Big Eyes (***) – It’s just a bunch of one big lie

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Big Eyes – 2014

Director Tim Burton
Starring Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Danny Huston, Jon Polito, Krysten Ritter, Jason Schwartzman, Terence Stamp, Delaney Raye, Madeleine Arthur
Screenplay Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski

 The more you lie, the smaller you seem.

Slogging through Tim Burton films has felt like work ever since the first time I watched Edward Scissorhands. Riding the wave of the success of Batman without succumbing to the criticism of the movie’s weaknesses (which have only become more prevalent with time), Burton was given the gift of Johnny Depp’s overly expressive eyes near the beginning of his meteoric rise in fame. He didn’t waste it. The key for him then, as it had been for most of his career since has always been in casting the quirky, not quite accepted teen girl with whom every girl in the audience could identify. The swooning for the damaged heroes seemed much more natural in that time. The chore came in viewing the story as a quirky, not quite accepted young man. It all felt like so much manipulation of a slight talent into big sales.

This time around, the not quite accepted girl is a divorced woman, Margaret (Adams), who tries to get some recognition for her adorable talents as a painter of young children with big eyes. The journey to her self-discovery is delayed by her marriage to Walter Keane (Waltz). His success in selling her artwork as his own for increasingly larger amounts of money puts her in the position of supporting his lies through the labor of her art. The reason behind this subterfuge is her lack of belief in her ability to support herself and her daughter and his unwillingness to tell the truth. And lets not forget the large amounts of money that the cycle created for everyone in the process.

Adams plays her character straight enough. The problem is, she feels less like a character and more like a caricature. The typical Burton lens brings her eyes into focus with such an intensity, we are almost forced into feeling an intense sadness for her. This process is repeated often until she moves on from her second husband and falls under the sway of Jehovah’s Witnesses and her now teenaged daughter. Then we are given little moments of victory, almost as sweetly displayed as her paintings.

Waltz is firmly entrenched in his comfortable categorization of a nearly unhinged man with little morality beyond his own desires. Its a performance we are accustomed to from him at this point, even if it is still somewhat effective.

Burton is less Burtony in this film, in that there are less things crawling to and fro and pledging their undying support for a reluctant heroine in waiting. Still, it feels like his work all the way. This is not a blessing for this reviewer, but it really isn’t a detraction. For this viewer, the cuter the story got, the more the realization dawns that it was really a lie of convenience for everyone involved, no matter how big a burden it became. Burton wants to make us feel the anchor, but he also wants us to feel like Margaret did nothing wrong. It would have been stronger if they’d had the courage to make her own her faults as well as her gifts. That this never does push her to that realization makes Big Eyes a nice film that really doesn’t go as far as the material could have allowed. We will never see that story, so we can sleep warmly as this version disappears from our mind.

(*** out of *****)

Let’s Be Cops (***) football against little kids

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Let’s Be Cops – 2014

Director Luke Greenfield
Starring Jake Johnson, Damon Wayans, Jr., Nina Dobrev, Rob Riggle, Keegan-Michael Key, Andy García
Screenplay Greenfield and Nicholas Thomas

There is the prevalent feeling when watching Let’s Be Cops that we are watching a film about people with questionable motives made by people with questionable motives. There is boundless energy in the film for things that really aren’t worthy of all the effort. Then, when it comes to doing something that would move the film beyond something that burns with the short-term boost of Mountain Dew Code Red, it’s time to go back to playing football against little kids.

There is a lot of energy in this film, and damn I love watching the effort. Johnson and Wayans, Jr. have true chemistry and cover different ends of the comedy spectrum. Wayans is Justin, a videogame designer who has led an unspectacular career thus far. Nonetheless, he pays the bills for he and his childlike friend / roommate Ryan (Johnson) who could have been a great football player if it wasn’t for the injury he sustained doing something recklessly stupid. Lest we think he is a complete bum, he does pay part of his own way thanks to the $13k he got for doing a v.d. commercial he did 2 years earlier.

Things are going along about the way one would expect for two guys with no prospects at the dawn of 30 when they mistake a masquerade college reunion party for a costume party. They show up wearing police uniforms from Justin’s work presentation of a Police video game. It goes poorly and they decide to make good on their promise to head back to their home in Ohio.

The long walk home becomes a night of enjoying being mistaken for cops by everyone they pass. This allows Justin an opportunity to impress Josie (Dobrev) who is a waitress at their local diner. Naturally they keep the ruse going prodded by Ryan’s intense study of police procedure and purchase of a police cruiser on eBay. Justin tries to back away, but his relationship with Josie continues to move forward and, really, it’s been pretty cool so far.

