Back Rowe Reviews
Real Time Movie Reviews from the Back Row of a Theater


The Big Short (R)

Directed by: Adam McKay
Starring: Christian Bale
December 2015

The below comments (in Black) were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appear @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation (in Red). For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The Big Short
Appropriate quote from #MarkTwain to open the film.
“It all came crashing down.” #Greed #Tragic
“You have a very nice haircut. Did you do it yourself?” Ha! #SocialIneptitude
How to #Hijack a #SupportGroup.
Short the #HousingMarket. #IncitingIncident
I learned more about #SubprimeLoans from @MargotRobbie in a #Bubblebath than any news story...and I liked it.
A #Short deal for 100 million. #GoldmanSachs is laughing now.
“Who bets against housing?”
“No one is paying attention.” #Scary
#CDO is like three day old halibut. Love the visual illustration by #AnthonyBourdain.
Four people per 100 houses in FL. There are more alligators per the one in the swimming pool.
They’re not confessing. They’re bragging. Pride comes before the fall.
“Fueled by stupidity.” The short definition of our entire system.
“A completely fraudulent system.” Imagine that.
The AAs are like Bs. “Kinda brilliant.”
#SyntheticCDO Atomic bomb to the #SubprimeBubble.
“I say when we sell.” Phenomenal acting by @SteveCarell.
Final analysis: a sobering look at greed run amok with amusing direct addresses and educational sidebars.
3 1/2 out of 4. Superb acting with an educational, accessible story from writer/director Adam McKay.

As Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) enthusiastically declared in Wall Street (1987), “Greed is good.” However, when a glut of greed causes an entire financial institution to become fraudulent, which in turn threatens to crash that nation’s economy, greed most definitely isn’t good. The Big Short is based on the book of the same name (subtitled: “Inside the Doomsday Machine”), written by Michael Lewis, and chronicles the events that precipitated the financial meltdown in 2008. Just like other movies that have focused on the subject at hand, i.e., HBO’s Too Big to Fail (2011), Short is less an entertainment than a cautionary tale wrapped inside a biopic. If the movie’s subject matter conjures images of a dry, narrated documentary, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to learn that Short is nothing of the sort. Writer/director Adam McKay (Anchorman, 2004) has done a superb job of describing complex financial concepts in layman’s terms, and has employed luminaries like Margo Robbie, Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez to explain those concepts in amusing vignettes. As in the similarly themed The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), Short allows numerous characters to break the fourth wall and address the audience in supplemental, anecdotal or humorous asides. All of these story devices lend the film a unique narrative flow, which makes it accessible to a mass audience and prevents it from degenerating into a derivative snore-fest. The cast is headlined by Brad Pitt, despite the fact that his character is ancillary to the action and his screen time is far less than many of his co-stars. Christian Bale is extremely effective as glass-eyed, socially awkward hedge fund manager Michael Burry, the first person (according to the movie) to bet against the housing market. The most impressive (and unexpected when considering his typical role) performance is turned in by Steve Carell, who plays Mark Baum, the low empathy, high maintenance ringleader of a small team of renegades inside Morgan Stanley. The freeze-frame shot of Baum’s face when he learns about Synthetic CDOs perfectly mirrors our own expressions of confusion, disbelief and betrayal. For scores of people who were adversely affected by the bursting of the “credit bubble,” it will take the rest of their life to wipe that look off of their face. If Short has done its job properly, you should leave the theater furious over how the banks have destroyed millions of lives and very nearly tanked our economy. Short is an important film, not only as an edutainment, but also as a reminder for us to never again commit this kind of financial blunder…as is hauntingly hinted at in the final scene of the film.

Concussion (PG-13)

Directed by: Peter Landesman
Starring: Will Smith
December 2015

The below comments (in Black) were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appear @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation (in Red). For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

“Banging’s not a natural thing.” Sounds like the movie’s central thesis.
“The science of death.” Macabre study. Takes a special person.
“Talk to them in your head.” Ha! #CadaverWhisperer
“Those are my peaches. They should not be there.” LOL!
“I’m dying in here!” Some amazing acting by #DavidMorse.
“One should eat breakfast in this country.” Got him!
“People do not go mad for no reason.” This one did. #MikeWebster
The jar illustration is downright frightening.
“God did not intend for humans to play football.” Scientifically accurate, but not a popular view among fans.
“Uneducated quack.” Idiot!
“The NFL owns a day of the week.” And Monday and Thursday nights too. #NFL
“This does not show up on a CT scan.” Get a #SPECT. #CTE
“They have to listen to us now.” #BurdenProof
“Tell the truth.” #Goosebumps
“If you don’t speak for the dead, who will?” #SpeakerForTheDead
“Please ask him to help me.” Touching scene. #HonestPrayer
Bennett finally gets to speak about concussions.
America’s forensic pathologist. #HighHonor
Final analysis: a sobering look at the dark reality of America’s favorite pastime.
3 out of 4 stars. A transformative performance by #WillSmith in a David vs Goliath tale of courage.

During a conversation focused on the growing problem of head injuries in sports, Alec Baldwin (as Dr. Julian Bailes, former team doctor for the Pittsburg Steelers) makes this statement about American football: “It is a mindless, violent game, and then it’s Shakespeare.” This ironic dichotomy not only serves as the film’s underlying premise, it also effectively expresses the ambivalence felt by many players and fans who must grapple with the bitter reality that the fun and exhilaration they derive from the popular pastime comes with a price. By dint of its classification as a contact sport, you can’t have a high level of excitement without punishing tackles and vicious blows to the head. And yet, most people, especially with what we now know about the sport’s potentially devastating effect on the brain, would agree that we must do more to protect football players from TBIs (traumatic brain injury) or, as Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) discovers in the film, CTEs (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). Omalu first encounters the disease while conducting extensive tests on the brain of legendary Steelers center Mike Webster (David Morse). As Omalu continues conducting autopsies on deceased football players, he detects a pattern which becomes the basis for his landmark journal article, which leads to an official diagnosis (CTE), which generates skepticism from many in the medical community and outright hostility from the NFL…after all, it owns a day of the week. As ironic as it seems, discovering the degenerative condition inside players’ brains turns out to be a far easier task for Omalu than convincing the NFL of his findings. What kicks off as a standard sports movie morphs into a medical procedural and ultimately ends up as a David vs. Goliath political thriller. Above all, Concussion chronicles one man’s dogged pursuit of the truth and the considerable diametrical forces that attempt to discredit and squelch his work (this struggle of opposing views is not too dissimilar from the basic arrangement of players on the football field: offense and defense). Smith turns in a remarkable performance as Nigerian pathologist Omalu and absolutely nails the accent. The supporting players are also extremely effective in their roles, especially Morse, whose portrayal of the deteriorating NFL star is heartbreaking and haunting. Honorable mention goes to: Baldwin, Albert Brooks (as Omalu’s supervisor), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (as Omalu’s wife) and Luke Wilson (as NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell). One wonders how much interference director Peter Landesman encountered while spearheading this even-handed effort to expose the ugly truth of the NFL (in specific and football in general). With the considerable connections and bankroll the league has at its disposal, it’s a minor miracle that a movie like Concussion ever made it to the big screen. And the fact that the film was released on Christmas Day, deep into the NFL’s regular season, shows that Columbia Pictures isn’t the least bit intimidated by the institution it’s brazenly indicting. I admire that kind of pluck, and, judging by his onscreen characterization, something tells me Omalu would too.

Spotlight (R)

Directed by: Tom McCarthy
Starring: Mark Ruffalo
November 2015

The below comments (in Black) were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appear @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation (in Red). For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Goodbye cake. #Depressing
“Are you familiar with Spotlight?” That’s why I’m watching the movie.
“You wanna sue the church?” David vs. Goliath. #Ironic
“Would you consider picking this one?” A new story for Spotlight.
“Twenty grand for molesting a child?” A pittance for destroying someone’s life.
SNAP. #CrummyAcronym
“Not prayed for, preyed upon.” Utterly reprehensible.
“How do you say no to God?” #AbuseOfPower
“A recognizable, psychiatric phenomenon.” #ProtectedPredators
A break in the case. #SickLeave
“It takes a village to abuse one.” Horrifying.
“Six percent of all priests.” Absolutely frightening!
“I never got any pleasure out of it.” Just when you thought this movie couldn’t get any more shocking.
“It’s like everyone already knows the story...except for us.” #Obstruction
Story runs and the phones start ringing off the hook. The truth finally comes out.
Final analysis: An expose of corruption for the ages. Flawless acting & superb direction bolster this true tale.
3 1/2 out of 4. Deplorable subject matter makes it hard to watch at times, but a vitally important film.

Spotlight dramatizes a watershed event from 2002 when the Boston Globe published a story that blew the lid off of the Catholic Church’s complicity in allowing known pedophile priests to continue serving in parishes. Spotlight is also the name of the small group of intrepid reporters at the Globe who exposed that pattern of corruption and dared to take on the Church. The movie is an ironic twist on the David versus Goliath tale from the Bible with the small team of reporters taking on the centuries-old religious institution. The story is told in a manner similar to that of All the President’s Men (1976), with reporters pounding the streets in order to piece together clues that will eventually aid them in confronting a social injustice. The newsroom dynamic in this film is also echoes President’s Men and other media focused movies of that period like Network (1976). The casting of the Spotlight team is pitch-perfect. Liev Schreiber, as editor Marty Baron, beautifully underplays his role in one of his finest performances. The star of the show is Michael Keaton, who plays Walter “Robby” Robinson, the ringleader of the Spotlight journalists. Each of the supporting actors are superb here, especially Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery, Brian d’Arcy James and Stanley Tucci. Insuring that everything onscreen accurately reflects the actual events as well as the styles, attitudes and settings of the post-millennial era is director Tom McCarthy. Each aspect of the production feels period appropriate, especially the dimly lit, cluttered office spaces and claustrophobic boardrooms. Writers Josh Singer and McCarthy have done a superb job of taking the morally reprehensible subject matter and making it appropriate for a mass audience. They’ve also skillfully and artfully depicted the actual events without politicizing or bashing organized religion. Just as the Spotlight team treaded carefully as they built their case, so too have Singer and McCarthy walked the tightrope between exposing the heinous behaviors of the outed priests and remaining reverent to the Church. Many have trumpeted this film as the frontrunner for Oscar’s top prize...and it’s hard to argue with such a sentiment. If Spotlight should happen to clinch Hollywood’s highest honor, it would be two Best Picture wins in a row for Keaton.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (PG-13)

Directed by: J.J. Abrams
Starring: Daisy Ridley
December 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Star Wars - The Force Awakens 1
Fortunately it’s the former.

There is no “balance in the Force” without the #Jedi. Great to see #MaxVonSydow.
Without the Jedi, the scales have tipped to the Dark Side. Looks like the galaxy needs a new hope. Von Sydow’s inclusion in the cast continues Star Wars’ long tradition of tapping classic Hollywood actors to play key parts: Sir Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing in the original trilogy, Christopher Lee in the prequels.

The trooper with three blood marks has trouble following orders. I can feel the conflict in him.
These markings remind me of the various symbols and designs on clone trooper helmets in The Clone Wars TV series and the muddy handprint on the faces of Saruman’s orcs in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Bread in seconds. #Rey can really hydrate a loaf.
Reference the instant pizzas in Back to the Future Part II (1989).

“The droid’s not for sale.” I’ve heard that before somewhere.
A reverse of Obi Wan’s statement in A New Hope (1977).

The #TIE crash lands on #Jakku. Don’t worry, the scrap will be used to help feed someone.
There’s a later scene where scavengers run straight toward a TIE fighter right before it crashes into the sand. When your livelihood is based on bartering machine parts, you get it while it’s hot, I suppose.

“I am with the Resistance.” Ha!
A funny scene that reveals Finn’s ability to improvise in order to survive.

“The garbage will do.” Hey, she’s still a fast hunk of junk.
Another knowing nod to Hope and Luke’s line, “What a piece of junk!”

“Anything else?” #KyloRen needs some anger management.
At least he doesn’t kill his officers like Vader.

#BB8’s thumbs up is uproariously funny.
The droid reveals its true purpose as a mobile cigarette lighter.

“Yes I do. Every time.” Han has always been a #SmoothTalker.
Han might make a mess in a cantina or step on a gangster’s tail, but he can always talk himself out of trouble.

“Move ball.” #HanSolo has never been a fan of droids. #BB8

Remember “Shut him up or shut him down” from The Empire Strikes Back (1980)?

“It’s all true.” #HanSolo is now a believer in the #Force.
He’s come a long way from his “simple tricks and nonsense” days.

“Women always find out the truth.” The wisest thing #HanSolo ever said.
And judging by his frosty relationship with Leah, it looks like he learned this truism the hard way.

#Rey heeds the #SabersCall.
This is her “cave” scene (a la Luke in Empire).

It’s hard to conceive of a weapon on a more epic scale than the #PlanetKiller. Jaw dropping.

#HanSolo using #Chewbacca’s crossbow is a hoot.
Nitpick alert: You mean to tell me that in all of their adventures together, Han never tried out Chewie’s crossbow?

“Princesses.” Ha!
When a prissy droid thinks you’re high maintenance, you’ve got some issues.

#KyloRen initiates a #MindMeld on #Rey. #SciFiMashUp
Clearly Ren needs some tips from Spock on how to extract information from someone’s brain.

“And I’ll drop my weapon.” #JediMindTrick
A funny scene and a trivia question all wrapped into one…the actor inside the trooper suit is none other than James Bond himself, Daniel Craig.

“Sanitation?” LOL!
The string of one-liners in this movie is also reminiscent of the humor in Hope.

“Escape now, hug later.” Always good advice.
Consider this: if Rey and Finn hadn’t hugged, Han might’ve had a few more seconds to take the lightsaber out of Ren’s hand. That hug killed Han!

A passing of the baton, er, lightsaber between initiate and master.
Although if I were Luke I’d tell Rey to “point that thing someplace else.”

Star Wars - The Force Awakens 2
The opening shot of the dark side of a #StarDestroyer is brilliantly visualized.
This shot sets the tone for the entire movie…it’s compositionally similar to many of the opening scenes in the earlier films, but is shot in a unique style with a completely different mood. It’s a symbolic change that’s emblematic of the movie’s many variations on the theme.

The frozen blaster beam is tight.
A really striking visual that also illustrates Ren’s formidable powers.

The “lived in” universe, i.e. crashed #StarDestroyers, #ATATs, etc, is startlingly realized.
These scenes have a strong sense of place and really capture the look and feel of Hope. There’s a lot of atmosphere and magic here.

“No droid could be that important.” Actually, this one is. #BB8
R2 was pretty important in his day too.

“The droid stole a freighter?” That’s one talented droid. #BB8
Well, I guess if an Ewok can ride a speeder bike…

“They’ll be pieces of us in three different systems.” Ha!
A classic Han line.

“Whatever you do, don’t stare.” Hard not to in that eclectic gin joint.
Isn’t that like trying to ignore the elephant in the room?

“I’m a Stormtrooper.” Where’s your armor? #MajorReveal
Finn takes Han’s advice and fesses up to Rey.

“I like this thing.” Who wouldn’t? #ChewiesCrossbow
It’s got quite a kick.

“That’s one animal pilot!” #PoeDameron
This line is precipitated by an incredible, writhing long take that showcases Dameron’s fancy flying.

New jacket. Same old Han. #HanSolo
It’s nice to know that some things never change.

#Rey escapes #Stormtroopers scurry.
In the Roman Empire, if a prisoner escaped under your watch your life would be forfeit.

“Is there a garbage chute? Trash compactor?” Han would know.
“What a wonderful smell you’ve discovered.”

“Come get it.” Yeah!
Although I wouldn’t be so cavalier in Finn’s place. Riling Ren isn’t a good idea…unless you’re a Jedi.

#R2D2 meet #BB8.
A mechanical meet cute where old meets new. A nice moment.

#Rey finds #LukeSkywalker. #MagicalMoment. #ChillBumps.
The scene reminds me of old martial arts movie where an initiate would have to scale a tall mountain in order to begin the training process with a Kung Fu master. A similar scene in Krull (1983) comes to mind. Also, Luke’s destiny seems to be the last hope for the Jedi order…he’s had that distinction twice now.

Final analysis: a bold new look for the franchise with a plot that mirrors #ANewHope.
And a large helping of Empire too.

3 out of 4. Better than the prequels but still lacks the magic of the original trilogy.

