Maps to the Stars

Ex Machina

In his directorial debut Alex Garland, the writer of 28 Days Later and Sunshine, has served up an intriguing minimalist sci-fi thriller that is more about what isn’t onscreen than what is. It’s a very simple story about an evil genius’s quest to design a sentient robot and the pawns he uses in the perfection of his plan. The cast of three (Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson, and Oscar Isaac) spends most of the film sequestered away in a remote house/research facility and the audience spends most of its time wondering if things can possibly end well, as layer upon layer of artifice is stripped away.

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Fans of the Avengers – assemble! My guess is they’re already packing the midnight showings and putting this superhero superflick in prime position to knock those Fast and Furious folks from the top of the Box Office. And rightly so. Avengers: Age of Ultron delivers the goods. It’s not as good as the first one, but it serves the purpose of advancing the Marvel mythology and providing pure escapist entertainment by bringing together, once again, the world’s mightiest heroes, including Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), The Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). Eye candy, sarcasm, action. What’s not to like?

The Age of Adeline

The Age of Adeline is a satisfactory romantic drama that is best enjoyed by those who can suspend all sense of logic and tolerate a bit of an ‘ick’ factor for reasons that are implied if not fully explored, or exploited, onscreen. More on that later. The lovely and talented Blake Lively plays Adeline Bowman, a young widow and mother in San Francisco who stopped aging after a freak car accident in the 1930s. An overlong voiceover narration explains, in flashback, how it all happened… something about a confluence of events involving water, lightning, and shifting molecular structure. Anyway, to avoid being labeled a freak or subjected to secret government testing, Adeline goes on the run for decades – constantly moving, and changing her identity, to hide her bizarre immortality from the world, including potential suitors. And there are plenty of those, because whatever name she goes by, Adeline presents as a beautiful old soul with a soft, lilting voice, a throwback wardrobe, and a phenomenal knowledge of modern history (go figure). The only one who knows Adeline’s secret is her daughter, who ages at a normal pace and could easily pass for Adeline’s mother or grandmother.

Full Frame Documentary Film Festival 2015

Film festivals are a lot of fun, but kind of exhausting, too. I headed to Durham, NC last weekend for the Full Frame Festival, one of the premier documentary festivals in the country. The program included world premieres, some big time invited docs, and some thematic selections. Now in its 18th year, I kind of wish I’d attend this festival years ago, before it got so big and popular and crowded. I was only able to fit in eleven films in four days, and a few that I really was looking forward to seeing were sold out before I even had a chance to select tickets, but I was happy I got to see most of what I did. And here are my minireviews!

True Story

True Story is based on, well, a true story. But I suspect the actual events were more gripping than this somewhat interesting, but often boring psychological crime drama starring James Franco as accused family killer Christian Longo and Jonah Hill as disgraced New York Times reporter Michael Finkel. For some reason, Longo took on Finkel’s identity while on the run for the gruesome murders of his wife and three young children. When he was caught, Finkel was the only one that Longo was willing to tell his story to.

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck

Back in the 90s I liked Nirvana’s music, though I wasn’t what I would call a big fan. But when lead singer/songwriter Kurt Cobain killed himself, I was shocked and saddened. The story around his personal life and suicide was messy and there was a lot of finger pointing and demonizing of his wife, the infamous Courtney Love. What Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck does really well is paint a picture of Cobain that runs counter to the tabloids and gives you a real glimpse of the tragic artist that he was. So much of it is told through his diaries and his own private tapes that no one, not even Courtney Love, had bothered to look at. It’s a film that will make even those of us who just liked the music respect his artistry on a whole other level.

Furious 7

Furious 7 is totally absurd. The stunts defy all laws of physics and gravity. The acting and the dialogue are inconsistent. And yet, it’s still a fun ride. No wonder Dame Helen Mirren wants to play a villain in the next one! I didn’t see the first four installments of the Fast and Furious franchise, but I became a fan with 5 and 6. They are guilty-pleasure movies, pure and simple, delivering a consistent formula of action, special effects, scantily-clad bods (male and female), bonding, romance, bromance, and family dysfunction – all delivered with a wink and a nod.

While We’re Young

While We’re Young is a solid indie that many adults (even of the mainstream variety) should be able to relate to. It’s a comedy/drama about a middle-aged, childless couple named Josh and Cornelia Srebnick (Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts) whose best friends have just had a baby and seem to be drifting away. Then they meet Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried), a pair of twenty-something hipsters who become their new besties and inject new life into the Srebnicks’ otherwise stagnant personal and professional lives.

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.”