The friends meet up with Officer Segars (Riggle) who falls for their act, especially after he sees Ryan’s Sergeant stripes that he’d sewn on the night before. Josie’s diner falls into trouble with the local Albanian mafia, and with Segars help they launch an investigation that pushes the bounds of credibility way past the breaking point.

But who cares? Johnson is a comic force. His schtick is obvious but he invests himself so completely, it is hard not to be brought in by his effort. Wayans is a perfect straight man. His reluctance is easily won over by his Ryan’s completely irrational energy. It’s easy to imagine that the two have had a past off-screen.

Of the rest of the cast, Rob Riggle stands out, remarkably, doing a riff on his usual role as the seemingly clueless and enthusiastic force for good. He’s done it before, but rarely better. Andy García has aged nicely too, as he presents a heavy force whenever he is onscreen.

The real discovery for me though is the team of Wayans, Jr. and Johnson. They both play on the sitcom The New Girl, which is a show that was completely off my radar until now. I definitely plan on watching the show now.

In all honesty, Let’s Be Cops has every intention of being a horrible and unrealistic comedy. The treatment of women as objects for the most part is nicely countered by the treatment of everyone else as objects. Lest we forget the protagonists, yes, they are definitely idiots. The beauty of this film is we are seeing stuff that life would never allow us to contemplate in our real, more deliberate existence.

I may never watch this film again, but I will not soon forget the image of Ryan driving his police cruiser, lights blaring, onto a field where kids are playing ball just to prove to them that he had a day job. Nor will I forget Justin getting the worst end of a wacked out naked fat guy in a hardware store. These moments, cheap as they are, have the resonance to me of all the cowboys eating beans around the fire in Blazing Saddles.

You likely will know by watching the trailer whether you’d like the film or not.With that in mind, let me get you started:

If you get past that, then give this movie a try.

Hot Tub Time Machine 2 (***): Al Michaels’ Revenge

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Hot Tub Time Machine 2 – 2015

Director Steve Pink
Starring Rob Corddry, Craig Robinson, Clark Duke, Adam Scott, Chevy Chase
Writer Nick Heald

There is a feeling as one watches the three undercard guys from the original Hot Tub Time Machine that perhaps these guys got away with something. The site of Robinson wandering through a perpetual dance club asking if anyone around there has seen “…a grown up garbage pail kid…” works for me as a description of Duke. Corddry, Robinson and Duke struck gold in Cusack’s fading wake with the 2010 release of the original …Time Machine. They have everyone back (except for Cusack, mostly) and they created a film that is just as good or bad as the first one.

The crudity and degredation is remarkable. There is another suicide attempt played for yuks. The language of friendship is of a range of insults in the “You know how I know you’re gay” mode from The 40 Year Old Virgin. There is no real attempt at a coherent story, so I will do my best to get you up to speed.

Someone shot Lou (Corddry) in the nether regions, causing his existence to be called into question. Naturally the guys go into the Hot Tub to go back a day and prevent it. Instead they end up in an alternate timeline’s future. This frees up Clark Duke to make the requisite Fringe jokes, so he can be called a nerd by the other guys.

Whether you like this film depends on two things:

1) Do you miss John Cusack?
2) Do you like the other guys enough to forgive his absence?

To be sure, the film would have been a little more accessible with Cusack’s normalcy applied to the other characters. Scott, playing his son, is supposed to provide some of that ballast, but he’s just doesn’t have the charisma that Cusack provides (unless you are my 12 year old daughter, who will not see this film for at least 5 more years). There is no discernable reason that he would not have decided to be more of a presence in the sequel with long time collaborator Steve Pink. He intimated on Twitter that he wasn’t asked. Corddry pretty much said he was too good of an actor to be in the film. I have to contend that most of the films he’s made since High Fidelity would say otherwise. Regardless, his presence at the end of the film indicate that neither supposition was the truth. He does a lot of movies, yes. It’s pretty clear making money is not his main motive. My guess is he gave the project what he had, and they bravely moved on, with the eye of the camera squarely on them. Maybe they thought we’d appreciate the rest of the cast more without him.

This was pretty much the case for this reviewer. The chemistry between with the remaining 3 is off kilter, sure, but these guys are funny. The back and forth, as repetitive and crude as it is, works for the most part. Jason Jones is expertly cast as Gary Winkle, an old loser friend of Lou’s. Adam Scott isn’t as much of the wet blanket that he usually plays. Duke, Robinson and Corddry spend much of the time riffing off of each other and beating up each other as the mind’s eye tells each of the male viewers of this film would do with their own friends. This is how the Hot Tub movies work. They trade on the nostalgia of guys who picture themselves as time wasters of epic proportions.

