Reviews of Recent Movie Releases

‘Captain America’ sequel is zippy, but a bit hollow

For the latest Marvel release, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” most fan boys might prefer a Consumer Reports-style product review. New character introductions: Smooth. Action sequences: Excellent if sometimes lacking finesse. Viewer satisfaction: Likely high. Box-office prospects: Bankable. Teasers for future Marvel installments: Yes, two.

With slick design and plushy interiors, “The Winter Soldier” is an excellent product. But is it a good movie? Are the two indistinguishable at this point?

Like the recent “Thor: The Dark World,” “Winter Soldier” is a sequel to a pre-“Avengers” franchise starter. The earlier “Captain America: First Avenger” was a mostly clever period film, set in the ‘40s and awash with a charming WWII thriller nostalgia.

“Winter Soldier” brings Steve Rogers — the weakling recruit made a brawny Greatest Generation icon, played by Chris Evans — up to present day for a Washington D.C. conspiracy thriller. Fittingly, Marvel has attracted the default hero of such films, Robert Redford. He’s a major get for the franchise, especially since (unlike in last year’s “All is Lost”) he’s actually talking now.

It’s getting difficult to tell the Marvel movies apart. The fight scenes on a departing aircraft blur together. The reversals of friend and foe refract like an infinity mirror. The characters are spread across so many movies that you’d need a detective’s cork board to keep it straight.

So while “The Winter Soldier” succeeds as finely engineered merchandise built to be crowd-pleasing entertainment, for moviegoers and shareholder alike, it has a shelf life that won’t last much past its running time.

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” a Walt Disney release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “intense sequences of violence, gunplay and action throughout.”

— Associated Press

Johansson invites us into her baffling dream

To say that a movie feels like a dream is not automatically a positive statement. It all depends on the dream. Some dreams, for example, make sense, at least partly, and others are just baffling. Some are compelling, others tedious. Some move quickly, and others feel like they’re never going to end.

Alas, Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin” begins with a lot of the positive attributes mentioned above, but seems to settle into the negative ones as time goes on. It may feel like a dream, but it eventually feels like one you’re sorta ready to wake up from.

However, the film stars Scarlett Johansson. And who among us would not seek to welcome Ms. Johansson into our dreams, or share hers? Johansson’s performance isn’t simply the best thing about the movie, it’s the movie’s raison d’etre. And this charismatic actress, who’s worth watching no matter what she does, delivers a thoughtful, sometimes even mesmerizing turn as, yes, an alien preying on human males in Glasgow, Scotland.

Given that plotline, it may sound funny for us to complain here that what’s lacking in the film, loosely based on a novel by Michael Faber, is a sense of motivation for Johansson’s character. After all, you might say, she’s an alien who landed in Scotland! You’re asking for a motive? But there’s so little said here about what the character is doing, and more importantly why, that it gets ever more frustrating as the minutes roll by.

There are some arresting visuals here — a moment where Johansson simply stands alone in the night fog is one of them — and a creepily effective score by Mica Levi. But the film loses steam about midway through, blunting the impact of its rather stunning end. When you wake up from this odd dream, you may wonder what the point was. It’s probably there, but it’s lost in that dark fog.

“Under the Skin,” an A24 Films release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America “for graphic nudity, sexual content, some violence and language.”

— Associated Press

‘Hemingway’ lewd, heartfelt

A temperamental, egotistical, British ex-con with a soft side for the daughter he left behind, Jude Law is magnetic as the title character in “Dom Hemingway,” an amusing tale of vengeance, debauchery and redemption told stylishly by writer-director Richard Shepard.

Dom is introduced shirtless while delivering a verbose rant about his genitalia, which he likens to titanium, a Renoir or Picasso painting, a Nobel Prize winner, a cheetah, lightening and more. Few outrageous comparisons are spared.

His speech could be seen as a pathetic attempt at a pick-up technique, except he’s so puffed up. It’s clear he could care less whether anyone agrees with him or not — and his delusion is hilarious. His monologue sets the outlandish tone for the film, where Dom, a safecracker, believes he’s irresistible and indestructible.

