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3 stars

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I loved Ex Machina but Alex Garland’s follow-up falls short.  Given the film’s ambition, however, it is a noble failure.  Natalie Portman is an ex-military, now-professor whose Special Ops boyfriend (Oscar Isaac) goes missing after a clandestine mission.  When he returns, in very bad shape, she is drawn to the mission herself, and soon finds herself part of a five person team entering “The Shimmer”, a disorienting, disturbing, inexorably expanding mass of acreage that started when something from the sky hit the ground.  As the team enters to get to the source, they are transformed by their environment, and I’ll leave it at that.

It’s pretty damn cool.  But ultimately, Garland relies so much on the visual for his message that the picture serves as more of an aesthetic treat than a compelling story.  The ideas are boffo, but the execution is a bit dreary and drawn out, and frankly, like Arrival, this film may just be over my head.

There are other problems.  Portman’s harkening back to her transgressions in her relationship with Isaac seems silly given the gravity of her situation.  I was reminded of a stupid movie I saw years back about a group of gals who decided to have a bachelorette weekend spelunking, as most women do, and as hideous mole people chased them through caves, the fact that one of the women slept with the fiancée of another actually loomed large.  “Okay, okay.  I slept with your boyfriend.  Not cool.  Now, can we get back to the mole people?”

One last note – I’m down with 5 women on a military/scientific exercise, but one should be aware of the Ghostbusters re-make and maybe switch up the uniforms.  I half expected

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to show up.

On Hulu now.

 

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This rom-com starts off balky, rights itself into a traditional flow, gets deliciously weird (catty women do some frightful things to rivals in Singapore) and then, eventually, wins you over.  Not in a “what a splendid and unexpected surprise!” way, but rather, in a “I am no worse off than I was 2 hours ago and I’ve certainly spent my time in less valuable pursuits” way.  The film’s additional bonus is as a travelogue.  I would now like to visit Singapore and if I were crazy rich, I’d really like to make the trek.

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I just finished Blood in the Water, an exhaustive history on the Attica uprising and its aftermath.  And lo and behold, Brubaker hits the cable movie rotation.  I remember it being overly preachy but engaging, but times have changed, and now, Stuart Rosenberg’s (Cool Hand Luke) film seems rather reserved and even-handed.  It isn’t but that’s how it feels today.

No matter the prevalence of a particular bent, the picture juggles its message and a gripping mystery within the prison adeptly, the feel is right, and it is never dull.

Henry Brubaker (Robert Redford) is a reform warden incarcerated incognito as an inmate in the Arkansas prison he will soon be running.  From the outset, he witnesses abuses by trustees (prisoners given the right and authority to be armed and act as corrections officers) that include brutal beatings, theft of food for resale, and extortion for basic necessities.  As for the conduct of the governmental officials of the prison, it is no better.  The doctor charges for services, the cooks charge for edible food, and the warden hires out men to local businesses for free.  Rape is rampant and problem inmates (including a young Morgan Freeman) are shut in dark, airless cells in a separate area of the prison.

Brubaker soon reveals himself, and in his attempts to change the prison, he is met with stiff resistance from the local community, the trustees, and soon, even the governor who appointed him.  His liberality is thrown in his face by the conservative elements, who see him in league with the prisoners, while the liberal faction sees only the damage done by his upending the system and his refusal to take half a loaf.

There are problems.  Redford is plagued by his good looks.  His embedding into the prison population without notice is a stretch.  He is also so self-righteous and literal, it grates, and the end is just piling on. Also, a potential sexual chemistry between Burbaker and assistant to the governor Jane Alexander is also needlessly left unexplored.  And Roger Ebert, per usual, hits the nail on the head:  “The movie (refuses) to permit its characters more human dimensions. We want to know these people better, but the screenplay throws up a wall; they act according to the ideological positions assigned to them in the screenplay, and that’s that. … Half of Redford’s speeches could have come out of newspaper editorials, but we never find out much about him.”

Still, the film melds political tract and thriller pretty effortlessly, and it is extremely well-acted, featuring strong performances by David Keith and Yaphet Kotto in early roles.

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This is a competent, amusing, even mildly affecting film, but ultimately, it is no great shakes.  It presents the story of Tommy Wiseau (James Franco), a mysterious no-talent who bankrolled, directed, wrote and starred in his own film, The Room, which was so terrible it became a cult classic.  Wiseau is indeed awful in all respects, so there is a lot of cringe-worthy viewing.  His idiosyncrasy and idiocy, however, travel only so far, and when there is nothing more to plumb from this weirdo wannabe, the mind wanders.  There’s nothing to root for (Wiseau is a bit of a cretin to his cast, collaborators and friends) and the film doesn’t compensate with enough humor.  So, it’s fine, but forgettable.

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The orgasmic acclaim is a little much, but this is mostly good fun. A little Lion King, a little James Bond (they have their own Q, who shows off the technological gizmos, and a CIA operative Felix Lighter) and even a Millennium Falcon. There’s also some simplistic politics thrown in. Should Wakanda, a magical African kingdom powered by vibranium (a kick ass metal that provides strength, power and wealth) stay hidden in its borders or should it come out from shadows and take on the world struggle for the black and dispossessed?

I dunno. Who cares? Let’s cut the high-minded chatter about what happens when vibranium becomes plentiful and get to clever quips and fisticuffs.

As with most of these movies, it is weakened by the need to have comic book characters in silly suits address weighty matters (guess what? Vibranium is going to revitalize Oakland!) but as these things go, it’s a solid popcorn flick, and the action is first rate.

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Mini-Mask, this is the perfect storm of sentimentality and sweetness. The set up alone is enough to make you reach for the nearest Kleenex: a boy with a facial deformity moves from being home schooled by his mother (Julia Roberts) to the unprotected world of prep school, where he navigates the treacherous waters of casual kid cruelty.  And his sister has her own issues because she feels left out given the attention given the boy.  And the dog, the ‘effin dog!  What is it with Owen Wilson movies and their casual approach to the lives of dogs (see The Royal Tenenbaums and Marley & Me)?  It all becomes too much at the end, and you feel a little pummeled, but it is still worth the watch.  Last thought:  a sweet kid says “when it is between being right and being kind, be kind.”  And on its surface, that seems like the right call.   It certainly is heartwarming.  Until you realize the insidious reach of the phrase, which essentially equates to the Fall of Western Civilization.