The women that Cusack brought to the first film had no business coming back to this, especially without him there to pine over. What’s left is every guy who spent most of their time since their late teens playing video games, eating foods high in carbs and spending too many weekend nights with their male friends. Not exactly the recipe for box office success, but I am pretty sure it will play decently on home video.

This film is a decent way to waste an hour and a half of their epic life of delusion.

(*** out of *****)

Furious 7 (***1/2): Meatball Hallmark Card

Furious 7 – 2015

Director James Wan
Starring Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Dwayne Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster, Tyrese Gibson, Chris Bridges, Kurt Russell, Jason Statham
Screenplay Chris Morgan

If one could sum up the entire Furious franchise in 3 phrases, it would be:

I don’t have friends. I got family.

I live life a quarter-mile at a time.

One last ride.

At this point, the gang is on their 3rd consecutive last ride. This time it was made especially poignant in the untimely death of co-lead Paul Walker. The filmmakers made the wise choice to re-shoot parts of the film as an impromptu tribute to a person who had become a key figure in the lives of the cast and crew of this most uniquely enduring franchise. To think it all started as Point Break in fast cars…

In a strange twist often mentioned in the past, the movies went to the edge of American Pie Presents Band Camp status, backed up and headed right into Italian Job and then James Bond. To say this was planned would be disingenuous. Most of the actors, including Diesel, have tried and failed to come up with outside franchises. Fast and Furious, though, is like the really big fuel injected engine that could. The success of the franchise has made many fans that were casual into looky loos. And even if each film produces as many cringe-inducing moments as awe-inspiring ones, it is a tribute to the people involved that they have made it into the Juggernaut we see today.

This time around finds the group looking down the barrel of Deckard Shaw. Deckard is the brother of Owen, the antagonist from the last film who now is resting comfortably under maximum guard at the hospital. That is until Deckard obliterates the guard and most of the hospital just to tell the staff to take good care of Owen. This is ridiculous of course, because by destroying the facility, he has negatively affected the chance of his brother getting said good care. As if that is not enough of a reminder, we then see more of what we ended the last film with; the death of Han (featured in 3 films now), the explosion of a package that has arrived from Deckard (seen in two) and the maiming of Hobbs (Johnson). Apparently, the creative staff think the viewers have short memories.

Dom goes to visit Hobbs in the hospital, then goes to pick up Han and gathers the team together for Han’s funeral. If you can’t guess what will happen at the funeral, you get no Parmesan for your meatball. Dom gets acquainted with the new antagonist, and then gets to meet the new covert ops guy, Petty (Russell). That this meeting prevented the conclusion of the movie from happening 30 minutes in is not lost on either Dom or Petty, but that’s okay, we have another 1.5 hours to fill. Petty tells Dom he and his team need to get a MacGuffin called God’s Eye from some bad guys, capture the person of interest that has something MacGuffinish to do with God’s Eye and get them both back to Petty. Then, Petty says, Dom can use the God’s Eye to track down Deckard, who was just in front of him minutes ago, until Petty interfered. That’s okay, though, because Petty is a professional who was smart enough to hire an amateur for…one last ride.

Or three last rides.

Now the real jet setting begins. Dom and company go from the Los Angeles Caucasus Mountains to Abu Dhabi and then back to Los Angeles. They drop in cars from a military cargo plane, crash down a mountainside multiple times, dress up and sneak into a party, crash, jump, crash, jump and crash again through the Etihad Towers, fight it out in an old abandoned warehouse, and then tear the hell out of downtown L.A. before they approach a conclusion. There is literally more damage in this film than the last Godzilla movie. If you think I have ruined any part of this for you, you have not seen the rest of these movies. Literally the only surprise they’ve ever had was dragging the safes through town in Fast Five.

It’s completely taken for granted that whenever they arrive in a new country, they will immediately arrive in a row of expensive cars. What is also a given is no matter how much damage they cause, no one will ever question them and they will never have a problem walking out of that scene and driving into the next in another bunch of expensive cars.

All of this ridiculous action is augmented by the fact that they have collected a group of characters that we have learned to care about through sheer force of the will of all involved in making the film. They each have a few moments to shine in each episode, along with many requisite scenes that hammer the limitations of their characters into the story. This would normally be for the uninitiated. Until I brought my friend Binage, I had not met someone who hadn’t seen at least one of the films who started with in the middle somewhere. He enjoyed it though.

I enjoyed it too, despite all the belly laughs of incredulity. Through all the explosions, all the crashes, the litany of bullets, and the absolute defiance of the concept of gravity, this film really works. Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of the film is how all of the characters (and the people who play them outside of Bridges, Russell and Johnson) completely lack any sort of self-awareness. It’s almost like a joyful, loving Bronson film. Were it not for Walker’s tragedy, perhaps the defining point of the series would have been when Diesel stomps on a parking garage roof as it is cracking…and a large part (perhaps a quarter-mile) of the concrete  actually breaks away! We should never think of Vin as a short guy again.