Dom is one of Law’s richest roles yet. He packed on an extra 20 pounds and rocked thick lamb-chop sideburns for this one. He’s brazenly comical, absurdly grimy and believably brawny. But at times, his Dom is ridiculously unsympathetic.

We’re with him when he bloodies the face of a man who romanced his wife during his jail sentence. But when we discover that man cared for her as she died of cancer, it’s impossible to continue to applaud his assault.

Shepard writes with rousing wit, but occasional scenes tend to drag and feel excessive.

It’s the film’s humor that also makes Dom likable. Many of the blows to his ego are due to his droll naivety. But it’s a good look for Law, who checks his pretty boy image at the door to give one of his grittiest performances yet.

“Dom Hemingway,” a Fox Searchlight Pictures release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “sexual content, nudity, pervasive language, some violence and drug use.”

— Associated Press

‘Noah’ is many things, not dull

What to make of Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah”? Perhaps that’s the wrong question. Indeed, what NOT to make of “Noah”? Because it is so many things.

It is, of course, a biblical blockbuster, a 21st-century answer to Cecil B. DeMille. It’s also a disaster movie — the original disaster, you might say. It’s an intense family drama. Part sci-fi film. But there’s one thing “Noah” is not, for a moment: Dull.

So, what to make of “Noah”? It’s a movie that, with all its occasional excess, is utterly worth your time.

Although the real star of the film is its visual ingenuity, particularly in a few stunning sequences, one must give ample credit to Russell Crowe, who lends Noah the moral heft and groundedness we need to believe everything that ends up happening to him.

Noah’s near-descent into madness would not be nearly as effective had Crowe not already convinced us of his essential decency.

At this moment, you may well forgive any excesses in the film. Like his flawed hero, Aronofsky has a vision — a cinematic one — and the results, if not perfect, are pretty darned compelling.

“Noah,” a Paramount Pictures release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “violence, disturbing images and brief suggestive content.”

— Associated Press

The body count is out of control in ‘The Raid 2’

LOS ANGELES — Leaving behind the original’s grungy Jakarta tenement setting for the luxurious hangouts of Indonesia’s organized crime overlords, “The Raid 2” pumps up its production values several notches. Even so, it’s easy to imagine that one of the biggest items on the budget might be the orthopedics bill, since this orgy of broken bones and viciousness makes its cult predecessor look peevish. Lining up bloody showdowns like the dizzying acts of a hyper-violent ballet, Gareth Evans’ sequel invites accusations of, ahem, overkill. But the fanboys will eat it up.

There’s more of pretty much everything in this sequel. That means it sacrifices some of the purity of the first movie, which had its share of weaponry but was rendered exciting and distinctive primarily by its virtuoso assaults of lethal fists and feet on flesh.

Visceral in the extreme, the bravura martial arts mayhem still takes pride of place, choreographed again by lead actor Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian, who also appears, though as a different character from last time. But Evans expands the hardware beyond the usual guns and knives, giving some of his assassins their own special tools. The characters are surprisingly well drawn for a movie so predominantly physical, and the lead actors all make vivid impressions. Alongside the broodingly charismatic fighting machine Uwais, Putra makes Ucok’s arrogant stupidity compelling, while Oka Antara brings quiet gravitas to Bangun’s trusted right-hand man, who harbors a secret. Evans gives the audience a knowing wink by having Rama endure repeated batterings that would leave mere mortals in traction, not to mention some nasty blade wounds. Yet he keeps coming back, finding the stamina to snap more limbs and crush more skulls. “The Raid 2,” a Sony Picture Classics release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “sequences of strong bloody violence throughout, sexuality and language.”