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…there were three good to amazing movies (Episodes 4-6) and three fair to awful films (Episodes 1-3) from creator, director, writer George Lucas. Now, after a fallow decade for the franchise, after Lucas passed the baton to Star Trek director J.J. Abrams and after Lucasfilm was sold to Disney, Episode VII, known as Star Wars: The Force Awakens, has finally been released amid much anticipation and under a cloud of secrecy that could shroud Bespin.  To bottom line it for you, Awakens is worthy of all the hype.  While Abrams’ riff on Lucas’ space epic lacks the wide-eyed wonder and sheer exhilaration of the original trilogy, it’s a Kessel Run ahead of the prequel trilogy.  In addition to moving the series forward chronologically (thirty-two years to be precise), Abrams has also made the series more palatable for contemporary audiences, just like he did for the most recent Star Trek movies.  Updating the technology, like various space ships and droids (i.e., the sleek ball-like robot BB-8), was a no-brainer. However, an even more important step in modernizing the franchise was Abrams’ sage decision to showcase more diversity in the cast, something that was largely missing from the earlier six Star Wars films (and that Lucas was widely criticized for). The two new heroes are a woman (Rey) and a black man (Finn). (Side comment: I’m really surprised there hasn’t been a racial uproar over the obvious similarity between the latter’s race and name to Huckleberry Finn). London actress Daisy Ridley, in her big screen debut, plays salvage scavenger Rey.  Rey is a distant of echo of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) since her desert home world, Jakku, is a dead ringer for Luke’s Tatooine…with the notable exception being that her planet is littered with derelict Star Destroyers and AT-AT walkers, not Krayt dragon skeletons.  Lucas’ conception of a “lived in” universe is vividly realized in Abrams’ first foray into the Star Wars saga.  The scenes involving Rey inside and outside the junked Star Destroyer are truly jaw-dropping (especially in 3D).  All of the desert scenes (shot in Abu Dhabi), particularly the scene where Rey slides down the sandy slope, are rich in atmosphere and tap into the gritty, organic feel that made A New Hope (1977) so otherworldly and magical.  One of the desert scenes depicts the crash landing of a TIE fighter with two of our heroes aboard: Finn (John Boyega), former stormtrooper turned Resistance fighter, and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), ace pilot for the Resistance.  Isaac (Ex Machina) has a scene with big screen legend Max Von Sydow, who makes a short, yet powerful, cameo at the beginning of the film.  Just as in Hope, the villain is introduced within the first five minutes of the film.  Even though Darth Vader has been replaced by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) in this film, there is a rather important connection between the two antagonists which is the basis for one of the movie’s many mysteries.  Of course, the two biggest enigmas in the movie are Luke’s location and Ren’s true identity—both characters are on opposite ends of the Force spectrum and, as destiny and Hollywood writing would demand, have had dealings with each other in the past.  Despite various side stories and numerous action sequences, the whereabouts of the former Jedi master is the movie’s central through line.  Normally a movie’s MacGuffin is an object or thing, but in this case it’s a person…Luke.  And just as Luke is scarce in the movie, he’s nowhere to be seen on the movie poster, which has generated a great deal of controversy and speculation.  Wild theories abound including one that has Luke inhabiting the dark outfit of the movie’s main villain, Ren.  As for Ren, Abrams made the wise choice to not make him too much like Vader.  Admittedly, the black outfit and wheezy mask are similar, but the comparisons between the two villains diverge from there.  Vader takes out his aggressions on his subordinates while Ren manages his anger by shredding computer terminals with his three bladed lightsaber.  Vader’s voice is deep and heavy on the reverb, while Ren’s vocalizations are thin and tinny, like a poor radio transmission.  The most significant difference is that Vader is a Sith and Ren isn’t—so avers Abrams.  As such, I don’t think there’s any doubt that Vader, the Master, could kick Ren’s Learner heinie.  One of Ren’s character snafus is that, barring severe allergies, he doesn’t really need a mask. Sure, it gives his character added mystique and explains some of his back story, but it’s an utterly superfluous plot element. The scene where Ren removes his mask isn’t even half as momentous as when Vader does the same in the original trilogy. Three mo-cap characters that are worthy of mention are: Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o), Unkar Plutt (Simon Pegg) and Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis).  Abrams has created photo-real CG creatures without making them too cutesy like Lucas’ alien creations in the prequels…thank the Maker.  Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the most important characters in the film—the entire cast of the first trilogy: Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Skywalker (Hamill), General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker).  It was uber-clever of Abrams to bridge the generations by integrating the original cast into this film. Ford, in particular, seemed to be having a ball this time around and turns in some of his finest acting in years.  Han’s opening line, “Chewie, we’re home” is cheer-worthy and makes for a memorable appearance for the smuggler and his rangy sidekick. In fact, each of the characters, including the droids, is given a dramatic entrance in the film (however, the reason why C-3PO has a red left arm is never explained).  It would’ve been standard, lazy Hollywood storytelling to just have the original characters show up, deliver a few lines and serve as nostalgia fodder for adult audience members.  Fortunately, Abrams, along with fellow scriptwriters Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt, wove these classic characters into the tapestry of the film in intelligent and delightful ways and gave each of them a significant role to play in the story.  Despite their heavy action and occasional frightening images, the Star Wars films have always been family friendly (and, fittingly, have focused on a family of characters), and Awakens certainly continues that tradition, as would be expected with Disney serving as owner and distributor of the film.  However, that doesn’t mean this movie is tame…nothing could be further from the truth as the film has plenty of pulse-pounding action. The film also boasts a degree of creative vision that’s nearly unparalleled in cinema history.  Even story elements that are completely unfounded scientifically, like the splintering death ray emanating from the Planet Killer, are mind-blowing in their scope, power and execution.  Abrams’ greatest contribution to the film was his Force-like ability to locate and populate the unexplored spaces within the extant Star Wars panoply. It’s almost as if Abrams and his writers listed dozens of things never attempted in the franchise and then selected a handful of them to build a plot around. The opening minutes are proof positive of this supposition since we’ve never seen the dark side (symbolic, right?) of a Star Destroyer before, nor a major ground assault at night. Most significantly, there isn’t a single space battle in the entire movie…all of the ship confrontations are staged as aerial assaults on a planet’s surface. The movie also marks the first time that enemy forces have conducted a tactical retreat…something that never would’ve happened on Vader’s watch. It’s possible to analyze this movie until the Banthas come home, but suffice it to say, this film has remained faithful to Lucas’ vision while venturing out into some bold new territory with some incredible new characters. Sure there are plot holes, inconsistencies and nitpicks here, as there are in any movie, but Awakens is a very serious attempt at doing justice to Lucas’ brainchild. Most of the early criticism of the film has centered on the story, which is ostensibly a patchwork reworking of the themes, scenes and lines from the original trilogy, particularly Hope and Empire. But the way I see it, if you’re going to borrow, why not borrow from the best? Whether you appreciate this kind of rehashed, retro-cool plot or not, I’m sure you’ll agree that this film has far, far surpassed the mediocre efforts of Episodes I-III—and how ironic that the characters in the movie are coming out of a Dark Ages (with no Jedi to ward off scum and villainy) just as we in the audience are coming out of one of our own (the prequels). Abrams’ film has resurrected the long dormant, long lackluster franchise with visual panache, an engaging story and some truly unforgettable moments. It has also effectively introduced the series to a whole new generation of fans. Once again, the Force is strong in the Star Wars universe.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2 (PG-13)

Directed by: Francis Lawrence
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence
November 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The Hunger Games - Mockingjay 2

“The bakery didn’t survive.” It was alive once? #LivingBakery
Sorry, couldn’t resist. Precision of language, folks.

Gale complains about #Katniss’ distracted kiss. I personally wouldn’t mind what she was thinking about.

The rebels crack the #Nut, much to #Katniss’ disapproval.
The beginning of the schism between Katniss and Gale.

“Turn your weapons to Snow.” #MeltingGun
A little play on words there. Reminds me of Duck Dodgers’ Disintegration Pistol which would…disintegrate. #LooneyTunes.

#PeetasPearl The ember remains.
Is this, in a symbolic sense, Peeta’s pearl of great price? #Bible

“She’s mythic.” #Katniss
Shouldn’t that be mythical?

“History doesn’t stop to celebrate.” Does it stop to mourn?
We do every year on September 11th and December 7th.

#StarSquad Say cheese!
There’s a whole section of the book where Katniss has to do extensive training in order to join the team. Sadly, none of those scenes appear in the movie.

Beware of #Pods. #
In that 50s sci-fi movie they were called pod plants, but close enough.

#Peeta the #CapitolMutt.
Snow does have him trained pretty well.

Peeta is a baker. So was the #ApostlePaul. #PeetaAndPaul
Before you brand me as a heretic, know that this is a witticism, courtesy of Bob Phillips. Paul was actually a tentmaker, but the joke maintains that he was a baker because he went to Philippi (Fill A Pie). #PewHumor.

#InkFlood Yick!
It’s later established that this is oil, which leads to the next tweet. I’m sure the oil was all CGI, but in the olden days the oil would be composed of printer’s ink and Metamucil or some other thickener. Reference Star Trek: The Next Generations’ “Skin of Evil.”

Apparently the Capitol has plenty of oil to waste.
I guess it’s Holo-Oil, created by the Gamemakers, but still.

“A face plucked from the masses.” #Katniss
Interesting word choice since Snow frequently plucks roses from his garden.

Coin cuts in on Snow. How wud!
No, they don’t dance together in the movie. That would be creepy.

Rest in a sewer? Don’t know that I could.
Unless I had nose plugs.

There’s a sound in the sewer tunnel. Must be #Gollum creeping about.
More appropriately, “sneaking.”

These #SewerZombies are fast.
Kind of like the speedy zombies in I Am Legend (2007) or World War Z (2013).

#Tigress is on loan to #Panem from the #
Correction: Tigress is from Kung Fu Panda, Tygra is from the Thundercats.

“They chose you.” Then they chose death.
The price of freedom.

Snow’s “our way of life” speech is frighteningly relevant to current events.
But in reverse with ISIS being cast in the role of the rebels. Although with all of the corruption in the U.S. government…

#ParachuteBombs Once a symbol of hope, now an instrument of death.
Color me cynical, but I wouldn’t be anywhere near one of those parachutes when it landed.

How many times does #Katniss end up in a hospital in this movie? #CharredMockingjay
I think I counted three visits to the hospital. This story device, which is presumably designed to produce pathos in the viewer, gets worn out from overuse.

“These things happen in war.” Especially when Snow’s finger is on the button.

A symbolic Hunger Games? Have we learned nothing?
Coin signs her own death warrant at this point.

 Snow’s can hear a Coin drop.

“GET OUT!!!” Poor cat’s gonna have #PTSD.
Although, I’ve never seen a cat just sit there when objects are hurled at it.

“No one ever wins the games.” Not even the #Victors.
Especially not the winners, because they have to live with the guilt from all the people they’ve had to kill in order to survive.

“Much worse games to play.” #Katniss has different arrows in her quiver now.
This world stands in stark contrast to the bombed out dystopia featured throughout the series. These scenes seem to suggest that there’s hope for humanity. #HappyEnding.

Final analysis: an adequate, if not spectacular, series capper.

The first two were really good, the last two were mediocre. Should’ve been a trilogy.
It’s a shame that The Hunger Games ended up as an average movie series since it had such potential to be great.

2 1/2 out of 4. The perfunctory plot and lack of action make this an unsatisfactory conclusion.

The trend where the final book of a series is turned into two movies needs to take one of Katniss’ arrows straight through the heart.  Instigated by the Twilight and Harry Potter (and later by The Hobbit, which is three movies for one book) franchises, the end result in each case has been a weak and watered down conclusion.  Obviously the rationale for milking more movies out of a book series is financially motivated, but any art extracted from the source material is suffering at the hand of avarice in these four movie trilogies.  Mockingjay 1 was a middling effort that merely set the table for this series finale.  Maybe it’s due to that weak lead-in, but this final Hunger Games film is a drab, lackluster affair, with a dearth of action sequences, insipid character scenes and a ho-hum resolution.  It’s a shame that Jennifer Lawrence’s considerable talents were wasted on this uninspired rendering of Suzanne Collins’ novel.  Other A-listers were also underserved here: Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks and Stanley Tucci have maybe a half dozen scenes between them. Also, Donald Sutherland (President Snow) and Julianne Moore (President Coin), as post-apocalyptic power brokers on opposing sides of a coup, do their utmost to animate their cardboard characters, but unfortunately even fine acting can’t elevate the movie’s mediocre writing. It’s truly sad that this underachieving effort will go down as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final film credit.  With all the quality work he did before his untimely passing in early 2014, it’s a shame that this film will be his last impression on future audiences.  Additionally, how ironic is it that Hoffman’s acting career, which was largely devoted to independent and arthouse pictures, should culminate with a commercial blockbuster and that today’s youth will probably only remember him as Plutarch Heavensbee in The Hunger Games films? As for the story, everything feels rushed, expedient and contrived in Peter Craig and Danny Strong’s screenplay.  When the Nut is blasted by the rebels, we see the explosions over Katniss’ shoulder off in the distance while she’s in the middle of an important conversation.  Here was an opportunity to create a really amazing action scene but it’s thrown away as a non-event, and worse still, upstaged by chatting characters. It’s bitterly ironic that even though there are plenty of character moments in the film, there’s very little characterization…an important distinction. We lost some good character interactions during the training sequences, which failed to appear in the movie, presumably because they would’ve taken up too much screen time. The simmering love triangle between Katniss, Peeta and Gale (which is an obvious echo of the Bella, Edward and Jacob triad from the Twilight series) comes to a full boil in this movie, but oddly, Katniss’ conflicted choice is made academic by the poor decision of one of her suitors.  Her selection is made in an instant, which cheapens the moment and is a severe letdown after the buildup over the last three movies.  Like the previous films, the final chapter of The Hunger Games flirts with a message, but doesn’t really deliver on the promise of a well considered, dystopian cautionary tale.  The perfunctory plot (which hews too closely to Collins’ novel) takes us on an expected journey to a predictable final confrontation and a standard, even passé, resolution.  The movie’s Jane Austen style ending will likely leave some spectators bewildered and others angered. This bucolic dénouement was a gutsy choice and even though I’m not averse to it personally, I can see where others might take issue with it or outright mock it.  So, is this film worthwhile?  Depends on how you like your entertainment.  For me, the movie left me hungry for a more substantial and meaningful final act to an otherwise entertaining series. 

Creed (PG-13)

Directed by: Ryan Coogler
Starring: Michael B. Jordan
November 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

No. But it is your uncle’s Rocky movie.

Adonis, son of Apollo, fights all the time. #FamilyBusiness
Adonis’ son will be named Agamemnon.

#CreedMansion Movin on up!
This cements the movie’s rags to riches theme.

Fighting without head gear. Duuumb!
Fighting in general…duuuumb. Or at lest tha the wey it meks ya.

“Time takes everybody’s undefeated.” #Rocky
The first great line in the movie and a glimpse of the quality writing to come.

A “self taught” boxer. Good luck with that.
I once read a book about how to become an astronaut. Does that qualify me to go into space?

“What cloud?” Hilarious!
Generation gap.

Old school training. #SlowChickens
A really funny scene that hearkens back to Rocky’s training in Rocky II (1979).

The #ToughestOpponent scene is a nice moment. #ManInTheMirror
This scene underscores the commonly held view that a big part of boxing is psychological.

“Without the name there’s no fight.”
A line that exposes the dark underbelly of boxing…that it’s all about the money.

Adonis is afraid of being the “Fake Creed.”
His opponent, Conlan (Tony Bellew), later calls him a “False Creed.” This strikes at the heart of Adonis’ identity crisis.

Don’t call him “Baby Creed.”
It doesn’t take much to push an angry person over the edge.

“If I fight, you fight.” Yeah!
The line was telegraphed by earlier statements, but it still works.

Creed trunks. Special moment.
The best of both names. A key moment in Adonis accepting who he is and finding his true identity. And not a moment too soon.

“Can he fight?” #LetsGetReadyToRumble
Nice to see legendary ring announcer, Michael Buffer, in the movie. Adds a nice note of authenticity.

“Proud to be a Creed.”
He’s proud to be an American too…just take a look at those trunks.

Final analysis: a meaningful sequel that moves the franchise forward in a bold new direction.
You’ve got to tip your hat to Stallone, who keeps finding new ways to move his franchise forward.

3 out of 4 stars. Superb performances by Jordan and Stallone. The best #Rocky movie that isn’t.

The seventh film in the franchise is actually the first with Creed in the title. As you’ll recall from the first four Rocky films, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) was Rocky’s nemesis turned friend, who met an untimely end in Rocky IV (1985). In the early goings of this film, we learn that Apollo had an illegitimate son named Adonis. Adonis is filled with anger over being raised in a foster home, and over never having met his father, and learns how to brawl at a young age. The adult Adonis (Michael B. Jordan) channels his aggression into boxing, which leads him to discover the identity of his deceased progenitor, which eventually leads him to Rocky (Sylvester Stallone). Initially reticent to get involved, Rocky finally agrees to become Adonis’ trainer, and you can guess where the film goes from here…for the most part. As an origins tale for Adonis, the movie’s rags to riches theme is in full force along with the master/pupil story element that worked so well in the first two Rocky movies with Burgess Meredith’s Mighty Mick. While Jordan’s characterization of Adonis isn’t overly complex, the physically demanding portrayal of Adonis, like Stallone’s punishing performances in his Rocky movies, is to be commended. The movie is all about self-discovery, the courage to keep fighting no matter what, the necessity of having family in your life (whether biological or not) and to always wear head gear when sparring (okay, so that’s not really one of the movie’s themes, but it is an important safety tip). Other than Adonis’ mother’s (Phylicia Rashad) mansion and his boxing trunks, there really isn’t anything glamorous about the film, which is actually a boon. The gritty look and feel of the film, and its inner city locations, resembles the original rather than the many sequels. Despite its fine production, clever premise and raw performances, the story line is fairly uncomplicated and is riddled with boxing movie tropes, i.e., the main character’s rough upbringing, an older/wiser mentor, training sequences/montages, key fight as the climactic event, etc. The twist on the formula is that Adonis is struggling to find his identity in the shadow of his father’s brilliant career. There are some really good character moments in the film, like Rocky’s “toughest opponent” training exercise and the “If I fight, you fight” scene where pupil challenges teacher. The motivational sayings are laid on pretty thick in the movie, which will be inspiring for some and annoying to others. Other than its sound bite dialog, predictable plot, stiff acting by Stallone (which actually fits his character this time around) and oversimplified story, there’s little else to critique here. The movie represents a changing of the guard: Rocky (finally) hangs up his boxing gloves and takes a young fighter under his wing. This symbolic transference of the mantle is nowhere more powerful and painful than in the final sequence, where Rocky struggles to climb the steps that he triumphantly vaulted in the first Rocky film. It’s a bittersweet and uber-nostalgic moment that’s also an extremely effective means of showing Rocky’s entire arc from young fighter to old trainer. The scene is ineffably poignant. So, with the baton securely passed from Rocky to Adonis, will there be a Creed 2? And if so, will Stallone be in it? Something tells me Stallone will appear in these films as long as he’s physically able to amble onto a movie set. Even if you aren’t a fan of his acting, you can’t take away the fact that Stallone is absolutely brilliant at finding new ways to keep his franchise pounding away at that side of beef.

