Edge of Tomorrow, 2014

You might call this a futuristic time-loop sci-fi fantasy, but what it really is, is essentially a video game. Or at least it feels like it.

The time-loop is an interesting vehicle for presenting action — did I mention, lots of it, — a hint of romance, and all the humor of repetition as a learning tool to showcase the ageless Tom Cruise.

I must admit I didn’t get into the movie as some others did, but it was quite fascinating to see all the special effects, especially since it was presented in 3D. 

Bottomline:  You wouldn’t miss a thing if you chose to wait for this one to come out on DVD, or even skip it altogether.  The one thing that somewhat appealed to me the most is the tagline of the movie:  Live. Die. Repeat. 

If only it were that simple.

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Million Dollar Arm, 2014

Baseball is big in the USA, as is cricket in India, and the crux of this movie’s storyline is that a smart sports agent goes recruiting in India for fresh talent.  Only, it so happens that he finds two young men who don’t even play cricket but know how to pitch a baseball with speed and style and technique and all that.  This is their story — of being found, and of making it big in a foreign land by playing a foreign sport.

I suppose all sports enthusiasts would appreciate the overall plot and the whole American recruitment strategy in a third-world country.  And then there are people like me who would care more about the looks of Jon Hamm and make mental comparisons to his role in Mad Men.

Disney put together a good team in Jon Hamm, Aasif Mandvi, Bill Paxton and the two Indian boys.  The bonus feature of the film is the shots and frames of various landscapes in India that range from rural settings and congested urban areas, including the grandiose Taj Mahal also, of course.

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A Million Ways to Die in the West, 2014

A one-man show is what this is, and the man is Seth McFarlane.  Writing, directing, producing, and acting in a Mel-Brooks style satire-cum-comedy, one finds oneself laughing and simultaneously feeling embarrassed for having laughed at a lot of the liberally sprinkled crude humor throughout the movie.

If you’re seeking something meaningful, sensitive and intelligent, this isn’t the movie for you.  But if you’re up for some mindless fun, then by all means, go for it!

The Grand Budapest Hotel, 2014

Offbeat, charming, zany, macabre, intriguing, clever, hilarious: these are some words that rush to mind to describe this gem of a movie. This is a story about a complicated slice of twentieth-century European history and culture set in the fictitious and fantasy realm of the Republic of Zubrowka — a geographical reflection of the various Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, and Soviet sensibilities between the two World Wars — in a hotel that has a personality all its own thanks in large part to its intriguing owner and a charismatic concierge.

The charismatic concierge, M. Gustave, portrayed by the brilliant Ralph Fiennes, is a thoroughly ridiculous man as much as he is “a glimmer of civilization in the barbaric slaughterhouse we know as humanity.” Elegant at all times in the service of his hotel guests be it in the act of arranging for their comfort in their rooms in more ways than one, or in the training of the new Lobby Boy, Fiennes is consummate in his accent and delivery.

There’s also no doubt that this is a quintessential and decidedly black comedy where fingers are severed, cats are tossed out of windows, and prison guards are dispatched with bloody abandon. That all such moments elicit more laughter than horror is a testament to the director, Wes Anderson’s unique style and direction.

“Budapest” is pretty much an old-fashioned screwball comedy dressed up in sophisticated garishness. Thanks to Fiennes, as well as a long list of other fine actors such as Jude Law, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Ed Norton, Tilda Swinton, and Fiennes’ protégé Zero (Tony Revolori), this is a goofy and eccentric joy-ride dripping with dry wit all along.

If a movie can be elegantly zany, this tale of a concierge, his protégé, and the murder of a countess, is it.

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The Amazing Spider-Man 2, 2014

“Everyone has a part of themselves they hide, even from the people they love most.  And you don’t have forever, none of us ever do.” So says Aunt May to Peter Parker, aka, Spider-Man. That, in essence, captures the crux of the story of the superhero who’s always there just in the nick of time, and when late to family events and such, it is only for good reason, and not because he loves them any less. In fact, his great sense of love and loyalty actually compels him to sacrifice his love for the good of others. Now, what’s not to love about a guy like that? But some of his best moments are what he does as Peter Parker outside the suit.