— Hollywood Reporter

‘Chavez’ gives leader routine treatment

LOS ANGELES — Diego Luna’s heartfelt biographical drama, “Cesar Chavez,” chronicles the five-year struggle of the United Farm Workers co-founder in the 1960s to get California grape growers to the negotiating table to hammer out fair wages and better conditions for exploited field laborers. It’s a stirring story of a real-life fight for social justice, and clearly a passion project for the Mexican actor-turned-director. But while the film’s old-fashioned virtues and the integrity of its subject matter give it some traction, pedestrian handling, a lumpy script and some significant miscasting mean it only occasionally summons the dramatic power to match the events it depicts.

Chavez’s later life, in particular his widely publicized 1988 hunger strike to protest the use of cancer-causing pesticides on grape crops, is the subject of the feature documentary “Cesar’s Last Fast.” This poorly organized screenplay by Keir Pearson and Timothy J. Sexton concentrates on his earlier years. This is a considerably more ambitious undertaking than Luna’s 2010 directing debut, the family drama “Abel,” but he lacks the command to bring much sweep or momentum to the account. He gets no help from a choppy screenplay that lurches through intimate scenes, agitated meetings and violent clashes with the same by-the-numbers approach, never solidifying the narrative arc or pausing long enough for character development.

This is a problem especially with Cesar, and Pena fails to make much of an impression in the saintly role. While the actor has shown that he can work well in the right part, he remains a stolid presence here. He spouts sound bites rather than creating a shaded portrait of someone we have to assume was a deeply impassioned and by most accounts spiritual man. He simply doesn’t come across as a sufficiently charismatic or persuasive leader to galvanize vast numbers of frightened workers to demand their rights.

Technically, the film is solid if unremarkable and somewhat underpopulated, though it integrates archive footage and photographic material to good effect.

“Cesar Chavez,” a Lionsgate release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “some violence and language.”

— Hollywood Reporter

The Muppets reteam with mixed results

A strange sense of doom hangs over the rebooted Muppets, and it’s not from the Swedish Chef’s cooking.

“The Muppets” (2011) may have been an earnest and largely successful relaunch for Jim Henson’s troupe, but it also had a hangdog melancholy, fretting about the obsolescence of Kermit and the gang. Pop-culture insecurity looms in “Muppets Most Wanted,” too, which begins with the same self-conscious tone as the last film in the musical number “We’re Doing a Sequel.”

Though Dr. Bunsen Honeydew (still the greatest name in show biz, sorry Sidney Poitier) notes this is technically the Muppets’ seventh sequel, they nevertheless sing: “And everyone knows the sequel’s not quite as good.” The Muppets don’t need a sequel. They need a shrink.

It seems they’ve swapped “the most inspirational, celebrational, Muppetational” show for an ongoing pity party. Where is the confident intrepidness that made Gonzo disdainful of breaking through “the easy way” (Hollywood) when you could go through Bollywood instead?

“Muppets Most Wanted,” thankfully, soon enough dispatches the previous film’s mopey nostalgia and sets things on a more madcap course: a European caper, not unlike 1981’s (alas superior) “The Great Muppet Caper.” The ingredients are here: Tina Fey as a Broadway-loving Gulag guard in Soviet chic; Ty Burrell in Inspector Clouseau mode; Ricky Gervais as the comically obvious bad guy (name: Dominic Badguy). But “Muppets Most Wanted” fails to whip up the kind of furry frenzy that makes the Muppets special. Judging the Muppets against their own high standards is perhaps unfair, particularly when we’ve been absent of Henson’s genius for nearly 25 years. “Muppets Most Wanted” may not rise to the irreverent slapstick the gang once did, but it is still, after all, the Muppets.

“Muppets Most Wanted,” a Walt Disney Studios release, is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America for “some mild action.”

— Associated Press

‘Divergent’ doesn’t diverge quite enough

If you have a kid of a certain age — especially a girl, preteen or thereabouts — then you know the young-adult entertainment message of choice these days: You’re you, and nobody else. Don’t let them define you. Don’t let them put you into one of their neat little slots. You’re unique. And you’re gonna show the world. You go, girl! So it’s no surprise that this is the message of “Divergent,” the latest young adult blockbuster-in-waiting. It’s also no surprise that the emerging young star Shailene Woodley delivers a crucial dose of humility, sensitivity and intelligence in this showcase role. And it’s no surprise, either, that she generates nice chemistry with her rather absurdly good-looking co-star, Theo James.