Trumbo (R)

Directed by: Jay Roach
Starring: Bryan Cranston
November 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


Love the jazz score for the opener.
The infectiously upbeat music not only sets the tone for the film, it perfectly characterizes Trumbo’s unflagging energy and ambition.

“What writers write, builders build.” #PicketLine
This is an important reminder that no film would ever be produced without an army of people behind the scenes who build and create everything seen onscreen.

Post-movie shower. Sad.
Throwing a cup of water at someone was enough to make a point back in the 50s. Today they just shoot someone they disagree with. Tragic.

“We both have the right to be wrong.”
Trumbo was attempting to take the high road, but his strategy backfired since the person he was addressing had an extreme point of view. There’s nothing more dangerous that someone who knows they’re right.

Trumbo meets the Duke...and promptly insults him on where he was stationed during the war. #Ballsy
A really good scene, but I just couldn’t buy David James Elliott as John Wayne. But really, who else could they have cast in the part? Love him or hate him, the Duke was a true original.

Putting Communists in internment camps. Yikes!
I’m definitely not pro-Communist, but herding people like cattle into camps is morally reprehensible. We need look no further than Nazi concentration camps or US internment camps for Japanese Americans for examples of these atrocities.

Plan implodes when justice dies. Off to the pokey.
“The best laid plans…”

“Spread your cheeks.” How undignified.
Especially for an Academy award winning screenwriter.

“The luckiest unlucky man.” Touching and well written letter.

“No, you don’t want my name on it.” Ha!
Emphasis on the “you.” Having already been blacklisted and imprisoned, it made sense that Trumbo would use a pseudonym when trying to reestablish a career in the industry. While on the subject, many female writers also broke into the industry during this period by using pen names.

“The Alien and the Farm Girl.” Lesson: don’t mix political commentary with schlock.

Too busy for birthday cake. Sad. #SweetSixteen
Amazing how quickly people’s priorities can change. When Trumbo was in prison, his family was his main focus…at this point in his life it’s his work.

Who is Robert Rich? #
The story that kept nagging Trumbo over the years ends up becoming and Oscar winning screenplay. Just goes to show that it’s always best to write from the heart.

“It simply lacks genius.” Preminger was a tough customer.
But he was just as tough on actors, so there’s something to be said for his consistency.

Academy awards: 2. Yes!
Those who have an overdeveloped sense of justice, like me, will revel in this scene.

The scene where Trumbo’s screen credit is reflected on his glasses is absolutely brilliant.
Ingenious cinematography and inspired acting.

“It was a time of fear and no one was exempt.” #Blacklist
No one was exempt because this was such a polarizing issue. There really was no middle ground.

Final analysis: a timely true story of one man’s plight during a dark chapter in American history.
This film is timely because of what’s going on in the world at present. How will we treat the Syrian refugees when they arrive in our country? How will we treat Muslims in light of the recent terror attacks in Paris?

3 1/2 out of 4. Rich in historical detail and social relevance with a towering performance by Cranston.

As a huge fan of Spartacus (1960), I’m very familiar with the name Dalton Trumbo and of his plight during Hollywood’s blacklist phase. However, even with a previous knowledge of his story (anecdotally, at least), there were many aspects of Trumbo’s life and career that I was completely unaware of, like his penchant for writing in the bathtub. Trumbo effectively melds disparate narrative elements—a socially conscious biopic, an enthralling character study, a bittersweet dramedy and an accurate, if abridged, survey of film history—into a cohesive edutainment. As such, there’s something here for everyone. The movie’s big draw, of course, is Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston, who is utterly spellbinding as the titular script writer. Like a virtuoso pianist, Cranston hits every note with precision and acumen and mesmerizes with a performance so unique and veracious that at times the line between character and actor is exceedingly blurred. I can gush about Cranston’s portrayal of the eccentric writer for the rest of this review, but in all fairness, the supporting players are dazzling in this picture as well. First of all, Michael Stuhlbarg (Boardwalk Empire) is exceptional as Edward G. Robinson. Though he doesn’t quite favor the diminutive actor, Stuhlbarg makes the part his own without trying too hard to provide a perfect portrait of the Classic Hollywood mainstay. On the flip side of the coin is David James Elliott, whose depiction of John Wayne is, ironically, more wooden than any part the Duke ever played. However, is it really possible for any actor to accurately dramatize Wayne since he was a walking caricature? Although Diane Lane, Alan Tudyk, Roger Bart, Elle Fanning and John Goodman are all superb in their roles, honorable mention goes to Louis C.K. as Trumbo’s writer friend Arlen Hird and Helen Mirren as the Hollywood gossip queen Hedda Hopper. John McNamara’s (Aquarius) script is witty and nuanced and delicately negotiates some rather turbulent political terrain. At its core, this movie is about courage and cowardice. Trumbo goes to jail for his convictions. Both actor Kirk Douglas and director Otto Preminger fight for Trumo’s name to appear in Spartacus and Exodus, respectively. Standing in stark contrast to the courageous actions of these men are individuals who named names in order to save their own skins, like Robinson. Ironically, as the film aptly depicts, many of the finger pointers also suffered career setbacks due to the very suspicion of their involvement with the Communist party. Director Jay Roach (Meet the Parents) has delivered a conscientious film that, in addition to showcasing the authentic details of the milieu, also captures the moods and attitudes of proponents on both sides of the politically charged issue at the heart of the movie. Inserting the film’s actors into archival footage via CGI, a la Forrest Gump (1994), is yet another of the film’s many masterstrokes. The way I see it, a movie that educates while it entertains is a double whammy winner. And if it also happens to have a message, so much the better. Topical and timely, this film is not to be missed.

Spectre (PG-13)

Directed by: Sam Mendes
Starring: Daniel Craig
November 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

After his pre-release statement: “I’d rather slash my wrists” than play Bond again, I’m guessing yes.

The dead are alive.
They’re called zombies.

Mexico City. Day of the Dead. I’m having flashbacks to #
Different country, but the skeletons and other macabre images here are similar to the Mardi Gras themes/scenes in Roger Moore’s first Bond film.

A toast to death.
There’s a lot of the latter in this movie.

That’s one powerful sniper rifle.
The explosion here is kinda’ like in The Empire Strikes Back (1980) when Han Solo blew up the Imperial probe droid with his blaster…times a million.

Weird octopus opening.

#JamesBond meets #Moriarty.
Actor Andrew Scott plays Holmes’ arch nemesis, James Moriarty, in BBC’s Sherlock.

#SmartBlood Microchips are so last decade.
No more anonymity for anyone. Nor any privacy. Be very afraid.

“What a lovely view.” #MonicaBellucci is as fetching as ever.
It’s really surprising that Bellucci hasn’t been in any Bond films up until now since she seems perfectly suited to portray a Bond Girl.

Nasty eye poke.
Every Bond thug has his own shtick. Oddjob had his steel-brimmed bowler hat. Jaws had his metallic teeth. Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista) has his metal plated thumbnails.

Ammunition not loaded. Q is getting lax.
This whole sequence reminded me of the opener in Star Trek: Generations. “It won’t be installed until Tuesday.”

“You’re a kite dancing in a hurricane.” Thanks for the pep talk, Crusty. #PaleKing
The Pale King certainly lives up to his name. Although Wrinkle King would be a more fitting title.

“Cut out the middle man.” Hilarious!
My vote for funniest line in the movie. Bond needs a drink in his hand, not a veggie juice.

To liars and killers.
The movie is chockfull of both.

Bond vs Bautista. Amazing fight sequence.
Kind of reminded me of Batman fighting Bane in The Dark Knight Rises (2012).

Bond arrives at the #DesertStadium.
That’s exactly what it looks like. The granite fortress also reminds me of the gigantic crater where they hid Airwolf.

“Out of horror, beauty.” Sicko!
“Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

Q is for Quartermaster.
Never knew that’s what Q stood for. Seems kind of obvious in retrospect.

C is for Careless.
Don’t play chess with Ralph Fiennes…you’ll loose. Oh, and M isn’t for Moron, you punk.

“I’ve got something better to do.” Classic Bond #DoubleEntendre.
And a great way to end the movie, while leaving Blofeld alive and well to haunt Bond in future movies.

Final analysis: some entertaining moments, but an unwieldy actioner that squanders its superb cast.

2 1/2 out of 4 stars. Good Bond, but not great Bond. James Bond will return, but who will play him?

There’s an old expression: don’t bite the hand that feeds you. Pragmatic and didactic, this saying definitely applies to Daniel Craig’s pre-release statement that he’d rather have his wrists slashed than play Bond again. While it’s unclear what prompted such a vitriolic retort, one thing we can say with absolute certainty is that Bond has been pretty good to Craig over the years. In fact, his career might still be stuck in second gear with obscure indie films like Layer Cake (2004) or commercial flops like The Golden Compass (2007) were it not for Bond. Aside from Craig’s comment, which clearly hints at a “disturbance in the Force” behind the scenes, this film’s resolution also makes his continued participation in the series dubious a best. Although Craig’s commitment to his craft cannot be questioned, it’s quite obvious that something is missing from his portrayal of Bond this time around. Something is missing from the story too…a big something. Despite a handful of rousing action scenes and some fine location work, the sum of the parts here falls far short of Skyfall (2012) (although it’s still a fair sight better than 2008’s Quantum of Solace, which, ironically, also features an industrial complex out in the middle of a desert that Bond blows up). What prevents this movie from being top shelf Bond is its scattershot story which features dangling plot threads (Monica Bellucci needed to factor into the story line somehow), a great deal of globetrotting without really accomplishing anything, a murky cautionary tale about the invasive nature of technology and decent, but certainly not earth-shattering, action sequences. Lead writer on Spectre, John Logan, has had a checkered past (Gladiator, 2000 and Star Trek: Nemesis, 2002) as a Hollywood scribe, and his efforts on this film are, likewise, a mixed bag. The movie certainly flirts with relevance in the way it addresses the increasing presence of Big Brother in our lives. The delivery system for this Patriot Act on speed—smart blood—has far-reaching implications for the future of our world, not to mention being a clever, cutting-edge concept. The shadowy, extra-governmental agency story element has been done many times before (remember the Cancer Man’s cabal in The X-Files?), especially in spy films, so these “gathering of evils” scenes, though well staged and filmed, are painfully passé. The drill scene is utterly absurd and stretches credulity to near sci-fi limits. The action sequences are vintage Bond, which is to say visually exciting but completely unrealistic, e.g., the scene where the roof collapses and Bond ends up falling right onto a couch. Yeah right! The subplot centering on the 00 program becoming defunct is eerily similar to the disbanding of the IMF in this year’s Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation (and how similar is Spectre and the Syndicate in operation and objective?). The ultimate detractor to the story is its ADHD narrative, which moves its characters from place to place but doesn’t really go anywhere. There’s no MacGuffin here (at least not in the traditional sense), no clear-cut goal and no real sense of accomplishment at the end since we all know that the villain will be back in future films. Additionally, it’s obvious to anyone in the audience that Bond’s determination to put his career as a spy behind him can’t possibly last. Ironically, even though Spectre has moved the franchise forward, it’s actually set it back. Sad. So will Craig be back as Bond? Doubtful, but that might be a blessing in disguise if the actor isn’t fully invested in the role…that would be a disservice to the franchise and the fans. If Craig does decide to move on, let’s just hope it doesn’t take the producers four years to find a replacement like the last time. After all, there is such a thing as Bond withdrawals.

Bridge of Spies (PG-13)

Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Tom Hanks
October 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Bridge of Spies
It is.

Self portrait. Add a few more wrinkles there, buddy.
Being a painter is a nice cover for a spy.

Opening the coin. Intricate work.
Interesting how a different faux coin (silver dollar) also appears later in the movie.

“Not my guy.” Splitting hairs. #LimitingLiabilities
It’s amazing how ridiculous our system has become.  We split hairs so fine that we can’t even see the truth anymore.

Jim gets roped into doing a “patriotic duty.” #IncitingIncident
Alan Alda was the perfect choice for the part of Donovan’s superior…a symbol of the old, male Caucasian leadership of the era.

“Do many foreign agents register?” Good point.
Hi, I’m a spy for an enemy country.  Oops, guess I just blew my cover.

“You don’t seem alarmed.” Ha! #ElectricChair
There’s a man resigned to his fate.  Occupational hazard.

“You cannot be shot down. You cannot be captured.” No pressure.
Your country will disavow any knowledge of you.  Sign me up!

The “duck and cover” film shown in school is horrifying.
With Iran getting nukes, we might want to bring this instructional film back for today’s schoolchildren.

Pariah on a train.
What an awful feeling it would be to have everyone’s disapproving gaze trained on you.

The “standing man” story is a nice moment.
And pays off beautifully later in the movie.

Are there any “bigger issues” than justice?
It’s frightening how often justice is waylaid by misguided ploys or knee-jerk reactions.

If there’s a threat of capture, #SpendTheDollar.
It’s the last one you’ll ever spend.

“Will we stand by our cause less resolutely then he stands by his?” #KillerLine
An elegant line delivered with exceptional precision by Hanks.

The jet explosion scene is intense.
The only bona fide action scene in the movie.  Not nearly as pulse-pounding as the action sequences in this year’s Furious Seven, but it’ll do.

“Indulge their fiction.” #PrisonerExchange
This is where the plot gets convoluted.  Everyone’s angling for something different and it’s up to Donovan to outsmart all parties involved.

Watching the wall as it’s being built is #Historic.
A strange feeling washed over me as I watched this scene—viewing such a historic divide, as it’s being built, is…weighty.

Jim trades his coat for directions...and safe passage through East Berlin.
The expensive coat might have saved his life.  Good thing his passport wasn’t in it.

Jim’s “impatient plan” is the only sensible one.
Our timetable in the US does seem to be much more accelerated than the ones in many other places around the world.

“Every person matters.”
A very positive message that’s reinforced by Donovan’s insistence that Russian spy Abel (Mark Rylance in a terrific performance) be imprisoned, not sent to the electric chair.

“We’re on. Two for one.” Hot dog!
Easier said than done.

“I can wait.” Yeah!
An amazing moment of respect and solidarity.  Most people would’ve run toward freedom.

“This is your gift.” Touching.
Grab a hanky.

“I thought daddy was fishing.” Nope, he was off being a hero.
A stand and cheer moment.

A different kind of train ride this time. #Redemption
This is telling of just how fickle people are—how quickly their opinion can change. Remember High Noon (1952).

Final analysis: a slow-boil political thriller, brimming with historical accuracy and social significance.
And touching humanity.

Rating: 3 1/2 out of 4. Spielberg has delivered a gorgeous film and Hanks’ performance is Oscar-worthy.

As with any Hanks/Spielberg collaboration (their first since The Terminal, 2004) Spies is sure to be a hit with critics and audiences alike.  Based on the true story of how an insurance lawyer, Jim Donovan (Hanks), got caught in the middle of a political tug-o-war during the height of the Cold War, the film is a timely reminder of our nation’s tensions with Russia in the not-too-distant past.  The age-old adage that greatness is often thrust upon ordinary individuals at unsuspecting times certainly applies here.  Donovan, the very portrait of an unassuming leader, becomes the hero of the hour when his negotiation skills are called upon to secure the release of two American prisoners who are being held in prisons on the dark side (Communist) of Berlin.  Aside from the peerless acting and directing, the high end production is really what puts it over the top for this political potboiler period piece.  Peter Piper agrees.  The attention to detail and historical accuracy evident in every frame of the film is simply awe-inspiring; look no further than the startlingly realistic bombed out sections of Berlin for an example of this. The one possible snafu I have with this movie is that Spartacus appears on the marquee of a German theater in one scene.  Spartacus was released in the US on October 7, 1960.  It’s snowing in Germany, so we can assume that it’s Nov or Dec of 1960 when this scene takes place.  Since it normally takes three or more months for a movie to be distributed overseas, the timing of Spartacus’ release here is questionable. More research is required. If the movie has a downside it’s its length (2 hours, 21 minutes) and slow pacing. It’s unclear whether or not the inclusion of the Coen Bros. on the scripting team helped or hindered in this regard, but I’m reasonably confident, judging from their past work, that they had something to do with the overall quality of the script. Incidentally, the Coens’ are also currently co-executive producing the second season of Fargo on FX. One of the stars of that show, Jesse Plemons (Friday Night Lights) also appears here in an ancillary, but vital, role. So where’s all of the action we’ve come to expect from the man who brought us Indiana Jones and the first two Jurassic Park movies? The entire subplot involving the shot down pilot could’ve been explained in a couple lines of dialog.  The auteur wisely chose to add this story line (and the storyboarding for the sequence is vintage Spielberg), which provides the only real action in the movie.  However, even though the cross-cutting is nothing short of brilliant, these scenes are ultimately superfluous and don’t significantly move the story forward, and, ironically, only serve to make the film that much longer.  Despite these niggling criticisms, there’s a lot to appreciate here, not the least of which is the film’s humanitarian message and fish-out-of-water tale of courage and honor.  This historical biopic will go down as one of Spielberg’s finest films and should earn a raft of Oscar nods.  Spies is educational and inspirational and will stand the test of time as a top-shelf Cold War yarn.  Parting thought: if you ever visit Germany during the winter season, be sure to pack an extra coat.