The glory in lacking an understanding of who you are results in other great moments, like when, in a flash back scene, we see two characters get married. My friend Binage, until now caught up in the action, leans over and says:

“What kind of guy wears a wife-beater to his own wedding?”

Through it all, the acting is consistent, if not Shakespearean. Walker gets a fitting tribute for the simple fact that they did not take the easy way out. It’s a beautiful statement that choose to alter the formula of the surprise mid-credits scene to set up the next film to give the character the kind of closure he did not get in life.

Throughout the story, however, one gets the sense of déjà vu. Brian is in the midst of fatherhood, now driving a mini-van. He’s frustrated, saying he misses the bullets more than he misses the cars. His woman, Mia (Brewster), hems and haws much like she did last time and tells him over the phone that they are expecting another kid, this time a girl. So if one kid didn’t make him want to retire, the second should do the trick. What would they have done if he’d been around for the next few films? I get the feeling that 5 kids would not be enough to prevent him from taking yet another last ride.

Despite it’s flaws, or maybe because of them, Vin Diesel and company have created a memorable franchise out of ashes. And I am sure this “family” will be around for a while more. In the haze of bad dialogue and forced dramatic tension, there is a brilliant line delivered by Dom that steals the show and demonstrates the draw that the little lug has on the heartstrings of ‘Murica. In a tender moment shared with Letty, she asks him why he had not revealed more of their past together before she recovered from her 3 movie amnesia spell. With complete sincerity, he looks at her an says:

You can’t tell someone that they love you.

Right about now, I think everyone involved with this unlikely saga knows that they are loved.

(***1/2 out of *****)

Fifty Shades of Grey (***) attempts to level the playing field

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Fifty Shades of Grey – 2015

Director Sam Taylor-Johnson
Starring Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Jennifer Ehle, Eloise Mumford, Victor Rasuk, Luke Grimes, Rita Ora, Max Martini, Callum Keith Rennie, Andrew Airlie, Dylan Neal, Marcia Gay Harden
Screenplay Kelly Marcel based on the book by E.L. James

After so many words stated both pro and con about the worthiness and value of this romance story disguised as a sex movie, the first thing that occurs to me when going over the credits is how many people were in this movie? Did they give casting credit to everyone who walked by as an extra in the streets of Vancouver / Seattle? To my recollection, there are about 16 people who have lines in the film. This could be underselling a bit, due to certain distractions.

These distractions are pleasant, soft and cushioned with the comfort of knowing there are safe words: red, yellow and, I think…Popsicle. Can’t be too sure about that last one. It could have been ice, for all I know. The important thing to know is writers James, Marcel and director Johnson have approximated, apparently correctly, that most women want someone who is on the ledge of dangerous, but not tipping too far over that edge.

Dakota Johnson, as Ana, steps in for her friend, Kate to interview Christian Grey (Dornan) for the college newspaper. This is, at best, a clumsy meet cute, but it ends on a good note at the elevator. From there, Grey goes to Ana’s job at the local hardware store and agrees to a photo shoot for the article. Although she turns down Grey’s offer for work at his prestigious company, that’s pretty much the last we hear about her working at the hardware store. He asks her what her favorite author is and she says Thomas Hardy. She wins points from this author for that answer. She asks him what he’s after. He says he wants to bite her bottom lip. She says she’d like that too.

The talk goes back and forth, and she thinks she might have a boyfriend. He tells her he never sleeps with anyone. He does do other things, he says, as he opens the door to the den of his pleasure.

At this point, it looks like Grey is a pretty straightforward dominant male. Is she going top succumb to his will? Is he going to violate her and make her his plaything? Was this fantasy created by a man?

The ensuing hour or so answers this question with a pretty solid “no.”

It begins with a call from a bar in which a drunk Ana teases Grey about her intentions. He rushes to be by her side and even gets rough with one of her other male friends. The process resumes with the “not” couple going through the rules for their pending engagement with S&M. As she knocks item after item from the list and he agrees, it becomes abundantly clear whose fantasy this is. He even volunteers to take her on a date one night a week. Here’s where Christian outstretches every straight man in America. Anyone thinking he is in control after this is just wishful thinking.

Ana: Why are you trying to change me?

Christian: I’m not. It’s you that’s changing me.

Change indeed. Before long, Ana can’t take a little trip to visit Mom (Ehle) without him flying across country to be by her side. Once there, they take a dreamy airplane ride before he is taken away by some crisis at work. This is not really an issue for them. Instead we come across a more intense session. Afterword, she is puzzled by his enduring unwillingness to break the bed sharing rule. This leads to a faux crisis that concludes the story.

