspicuous absence from the 1991 documentary, A Brief History of Time (which I would much more highly recommend).  So when I saw the love-is-fireworks trailer, I had a difficult time not rolling my eyes. As it turns out, neither for better nor for worse, The Theory of Everything is far more dramatically inert than I expected, and typical of this genre that has come to dominate awards season, chock full of box-ticking.  And frankly, I was a bit underwhelmed by the performances of Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones.  (Grade: C)

They Came Together.  This spoof on rom-coms did in fact pass the Six Laugh Test, but I don’t feel good about myself. The more subtle elements (e.g., casting of Cobie Smoulders) are few and far between. As for the rest, David Wain’s meta movie looks like it was a lot more fun to perform in than it is to actually watch.  (Grade: C+)

This Is Where I Leave You.  Like most mainstream comedy/dramas, this one doesn’t really earn most of its emotional beats; but in terms of laughs, I would much rather watch this particular cast (Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Adam Driver, Kathryn Hahn, etc.) “do what they do” in a movie like this than the latest atrocities by Seth Rogan, Adam Sandler, etc.  (Grade: C)

Tim’s Vermeer.  (Grade: B+)

A Touch of Sin.  Writer/director Jia Zhangke hates capitalism – well, at least the semi-feudalistic form currently feeding China’s oligarchs. In the midst of all of the rising-boat spin we tend to get from the mainstream media when it comes to this part of the world, the message of A Touch of Sin may be an admirable one; but the problem is the delivery.  As well shot and well acted as the film is, by splitting the dour narrative into four episodes, each representing manifestations of the Common Laborer, Zhangke’s script overplays the sociopolitical critique and underplays the humanity of the characters.  And then there are the metaphorical visuals (e.g., a horse with a cart being beaten for no apparent reason).  By the time the third episode begins, we know how it’s going to end (violently), and frankly, we have already received said message loud and clear because it’s all so … well, seeing as how I last used it only a week ago re Nightcrawler, I realize that I really need to find a new expression for “on the nose.”  Any ideas? (Grade: B-)

Transcendence.  Wally Pfister’s directorial debut starts out so well as a taut, contemporary, sci-fi fable, although it’s difficult not to write oneself into a corner with an antagonist that is more intelligent than all humans who have ever existed.  How does one conclude that sort of narrative?  Not very well, I’m afraid.  (Grade: C+)

Under the Skin.  As resolutely indefinite as it is elegantly crafted, Under the Skin feels like a philosophical tease – a kind of blank slate for a vision of humanity that can only be presented through the eyes of an alien.  And more so than any film I’ve seen in recent memory, it seems designed for each viewer to bring his or her own filters to that vision.  Is it a meditation on the distinctions between male and female sexuality?  Maybe.  A contemporary social satire?  Perhaps.  An exploration into the nature of identity?  If you’re so inclined.  But you’ll have to work hard with the intellectual cherry-picking to derive any solid conclusions from what’s up there on the screen.  (Grade: B+)

Visitors.  (Grade: B)

Whiplash.  (Grade: A+)

White Bird in a Blizzard.  Lingering questions … 1. How is it that I’ve seen every Gregg Araki film except the one that is actually supposed to be great (Mysterious Skin (2004))?  2. Will Shailene Woodley’s career now take the same trajectory as Rose McGowan’s did after The Doom Generation (1995)?   3. Why is this film, written and directed by the 54 year-old Araki, set in (and almost fetishized to) 1988/1991?  4. Was Araki’s direction to Eva Green “give me more!” or “give me less!”?  5. What are Araki’s brief and inconsistent garishly fantastical (or fantastically garish) flourishes supposed to add to his films?  6. Why did I see that ending coming from a mile away? (Alternate query: At this point in his oeuvre, such that it is, does Araki bring too much baggage to a genre film like this?)  7. Repeat #1.  (Grade: C+)

Wild.   Although the beats are certainly familiar, this cinematic adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s 40-days-in-the-dessert memoir is not quite as Oscar-baity as its trailer suggests.  Indeed, Laura Dern turns in one of the finer supporting performances of the year.  Unfortunately, Wild‘s road movie rhythm is marred by a curiously abrupt and perfunctory ending, which feels as if screenwriter Nick Hornby suddenly ran out of paper and decided to call it a day.  (Grade: C+)

The X-Men: Days of Future Past.  Upon first viewing of the trailer, it seemed like I had been transported back 20 years when William Shatner turned over the keys to the one of the most successful sci-fi properties in popular culture to Patrick Stewart and a new generation of Star Trek.  In Days of Future Past, Stewart stars once again as the leader of an elder generation of X-Men facing an apocalyptic doom in a not so distant future.  (Is there really any other kind of doom in cinema these days?)  But fortunately, the time travel bridge between the new and old franchises of the X-Men proves to be more than a gimmick.  Drawing from among the darkest of the comic book’s storylines, as well as The Terminator (1984), director Bryan Singer and company use the device to shake things up and add a familiar thematic question: Even if we could go back in time, can we really change?  Some of the main players in the mutant universe take a different arc, while others do not.  Along the way, a few new mutants get introduced.  (For my money, the sequence with Quicksilver is the best of any in the Marvel franchise, and I wonder how Joss Whedon will outdo it with the introduction of the character in the next Avengers entry.)  But as always, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) remains the center of gravity for the plot, even if Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) is the trigger (literally).  Curiously enough, neither Jackman nor Lawrence have much to do onscreen in the midst of such an omnibus cast, which tends to diffuse the drama of a 2.5 hour film even if the stakes could not be higher.  That said, this franchise, by its nature, has never been much about exploring individual characters, and X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) and The Wolverine (2013) didn’t give us much in the way of depth.  All in all, in his third time at the helm, Singer seems to have found just the right formula for the fans who know the X-Men well, cleaning the slate and building anticipation for where everything will go next.  (Grade: B-)

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