Everest (PG-13)

Directed by: Baltasar Kormakur
Starring: Jason Clarke
September 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

If only psychologically. Actually, most SoCal theaters are like ice boxes year-round, so watching a flick is a great way to beat the heat.

20 teams. “A scrum on the ropes.”
Unfortunately, the more people there are on the mountain, the greater the chance of casualties. The grim reality of statistical probability.

“Mailman on Everest.” Long way to deliver a letter.
The Mailman is played by indie actor, John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone, 2010 and The Sessions, 2012).

Climber’s memorial. Last chance to turn back.
A graveyard for climbers whose lives were claimed by the mountain.

“The last word always belongs to the mountain.” Know who you’re competing against.
A good reminder to always pay the proper amount of respect to the mountain.

“One pound down here is like ten pounds up there.” #LightAndFast
This is a reference to shedding weight from a backpack, not personal weight. Although, that would factor in as well, one would think.

“Head down, one step at a time.” The only way to attack the mountain.
What a grueling task it would be to climb Everest. It’s not just how cold the air is, but also how thin it is.

“The mountain makes its own weather.” And it can change in an instant.
As the characters in the movie find out…the hard way.

Beautiful night view of the mountain.
There’s nothing like being on top of the world, breathing crisp, clean air and watching the moonlight glistening off of snow peaks. A spiritual experience.

No fixed ropes. You slip you die.
That’s okay. I’ll sit this one out.

Hopefully the call from home gives Rob the motivation he needs to get moving.
Wishful thinking on my part. In my defense, I was unfamiliar with this story before watching the film.

Final analysis: a heart-stopping, man vs. nature tale where respect for the mountain is paramount for survival.
And respect for fickle weather.

2 1/2 out of 4. What the film gains in production it loses in predictability. A true story worth watching.

This type of extreme sports movie has been done many times throughout cinema history. Mountain climbing films like K2 (1991) and Vertical Limit (2000) are presented more as thrillers than man versus nature cautionary tales. Whereas many of those mountain movies are fictional, Everest is based on the horrific events that occurred on the big mountain in 1996. Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) lead a team to the top of Everest, but on the descent, conditions rapidly worsened and many climbers either slipped off the edge of a cliff or became one with the mountain…permanently. Survival thrillers, along with disaster films and murder mysteries, usually employ a thinning of the herd narrative approach, and such is the case here.  As macabre as it sounds, it almost becomes a spectator sport to guess who will live and who will die when things go south, as they always do in this brand of film.  This Darwinian winnowing of characters is much harder to guess in fictional stories, but in true events, like the one featured in this film, anyone familiar with the historical account will know who survives and who doesn’t.  However, the writing here is as taut as a climbing line and should hold the attention of everyone in the audience with its skillful recitation of the harrowing events that befell this particular group of adventurers nearly twenty years ago. Bringing the characters to life is an eclectic cast of fine actors including: Clarke, Josh Brolin, Jake Gyllenhaal, Keira Knightley, John Hawkes, Emily Watson, Robin Wright and Sam Worthington.  If there’s a downside to having such a large cast it’s that screen time is at a premium, especially since personal stories are constantly upstaged by action on the mountain.  Some of the individual episodes are tragic, like when Hawkes’ mailman, Doug Hansen, sends himself express to the bottom of the mountain, while others are heroic, like the subplot focusing on Brolin’s ironically named character, Beck Weathers, who, despite losing his nose, miraculously survives two gelid nights up on the slope.  Although the death scenes aren’t overly graphic, some of them might be frightening for younger kids.  However, despite a handful of death scenes, there really isn’t anything else that’s objectionable in the film.  Indeed, one of the producers of the movie is Walden Media, which is the family friendly company that brought us the Narnia trilogy.  Aside from the decorated cast, the biggest draw here is the gorgeous scenery filmed on location in Nepal and Italy.  As the de facto star of the movie, the mountain scenes had to be spectacular, and they are, thanks in large part to director Baltasar Kormakur and cinematographer Salvatore Totino. All things considered, this movie is exactly what you’d expect from a tragic true tale set on the frozen tundra.  The movie is a humbling reminder of the awesome power of nature.  Moral of the story: don’t play games with Mother Nature.  You’ll lose.

The Martian (PG-13)

Directed by: Ridley Scott
Starring: Matt Damon
October 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The Martian
Not quite. Though not nearly as epic in scale or scope as Interstellar, The Martian is an enjoyable sci-fi yarn in its own right.

Communication is the hallmark of teamwork. Until you close the comm channel.
Can you imagine how much people on a long range space expedition would get on each others’ nerves?

Wicked windstorm. Beware of loose satellite dishes.
And crews that leave their own behind.

“Mark Watney is dead.” The end.
Good thing he isn’t dead or this would be a really short movie.

The press conference puts #JeffDaniels’ news anchor skills from #HBO’s #
TheNewsroom to good use.
If you close your eyes, you can almost picture him at a news anchor’s desk. Daniels excels in this kind of role.

Warning: the #SelfSurgery scene is rough to watch.
Scott featured a self-abortion procedure in his Alien prequel Prometheus. Seems to be a pattern with the director.

“I’m not going to die here.” That’s the spirit.
Watney’s positivity, along with his ingenuity, is really what saves his life.

“Luckily...I’m a botanist.” Ha!
A very funny scene since we really don’t know what Watney’s position in the crew is up to this point.

Nice #Noseplugs, Watney.

The first sign of green on #Mars.
This scene reminds me of the beginning of WALL-E when the robot gives the green sprig to EVE as a present.

50 million miles from Earth. #MajorHomesickness
I couldn’t imagine the suffocating isolation of being on an interstellar voyage like this.

Organic, homegrown potatoes on #Mars. They make far tastier #FrenchFries than #MacDonalds.
At least you’d know they were real potatoes, not frozen slices of processed starch like at Mickey Ds.

“The whole world is rooting for you.” What a singular honor.
Better not accidentally kill yourself. No pressure or anything.

“I colonized Mars.” Hilarious.
Watney’s cogitations are always so well formulated. The mark of a great scientist.

Mark’s life is saved by the “handyman’s secret weapon.” #DuctTape #
This Canadian comedy show will leave you in stitches. Back to Mars: it’s amazing how duct tape can seal a breach in a cracked helmet, effectively shutting out the Martian atmosphere. And great preparedness on Watney’s part to have tape on his person at all times. He must’ve been a Boy Scout.

#ProjectElrond. Clever inside reference with #SeanBean in the room. #Boromir #
Bean played Boromir, who was at the Council of Elrond in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001).

“Mark Watney, Space Pirate.” Love his line of reasoning. #SpacePirate
Though done tongue-in-cheek, the logical assemblage of facts with humorous applications makes this a delightful scene. It’s a nice character moment that further cements our affinity for the character.

“Everywhere I go I’m first.” What a euphoric feeling that would be.
It’s a sensation familiar only to true pioneers.

That tarp over the nose of the rocket is giving me major anxiety.
I’d want a lot more than a sheet of plastic between me and space.

“You have terrible taste in music.” Much needed #ComicRelief.
Disco is to music what film noir is to movies. Both had a clearly defined beginning and end. As such, they are styles or movements, not genres.

Final analysis: an inspiring story of ingenuity and tenacity that’s at least as heart stopping as #
And is arguably more intense (as a whole) than last year’s Interstellar.

3 1/2 out of 4. Damon turns in a stellar performance and Scott’s direction is truly out of this world.

Based on the novel of the same name by Andy Weir, The Martian is the latest foray into deep space by director Ridley Scott (Alien, 1979 and Prometheus, 2012). Although the star of the show is Matt Damon, he’s supported by a dazzling array of fine actors, including: Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Pena, Sean Bean, Kate Mara, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Mackenzie Davis. Damon plays Mark Watney, member of a manned mission to Mars. During a violent sand storm, gale force winds tear loose a satellite dish that slams into Watney and sends him spiraling away into the blustery Martian night. The team leader (Chastain) makes the difficult decision to leave Watney and the sand blasted surface of Mars behind for the regulated environs of the orbiting space vessel. Once the team is safely aboard, the ship begins its long journey back to Earth. At a press conference, Watney is pronounced dead by a NASA executive (Daniels). The end. Not quite. As you’ve guessed, Watney is still alive. Thus begins the rest of the movie, which centers on Watney’s arduous struggle to stay alive on the Red Planet and the problematic rescue mission mounted by NASA. The story element that makes this movie so incredibly enjoyable is its educational component: watching Watney use real science (most of which went right over my head) to sustain his life, especially during the sequence where he creates a makeshift greenhouse inside the landing pod, is engrossing and exhilarating. If these scenes have a downside, however, it’s that I suffered an anxiety attack when I mentally put myself in Watney’s place and realized I wouldn’t last one day on Mars with my limited knowledge of science. Granted, Watney is a trained astronaut, but there’s no way I would know how to make all of the gizmos he improvises with duct tape and feces (not together fortunately, ew). This master course in science is definitely one of the more engaging aspects of the film, but there’s plenty more to recommend it. Like in 2010 (1984) and Space Cowboys (2000), an international effort is required in order to accomplish the mission, a plot point that should appeal to foreign audiences as well as promote global goodwill…which our world can certainly use right now. There can be no doubt that Damon’s Watney is the hero of the hour: he’s resourceful, humble and witty. While Watney is a far cry from Damon’s devious Dr. Mann in Interstellar (2014), he’s a distant echo of Damon’s titular character in Saving Private Ryan (1998): rescue teams are sent to retrieve his characters in both of those films as well as this one. Playing a lost sheep is becoming a career MO for Damon. As a bona fide sci-fi epic, Martian puts other Mars-themed movies (Mission to Mars and Red Planet, both released in 2000) to shame. Ridley Scott’s well honed craft is evident both in the film’s outer space and planetary scenes. His framing of the visually striking desert vistas on the surface of Mars (filmed on Earth, of course) are effectively counterpointed by the moody and claustrophobic environments inside the various vessels—mother ship, module and rover. Scott mastered this juxtapositional contrast between the expansiveness of space and the constricting confines of space vessels in his Alien movies. The mounting crises in this film brings to mind the similar mechanical failures and scientific quandaries that made Apollo 13 (1995) such a pulse-pounding, nail-biting masterpiece. This film matches that level of intensity but also offers a good amount of comic relief, especially during Watney’s mission logs. Whereas Prometheus and Interstellar offer a harder brand of sci-fi, Martian is more scientifically accurate and has more commercial appeal. In the end, this survival film is thrilling, inspiring and crowd-pleasing and has carved out its own little corner of the sci-fi universe.

Pawn Sacrifice (PG-13)

Directed by: Edward Zwick
Starring: Tobey Maguire
September 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Pawn Sacrifice

“There are bad people out there.” Way to teach you kid, Ms. Fischer.
No wonder Fischer is so messed up later in life. Correction: “you” should be “your.”

“He taught himself.” Incredible.
The way the onscreen graphics illustrate the various moves that Fischer is seeing in his head is utterly brilliant.

“I want silence.” Woah!
I remember yelling that in my college dorm when knuckleheads were causing a commotion in the hallway while I was trying to study. Under the circumstances, I think my reaction was far more rational than Fischer’s here.

5 against 1. Fischer has a meltdown.
Fischer detects a pattern, something John Nash (Russell Crowe) was also pretty good at in A Beautiful Mind (2001).

“Russians are like boa constrictors.” Amazing how Fischer can remember every move of every game.
Although, some people can do the same for every baseball game they’ve ever seen on TV or listened to on the radio.

“Without chess he doesn’t exist.”
Not much of an existence if your whole world is wrapped up in one thing.

“A war of perception.” #ColdWar at its finest.

“World War III on a chess board.” Fischer vs Spassky.
The intrigue and action start kicking into high gear at this point.

Game 1 is decided by loud camera sounds.
And people in the audience whispering, coughing, etc. Noise pollution to the ultra sensitive.

Game 2- No show.
Fischer is busy looking for bugs in his room. No, not bedbugs.

Game 3. Bobby employs the “suicide” opening.
Dispensing with convention is what enables Fischer to get back into the tournament. A fact punctuated by his ingenious strategy in Game 6, which chess experts consider the finest game of chess ever played. Let that sink in for a minute.

The X-ray of Spassky’s chair reveals two dead flies. Nice to know Bobby isn’t the only one who’s nuts.
A great sequence that makes us question whether Spassky is just messing with Fischer or if he’s just as paranoid as his American opponent. The scene in Spassky’s room gives us a possible clue.

Chess is the search for truth.
Hmm…here I thought it was about humiliating your opponent.

Final analysis: a true story of a rare genius tragically plagued by a mental illness.
As we’ve seen in many examples throughout history, genius always has a trade-off: Vincent van Gogh, Brian Wilson (watch Love & Mercy), the aforementioned John Nash, etc.

Maguire delivers as a paranoid, angry perfectionist in an Oscar-worthy turn.

3 out of 4. Archival footage is a plus in this Cold War drama featuring U.S.’s most eccentric hero.

Steeped in Cold War intrigue, Pawn Sacrifice (how awesome is that title?) is like a John le Carre spy novel merged with a psychological drama couched in a historical biopic. Not to be confused with Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993), which told the story of a young chess prodigy who was trying to become the next Fischer, this film features the real account of Fischer’s turbulent life and career. Fischer, who rose to prominence in the sport of chess during the early years of the Cold War, made defeating the Russians his personal mission in life, an objective that met with extreme resistance since the Russians ruled the game during the 60s and 70s and had a system in place to ensure their continued dominance. Even though Fischer’s ambitions to singlehandedly dismantle the Russian juggernaut set him on an arduous path, the toughest opponent Fischer ever faced was himself. In the throes of a co-morbid stew of symptoms (which, according to my unprofessional opinion, included: OCD, paranoia, manic depressive disorder and some form of autism), Fischer’s brilliance certainly came with a price. Bringing such a multifaceted character to life would prove challenging to any performer and former Spider-Man actor, Tobey Maguire, probably wouldn’t appear on anyone’s short list to play such an emotionally demanding part. However, sometimes defying conventional wisdom produces greatness and such is the case here as Maguire turns in his finest performance since Seabiscuit (2003). Although Maguire’s acting is consistently superb in the film, and should attract the attention of the Academy, the tantrum on the beach and the scene where Fischer tears his room apart looking for bugs are standouts. As with any good story, a hero can never truly shine without a formidable foil—that role is filled by Liev Schreiber, who is exceptional in his portrayal of Russian chess god Boris Spassky, a man who, as characterized in the film, had some mental troubles of his own. If the idea of watching a series of chess matches for two hours doesn’t appeal to you, know that director Edward Zwick (Glory) has done an excellent job of building tension through interpersonal and intrapersonal conflict and that very little of the movie is spent hunched over a chess board. That said, even if you aren’t a chess fan, the mesmerizing performances and bracing drama should hold your interest throughout the movie. The use of nightly news clips and archival footage from the actual chess tournaments also infuses the film with a degree of historical accuracy that should effectively transport you back to these significant events, which took place over forty years ago. So if you’re in the mood for a Cold War yarn, or just a fascinating character study of a mad genius, this movie is for you. That’s my gambit. Your move.

The Intern (PG-13)

Directed by: Nancy Meyers
Starring: Robert De Niro
September 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The Intern

“A hole in my life.” Many people, young and old, have this.
Although this search for significance is universal, it’s probably more pronounced for those facing old age alone.

“I still have music in me.” Heartfelt video audition. Inspiring.

A way for friends to shop together online. Dangerous.
Just imagine friends making recommendations for each other or people pressure buying what their friends bought. Frightening. Especially with the Confessions of a Shopaholic (2009) set.

“What was your you remember?” Ha!
What a backhanded, ageist, comment.

Gray is the new green.
I thought orange is the new black. I’m so confused.

The blinking scene is hilarious.
Hathaway’s character is weirded out by people who don’t blink. But what about those who blink too much?

“Sitting is the new smoking.”
Not quite as bad for you, but a point well made for those cube dwellers that’ve been forced into a sedentary lifestyle.

When did “too observant” become a bad thing?
Many people are content to believe lies about themselves and are resistant when someone comes along and tells them the truth.

The Facebook and pizza scene is special.
This is the kind of well crafted character scene that sets Meyers apart from other filmmakers in the drama/comedy hybrid genre.

The “fake alarm” scene is hilarious.

First date at a funeral. Classy.
Flipping the bird at a funeral? Classless.

Pocket squares...a secret weapon with women.
DeNiro’s explanation for how pocket squares were made with women, not men, in mind is ennobling and chivalrous…something has clearly been lost over the generations. Hathaway’s character, Jules, points this out in the bar scene when she contrasts Jack Nicholson and Harrison Ford with the three twenty-something schlubs standing in front of her.

Intern/best friend. Touching scene.

Final analysis: a touching, topical film that strikes all the right chords emotionally.
As we’ve come to expect from Meyers’ films.

De Niro and Hathaway are terrific together and director Nancy Meyers has delivered another cinematic gem.

3 out of 4 stars. A crowd-pleasing dramedy that should appeal to the young and old alike.

