Maps to the Stars

Mr. Turner

When I think of Mike Leigh, I think of great female characters — Vera Drake, Secrets and Lies, Happy Go Lucky. And with Mr. Turner he proves that he is just a adept with the other half of the population. The film looks at the Victorian era painter J.M.W. Turner’s final 25 years and I must say, he is not the man I would have imagined from seeing his work. Played by wonderful character actor Timothy Spall (Harry Potter, Secrets and Lies) the painter is both crude and caring, crazed and cunning. If you are unaware of his work, head to any of the great museums and take a look. He was ahead of his time. While the others were clinging to the rules of Romantic realism, his landscapes were somewhat abstract and full of passion. This film will give you an even greater appreciation for his work. It is a gorgeous step backwards in time to the early 19th century in British society. (Warning: Some of the authentic speaking was hard for this 21st century American to understand.)

Cinderella

“Have courage, and be kind” and you might (spoiler alert!) live happily ever after. That’s the gist of this perfectly pleasant, Disney-meets-Downton adaptation of the fairy-tale classic, directed by Kenneth Branagh. I suppose if Hollywood can keep re-making Spiderman, then Cinderella might as well pop into the picture every couple of decades as well. Even if it’s not exactly necessary. For fans of the musical versions, be advised that this one has little more than the occasional bibbidi-bobbidi-boo. But what it lacks in music and drama (most people are familiar with the key plot points), it makes up for in message. That would be the aforementioned “have courage, and be kind.”

Maps to the Stars

David Cronenberg has always brought us characters and situations that are unsettling. His early films were smart horror flicks like The Fly and Dead Ringers, and I thought he’d moved into his more mature years with serious dramas like A History of Violence and Eastern Promises. But Maps to the Stars feels like a step backwards or perhaps an attempt to blend his earlier and later genres into one. It is a semi-horror satire of the Hollywood film world run amok, complete with ghosts and murder and incest. Every single person in the film is only out for themselves. And if you’ve never been to LA, Maps to the Stars will make you never want to go near the place.

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel picks up slightly after the original ended, and if you did not see The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel you could be a bit confused as to the relationships. All the same old folks are living in the ramshackle hotel in Jaipur, India, having ditched their old ways of defining themselves and it is going pretty well. Where the first one was about finding themselves, this one is about finding love. As with the first, a pretty straight forward story is elevated by an amazing cast including Dames Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Dev Patel, and this time Richard Gere. It is a lot of fun!

Focus

Focus is a weak heist movie. But it benefits from sharing an opening weekend with the likes of The Lazarus Effect, because the latter makes the former look like Oscar-worthy material. Focus stars Will Smith as Nicky, a seasoned con artist who teaches a novice con artist named (Margot Robbie) the tricks of the trade. The two become entangled romantically, but then Nicky abruptly ditches her. Fast forward three years and they meet again when he is called upon to pull some master con at a high-stakes car race, and she is dating one of the drivers.

The Lazarus Effect

Oh, the horror… that this movie is. So bad, in fact, that I resent the time it’s taking me to write this “review” panning it. To be fair, I don’t like horror movies to begin with. So it’s quite possible that horror movie or B-movie fans will find some redeeming value in The Lazarus Effect. I just didn’t get it. At all. And I put too much faith in the casting. I generally like Olivia Wilde, so I held out hope that it would be entertaining on some level – like the apocalyptic zombie movie World War Z – but no, that was not the case. I’m thinking Wilde must be (really good) friends with somebody connected to the script. Here’s the gist:

Timbuktu

Timbuktu was a very deserving 2015 Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign film. The movie was inspired by the real life events of 2012-13 when religious fundamentalists, took over the ancient Malian city of Timbuktu, destroying much its cultural heritage in the name of Islam and imposing Sharia law on the inhabitants. (They were ultimately run out.) In the film, we meet these militants as they chase down and shoot gazelles from their jeep and then turn those same guns on a cache of wooden statues, particularly ones of naked women. We find them next strutting around the town with megaphones laying down the law, upsetting the townspeople with their strict-to-the-point-of-ridiculous rules. No music. No soccer. No smoking or drinking. No fun. And women need to be nearly invisible and have zero rights. Needless so say, the locals don’t take kindly to it, including the local imam who shoos the heavily armed Jihadists from his mosque. Director Abderrahmane Sissako contrasts this claustrophobic extremism with the story of a pastoral family living in the dunes just outside town whose life soon intersects with the new order.

Still Alice

The reason to see Still Alice, and you really should, is Julianne Moore. She just won an Academy Award for her beautiful and heartbreaking performance as Alice Howland, a successful linguistics professor with a loving husband and several grown children who is stunned to find that she is suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease. It is the story of her trying to keep it together even though she knows what is coming, and her family trying its best to take care of her as she disappears before their eyes. Alec Baldwin plays the husband who is as helpless as Alice against the disease, but tries to make her diminishing world as livable has he can. And Kristen Stewart is remarkably competent as her youngest daughter, a would-be actress who turns out to be the one who can help her Mom when she needs it most.

Kingsman: The Secret Service

Sitting in the theater watching Kingsman: The Secret Service, I was in front of an older couple who talked through the film, at one point declaring, “This is the worst movie!” In front of me were a couple of young men who laughed raucously throughout the film, thoroughly enjoying the silly ride. I’m not sure what the couple behind me were expecting, but I do think the audience for this one is teenage (or slightly older) boys. It’s basically an adolescent James Bond flick, with all the cool gadgetry and a hot chick villainess you’d expect from the genre. There is nothing of the suave nature of Bond though. It’s crude humor and cartoon violence. But if you just go with it, a lot of it is mindless fun.

Fifty Shades of Grey

Oh, where to begin… I’m somewhat conflicted writing this review because the movie is actually better than I expected. Yet I am extremely bothered by the fact that it’s been promoted so heavily – with such reckless abandon – that a whole bunch of teens want to see it. And they shouldn’t. It’s an adult movie. Granted, the first 45 minutes are quite tame as the twisted romance between virginal college senior Anastasia Steele and the hunky but tormented young billionaire Christian Grey starts to simmer. But when the relationship boils over into Christian Grey’s “play room” filled with assorted whips, chains and handcuffs, then whoa Nelly. This ‘R’ rated film sets sail for what should be considered ‘NC-17’ territory.