What IS surprising is that with all these promising elements, “Divergent,” the first of three installments based on first-time author Veronica Roth’s trilogy, ultimately feels so lackluster.

But two sequels await. So there’s always hope.

“Divergent,” a Summit Entertainment release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “intense violence and action, thematic elements and some sensuality.”

— Associated Press

‘Need’ a thrilling festival of stunts

It takes a lot for a film based on a video game to impress a crowd these days, given the dazzling advancements in gaming technology. But “Need for Speed,” based on the hit EA Entertainment racing game that’s sold 150 million units, could now drive some of that success toward the box office. Despite its clichéd elements, this adrenaline-fueled stunt fest is an unequivocal thrill that deserves to be seen on the big screen. Starring “Breaking Bad’s” Aaron Paul, “Need for Speed” is fiercely entertaining, loaded with beautiful cars, winding roads and racers in leather coats. Since “Breaking Bad” ended last year, Paul has been making an impressive transition to film, starting with the indie drama “Hellion,” which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival. In “Need for Speed,” he flexes his machismo as a street racer on a vendetta. Following a two-year prison sentence for a crime he didn’t commit, mechanic and race driver Tobey Marshall (Paul) is determined to get revenge on Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), the man who framed him. To do so, Tobey drives from New York to California to battle Dino in a high-stakes race.

Written by first-timer George Gatins, who produced “She’s Out of My League,” the plot is heavy with questionable logic and monotonous dialogue. Modeled after classic 1960s and 1970s action films, where the cars were key, “Need for Speed” often attempts to be a dramatic thriller. Easily the best parts of this ride are the thrilling stunts and races. Stuntman-turned-director Scott Waugh puts us right in the driver’s seat as cars exceed 120 mph and spin through the air. First-person camera angles keep the action immediate and personal, just like the video game. Though the pace remains mostly high-octane throughout, it drags in the beginning and during the final face-off. But overall, this flashy underworld of super-charged machinery and intense action is a blast.

“Need for Speed,” a DreamWorks release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “sequences of reckless street racing, disturbing crash scenes, nudity and crude language.”

— Associated Press

‘Veronica’ a solid cinematic turn

LOS ANGELES — Canceled by the CW in 2007, the cult-fave mystery series “Veronica Mars” completed its third season with an (open-ended) episode titled “The Bitch Is Back.” Revived for the big screen, the gumshoe drama finds its title character, nine years later, insisting that she’s in a mellower frame of mind, no longer the angry, crime-solving kickass who thrills to danger. As if.

After a murder hits close to home, the law-school grad tosses aside her sleek job-interview threads and is soon sleuthing it up among the rich, famous, corrupt and depraved who populate her SoCal hometown. Kristen Bell is in fine form as the sharp-witted and stiletto-tongued Veronica, whose high polish on the art of sarcasm has endeared her to fans as a supremely self-possessed outsider.

As with the TV show, the connect-the-dots mystery solving is less interesting than the character dynamics; crimes unravel with a directness that feels aimed at younger audiences. The dark doings are leavened, and sometimes undercut, by comedy, and by angst that’s not far removed from adolescence. Thomas’ sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll neo-noir has a young-adult heart that still beats strong, even with Veronica and her friends well into their twenties. The 10-year reunion of Neptune High just happens to be impending when Veronica returns home to help solve a murder, and teen allegiances, animosities and romances loom large in the film, which features many actors reprising their small-screen roles.

A dark thread runs through the movie that has no direct bearing on the crimes Veronica is trying to solve. She makes repeated references to her absent alcoholic mother and, most jarringly, to addiction in general. It’s a thread that doesn’t feel fully integrated into the film.

“Veronica Mars,” a Warner Bros. release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “sexuality including references, drug content, violence and some strong language.”

— The Hollywood Reporter



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