Nancy Meyers has done it again! Not only has she delivered another delightful and diligent character study, she’s also given us a film that, like many of her past films, has tapped into the zeitgeist in powerful yet nearly imperceptible ways. In The Holiday (2006), Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz—both of whom have just broken up with their loser boyfriends and just need to get away—conduct an intercontinental house swap for the Holidays. Though themes of old relationships, new adventures, accidental boob grazes (okay, you got me…it isn’t a theme, but it is an extremely funny scene) and overcoming emotional numbness all factor into the film, it’s the keen comparisons between old and new Hollywood by Eli Wallach’s character that serve as the heart and soul of the film. It’s Complicated (2009) shows the effects that a middle aged divorce has on the grownup kids in the family…and how adults can carry on like kids in the midst of a confusing love triangle. The Intern (not to be confused with Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson’s The Internship from 2013) is Meyers’ canniest film to date. The director addresses the generation gap, career reversal (woman CEO married to Mr. Mom, who, in his state of emasculation, steps out on his wife) and the need for structure and purpose in our lives in such an organic, unassuming way that most people will miss the surfeit of social relevance dispensed here. The film incisively depicts the plight of young people desperately trying to make their mark in a down economy and how anyone over forty is considered ancient by the youth focused job force and may find it difficult to secure employment. Whereas the twenty-somethings may be doggedly focused on making their first million by thirty, some retirement aged folks, like Ben (Robert De Niro), would be happy just to have a job to help them pass the time of day. The film underscores another disconnect in today’s business world…the people with little to no experience (not knowledge, degrees or advancement due to nepotism) are making all of the decisions while individuals with decades of on-the-job training and wisdom are being relegated to the sidelines or, worse still, coffee runs for entitled bosses with superior social media and/or computer skills but who have no people skills or business acumen whatsoever (if you detect a hint of animosity it’s because I, like far too many other highly qualified individuals in our country right now, am living Ben’s reality every day). Only when both sides of this generational struggle learn how to work together, as Jules (Anne Hathaway) and Ben do in this film, can true progress be made in our nation’s business sector. The infidelity subplot has been done a trillion times before, and the one here really isn’t all that noteworthy other than the way it adds tension to the story. What is worth mentioning is the film’s underlying theme of the basic human need for purpose. For Jules it’s her job, which everything in her life is conspiring to take away from her. For Ben, it’s having structure and socialization in his life as a retired widower. The message is clear: whether just starting out in the work force or winding down after a long career, we all need some type of vocation to fill our days and give us a sense of accomplishment. The final scene also gives us a hint about how to find fulfillment and satisfaction in life...sometimes we just need to take a day off to actually enjoy the life we work so hard to maintain. Other than its clever characterizations, stellar performances, sure-handed direction, socially salient plot points and crowd-pleasing story, The Intern is just like every other dramedy out there.

Captive (PG-13)

Directed by: Jerry Jameson
Starring: Kate Mara
September 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


Yeah, a #CR meeting. Best place to go to work on life’s three “H”s.
Hurts, hang-ups and habits. “Keep coming back, it works if you work it and it won’t if you don’t!”

“I like it too much.” If you’ve ever said this, there’s a good chance you’re an addict.
Actually, it’s almost a certainty.

“A month...a few days.” #AddictsTimetable
You hear this type of revisionist history all the time on TV shows featuring real-life drug busts.

Ahh...the old pour a Coke on the battery trick. #Classic
And just think, we actually put that in our stomachs.

Brian isn’t a complete monster, he has a soft spot for his son.
His one redeeming quality.

Brian is in denial over raping a woman and Ashley is in denial over her meth habit. #DoubleDenial
Messed up people have an uncanny way of finding each other.

“My family doesn’t listen to me either.” #NoTrust
Of course, once you’ve burned enough bridges, you have no more credibility.

“You’re not my brother.” Got him!

“Lady’s first.” #CrisisMoment
If you were an addict desperately trying to quit, would you take at hit or a bullet?

Brian’s plan is to rob a bank and escape to Mexico. #RealOriginal
This is pretty much the plan every villain has in every Western book/movie script ever written.

Brian says, “I have a demon in me.” Hadn’t noticed.
He also has drugs in him. Probably doesn’t help matters any.

The car stall scene is intense.
You just knew this was going to happen since they set it up earlier in the movie.

The greatest tragedy is a “life without purpose.” #PDL #Saddleback
One of the many great lines from The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren.

“Goodbye, Little Man.” Touching voice mail message.
It’s sad when you think of all the little men out there who will never get to meet their dads because they’re doing time for doing illegal things.

“You don’t have to be perfect to be used by God.” A #PowerfulMessage from @RickWarren. #Saddleback
In fact, many of the people God used in the Bible were far from perfect.

Final analysis: a powerful true story of how one woman finds redemption amid a life-changing tragedy.
And one man’s courage to do the right thing by letting the woman go and surrendering himself to the authorities.

3 out of 4. A hope-filled story and fine performances help to overcome the movie’s budgetary constraints.

Based on the true story of how Folsom County prison inmate, Brian Nichols (David Oyelowo), escaped from his cell, killed four people (including a judge) and became the focal point of one of the most high profile manhunts in our country’s history, Captive is a tragic tale but also a story of courage, hope and forgiveness. The events portrayed in Captive take place in 2005 during a terrifying and tragic eight hour period and are adapted from the book of the same name written by Ashley Smith, the woman Brian holds captive when he tries to hole up and evade the police dragnet. Ashley, played by Kate Mara, is a meth head who is trying to get her life back on track so that she can regain custody of her daughter. Fate, or perhaps a higher power, puts these two tragic figures together and the results are, by turns, intense and inspiring. The first thing most viewers will notice about the film is that it doesn’t have a very big budget. The second thing that will register with the audience is that the producers wisely allocated a generous portion of their budget to securing A list actors, namely Golden Globe nominee Oyelowo (Selma, 2014) and Mara (House of Cards). Since the majority of the film features both actors, either together or separately, the lead performers had to be solid if the film had any chance to succeed, so money well spent on these two fine performers who fit their roles perfectly and work extremely well together. The story maintains its intensity throughout and the riveting drama is punctuated by thriller-esque moments, like when Ashley’s car breaks down at night in the pouring rain. The climactic sequence, where police close in around Nichols, is also quite suspenseful. The movie’s theme of redemption isn’t necessarily subtle, but it isn’t driven home with a jackhammer either…thankfully. Though there’s a strong religious underpinning here, the film never comes off as preachy. In fact, this movie should serve as a template for other “religious” dramas: it’s a gripping true story that has some top talent and a faith-affirming message that’s conveyed organically rather than foisted upon its audience. Some sports movies, like Facing the Giants (2006) and last year’s When the Game Stands Tall have already perfected this faith-based film formula. Granted, due to its conspicuous message and/or shoestring budget, Captive won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. At the very least, the film has given us a big screen treatment of the ripped-from-the-headlines account of Nichols’ prison break and subsequent life changing encounter with Smith. So, whether or not you find the film illuminating, hopefully you’ll find it captivating.

Learning to Drive (R)

Directed by: Isabel Coixet
Starring: Patricia Clarkson
August 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Learning to Drive
Or as Kingsley’s Darwan says, “Seatbelt first.”

“Driving is a freedom.” One that can be revoked for idiots.
Many people need to be reminded that driving is a privilege not a right and that a license can be revoked at any time. There, I’ve made my point. Idiots!

The #TaxicabConfessions style opener is heartbreaking.
And an accurate portrayal of what cabbies must deal with as part of their job. No thanks.

“The third itch.” Male menopause. #Manopause
Every seven years. Kinda’ like Vulcans and Pon Farr.

“Teach yourself to see everything.” No easy task.
Especially for people who suffer from ADD/ADHD.

A #SkankMachine. Amusing.
And just like the tantalizing treats in a vending machine, flings only meet an immediate need and are nothing more than empty calories for the soul.

“It’s like asking me to move out of me.” Sad.
A spiteful spouse will use anything they can to inflict emotional pain during a divorce.

“I think it’s time to discuss road rage.” Ha!
Kingsley is masterful in his portrayal of an Indian man. Of course, he’s had plenty of practice. Gandhi (1982).

“Rear entry.” Check!
Not even gonna’ touch this one. Ew!

Peligro. Right motive, wrong language.
How terrifying would it be to live in a country where you didn’t know the language, customs, etc.?

“Goodbye Wendy.” Illegal hands to the face.
A really telling scene. Clearly Darwan has feelings for Wendy, but those feelings will have to remain unexplored due to his circumstances.

“You’re my faith.” Touching moment.
Whereas it’s inadvisable to put your faith in a person, I understand and agree with Wendy’s sentiment here. An extremely bittersweet resolution.

Final analysis: a feel good drama about finding the courage to overcome the painful transitions in life.

3 out of 4. Superb central performances & a heartwarming story make this a crowd-pleasing winner.

Let’s face it…there isn’t anything earth-shattering about this movie. The family drama meets collision-of-cultures premise has been done many times before in movie history. Elevating such a project above the morass of similarly themed films requires, among other things, stellar lead performances. This movie certainly delivers on that front with superb turns by Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley, two actors you wouldn’t naturally match up as a possible love interest, but who are marvelous together here. It’s not just the A-list actors who deserve credit, though: Grace Gummer (The Newsroom), Jake Weber (Hell on Wheels) and Sarita Choudhury (Homeland) also shine in their supporting roles. A solid assist also comes from the many NYC locations, which visually festoon the film while grounding the story in a strong sense of place. Another plus here is the judicious placement of cultural (Indian) insights into the story line, which provide diversity and authenticity to the proceedings. However, what really sets this film apart from others of its ilk is its unique riffs on dramedy tropes. The first expectation shattered here, and the trailer was more than a little disingenuous on this count, is that this is a romance film. As the plot unfolds, it becomes evident that Wendy (Clarkson) and Darwan (Kingsley), who meet via a chance encounter and develop an unlikely friendship, have feelings for each other. Those feelings, however, remain unrequited due to timing and propriety: Clarkson is in the throes of a divorce while Kingsley is just jumping (literally, since he ties the knot one day after meeting his bride) into a marriage—arranged, of course, as per cultural dictates. The wistful yearning the characters have for each other is palpable and the chemistry between them is undeniable. The fact that this slice-of-life story doesn’t degenerate into romantic drivel is really what recommends it the most. Another story element that eschews the typical cutesy or lazy storytelling often found in this brand of light drama is when Clarkson’s daughter, Tasha (played by Meryl Streep’s daughter, Gummer), asks if she can live at home with mom after experiencing a painful breakup with her boyfriend at college. Recently separated Wendy is in need of companionship, so this plan seems like a natural, mutual resolution to the felt-needs of both mother and daughter. However, Clarkson turns down her daughter’s request and affirms that returning to college, where Tasha will soon develop new friendships and romantic interests, is really the best thing for her. It’s a great moment that flies in the face of convention and is 100% schmaltz free. The final narrative changeup is when Wendy says her faith rests in Darwan, which precludes any kind of relationship with him since he’s married. Again, the writers don’t resort to pat or contrived solutions, so kudos to them for taking the narrative high road. While the sentimental set will surely grow frustrated by these less-than-ideal plot choices, those who prefer realistic stories with genuine emotions should thoroughly enjoy this honest, straightforward portrait of individuals who are attempting to embrace new beginnings while coping with life-altering challenges. Or to put it a different way, the movie is really just about learning how to suck it up and drive on.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (PG-13)

Directed by: Guy Ritchie
Starring: Henry Cavill
August 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The Man From UNCLE
Who better to play rival spies than Superman (Cavill) and the Lone Ranger (Hammer)?

“I just hope he doesn’t drive as fast as he moves,” Mr. Important Suit says.
In an ironic twist, Hammer proves to be faster than a speeding bullet.

“He’s trying to stop the car.” Ha!
A funny scene, especially when Cavill refuses to shoot Hammer because he’s amused by the audacity and tenacity of his foreign counterpart.

“Inside every Kraut is an American trying to come out.” #ColdWarHumor
Perhaps, but is every Kraut sour?

“America is teaming up with Russia.” And there’s our premise.
Writ large for those who can’t figure it out on their own.

“It doesn’t have to match.” These spies fight over everything, even women’s fashion.
Actually, it’s a bit frightening how much they know about women’s fashion. Does their job often require them to dress up in female disguises? Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course.

“Good night little chop shop girl.” All danced out, apparently.
Or in a liquor coma.

“These...are...Russian...made.” Amusing scene.
It’s scenes like this that lighten the mood and help move the story along in the movie’s early goings.

The slap upside the head scene is hilarious.
And totally unrealistic. Even a Vulcan nerve pinch seems more feasible.

Who peels a grape?
Seems like a waste of time…and food. It also seems a tad masochistic, which leads us to…

Pain and’s two masters. If you’re a masochist.
I thought love conquered all? Guess I need to keep up with the times.

“For a special agent you aren’t having a special day, are you?” #HughGrant’s comedic timing is flawless.
Though he has a few more wrinkles these days, Grant is still an effective funny man.

The scene where the 4-wheeler glides over the water is amazing.
This action sequence is arguably the finest in the movie and is aided immensely by aerial shots that zoom in on moving objects, a la documentary filmmaking.

“How’s that for entertainment?” Fun nonlinear sequence.
However, even though it’s a well executed scene, it borrows heavily from Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes movies.

“You’re a terrible spy, cowboy.” Back at you, Ruskie.
Amazing that, all these years later, Cold War tropes and stereotypes still find their way into modern entertainment.

Final analysis: gorgeous locations, arresting action and solid acting overcome an opaque plot.
That last point is the movie’s main drawback. The first quarter of the film is a head-scratcher until enough of the plot pieces fall into place and the story starts to make sense…sort of.

3 out of 4. The humor, action and brilliant film style put it over the top for this spy yarn.

Based on the 60s espionage TV series of the same name, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. focuses on the exploits of one American and one Russian spy who are forced to work together for the global good during the Cold War…no easy task. Obviously, this premise had more relevance back in the 60s than it does today, although, Cold War tensions, under one guise or another, still persist in the modern world. A small screen answer to the Bond films, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was heavy on intriguing spycraft and thrilling adventure, both of which, fortunately, have been carried over into the big screen adaptation. In the TV series, Robert Vaughn played Napoleon Solo and David McCallum played Illya Kuryakin; here it’s Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer, respectively. The opening scene introduces the characters and sets up a rather amusing game of cat and mouse between the two superstar spies. The real fun begins when they’re forced to work together as partners—the clash of styles and cultures instigates many humorous and spirited exchanges between the two agents. The action scenes, though few and far between, are superbly storyboarded and realized. However, they don’t contain the typical jaw-dropping visuals that you’d expect to find in a big budget summer action film, with the exception of the aerial shots captured for the high-octane chase scene. Ritchie’s use of stylistic elements—i.e., quick freeze frame shots, prismatic lens flares, etc—is really what prevents the film from becoming yet another action movie clone. An editing/narrative technique employed here, which was also used to great effect in the director’s Sherlock Holmes films, involves using flashback sequences to explain the mysteries that were planted earlier in the story. Although it’s gimmicky and trite, this storytelling device works quite well here. If there’s a downside to the movie, it’s the slowly-paced, frequently confusing story. Even though Ritchie eventually answers all of the questions posed during the movie, trying to figure out where the story’s going is often an arduous, frustrating task. If you have the appropriate degree of patience and focus, there’s a good chance the film will actually make sense to you. Otherwise, you might find this film to be an exercise in consternation. Still, in this age of shallow storylines with gaping plot holes (Transformers, Pacific Rim, etc.), having too much story is a nice change of pace over having too little. As for the acting, Cavill and Hammer are perfectly cast and have amazing screen chemistry as feuding partners forced to find common ground while fighting a common enemy. Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina) is also extremely effective as the duplicitous damsel in distress and provides a tantalizing wild card element to the proceedings. All things considered, this is a decent film that’s entertaining, if not earth-shattering. An U.N.C.L.E. franchise seems feasible as long as emerging stars Cavill and Hammer remain interested in the films and as long as patrons keep showing up to see them. Coming fast on the heels of Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation and carrying the torch for Spectre, the next James Bond film set to release this fall, U.N.C.L.E. is another 60s spy property that proves this action sub-genre is alive and well.

Southpaw (R)

Directed by: Antoine Fuqua
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal
July 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

With much respect to ring announcer Michael Buffer for his signature line.

The ritual of padding the boxer’s fists is extremely involved. Takes up a couple minutes of screen time.
Besides serving as an intro over the opening credits, this sequence demonstrates just how painstaking the preparations are for a bout and how boxing is, indeed, big business.

“Is that all you got?” Don’t taunt the guy.
Especially when you have blood streaming down your face.

“You got hit a lot, dad.” Hope’s daughter counts the boo boos on his face.
This is a really cute scene and a practical way for Hope’s daughter to gage how rough her daddy’s night was in the ring.

“You wanna go two rounds with me, champ?” Sign me up!
For Rachel McAdams I’m sure I could somehow find the strength.

“It’s not that bad.” Famous last words.

Hope head butts the referee. Where was that fight earlier in the bout?
Misplaced anger seems to be an issue for many boxers.

“Let me just give my daughter a hug.” Heartbreaking.
And when the bailiffs try to subdue Hope, you just know that things aren’t going to end well.

No wife, no house, no kid. Things have really gone south for Southpaw.
Somebody needs to play this Country song backwards so that Hope can get back everything he’s lost.

“Can’t even hit a question.” Ha!

“Stopping punches with your face is not defense.” That’s okay, Hope, Rocky was never any good at defense either.
Though not nearly as legendary as the training scenes in the Rocky films, the techniques Forrest Whitaker’s Tick Wills uses are also memorable and highly effective. I love the “strings in the ring” scene.

“Make him miss, make him pay.” Good strategy.
Fighting smarter, not harder, is the order of the day…a radical departure from Hope’s earlier, “human punching bag” style of boxing.