The special effects are phenomenal as usual, which are now almost not quite as awe-inspiring as when the earliest of the modern movie series debuted about a decade ago.

Andrew Garfield dons the Spider-man suit very well, and his chemistry with Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy is not lacking in the least, perhaps in no small measure due to the real-life role of boyfriend that he is to her. Stone is like a porcelain doll, big eyes and all, and despite a somewhat clichéd supporting role that she plays, she only adds to the overall pleasure of the sights and sounds. Jamie Fox’s Electro is our latest villain, and the one other villain-guy looks like the spitting image of Leonardo di Caprio twenty years ago.

Minor gripes aside, this was a thoroughly enjoyable ride. A little too long, yes, but hey, what can you do when the world needs saving?

Summer Movie Season 2014 is off to a great start!

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Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela, 2013

Are you ready for a joyride?  Well, then get on board, because this is one unabashed and artistically ambitious rendition of a spin of a timeless tale. Transposed to a bucolic setting in the colorful western state of Gujarat, this is a story that has all the melodrama, ribaldry and intensity of the classic Shakespearean tale of star-crossed lovers, in a Bollywood incarnation with more than just a hint of Baz Luhrmann.

But this is an adaptation that doesn’t hesitate to color outside the lines, and color it does — both boldly and vibrantly.  And if there was ever great onscreen chemistry, it may be found in the likes of Ranveer Singh and Deepika Padukone.  The pair have a way of lighting things up even in the darkest of moods.  Singh is an incredibly talented young man, and as of now ranks number one on my list of Bollywood men who can dance!  But beyond that, the man gets under the skin of the character he portrayed — delightfully vulgar and yet lovelorn to the point of insanity and vulnerable to the wiles of the one he loves. 

And this was matched in full by his female love interest, Padukone, who is most definitely more than just a pretty face.  Hers is a performance that is at times exuberant, always impassioned, and seals her reputation as an exceptional acting talent.  Speaking of which, there is exceptional acting talent in full display also in the likes of Supriya Pathak in her role as the matriarchal lead. 

All in all, a grand adventure for the senses, culminating in that bitter-sweet beautiful and tragic ending that confirms what you knew all along:  it was never meant to me, but it was great believing in the dream while it lasted.

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Mr. Peabody and Sherman, 2014

The recent review published in this space by guest reviewer, Eric Schwister, offered a fine synopsis of the movie, and I don’t know if I could really add much more to it, but for the sake of going through the motions, here are some of my thoughts:

This is a story that provides a a fun alternative for kids to learn about history and a little science.  And the adults can have some laughs with some funnies and innuendos that go right over the kids’ heads.  Mr. Peabody is the parent we all aspire to be — thoughtful, caring, sensitive to his child’s needs, and yet, there is that discomfort of knowing that we might already be a lot more like him than we’d like to admit– at least in the area of shielding our children from life’s ills and pitfalls.

All things considered, this is a well-made heart-warmingly fun family film. Time-travel was never more fun since the Back to the Future series, and thanks to Mr. Peabody we now have an intriguing new way to tell someone we love them too. You need only say, “I have a deep regard for you as well.”

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Mr. Peabody and Sherman, 2014: Movie Review by Guest Reviewer, Eric Schwister

Mr. Peabody and Sherman, 2014: Movie Review by Guest Reviewer, Eric Schwister

I groaned slightly when soliciting movie suggestions, and my 10 year old son mentioned Mr. Peabody and Sherman. Yes, as a kid I had watched the cartoon shorts on the Rocky and Bullwinkle show but couldn’t even remember if I’d liked them. Only that a cartoon dog was smart, had adopted a boy, and taught him via travel in his time machine.
 
I went expecting to see recycled fluff that many of these 70s-era animated re-makes turn out to be. But I was pleasantly surprised. 
 
The 2014 movie by Dreamworks works off the same premise and similar use of satire and wordplay as the old Mr. Peabody and Sherman. It’s also surprisingly watchable: intelligent, funny, and even moving at times. 
 
The 3-D animated film has much in common with other time travel movies – the goofy anachronisms found in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and the tortured logistics of time travel and its effect on reality in Back to the Future, for example. 
 