Most people (read: wives – including mine) who have read the book say that the film does not live up to expectations. Since I am unburdened by that, I can say it was a good movie, but not nearly a great one. There is a nice bookend of scenes that take place with closing elevator doors. What they do in the dungeon (and a few other places) is done as tastefully as one could expect outside of the Calvinist world. If sex on-screen ain’t your thing, don’t watch. If you linger on the cover of a Harlequin romance novel, I am sure this will not injure your sensibilities.

Taylor-Johnson is a competent director who landed on a goldmine which she managed to keep from exploding like a land mine. Johnson’s depiction is a minx worthy of Austin Powers, but presented like Adrian from the Rocky movies at first. The transition is not all that believable, but she looks great biting her bottom lip. Dornan seems a little too milquetoast, but the script doesn’t do him any favors there. Still, over all, the chemistry works at its own level.

This is not the end, nor is it all that bad. It’s a fantasy, to be sure, somewhere north of a Lifetime mini-series but well below, say…Citizen Kane. People who presented this as some sort of nadir of society will have to wait for parts 2 and 3. Better yet, go back to The Wolf of Wall Street, like my friend, Sarah, said. Nothing says “This is the End” like Scorsese getting tired of his crook biopic formula. I won’t watch it again. I will watch parts 2 and 3.

(*** out of *****)

Oujia (**1/2): You made her play the game and now she’s dead

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Ouija – 2014

Director Stiles White
Starring Olivia Cooke, Ana Coto, Daren Kagasoff, Douglas Smith, Bianca A. Santos, Lin Shaye, Shelley Hennig
Screenplay Juliet Snowden and White

For an actress that has been in so many Farrelly Brothers films, Lin Shaye is something of a staple in horror. In fact, she is to horror what Leslie Nielsen was to comedy. In this film, she plays the old sister in the nuthouse. She’s okay, but really, her role could have been played by just about any woman in her 60’s. She must work for cheap. Lord knows the filmmakers did not waste a dime on the rest of the cast.

Ouija is the kind of film one gets these days for the rating of PG-13. There are a few tense moments, almost no gore, and plenty of teenagers to sacrifice. Based on a board game. That’s right. Hasbro profits from this film. It has the amount of thrills and chills that are safely allowed in a boardroom screening. This is not to say it is a bad film. For the moments one is engaged in the film, there is a sense of anticipation. When will the scary old woman show herself? When will her “victims” speak out against her? When will these friends see their dead friend again?

Lest I get ahead of myself, the plot in a thumbnail sketch: Laine Morris (Cooke) has recently lost her friend Debbie (Hennig) to an apparent suicide. Any film that starts off with a suicide at the beginning is almost never a suicide – except for maybe Stephen King’s It – so for now, lets just say the skepticism is limited to Laine and the audience. The ensuing funeral finds Debbie’s parents saying they can’t stay in the house and, strangely, asking Laine if she would mind. Of course not. Her best friend only just died beneath the chandelier center piece. Laine should have no problem getting the mail and spend some quality time hanging out with her…what is this? A Ouija board? It’s not the exact one that they used to play with Debbie as a child with no parents around. This one is creepier and looks like it’s been well used. And burned maybe. And then recreated. But I digress.

She gets the idea to have her friends over to Debbie’s conveniently empty house for a session with said board. Of course they all agree to this, just this once. Then once again. And on and on until they start getting knocked off one by one. Is any of this more scary than it is predictable? There are some nice moments, but as many bland ones to balance it out. This is not as much a story as it is a formula, right down to the religious Hispanic Grandma who gives her granddaughters’ advice on how to end this thing.

As many times as we have seen this story, it is nice to see Olivia Cooke in something outside of the excellent Bates Motel. She is good in that show, and she is the right fit here. Cooke is pretty, but not so pretty that you think she would not survive. The rest of the teens look like models and pageant contestants, if you know what I mean.

Stiles White is primarily known for his work with Stan Winston studio on special effects. His work here is quick enough to be somewhat effective, but also with some moments that look like the real thing. His work is nothing if not competent. There is absolutely nothing here that screams out loud that this is a vantage point one must see again. Snowden has written one other film that could be considered good (The Possession) and a few others that are the same formula we see here.

This film made a nice profit (20x the budget). There is definitely another one on the way, even if they are not in a hurry to do so. Why should they hurry? It’s not like Hasbro is going to stop selling this board game soon.