“Don’t let this man control you.” This is intense.
You just don’t go insulting a man’s family like that. I don’t know what the punk was thinking, but whatever it was, it backfired…in a big way.

Grab a tissue box for the final father/daughter hug.
Finally a glimmer of hope in this Murphy’s Law on steroids story.

Final analysis: a hard hitting redemption drama with a tremendous performance by Gyllenhaal.
However, as good as this performance is, it doesn’t top what Gyllenhaal achieved as the mentally deranged news cameraman in last year’s Nightcrawler.

3 out of 4 stars. An often bleak look at a fallen star that thankfully offers some hope at the end.

For those not in the know regarding boxing jargon, southpaw refers to a left-handed fighter. Another aspect of the word comes to light during this film’s climactic fight when Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) switches from a right-handed to left-handed attack. It’s the reverse of Inigo Montoya’s surprise revelation in The Princess Bride (1987), “I am not left-handed.” When analyzing any boxing film, natural comparisons must be made to Rocky (1976) or even earlier films like The Set-Up (1949) or Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), both directed by Robert Wise. In these examples, and many others, something resembling a pattern has emerged and a few of those boxing film tropes include: enacted boxing sequences (of course), a middle to lower class meathead who has lots of pent up anger from a childhood trauma or other family drama, a miraculous comeback against all odds and crowd-pleasing training scenes that help the audience to identify with and cheer on the main character. Many of those ingredients are present in this pugilistic portrait as well, with one notable exception; Hope is already at the pinnacle of his profession when the movie begins. Whereas Rocky was a populist rags to riches tale, Southpaw is a reversal of fortunes faux biopic that’s just as brutal outside the ring as inside it. The movie presents a fascinating character study of a man who parlays his talents into a career that provides everything he’s ever wanted in life—the World Light Heavyweight title, a gigantic estate, a fancy sports car, a beautiful wife and a cherubic daughter. However, Hope’s performance-driven existence implodes like a house of cards when tragedy befalls his family and he’s forced to be a father for the first time and get a job outside of boxing, which is all he’s ever known. Gyllenhaal is terrific as the movie’s central, tragic figure and is thoroughly convincing as both cocky champ and down-on-his-luck chump. This part splits its screen time between the public and private lives of the boxer, and Gyllenhaal plays each of these character aspects to perfection. This physically punishing role surely took its toll on the actor, so kudos to Gyllenhaal who, literally, suffers for his art in this film. Aside from the lead performer, the supporting players are also exceptionally good here, especially Rachel McAdams as Hope’s wife and Forest Whitaker as Hope’s no BS trainer. If the movie has a drawback, it’s the merciless and unrelenting Murphy’s Law plot, which turns the film into an exercise in bleakness and futility. By way of warning, the sustained heavy-hitting drama and frequently violent fight scenes may be too intense for some viewers. As such, Southpaw is about as enjoyable as hitting your thumb with a hammer. Fortunately it isn’t as painful and is more worthwhile in the end. Though the final scene offers an avenue of redemption for the downtrodden fighter, don’t expect a triumphant celebration like the ones found in the Rocky films. A solitary ray of hope is about all this film can muster.

Final Note: This film features James Horner’s final, posthumous score. Horner was one of the great film composers of our time. May he RIP.

Fantastic Four (PG-13)

Directed by: Josh Trank
Starring: Miles Teller
August 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Fantastic Four
Flame out. Perhaps forever.

“I’ve already built it.” Sure kid.
We saw this exact same scenario—kid with an invention that actually works rejected by a narrow-minded adult—earlier this summer in Tomorrowland (and also in last year’s Big Hero 6 and 2006’s Meet the Robinsons). Hackneyed movie opener.

Reed needs a power converter. I think Luke picked up a spare at #ToscheStation.
You might have to put up with his whiney voice, but he’s a fair trader.

“You’re paying for the backboard.” No appreciation for science.
Is this Hoosiers (1986) or a superhero movie?

“There’s patterns in everything.” Like #KateMara’s shirt, for instance.
Why can’t Sue see the pattern of destruction that’s in the offing?

“Fix what my generation broke.” Tall order.
And extremely unfair. It’s like saying, “We blew it and now it’s up to you to save the world. No pressure.”

“Us us?” Great dialog.
“Yes, yes.” Because a team of scientists would make prime candidates for exploring a new world, right?

Cool #Lego mug.
Does it come apart? Might create a minor inconvenience if it contained hot coffee.

Where are the space suits for the chimps? #AnimalCruelty
I guess because the chimps didn’t actually step out onto the alien planet they didn’t necessarily need space suits. However, as a precaution against any kind of hull breach that would allow a foreign, virulent agent into the capsule, the simians technically should’ve been inside some sort of environment suit…with a sippy straw leading to a bladder full of puréed bananas. Also, if the chimps had gotten out they might have established a true Planet of the Apes.

Reed Richards can create a teleportation device, but doesn’t know how to do a #FistBump? #Lame
Just proof positive of how little thought was put into this script by writers Jeremy Slater, Simon Kinberg and Josh Trank.

“I don’t think we went anywhere.” Kinda like the plot.
Indeed, the entire movie is like a roller coaster that never leaves the platform…all hype and no thrills.

Victor falls into the green lava pit. He’s doomed.
Will we ever get away from these tacky villain names taken directly from the comic books? Today’s audience is savvy enough to know who the antagonist is without naming him Von Doom.

#PlanetZero Where all plots go to die.
Planet Zero…where zeros are turned into heroes. Planet Zero…where you get zero entertainment value for your two hour and twelve buck investment. This is too easy.

Sue’s adoptive dad calls her Susan, which she dislikes. #Nitpick
Earlier, we learn that Sue dislikes being called “Susan” by Victor. So why would her adoptive father call her a name she doesn’t want to be called?

Johnny accidentally throws a fireball at Sue. #FriendlyFire
And the military is thinking about using him as an asset?

The naming of the group scene is utterly insane.
Correction: Although the scene is quite insane, I meant to type “inane.”

Final analysis: a poorly produced and paced reboot that squanders its talent on mediocre fare.
By talent, of course, I mean the central four cast members, each of whom is primed to become a major Hollywood star.

1 1/2 out of 4. The only thing fantastic about this film is the wealth of commentary it’s generated.

I see no reason to waste my time (or yours) on a full review for this film. Actually the word “film” is too fine an appellation for this superfluous series of bland, expositional scenes which are performed on drab sets and locations and adorned with substandard production elements. It’s no overstatement that a sixth grader could’ve written a better story than what we find in this pedestrian plot, which lays out something like this: they went, they came back, they went again to fix everything they messed up the first time and then they came back home. See Dick run. The first half of the picture focuses on the “they went” part, which drags on and on with uninteresting character beats and infuriatingly prosaic dialog. The four heroes finally get their superpowers about midway through the movie, at which point we’ve become so terminally bored that we really could care less what happens to them. The action sequences are poorly conceived and executed and are accompanied by lackluster visual effects, save for the impressive scene where the trees and cars are sucked up into the singularity a la Mega Maid’s cosmic vacuum in Spaceballs (1987). As for the “major” fight scene at the end of the flick…kids staging an imaginary battle in their backyard could’ve choreographed a more creative and energetic melee than the one featured here. This is especially true of the scene where Dr. Doom quickly and easily neutralizes the powers of each member of the Fantastic Four. They aren’t so fantastic after all it would seem…much like the movie itself. Bottom line: This ill-advised release makes the original, mediocre Fantastic Four movies look like The Avengers films by comparison. This un-Fantastic flick may have singlehandedly killed the series despite the presence of some truly talented young performers in the title roles. Unless some future reboot miraculously reanimates the comatose series, this franchise is doomed.

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (PG-13)

Directed by: Christopher McQuarrie
Starring: Tom Cruise
July 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Mission Impossible - Rogue Nation
This review will self-destruct in five, four, three…

“I didn’t need help, I needed assistance.”
Of semantics and silliness.

“Open the door!”
If you’ve seen the trailer you know what’s coming…

“The other door.”

A turntable. How quaint.
Normally these mission dossiers are ultra high tech, so it’s nice to see something this retro as the delivery system for the message. And I absolutely loved the jazz history lesson.

“Saving the Western Hemisphere.” Ha!

“Today’s the day when the IMFs luck runs out.” Time to go rogue.
And by luck, Alec Baldwin’s character means funding….and government sanctioning. Minor speed bumps.

OMG! The way Hunt works his way up the pole is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen.
And the fact that Cruise did this stunt himself is uber-impressive.

“Welcome to the CIA.” No thanks.
Robert Culp’s character on The Greatest American Hero once referred to the CIA as “Creeps in Action.” Aptly put, especially in this film.

“You want drama, go to the opera?” Must I?
Although, this is certainly the liveliest opera I’ve ever seen (on the big screen). An amazing backstage brawl, debris raining down onto the set and a thwarted assassination attempt all combine to make this an unforgettable sequence. To say nothing of the obvious rifle as phallus imagery.

The bow tie’s coming off. Here we go!

Two assassins. Who to shoot?
C’mon, you know Ethan isn’t going to shoot the smokin’ hot babe.

“Change of plans. Throw her out.” Ha!
One of the funniest moments/lines in the film.

The anti-IMF. #TheSyndicate.
Bond has SPECTRE, Marvel has Hydra, etc. Same dif.

A digital safety deposit box. A clever concept as long as you don’t get hacked.
Or as long as there isn’t any data corruption, or a solar flare that knocks out the electricity, etc. In short, nothing is truly “safe.”

“That doesn’t sound impossible.” #ConserveOxygen
A throwaway line that riffs on the title. Good for a titter and a line for Twitter, but not much else.

Ethan jumps into a water singularity that looks like a giant woofer on a speaker.
Either that or a monochromatic version of the Looney Tunes opener.

The moment would’ve played far better if this was Pegg’s first film in the series. As things are, his standard shtick inspires courtesy chortles rather than uproarious guffaws.

One of the most pulse pounding motorcycle pursuits ever committed to film.
And I love that shirt Cruise is wearing. Where can I purchase one?

“There are no allies in statecraft.” No honor among thieves either.
This is one of my favorite lines in the film. It feels like it was lifted right out of a Le Carre novel.

“You sure can ride.” #ThatsWhatSheSaid
I debated over whether or not to Tweet this, due to its appropriateness, but it’s the only favorite I got for this movie so #GoodGamble.

“Come away with me.” I really like #Option3.
A woman like that wouldn’t have to ask me twice.

“That Syndicate.” There’s more than one?
I guess it is like Hydra. Cut off one head…

“Rome wasn’t destroyed in a day.”
A nice twist on the phrase and a fitting one for this actioner.

“Meet the IMF.” Yeah!
A rousing scene that’s more than a little reminiscent of the superhero team shot in The Avengers.

Final analysis: a decent addition to the series that has solid action, but little heart.
I never once felt connected to anything in the story. The tame romance isn’t the least bit compelling, nor is the standard issue IMF under siege by a secret organization with nefarious motives subplot. There’s nothing new here and even the action sequences seem predictable and passé.

2 1/2 out of 4. A mild disappointment, but only because 1, 3 & 4 were so superb.

The trailer for this fifth Mission Impossible movie showcases a few choice clips of Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) holding on to the side of an ascending jet in a death-defying stunt. Hunt yells for his tech assistant, Benji (Simon Pegg), to open the door so that he can enter the plane before being blown clear by rapidly increasing wind shears. Benji opens the wrong door, which generates laughter from the audience, and we’re on to the next high-octane scene in the two minute promo for the film. In the actual movie, this sequence serves as the opener and is a standalone action segment that has nothing to do with the rest of the film. The nail biting, physics fudging plane-hang is there simply to grab the audience’s attention from the start and to set the pace and tone for the rest of this action packed summer blockbuster. The episodic opener is reminiscent of the M:I TV series, which would occasionally use cliffhangers as intros to episodes (Alias did this extensively as well). The problem here is that the “hanging from a jet” set piece is the finest action sequence in the film—with the underwater and motorcycle scenes coming in a close second. I contend that the opening passage should’ve been employed as the climactic action piece and integrated into the narrative. As things stand, this opener is an exciting, yet utterly meaningless, midair spectacle that’s ultimately a missed opportunity, an egregious misappropriation of energies and a self-indulgent exercise by writer/director Christopher McQuarrie. As for the rest of the action scenes, they’re well choreographed and executed, but they aren’t nearly as spectacular as the ones exhibited in the last two M:I films. Though the underwater sequence gets props for being the most ambitious and creative action beat in the film, the motorcycle chase, though pulse-pounding, isn’t all that much better than what we’ve seen in the Bourne or modern Bond movies. The story is serviceable but has some noticeable deficits: there’s very little genuine jeopardy (since we know that none of the main characters are going to die), the villain is mediocre and the so-called romance between Hunt and Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson) is painfully tepid. Cruise, fittingly, coasts through the plot as if on cruise control, but doesn’t bring anything new to his character beyond what’s already been established in the earlier movies. As for the rest of the cast, Pegg is predictably comedic, Jeremy Renner hits his marks but is disappointingly perfunctory and Ving Rhames is nothing more than an ambulatory cardboard standup of his character. Of the new additions to the cast, Ferguson is far better in her action scenes than in her acting scenes and Alec Baldwin, though a bit stiff as the suit with shifting loyalties, delivers the only true standout performance in the film. Bottom line: Rogue boasts some frenetic action scenes, decent acting and a mildly diverting story. However, beyond those few elements, there’s little else to recommend the film. While Rogue is still a giant fulcrum swing better than M:I II, it doesn’t even come close to the quality of the other films in the series. Though it’s hard to put a finger on what inhibits the film the most, there’s definitely something lacking here. Let’s hope Paramount Pictures discovers that missing ingredient before approving the next mission.

Mr. Holmes (PG)

Directed by: Bill Condon
Starring: Ian McKellen
July 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Mr. Holmes

“It isn’t a bee, it’s a wasp. Different thing entirely.” The essence of distinctions.
And, as we learn in the film, wasps kill bees. Oh, and that bees leave their stingers in their victims while wasps leave painful welts.

“It’s usually about his wife.” Holmes teaches Roger the #ArtOfDeduction.
Actually, this is more life experience than deduction. If a man is hung up over something, 9 times out of 10 it’s a woman.

“And if I forget to make the mark?” Practical as ever.
The scene later in the movie, where we see the journal filled with black dots, is absolutely horrifying. The mind is a terrible thing to waste, especially when it’s one as brilliant as Holmes’.

Never heard of a #GlassHarmonica. I usually just rub my finger over the mouth of a drinking glass.
And, truthfully, I’m not even very talented at that.

“We do not like wasps.” Something the young and old can both agree on.
The relationship between Holmes and Roger is one of the movie’s many highlights.

“I prefer facts.”
As Dragnet’s Joe Friday would say, “Just the facts, ma’am.”

Holmes finds #PricklyAsh amid the horrific remains of Hiroshima.
Fascinating, and bitterly ironic, that a substance that improves memory should grow in an area of the world that many would choose to forget.

Holmes watches a movie based on one of his cases. His review: #PureRubbish.
Of course, since Holmes himself is fictional, the detective watching himself on the big screen is utterly ludicrous.

“I can’t remember.” Holmes like we’ve never seen him before.
We’ve seen Holmes in the throes of an addiction (Nicholas Meyer’s 1976 film The Seven-Per-Cent Solution) before, but never in the grip of Alzheimers. It’s a totally compelling, and heartbreaking, portrayal of a once indomitable private detective.

“A good son always does what his mother asks.”
Good advice for sons of any age.

“Don’t say everything you think.” #LifeLesson
If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all. Remember that chestnut from your youth?

Burn, wasps. Burn!
Actually, other than Holmes’ poor memory, the wasps are the only antagonists in the film.

“My first foray into the world of fiction.” And it’s a good one.
And more factual (if fictitious) than Watson’s accounts, as we’re lead to believe by Holmes.

Final analysis: a deeply moving portrait of a once formidable detective in the throes of losing his faculties.
A totally unique take on the character and one that hits the mark, thanks in large part to its incomparable star.

3 1/2 out of 4 stars. McKellen is mesmerizing in this first-rate, though slowly paced, #DraMystery.

One thing there’s always been an abundance of throughout film history is sequels, and one of the longest running series of all time spotlights London’s preeminent caper solver, Sherlock Holmes. The master detective has been portrayed in over 200 films by over 70 top tier actors, ranging from Basil Rathbone to Robert Downey Jr. Although characterizations have contained minor variations in mannerisms and style, Holmes has been played fairly consistently over the years: confident, irreverent and snobbish, with an encyclopedic knowledge and preternatural insight into human beings and the natural world around them. By contrast, something we’ve never seen before, until this film, is a Holmes who isn’t in complete command of his mental faculties. A Holmes with Alzheimers is just as compelling (perhaps even more so), than a kryptonite crippled Superman. Since Holmes’ greatest asset is his brain, his aggressive memory loss reduces him to a pitiable, tragic figure—a mere shadow of his former self. However, what makes this vivid character portrait even more fascinating is that even though Holmes’ memory is failing him, his powers of deduction are still razor sharp. So who could possibly pull off such a complex role while also infusing it with the necessary vulnerability, sagacity and…magic? Why, a living, breathing wizard, of course. Ian McKellen’s performance is a study in brilliance; he fits the part of the aging investigator so well that it seems as if he were born to play Holmes. The main thrust of the movie revolves around Holmes’ final case—the one that inexplicably sent him into early retirement when he had plenty of good sleuthing years still ahead of him. Snippets of that case are woven into the tapestry of the narrative in a series of flashbacks. Holmes, channeling his inner John Watson, puts pen to paper and tries to piece together the events of his concluding conundrum in narrative form. There’s one crucial detail of his initial investigation that evades Holmes’ every effort to isolate it inside the prison of his mind. This elusive clue becomes a MacGuffin of sorts and its eventual unveiling reveals a heartrending tragedy. The bitter knowledge that successfully solving a case doesn’t always guarantee a positive outcome for all parties involved drives Holmes from his flat on 221B Baker Street to a country cottage, where he hangs up his deerstalker hat for good. Whereas the intermittent vignettes of Holmes’ ultimate intrigue serve as the spine of the movie, it’s Holmes’ interactions with his housekeeper (Laura Linney) and her son Roger (Milo Parker) that grounds the movie and shows us a human side to the character that we’ve rarely, if ever, seen before. Though the pacing is slow at times, the insightful flashbacks and clever planting of clues should hold the attention of most audience members. Of course, the period accurate details, gorgeous locations and stellar performances should also keep viewers engaged and entertained throughout the movie. Bottom line: this film portrays Holmes in a way we’ve never seen before, thanks in large part to an added depth of character and reassuring measure of his humanity. I deduce that this film will be well regarded by critics and will even gain Oscar’s attention. We’ll see how accurate my inner Holmes proves to be.

