Maps to the Stars

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.

Jupiter Ascending

Jupiter Ascending has a couple of hot leads in wide-eyed beauty Mila Kunis and the often-shirtless Channing Tatum (sporting too much eye-liner). But the movie itself is a hot mess, of inter-galactic proportions. Picture a confusing mish-mash of sci-fi and superhero flicks, with a bit of Princess Diaries thrown into the mix.

A Most Violent Year

Writer/director J. C. Chandor knows how to keep an audience glued to their seats. With his first film, Margin Call, he had us wondering until the final scene whether a Wall Street firm would crash and burn. And in his second, All is Lost, he was able to make a man all alone in a life raft compelling for nearly two hours. With his third film, A Most Violent Year, he has found another story that would not seem to be terribly interesting and found the tension that forces the audience to care. Set in 1981 in the heating oil trade, it is the tale of a good guy trying to keep his integrity when everything is set against him. Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis) plays the central character Abel Morales, an immigrant made good who is doing everything he can to build a business and take care of his family, but it is the most violent year in modern New York City history and you’re not sure if he can make it.

Song One

Song One feels like one of those low-budget indie flicks that a bunch of college friends got together to shoot in the middle of the night, with the theater class’s star pupil lending her talents to the endeavor. The narrative is (more than) a bit contrived, but you can’t help but root for the film and its characters. Song One is a romantic drama set against the backdrop of Brooklyn’s indie music scene, so it’s sort of like a less gritty, more contemporary Inside Llewyn Davis with a chick-flickier edge.

The Duke of Burgundy

This is definitely not a film for everyone. It is a very arty, beautifully shot story of a lesbian couple who enjoy a rich dominant/submissive sex life. But it is no Fifty Shades of Grey wannabe. Instead it is a surreal, sensual meditation on a loving relationship and lengths people will go to for the ones they love.

American Sniper

War is hell. So is this intensely polarizing movie. You either love American Sniper or hate it. I was one of the latter. Adapted from a biography of the same name, it is the story of U.S. Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) who became a hero to many for being our most lethal sniper and killing the most Iraqis. My problem with the film is how the whole situation is portrayed as entirely black and white. Kyle and the Americans are the good guys, and every single Iraqi is evil. I am sure to the men and women who fought there, that was the perfect rationalization for what they did, but as storytelling goes, it leaves a lot to be desired.