(**1/2 out of *****)

Exodus Gods and Kings (****): Moses, Ramses II, God and his Angels

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Exodus – Gods and Kings (2014)

Directed by Ridley Scott
Starring Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, John Turturro, Aaron Paul, Ben Mendelsohn, María Valverde, Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley, Andrew Tarbet, Isaac Andrews
Screenplay Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine, Steven Zaillian

The prospect of a big budget film based on The Holy Bible is immediately deserving of skepticism these days. For some, like Aronofsky, use it to “explore the space”  adventurously within the original source. Most others, like Scott, openly admit that they shape the story and the cast to make the film as profitable as possible around the world. In this way, it’s kind of like a Transformers movie, but in the worst way possible. The formula works financially, as a little over 3/4 of the films $270 million gross has been outside of North America. We can expect certain allowances and even certain differences, which for many detract from the sincerity of the approach.

Scott is one of the most visually striking, if sometimes editorially distant, directors of our time. His desire for clarity of vision at times leaves the story in its wake. Having four writers for this tale further raises a red flag. The hopes for this experience are high, but the expectations are minimal.

The result is a remarkably deft presentation that does a good job giving a plausible reading of what everyone who has seen The Ten Commandments will recognize.  We start out seeing Moses and Ramses II as brothers in arms. If not brothers by blood, their combination spills much blood.

Moses (Bale) is a skeptic of the Gods Egypt worship. His confidence is more with himself than anything else. Ramses II (Edgerton) is to succeed his father, Seti I (Turturro) as Pharaoh of Egypt. His confidence in himself is lacking. The love between the brothers is not lacking. When Moses saves the life of Ramses II on the battlefield, the dynamic changes between the two. This unease is exacerbated through the death of Seti I, until a secret about Moses reaches Ramses II through the treacherous lips of Hegep.

Ramses confronts Moses about this, setting in motion a chain of events that leads Moses to become the leader of the Hebrews. This, of course is all the work of God. Moses is a Hebrew who by prophesy was to be the leader of the Hebrew slaves. Soon enough, Moses is banished, goes on a journey in which an attempt is made on his life thanks to Ramses II’s mother Tuya (Weaver). Escaping that, he then finds love (Valverde) and starts a family. Nine years later, he is called upon by God to fulfill his destiny and free his people.

At this point, Ridley Scott chooses to show the true meaning of the word Israel: to wrestle with God. To that end, we see Moses speaking with Malak (Andrews as an Angel of God) in barely civil terms. This is a verbal, philosophical and religious wrestling match. Scott makes a conscious choice to show Moses as believing what he’s seen, but not being able to completely accept what he’s been told. This perspective is something many people can identify with more than the Moses of tradition who was maybe more accepting. To be sure, the plagues and the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart was as much for Moses’ belief as it was for Pharaoh’s. This is made clear n this version of the story.

The acting of the leads is excellent. This is big budget Bale at his best. We can see the journey he’s made from beginning to end in crystal clear terms. His relationship with Ramses II demonstrates how love can be driven south by fear and eventually, greed. Edgerton’s performance, more subtle, is also more memorable. His Ramses II rivals Yul Brenner’s in depth and scope. The greatness in both performances is in that we can see ourselves in both of them. They are not straight up good versus evil. They can be seen as examples of God’s power.

Of the supporting performances, only Mendelsohn’s wicked and deceitful Hegep stands out. His actions are integral as those of Pontius Pilate. A career in middle management which one would defend by shining the light on others. The rest have almost no moments of actual personality as they do reciting plot points. One wishes we would have had more time showing the dichotomy with Aaron (Tarbet) and Ramses II as brothers of Moses. What we get instead is a series of blank stares from Aaron, watching Moses talk to (apparently) no one. It’s a missed opportunity.

What can be admired about Exodus… is the focus. God’s wrath shown through Malak. Moses and Ramses II’s growth into their historically significant roles against one another. We see the wrestling match between Moses and God. We get that Ramses II moves from uncertainty to maniacal in his demand for respect and love. This is feeling of inadequacy is subtly hinted at in the triangle relationship between the two brothers and their father, Seti I.

If one is looking for historical accuracy, it should be noted that the events are more interpretations than they are Biblically accurate. The plagues are expounded upon, and the Israelites suffer as much as Egyptians. It is entertaining to see the leading minds and religious experts try to explain to the Pharaoh how one plague might lead to another or be easily overturned by ritual.

It is less entertaining to see Moses lead the Hebrews to perform what are essentially acts of terrorism against the Egyptian women and children, and then rationalize it in the name of their freedom. One could conceive that this is Ridley Scott taking sides on terrorism in the modern day, which is something Israel has to battle constantly. If he is trying to make a point about Israel’s hands being dirty, then he is making too big of a stretch based on historical evidence. This is but one small segment in the story. It does detract from the character that Scott, Bale and company hope to create, as it is not the same Moses that would historically downplay his earlier heroism in saving his brother on the battlefield.