Irrational Man (R)

Directed by: Woody Allen
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix
July 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Irrational Man

“A reputation proceeded me.”
An emphasis on the word “A.” Which infers a negative reputation. Ironically, it’s a negative reputation that Abe is fully aware of. Correction: Preceded. All proceeds from this review will go toward my grammar lessons.

The difference between philosophy and the real world. The #AnneFrank example is thought-provoking.
The point being that always telling the truth can have dire consequences in certain instances. Reference Jim Carrey in Liar, Liar (1997).

Abe avers that much of philosophy is #VerbalMasturbation.
Which is having sex with someone you love. Reference Annie Hall (1977).

Abe has lost “the will to breathe.” He needs to be #Unblocked.
Parker Posey helps Abe out with his whole “blocked” issue. Abe doesn’t need to resort to self love in this instance. I know, TMI.

Abe’s lesson in “existentialism” is shocking. #RussianRoulette
Abe definitely lives on the edge. The extents that he’ll go to in order to prove his point, however, are unhealthy…and dangerous.

Abe finds a new purpose as hit man. #StrangersInADiner
In a way, Jill creates a monster by drawing Abe’s attention to the conversation taking place in the booth behind her in the diner. Reference Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951).

“Go with your gut.” Abe should know. #BeerBelly
Phoenix really let himself go for this role. Suffering for his art…while eating a Big Mac.

How to lace a fresh squeezed orange juice with cyanide.
It looks a lot easier than it is. Don’t try this at home.

Abe has learned to celebrate life instead of romanticizing death.
Ironically, this new clarity in life comes from murdering someone he’s never met—celebrating death.

The deconstruction of the judge’s murder over dinner is a fabulous scene.
Ethan Phillips (Star Trek: Voyager) stands out here, but it’s his screen daughter, Stone, who steals the scene with her leaps of logic that prove to be dead on.

“A dark cloud had covered the moon.” #SeedOfDoubt
Note to men everywhere: when a woman says there’s nothing wrong, there always is…and there’s a good chance it’s something you said or did.

Abe’s “meaningful act” comes to light.
Abe’s rationalization for his action is disturbing, yet wholly justified from a purely pragmatic standpoint.

Saved by a flashlight.
It was a whistle in Titanic (1997). It’s the little things in life…

Final analysis: The story morphs from a character study to a murder mystery, but is compelling throughout.
I applaud Allen for taking a chance on this ambitious, off format story. This is certainly a unique entry into his oeuvre.

3 out of 4. Top notch acting by Phoenix and Stone and sure-handed direction from Allen, as usual.

Woody Allen’s 51st film is a good one, but not a great one. The stars, Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone, are fabulous as mentally troubled teacher and starry-eyed student, respectively. The movie is a fascinating character study of Abe (Phoenix), a freethinking, womanizing, liquor guzzling philosophy professor whose melancholia and mania (self Russian Roulette) have established a reputation that’s followed him from his former college to his new one. The shrouded details of Abe’s checkered past create a mystique that proves irresistible to impressionable ingénues and carousing cougars alike. Abe’s projection of redeemable misanthrope acts like a potent aphrodisiac on the colleagues (Parker Posey) and students (Stone) who are helplessly and haplessly trapped in orbit around him. Abe is an intriguing personality for many reasons, not the least of which is that his own personal philosophy of life, and more importantly death, is so disparate from what he teaches in the classroom. Abe’s blind spot is his misguided notion of justice. Jill’s (Stone) blind spot is Abe. Jill follows Abe around like a lost puppy dog and is high on his crafty speech and encyclopedic knowledge, both of which make him sound like he’s figured out all of life’s intricate mysteries. Jill is oblivious to Abe’s dark side for the first half of the movie but her denial gradually wears off when she hears some disturbing rumors which open her eyes to Abe’s true nature…a deeply disturbed, ice-in-the-veins killer. As such, Abe’s psychotic tendencies run antithetical to the archetypal Allen lead character (even with as messed up as Cate Blanchett’s bi-polar busybody was in Blue Jasmine, her character was sympathetic in spite of her mental condition). Abe is sympathetic at the beginning of the film but is wholly irredeemable by the end. This lack of a true-blue hero is one of the story’s biggest drawbacks. The real Achilles’ heel here, though, is the story. By switching thematic gears—from a straightforward character drama to a murder mystery/thriller—midway through the film, Allen runs the risk of confusing or exasperating his audience. However, despite its noticeable narrative modulation, the mid-movie plot shift is a unique story method and Allen’s sure-handed direction makes the transition a relatively seamless one. Irrational is one of Allen’s headier scripts; it’s heavy on philosophy and ethics but light on the signature brand of humor that marks most of his films. All things considered, this is a nice change-of-pace film for the auteur. Sadly, though it contains rich performances and a thought-provoking moral, this film fails to register as top tier Allen. If you disagree with my assessment of the movie, know that I’m doing my best to not resemble the title.

Terminator Genisys (PG-13)

Directed by: Alan Taylor
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger
July 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Terminator Genisys
His first time back to the franchise since his stint as the Governator.

“It used our own bombs against us.” Shades of 9-11.
A thinly veiled reference to that fateful day in 2001. It’s a plot device that’s grown tired from overuse, especially since it seems to be an easy way to illicit an emotional response from the audience. A highly exploitative plot contrivance.

“Use my hands for something other than killing.” #TMI
It’s hard to see Arnold whittling animal figures out of wood as a pastime.

“We take back our world.” Yeah!
And simultaneously avoid Judgment Day, which will pretty much wipe out the events from the earlier films.

The first tactical time weapon. Fascinating.

“The futuristic not set.” A central axiom of these movies.
Correction: Should read “The future is not set.” Curse you Twitter! It thinks it’s being helpful by suggesting similar words, but it just messes me up. In a darkened room with a darkened phone screen and tiny buttons, it’s easy to select the wrong word.

Genisys is Skynet. Thanks for spelling it out for us.
I really wish the writers would’ve let us figure this out on our own instead of outright announcing it several times during the movie.

“Come with me if you want to live.” Don’t have to ask me twice.
This is one of the better lines in the movie, but it seems like I’ve heard it before somewhere.

“So you’re the one I’ve been waiting for all my life.” Nice double entendre.
A funny line that reveals the movie’s underpinning predestination plot.

“I’m old, not obsolete,” says Pops. Actually, Pops was pretty obsolete when fighting his younger self.
Good thing he brought backup. Wise old android.

The doppelgänger scene with two Kyle Reese’s is daft. Reference #
StarTrek for many examples of this.
What if Sarah had guessed wrong? Kyle would have to hobble around for the rest of the movie…which is actually a pretty cool character limitation.

“Why hold onto someone when you know you’ll have to let them go?” #MeaninglessGesture
Absolutely true…from an automaton’s perspective. A prime example of how human emotions can transcend the cold, hard logic of a machine.

A #TotallyConnected life. Frightening!
This type of technological convergence is on the horizon. Its implications are exciting and frightening all at the same time.

Scarface meets his much younger mother. #Paradox

How can a school bus be armed and extremely dangerous?
Poor dialog alert.

Why do maximum destruction action sequences always seem to take place on the #GoldenGateBridge?
Reference: Fantastic Four (2005), X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), etc.

Pops gets an upgrade. He’s not so obsolete after all.

Kyle Reese meets a boy version of himself. Shouldn’t the universe implode? #
Dr. Brown would have a few choice things to say on the subject.

Final analysis: a patchwork plot from the earlier films that suffers from a lack of originality.

2 1/2 out of 4. Some clever ideas prevent this from being a dog. Arnold’s presence is a plus.

During my formative years, my mom periodically had a Musgo night; that is, a dinner where everything in the refrigerator “Must Go” before it goes bad. Like most kids, I hated leftovers, especially when ingredients that had no business being thrown together ended up in the same dish. What does all of that have to do with the new Terminator movie? Genisys, the fifth film in the franchise, takes a Musgo approach to its story line by including characters, concepts, plot threads and action segments from each of the previous four films. The resultant thematic mélange, though clever at times, is often formulaic, oblique or flat-out uninspired. If it feels like you’ve seen this movie before, you have…several times over. In fact, amplifying the movie’s pervasive sensation of déjà vu are excised clips from The Terminator (1984) and the inclusion of the liquid metal adversary from Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). Since the liquid metal man does very little to advance the plot and has an early exit from the story, one wonders why it was necessary to bring him back in the first place? Perhaps director Alan Taylor just wanted to see how modern CGI could bring the morphing machine to life, but the harsh reality here is that the new FX aren’t that much better than the ones in T2, which have held up remarkably well over the decades. As such, the liquid metal villain’s presence in the film is superfluous, gratuitous and ridiculously shoehorned. Still, you have to tip your hat to the writers, who’ve served up a reheated version of the earlier movies and passed it off as a new film. It’s a writing ploy that’s just as insidious as Skynet’s systematic strategy for taking over the world. As long as people keep filling theater seats, the franchise can endure indefinitely since there are infinite insertion points available to time traveling characters. This film operates on two levels: diehard fans will appreciate the pastiche plot, which features many elements from the earlier films in unique combinations, while newcomers will just enjoy the film as the popcorn entertainment it is without getting too overwhelmed by the improbable genealogies, mind-bending paradoxes and convoluted timelines that have become staples in the Terminator series. As such, Genisys is a unique sequel that can be experienced either as an introduction to the series or as a standalone chapter in the ongoing Terminator saga. This new trend, where Hollywood studios are producing sequels with origin story elements, is an extremely clever way of introducing a whole new generation of potential fans to a franchise. Insidious indeed. Another area of the movie that bears scrutiny is the acting, which is fairly lackluster across the board. Other than Ah-nold and the barely-there support from veterans like J.K. Simmons and Courtney B. Vance, the cast is filled with fresh faces (Emilia Clarke and Jason Clarke) with insufficient star power, with the exception of Jai Courtney (Divergent). The dearth of big name actors, along with the reheated plot and average visual effects, signifies a halfhearted commitment to the project by Paramount Pictures. Sure, Genisys is a big budget summer tentpole, but nothing about its production screams “prestige.” The whole proceedings has a “let’s just throw another sequel out there and hope it makes a profit” feeling to it. Hopefully the next, inevitable, sequel will eschew this film’s Greatest Hits narrative style and actually craft an original screenplay. The fate of humanity just might depend on it.

Love & Mercy (PG-13)

Directed by: Bill Pohlad
Starring: John Cusack
June 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Love & Mercy
Paul Dano also plays the younger Wilson.

“Well the master lock feature works.” #SellingPoint
Elizabeth Banks is charming and compassionate throughout the film, but this meet-cute really sets the tone for what’s to come.

“Lonely. Scared. Frightened.” Most people write their number on the back of a business card.
Or a matchbook. Those three words are a cry for help and, fortunately for Wilson, Banks perceives his unspoken plea. I also love the fact that Wilson’s star power is completely lost on her. She’s attracted to the real person not the celebrity. Refreshing!

“We can’t let them get ahead of us.” Musical #ArmsRace with #TheBeatles.
The period in question was before my time, so I had no idea that such a competition existed between these two groups. It makes sense, since they were popular around the same time, but they hailed from different countries and had radically different musical styles.

“If you repeat a mistake every four bars, it’s no longer a mistake.” #Improvisation
This is a really fun scene and demonstrates Wilson’s genius. He definitely had an ear for complex chord structures and unusual sounds.

“He scared me into making great records.” The rough road to greatness.
This traumatic back story really humanizes Wilson and garners a tremendous amount of sympathy from the audience.

“Do you think we can get a horse in here?” Ha!
Fitting, since the album was called “Pet Sounds.”

“Help me help Brian.” #ControlFreak
Dr. Landy is a conniving, manipulative twit. Paul Giamatti plays the loathsome psychiatrist to perfection.

Hang on to your ego.
Actually, letting go of it is probably the better course of action.

A chorus of plate scrapes. Deafening and annoying.
This scene gives the audience an insider’s understanding of how sounds tortured Wilson. An extreme OCD.

Something’s wrong with the recording studio. #BadVibrations
Another indication of Wilson’s mad process.

“Could you at least drive me home?” Funny.

Final analysis: a fitting, touching tribute to a true musical genius.
And, most poignantly, how such genius often comes with a price. Remember van Gogh.

3 out of 4. Dano and Cusack deliver tremendous performances as Wilson. Good vibrations, great film.

In some ways, this film reminds me of Julie & Julia (2009), a biopic based on the life of renowned chef Julia Child (Meryl Streep) and a young woman (Amy Adams) who decides to make all of the recipes in Child’s cookbook in one year. Though vastly different thematically, both films are decades-spanning biographical pieces that sustain their parallel narratives with riveting drama and superb performances. Whereas Julie featured two different people, Love features one person played by two different actors: Paul Dano as 60s Wilson and John Cusack as 80s Wilson. The most significant comparison is that the earlier (chronologically) stories in both films are far more compelling than the later ones. Streep is thoroughly mesmerizing as the French chef, but Adams, despite her disarming charm in playing a struggling chef who blogs about her culinary experiences in a Soho flat, just can’t elevate the ordinary story that comprises her half of the film. Unfortunately, that same pattern holds true here as the story of how Wilson created some of the Beach Boys’ greatest hits is far more fascinating than Wilson’s deterioration under the mismanagement of a shady psychiatrist. Dano is dynamic as young Wilson, while Cusack struggles to gain emotional footing as the adult Wilson in arguably the more difficult role. And then there’s the matter of appearances: while Dano looks a little like a twenty-something Wilson, Cusack looks nothing like a middle-aged Wilson. Since both Cusack’s appearance and performance fail to capture the essence of Wilson, one wonders why the actor was selected to play the superstar singer to begin with…and was real life Wilson consulted on the casting choice? The only thing that salvages the 80s storyline is the supporting players, especially Paul Giamatti and Elizabeth Banks. Giamatti plays one of the most despicable antagonists to have crawled out of a dark corner of the silver screen in quite some time. When he swears out Banks at the car dealership you literally want to throw something at the screen. As for Banks, she exudes uncommon compassion for the emotionally troubled musician and singlehandedly makes the entire adult Wilson section work. But enough about the Wilson’s later life; all of the film’s fun and energy occurs in the earlier time period. The making of the music is simultaneously enthralling and thrilling and Wilson’s traumatic childhood and slow descent into mental instability are utterly captivating. Even though snippets of the Beach Boys catalog can be heard throughout the movie, I could’ve used a lot more of their music here, along with more concert vignettes. Despite the movie’s Jekyll and Hyde narrative (which makes for an emotionally uneven movie), this is still a worthwhile glimpse into Wilson’s world and the mad process that forged the many unforgettable tunes he’s churned out over the years. Maybe the next time we can have a film with a unified tone and a lead actor that actually looks the part. Wouldn’t it be nice?

Inside Out (PG)

Directed by: Pete Docter, Ronaldo Del Carmen
Starring: Amy Poehler
June 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Inside Out
A high bar, to be sure, but this is certainly among the very best.

“I Lava You.” A sweet animated short. #Lava
At first I was dubious as to where this cartoon was going, because of the singsong nature of its narrative, but in the end this is a memorable, heartwarming short.

Joy meets Sadness. Don’t see them becoming friends.
Sometimes I’m just dead wrong.

“Family Island is amazing!” #CoreMemories
This concept is utterly fascinating and illustrates the importance of the major events and experiences in our lives and how they can shape who we are…positively and negatively.

“I’m starting to envy the dead mouse.” #NewDigs
It’s always difficult to start over in a new area, especially if it’s radically different from what you’re used to. The movie ably captures the feelings of uncertainty, loneliness and loss that can occur during these times of transition.

“Congratulations, San Francisco, you’ve ruined pizza!” #BroccoliTopping
A really funny scene, made even funnier by Anger’s brusqueness.

#MindManuals #LightReading

Train of Thought. Clever!
Even though it’s a little tongue-in-cheek, this is a fun concept.

“Can I say the curse word now?” Ha!
Ironic that anger is often the movie’s primary source of comic relief.

Dad’s #BrainOnHockey scene is frighteningly accurate.
And utterly hilarious! Zoning out while watching sports is an innate ability possessed by most men. Some men have even perfected it into an art.

“We’re deconstructing!” Brilliant visuals.
A very clever scene with some mind-blowing animation.

“There’s Déjà Vu. There’s Critical Thinking. There’s Déjà Vu.”
I think they just wanted to see if the audience was paying attention. Paying attention.