As in the old cartoons, the historic figures encountered along the way are outrageous and funny in modern ways but the story is more than just laughs and chases. The film explores Mr. Peabody’s fitness to raise a human son, ostensibly because he’s a dog, but more deeply because he’s overprotective and uncomfortable expressing emotions. 
 
Every parent can relate to the challenge of finding that delicate balance in raising our children. Where do we land in between trusting our children enough to allow them to make mistakes and being so over-protective that they’re not growing?
 
The title canine-character shows complexity as a genius who has a confident hold on everything through reason and deduction but raising a son and expressing emotions are uncertainties that he needs to accept. 
 
These are wonderful life themes to explore and yet the film avoids getting too heavy, let alone preachy. It’s basically a funny movie with a light touch and a good message for children and adults.
 
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Love’s Labour’s Lost, 2000: Movie Review by Guest Reviewer Eric Schwister

Discussions of Shakespeare lately had me thinking of the Bard’s works produced as movies and sent me to Netflix in search of one. Love’s Labour’s Lost is a film from 2000, based on the early Shakespearean comedy of the same name. Kenneth Branagh produced, directed, and starred in the movie.

The first task of any film based on a work of Shakespeare is to deliver the dialogue in a way that’s both true to the Bard and understandable to a modern audience. This film delivers – even American actress Alicia Silverstone manages to bring the clever wordplay to life somehow. Others in the cast are superb in communicating the depth and humor of Shakespeare’s brilliant use of language.

As if that weren’t challenging enough, Branagh has added song and dance numbers to the story, like an old-fashioned musical. In fact, the movie is almost an homage to the works of Fred Astaire, Esther Williams (there’s even a choreographed swimming pool scene!), and others of the pre-1950s Hollywood musical era. I like the songs but they interrupt the unfolding of the story a bit awkwardly at times and the dancing is not amazing enough to really justify itself in the film.

The movie’s twisting plot and witty commentary on human foibles are thoroughly engaging. I like the ambition of the concept of the movie, the cast is strong (Nathan Lane, in particular, simply steals every scene he’s in), and though it’s a bit uneven at times the strength of Shakespeare’s genius and side-splitting sense of humor are enough for me to recommend the film.

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Non-Stop, 2014

Of late, the only kind of movie reviews that I seem to be writing are ones that leave a lot to be desired.  Not so much my writing (that, of course), but more so in terms of movie quality.  This one, I am sad to say, most definitely tops my list in the “greatly disappointing” category.

Mr. Neeson is a force to reckon with — that is a fact well established thanks to the impressive canon of his work to date, but I daresay he’d do well to simply toss this one out of said canon. 

Long review short:  A big-name movie star does not a suspense thriller make.  If anything, Mr. Neeson has been sadly typecast into the wily veteran role from his series of Taken movies.  He is looking jaded from playing the same type of role five years running.  The script lacks originality, the direction is choppy, and quite frankly, there is more a sense of claustrophobia than suspense in the running time.

Please do not race to movie theatres to check this one out.  I did, only because it was a Friday night, and I thought that everything would be alright!  My spouse offered me a three-word review immediately after: “non-stop crap,” and I wonder if I wouldn’t have been better saying just that and leaving it there!

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The Monuments Men, 2014

Here’s another one that I dragged my feet on in producing a review for aforementioned reasons, i.e., movie lacked inspiration and entertainment value.  And this is particularly disappointing given the all-star cast of the likes of Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, George Clooney, John Goodman, and Matt Damon.  Well, perhaps I’m being a little harsh, but still, what were they thinking? Maybe they all found the script to be fascinating, but unfortunately, the screenplay and storyline didn’t quite turn out the way it had played out on paper? 

Based on the true story of the greatest treasure hunt in history, the movie focuses on an unlikely World War II platoon, tasked by FDR to go into Germany, rescue works of art from the Nazis, and return them to their rightful owners. Well, needless to say, they somehow get it done, but we’re left wondering if we’d rather have seen their characters developed instead.

At best, this is a flat film that drifts on (seemingly endlessly) from moment to moment.  The plot is not tight enough and there is a sinking feeling that there isn’t much to the inevitable ending.  As a lover of art, I feel like I am betraying myself in feeling so poorly about the movie, but that’s how it went down for me.