Still, the overall story is solid enough and the visuals (as usual) striking enough that it makes the film worth watching. It’s not close to his best work, but it is inspired and it certainly does not plumb the depths of Robin Hood. Just don’t expect to have your local Christian or Jewish worship center presenting this film any time soon. On the other hand, we should just feel fortunate that the ending doesn’t take place in China.

(**** out of *****)

A Most Violent Year (****1/2) is a good story excellently told

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A Most Violent Year – 2014

Written and Directed by J.C. Chandor
Starring Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Alessandro Nivola, Albert Brooks

 A Most Violent Year is a fascinatingly simple story that underlines the strength of a man and all the things that contribute and detract from it. Oscar Isaac is Abel Morales, the owner of the small but thriving home heating oil company called Standard Oil. As the story begins, we see Abel on the verge of completing a deal that will vault his company into the big leagues. Now, at the moment of his business life, he is served notice that his company will soon be under investigation by the feds. Before he can wonder why, his company is beset with a series of gas truck robberies which are an equal threat to the future of Standard Oil.

His wife, Anna (Chastain) has a straightforward approach to the situation.  Give the Feds nothing and go right after the guys stealing the trucks. Fight fire with fire, literally. She seems to know what the Feds are looking for, but will not admit anything. That her father was well acquainted with the process might have something to do with it. Abel’s Attorney (Brooks) is somewhere in the middle, of course. Abel wants to go about things the right way. When the attacks escalate, he starts talking to his competition, asking what they know. They are less informative than Anna, and not even remotely looking to his best interest.

One of his drivers who’d been attacked earlier takes things into his own hands and the results are disastrous for the company. Now his primary lender is out of the picture and he must now find other means.

As a pure character portrayal, A Most Violent Year is fascinating. Isaac’s performance it note perfect. We can see his shifting state of mind with every frame, whether by his facial or verbal expressions. He is not an unreasonable man, but he is tested on all sides beyond his sense of that reason. His relationship with Anna is a brilliant examination of dichotomy. Always on the edge of an explosion, she is constantly pushing his buttons to incur action on his part. The tension is palpable through most of the film. Still, they are clearly in love, and her support comes across as genuine interest in defending the family and her husband’s honor. That he doesn’t go to Pacino or De Niro levels of intensity in this role shows that he understands Abel’s motives, morality and his want to rise above the aspersions cast upon him. Not every actor needs to explode in every movie. Seeing Abel plug a bullet hole with his hand kerchief in an oil storage container after a tragic occurrence tells you everything you need to know about his character. It is a more powerful statement than any scream.

For Chastain, the character of Anna presents a complete switch from her stellar performance in Take Shelter. Her Samantha would do anything to make sure Curtis knew she supported him, even though her husband’s behavior is completely erratic. Abel is pensive and deliberate in his actions, and Anna pushes him forward with no regret or hint of humility. That she can reveal both characters so believably is a testament to her unparalleled skill in acting. If there is a better actress working today, I am unaware of her.

Oyelowo, as the Federal Agent hovering in the background, gives a silent menace with minimal screen time and dialogue. He has a powerful charisma that gives this small role the appropriate heft. Albert Brooks as a lawyer is not a stretch for him. He does not do much beyond just being Albert Brooks. That’s enough to get by.

Although this is primarily a drama, the few action scenes are revealed in a such a raw way, it feels like we are watching real life. Chandor’s pacing and intensity is often as awkward as it is violent, echoing John Sayles’ approach in movies like Matewan. He’s got an understanding for creating tension in a scene that is reminiscent of Martin Scorsese pre-Cape Fear. There is no question that he knows how to tell a story in an intriguing and quiet way which serve to make the occasional outburst more jarring. Kind of like Sidney Lumet. If it seems like I am mentioning a lot of directors, it is obvious that Chandor is as much a student of art as he is an artist. This desire will be crucial to his growth and our continued enjoyment of his work. If there is any sort of drawback, it’s that the story is pretty straightforward, with turns that are predictable.

A Most Violent Year has been Chandor’s least successful film so far. One could reasonably entertain the notion that this is due to being thrust into the midst of the Holiday season with a million other art house films. The effect would seem confusing to the casual movie watcher when a film is not marketed heavily or cleverly. It’s a shame, too. Films like these, performances like these, stories like this need to be seen.