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Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, 2014

There are times when I drag my feet with writing up a review, and usually the reason for that is when the movie was not inspiring, or perhaps even a let-down.

In this case, I suppose I could say that both those conditions were met quite well.  The wacky ensemble of Ferrell, Carrel, Wiig, and Applegate seems to be having fun and there are some scattered funnies, but the truly inspired nuttiness that made the first Anchorman a cult hit is in short order.  I suppose too much of a good thing isn’t always such a good thing, especially if the good thing wasn’t such a good thing to begin with.

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The Wolf of Wall Street, 2014

This one must go down in the annals of American movie-making as one of the most self-indulgent movies about over-indulgence.  With a grandiose title, A-list actors and based-on-a-true-story subject matter, it is at its best, a flamboyantly savage comedy.  We get scene after scene after scene of illicit drugs, kinky sex, and blatant lies, but the film gets terribly redundant very quickly.   It could easily have been an hour shorter and lost absolutely nothing.  

It is either savage comedy or a manifesto of twisted propaganda.  The humiliation and objectification of women is presented in a most clear-cut and brutal manner, right from the moment Belfort trades his wife in for a bustier blonde, to the very many combinations of sexual gratification that may be sought out thanks to the women who help execute them.

The only thing that makes the movie compelling is that perhaps some people want to be just like De Caprio’s Belfort.  Many Americans wish to believe that anyone can become rich if they want it bad enough. The only reason that people are poor is that they are lazy and the government interferes with the great invisible hand.­  And the implication is that with great industriousness comes corruption that unfortunately knows no bounds and that is oblivious to the eventual pain and suffering of the innocent.

De Caprio does a fine job of projecting all this drama.  And Jonah Hill is a fine accompanist.  Yet with all of the pain the drugs and the deception cause, there is, alas, never a trace of atonement or redemption — of sympathy for pains caused, to self or others. And that is disturbing, and it kept this off a “human” scale that leaves me unsettled, and not quite as satisfied as some other Scorsese films have. But perhaps, that is point? 

A.O. Scott of the New York Times sums it up best like this:  Does “The Wolf of Wall Street” condemn or celebrate? Is it meant to provoke disgust or envy? If you walk away feeling empty and demoralized, worn down by the tackiness and aggression of the spectacle you have just witnessed, perhaps you truly appreciate the film’s critical ambitions. If, on the other hand, you ride out of the theater on a surge of adrenaline, intoxicated by its visual delights and visceral thrills, it’s possible you missed the point. The reverse could also be true. To quote another one of Mr. Scorsese’s magnetic, monstrous heroes, Jake LaMotta, that’s entertainment.

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12 Years a Slave, 2014

While it may be easy to decry the utter degradation of what was once the institution of slavery, it is not so easy to watch a depiction of it without the rose-colored lenses of a ‘Gone with the Wind’ variety.  Because the harsh reality is that the lovely plantations of the South were essentially concentration camps, and American slavery lasted not just a decade or so, but went on for 245 years.

Unrelenting in its scenes of brutality and humiliation, 12 Years tells the tale of a free black man in upstate New York who is kidnapped and sold into slavery to a series of plantation owners in the deep South.  Prepare to see the other side of the famous Southern charm and hospitality that includes having the mistress serve fine baked goods to the slaves as a precursor to the nightly sexual assault that follows at the hands of the master.  And if that in itself is not revolting enough, perhaps the myriad other human indignities committed on the person and psyche of each slave might bring you to your knees.  This is a story about Solomon, who may represent an entire people and, by extension, the peculiar institution, as well as the past and present of this great country called America.  

Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender are quite exceptional in their roles of slave and master, and Lupita Nyong’o as Patsy is impossibly unforgettable.  The cinematography is haunting in its beauty of cotton fields and is sharply juxtaposed with the deep sadness of life as they know it.  The frames are intentionally long to the point that they cause discomfort.  How long can one gaze at an open field or a pained expression without wincing?

It matters not that we don’t know much about Solomon, the slave.  What matters is only that he is human—as are the other slaves—and to treat a human being in a most inhumane way and yet justify it in the name of God is the greatest atrocity yet.