(****1/2 out of *****)

Fury (***1/2) Rolls over familiar ground

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Fury – 2014

Written and Directed by David Ayer
Starring Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Peña, Jon Bernthal, Jason Isaacs, Scott Eastwood

How to get a coward to fight late in the last days before VE Day? This is the question that Fury spends its time trying to answer. Pvt. Norman “Machine” Ellison (Lerman) is a young man with a “conscience” who can’t bring himself to shoot dead men or a Kraut in the back. This position, along with a general uneasiness with his new role as gunner on the titular tank make him an easy target for the rest of his crew. Then when he shoots some men emerging in flames from a blown up tank, he’s told that he “should have let ’em burn.” His commander US Army S/Sgt. Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Pitt) us a straight forward fighter who understands the risk having someone of such a high learning curve on his 5 man crew.

“Ideals are peaceful. History is violent.”

Collier is not an unreasonable man. You can tell by the way that Pitt squints at opportune times that he has a lot on his mind. When he and Ellison come across a woman trying to hide her younger cousin, he asks them to make them a meal. While they do so, we get to see Collier take his shirts off, showing us how handsome he is, until he turns his back on them and we see what war has done. Still looks like Brad Pitt from the front, though as the older cousin gets to see and appreciate, after the two younger kids get to go in the back room and do stuff Disney-style. After all this serenity, the rest of the team (LaBeouf, Peña and especially Bernthal)  come along and ruin the next meal. Not long after, German bombs arrive to ruin the rest of the day.

Next thing we see, they are given the important mission to protect a vital “crossroads” somewhere in Germany. What they are protecting and why is not necessarily as important as seeing how the team reacts and begins to bond. Of course with every encounter with the armaments of the enemy they lose people they are travelling with until they are down to just their one tank.

Soon enough, Fury is inoperable and 200-300  SS troops are on their way. Norman has steadily developed into a vital part of the team. His enthusiasm as a response to his Staff Sgt.’s bravery helps prepare them all for the fight of their lives.

Ayer’s film looks beautiful as anything he’s done. With all the dirt rubbed on the faces of his stars, all except Bernthal look like they head right for their trailer after every shot. For his part, LaBeouf is at his best as Technician 5 Boyd “Bible” Swan. His character has a real sense of clarity for one who should be more conflicted.

Bernthal has worked himself into a typecast in this role. It’s a good performance, but he’s got more in the his repetoire than a southern piece of trash nicknamed “Coon Ass.” Peña is able to make much of his role as driver Cpl. Trini Garcia. He has more than one excellent scene and just may be one of the most versatile actors around today.

Lerman has the benefit of being able to voice everything a person battling his conscience and his cowardice would. His role is not as believable, especially when he goes through the gauntlet just to end up right where he started. His dough eyes would have been obliterated with the rest of him in the first few minutes of a real battle.

Overall, Fury doesn’t offer much more story-wise than we’ve seen in other WWII films.  It is presented with a lot of style and many moments of grace. One can tell, though, from the first frame who is going to die, in what order, and how many dramatic words they will get before it happens. Guess who will look the prettiest when the time comes. The war is a stage for spectacular moments and, ultimately just an ironic ending. It’s a good story, but it falls short of The Red Badge of Courage.

The Pyramid (*1/2) Kill the light

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The Pyramid – 2014

Director Grégory Levasseur
Starring Ashley Hinshaw, Denis O’Hare, James Buckley, Daniel Amerman, Christa Nicola
Screenplay Daniel Meersand, Nick Simon

I think it’s the part where one guy holds the head of a girl who has been impaled and asks her “Is that better?” This is the moment of truth. Another 89 minutes down the drain. The very next corner, they are back to reading hieroglyphs. Then there’s that nasty bite mark. And Dr. Miles Holden’s (O’Hare) eyes aren’t looking real good. His daughter (Hinshaw) still looks alright for now.

A rare 3 sided pyramid is discovered and just after they find the entrance, they are told to go back. Of course this means go in now in movie terms. First they send a robot that looks like a cross between No. 5 and Wall-E. He doesn’t last long. In they go and down they go. And down, down, down to where, according to the camera man, it smells like feces. Although he doesn’t use that word.

The story alternates between maiming cast members and talking about ancient history that we have not heard before this movie. Only we have. Several times. How much do you wanna bet they weren’t the first ones here. Even though things are grabbing them from the shadows, they always like to take a few moments to peruse stuff that was written down by the Egyptians or the Masons.

There are neat little creatures that look like ancient cats run through a computer simulation and this really big thing that looks like an Anubis. And yes, he likes to use a scale. We hear about Osiris and Horus too. At least these guys have taken Pyramids 101. The Anubis seems impervious to bullets, but not flares. The closer you look, the more the inconsistent shadows and glossy finish start to show. The crappy computer effects are not up to the low bar of AVP: Requiem but its leagues better than that Mummy movie that starred The Rock.

If you kill the light, every thing looks alright.

(*1/2 out of *****)