“Take her to the moon for me.” Bing Bong’s sacrifice is moving beyond words.
Grab the tissue box…this is a rough scene.

“For Riley!” Hilarious.

Sadness saves the day!
You just knew it would happen this way. A predictable, yet satisfying, ending all at the same time. Hooray for the underdogs!

What’s poo-berty?

Final analysis: an absolutely brilliant premise that’s executed to near perfection.
In fact, I honestly feel this is the most ingenious concept Pixar’s ever devised…and that’s really saying something.

3 1/2 out of 4 stars. A thought-provoking, tender years tale that hits all of the right emotional notes.

Ever looked at someone and wondered, “What’s going through their mind right now?” The creative minds at Pixar Studios took that thought and turned it into an animated feature called Inside Out. The movie focuses on a young girl named Riley and her emotional and mental processes as she deals with a cross-country move from Minnesota to San Francisco. Instead of merely showing us Riley’s emotional struggles externally, director Pete Docter (Up) gives us a glimpse into the girl’s mind in order to observe, firsthand, the full spectrum of feelings she experiences. Riley’s individual emotions are personified by Joy, Sadness, Anger and others. Each of the emotions has a matching personality, i.e.: Joy is infectiously ebullient; Anger is violently explosive, etc. It’s been noted by some leading doctors and psychiatrists that the brain is the executive control center of the entire body. Pixar artists have cannily appropriated that factoid for their story by creating a central control panel inside Riley’s brain…the main operations center where the assorted emotions call the shots for Riley’s every thought, mood and behavior. But Riley isn’t merely an automaton, or a marionette whose strings are pulled by the tiny characters inside her brain. What’s really fascinating about the story is that Riley has volition apart from her own emotions, which is true-to-life since cogitations and cold hard logic can occasionally win out over emotions. The fact that Riley’s choices can override what’s going on inside her brain infuses the story with a great deal of anxiety and mystery since we, along with Riley’s emotions, often have no idea of what’s coming next. In these instances, Riley’s emotions must react to an unforeseen event, like when a life experience creates a core memory. The reverse also holds true as Riley is often deeply affected by her emotions and seems utterly powerless to regulate them. Some of the best twists in the movie occur when our young heroine is overcome by a particular emotion, like when Sadness does a number on Riley during her first day at the new school. This story device, where the action intercuts between Riley’s brain and what’s happening in the real world, generates tension throughout the film and effectively illustrates the disconnect between thoughts and feelings that we each must learn to reconcile. The world Pixar creates to represent the inside of Riley’s brain is truly astounding. The architecture of the mind is based on real science but is organized and visualized in a manner that reflects the thought process of an 11-year-old girl. The different sections of Riley’s personality, as well as the way memories are created, stored and discarded are brilliantly conceived and flawlessly executed. But not everything in the film is based on real world science. Some story elements, like the Train of Thought, are just there for fun. This film, which reveals a great deal about the human condition by examining the thoughts and feelings of an angst-ridden preteen girl, will go down as one of Pixar’s finest…which is no small claim when considering the studio’s back catalog of superlative animated films. Inside delivers an emotional wallop that’s rivaled only by the end of WALL-E (2008) and the beginning of Up (2009). The abounding movie magic contained within its narrative, along with its clever conceit, touching story and universal appeal, has insured that Inside will be enjoyed for generations to come. This 15th Pixar film has it all and is a shoo-in for Best Animated Feature and, perhaps, even for Oscar’s top prize. For a movie that’s all about the brain, Inside Out has a tremendous amount of heart.

Jurassic World (PG-13)

Directed by: Colin Trevorrow
Starring: Chris Pratt
June 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Jurassic World
That’s really why we watch these movies, right?

Nice #Psyche moment with the bird foot.
Nice setup for the attack of the birds later in the movie.

“If something chases” That goes without saying in these #
JurassicPark films.
Although, if it’s T-Rex, your best bet is to stand still since its visual acuity is based on movement.

“More teeth.” #IndominusRex #PlayingGod
So here we have the beginnings of the ethical debate over scientific responsibility vs. consumer demands for newer, better attractions at the park. The argument is broached ad nauseam throughout the movie. You might say that such fixation on the topic is like beating a dead stegosaurs.

#Mr.DNA sighting.
Remember him from the first film? A nice inside gag.

The restricted area is like half the island. #BadOmen
“What have they got in there, King Kong?”

“Accept that you are not in control.” The essence of #Chaos.
It’s also one of the steps in A.A.

“Bigger than expected.” #KingKong size? #IndominusRex

#RaptorTraining #Frightening
The very idea that raptors can be trained is hokey as heck, but it makes for an interesting section of the film…especially when the gatekeeper falls in.

“War’s part of nature.” But is it ethical to bring nature to a war?
This whole subplot with Vincent D’Onofrio is utterly inane. Using raptors as foot soldiers? What could possibly go wrong with that plan? If the raptors are hungry for human flesh, I doubt they’ll discriminate between different sides of a conflict.

The Raptor #FieldTest comes sooner than expected.
This is one of the better action sequences in the movie. Unlike the campy Godzilla vs. Rodan style final conflict, this scene actually made me slide forward in my seat a couple inches.

“Were those claw marks always there?” #DinoRuse
Guess dinosaurs enjoy a good pedicure too.

Don’t move #DonutMan.
Oops, guess the hybrid part of Indominus is a better hunter than a plain old T-Rex. My bad.

Pet a #Raptor at your own risk.
A raptor petting zoo? That’ll be the day.

#Code19. Means #RunAndScream.
If you reverse the 19 and add another 1 at the end you’ll have a number that pretty much sums up their situation.

“Evacuate the island.” Please don’t. I wanna see what happens.
Besides, the movie would be pretty short otherwise.

Bigger. Scarier. Cooler. #SuperSizedDinos
Maybe it’s just me, but weren’t those diminutive Compys from The Lost World (1997) pretty scary when they worked in concert? “Size matters not.”

#OffRoad “The full Jurassic World experience.”
Of course, the kids don’t stop to consider the size of the dinosaur required to tear a hole that large in the fence. Impetuous youth.

Bet the kids wish they’d have stayed “on road.”

To be on the safe side, jump on two.
Kicking myself for not using the hashtag #JumpOnTwo. A narrow escape and one designed with 3D in mind.

“It’s killing for sport.” And so far the #IndominusRex is pitching a shutout.

TheBirds, Jurassic style.
The hashtag is, of course, a reference to the terrifying Hitchcock film. This sequence is like a turkey shoot but in reverse. How convenient that all of the humans are corralled into one area so that the strafing Pterodactyls can pick them off one by one.

Nice shot, #BeardDude.

“Do not shoot my Raptors!” That’s a first.
My, how far we’ve come from “Shoot her!’

“That thing’s part Raptor.” Gee, I couldn’t have guessed that.
This is an utterly ridiculous reveal since we all knew what dinosaurs were commingled inside Indominus’ DNA back when the fierce behemoth scratched up the wall…and hid in the security blind spot.

How to tase a Raptor.
Very carefully. Avoid its teeth and claws at all costs. Oh, and watch out for the tail too.

2 Raptors and 1 Rex. Where have I seen this scenario before?
This is Exhibit A for how contrived the movie is. The storyboarding here is eerily similar to the climactic T-Rex gang up in the first Jurassic Park movie.

Guess what #IndominusRex. There’s always a bigger fish.
Thank you, Gui-Gon Jinn.

“Stick together for survival.” Memorable #SecondDate.
A decent pickup line only to be used in survival situations.

Final analysis: echoes many scenes/concepts from the earlier films, but super sizes everything.
In many respects, this film is a regurgitation of various elements from the earlier trilogy—there’s very little new thought here.

The film’s moral of humans always needing a bigger, better thrill is as subtle as a jackhammer in a library.
And the fact that the point was driven home repeatedly in the movie reveals just how stilted this topic is—prehistoric preachiness.

2 1/2 out of 4 stars. If a maximum destruction #CreatureFeature is on the menu, this one’s for you.

Ever wonder what Jurassic Park (1993) would’ve been like if Nedry’s (Wayne Knight) debacle hadn’t happened and the dinosaur park had actually passed the inspection? This fourth JP installment answers that hypothetical question by picking up the action several years after the park’s opening. Miraculously, the calamitous effects of “chaos” have been averted up to this point, but that’s about to change—those disreputable InGen geneticists have concocted a brand new “hybrid” dinosaur, which was designed less out of scientific curiosity than the need to boost flagging attendance at the park. Besides subplots involving raptor training (and the daffy plan to use them as infantry in a war), the unethical choices made by scientists and shareholders who place a premium on profits over people, an insipid romance between Pratt and Howard, the latter’s inadequacy at connecting with/taking care of her teenage nephews and those same teens being imperiled at every turn, the story is dominated by its new dino on the block…the Indominus Rex. As the central crux of the movie, Indominus serves as antagonist, new park attraction, catalyst for catastrophe, emblem of its creators’ avarice and hubris, McGuffin and embodiment of everything that’s wrong with the film. The name pretty much says it all—Indominus is the incarnation of a bigger, better breed of dinosaur (the first genetically engineered dino in history), created for the sole purpose of entertaining onscreen and in theater spectators. This bifurcated function is both fascinating and bitterly ironic. In the same way that Jurassic World patrons have become bored with the same old dinosaur exhibits, so too have theater attendees grown weary of the by-now standard monster melees involving T-Rex’ and raptors. The Spinosaurus was the answer to this “supersize syndrome” in JP III (2001). Here it’s Indominus: an unnatural amalgamation of a T-Rex and some other unspecified dino, whose true identity is preserved as a “surprise” for the end of the movie. That supposed big reveal exposes a major fallacy on the part of the writers, who’ve grossly underestimated the intelligence of the audience; most people will have solved the tenuous mystery about the same time that Indominus goes all Wolverine on the habitat wall. As one of the story’s prominent through lines, the flaccid subplot involving Indominus’ shrouded origins is egregiously anemic. Equally contrived—and telegraphed from earlier events in the movie—is Indominus’ demise. It’s clear that director Colin Trevorrow intended for Indominus’ comeuppance to be an unexpected twist, but, just as with the disclosure of the creature’s actual genetic makeup, the audience is way ahead of the writers. World’s attempt at providing even more extreme dino attacks than those featured in the earlier films is undermined by action sequences that were lifted right out of the first JP, especially when the two raptors pounce on Indominus (T-Rex in the original film). Also, Howard coaxing the T-Rex with a flare, just like Jeff Goldblum did in JP, is a ridiculous retread. The Pterodactyl attack is visualized in a manner so similar to Hitchcock’s The Birds that the scene plays out like a parody of the classic thriller, only on a grander scale and with modern FX. Has the ingenuity that once flourished in this groundbreaking franchise gone extinct? Another drawback to this film is that none of the major characters from the original trilogy appear here. Since we aren’t invested in the lives of the characters, we really don’t care if they end up as dino snacks or not. Pratt cuts a heroic figure as the raptor whisperer, but we learn next to nothing about his back story. Howard is one step short of annoying as the self-important park executive who exhibits poor parenting skills and, inconceivably, even worse management skills. Ultimately, the missing ingredients here are fun, excitement and genuine suspense. The first JP possessed all of those elements in spades by building a world of wonder and terror that resulted in a one-of-a-kind cinematic thrill ride. World feels unnecessarily rushed, as if it were constructed merely to whisk us along from one dino dustup to the next. The bare bones plot is expeditious, perfunctory and agonizingly formulaic. What little story exists here (the heavy-handed sermon on the fickle fads of humans, the dangers of playing God, the reminder to never leave kids alone in a dino park, etc.) serves as filler between the links of an unending helix of action sequences. My sincerest hope is that the makers of the next JP film will invest more time and energy into character development and a compelling story. Additional suggestions: bring back the joy and awe from first film and throw a spotlight on some of the ancillary dinosaurs—the sick triceratops scene in the first JP was exhilarating and touching and added a good deal to the story without defaulting to yet another meaningless action sequence. If the sequel fails to demonstrate a higher degree of creativity than this dismal entry into the series, we’ll have to christen the next test-tube dino Ignominious Rex.

Far from the Madding Crowd (PG-13)

Directed by: Thomas Vinterberg
Starring: Carey Mulligan
May 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Far From the Madding Crowd

No sidesaddle for Bathsheba. Independent indeed.

George doesn’t listen very well. Needs some obedience.
I just hate it when I speak too soon…

Sheep excel at charging over a cliff like lemmings. Unfortunately, they don’t fly.
Splat! What a heartbreaking scene. Apparently some sheepdogs just can’t live up to their name.

“It is my intention to astonish you all.” Mission accomplished.
All Mulligan has to do is stare at the camera and we’re astonished.

“I have no need for a husband.” Ouch!
A very uncommon and audacious declaration for the period in question.

Who can save the sick ewes? The guy you just fired.
Okay, I’ll come back on two conditions: 1. You give me a raise, and 2. You go out with me.

Superb duet between #CareyMulligan and #MichaelSheen.
Some truly fine singing and with only a piano for accompaniment.

“We understand each other.” More than you know.
Schoenaerts and Sheen’s characters have both felt the bitter chill of Mulligan’s cold shoulder.

“I will make amends.” Sure you will.

And Child is rubbed off on the coffin. Insult to injury.
The mummy baby scene is unnerving.

Like or respect?

A ghost from the past arrives on Christmas.
Not to be confused with the Ghost of Christmas Past from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

“I forbid you.” And they lived happily ever after.
At long last, Mulligan comes to her senses and actually picks the right guy. Third time’s the charm, I suppose.

Final analysis: a well mounted period piece with gorgeous vistas & superb performances all around.

3 1/2 out of 4. Mulligan, Schoenaerts and Sheen shine in a film that’s far from ordinary.

Cut from the same cloth as an Austen or Bronte literary classic, Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd offers everything you’ve come to expect from this brand of Victorian Era period piece…but with a twist. Whereas many examples of English countryside dramas involve family intrigue, shifting loyalties and scheming mothers seeking to marry off their daughters, etc, this story flips the script by spotlighting a young, independent woman who has absolutely no desire to be married…an abnormal, almost transgressive, attitude to possess during the period in question. A common trope in the romantic fiction of the period is the love triangle, but Hardy serves up another narrative twist in this story: the love rectangle. The bulk of the movie centers on three suitors (Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen and Tom Sturridge), each of whom vies for Bathsheba’s (Carey Mulligan) affections. As would be guessed, the four main performers are all superb in their roles. If I had to hand out a gold star it would go to Michael Sheen, who plays Bathsheba’s wealthy neighbor, William Boldwood (wonder if it ever occurred to him that his last name might be contributing to his celibacy), to perfection. William taps into some superhuman reservoir of patience when maintaining a state of decorum and civility in the face of Bathsheba’s many rejections and indiscretions. After nearly two hours of rebuffed advances and mind games, fate finally nudges Bathsheba in the right direction (since she’s not savvy enough to choose the right man on her own) when two of her three admirers are eliminated from the competition during a tragic shooting, which secures prison for the one and death for the other. When fate conspires to such a degree, it must be kismet; and so Bathsheba finally approaches the last man standing, Gabriel (Schoenaerts), and reveals her feelings for him. Of course, Gabriel has been in such mental and emotional anguish over Bathsheba from the beginning of the movie—desperately hoping she’d recognize and return his love—that he walks toward the sunset with Bathsheba like a lamb to the slaughter, completely exhausted from his pursuit of her and entirely at Bathsheba’s mercy to do her bidding for the rest of his sheep herding days. I know it was written during a different time (and on a different continent), but part of me hoped that Gabriel would pull a Rhett Butler (Gone with the Wind, 1939) and just keep on walking away from Bathsheba and her disreputable estate. Bathsheba should’ve been forced to learn the lesson that you can only toy with a man for so long before there are serious repercussions to your manipulations…reference long-suffering Eric Bana violently taking what he wants from scheming Natalie Portman in The Other Boleyn Girl (2008). All things considered, Madding lives up to its name in how it draws out its excruciating tale of unrequited love, providing resolution and release only in the film’s final scene. If you like complicated, character-driven period pieces with superior performances and production elements, this film’s for you. If not, you might find the movie’s protracted love affair to be quite…maddening.

Danny Collins (R)

Directed by: Dan Fogelman
Starring: Al Pacino
April 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Danny Collins

Kinda based on a true story. Love the honesty.
Most “true story” films try to bamboozle us into thinking we’re watching an “actual account.” In many instances, what we’re really seeing is only the morsel of an authentic happening that’s been embellished into some egregiously sensationalized plot that bears little resemblance to the real event.

Opening concert: #MindiAbair on sax.
For those who’ve never seen Mindi in concert, you’re missing out…she’s an amazing performer. Mindi’s on a short list of female smooth jazz A-Listers (and when it comes to the saxophone, it’s her, Jessy J and Candy Dulfer).

Collins still has fans. “Three of them. Each one older than the last.”
Self-deprecating humor is one of Collins’ most endearing qualities, a trait that instantly wins over the audience.

“John Lennon wrote you a letter.” #BestBirthdayGiftEver
Unless it was delivered 30 years late.

“Busy Work” crawls out from under the bed. #Busted!
He definitely lives up to his name.

“Currently or in general?” Hilarious! #GoodPatter
This is the first scene with Pacino and Bening and the sparks start flying from the outset.

Danny’s attempts at matchmaking are humorous.

“You can’t buy redemption.”
You can’t buy love either. The Beatles made sure we knew that.

“I don’t know how I allowed it to go so long.” Touching scene.
At some point, it probably became easy just to put it off indefinitely.

#DinnerTease. Ha!
Bening sure knows how to play hard-to-get. Hats off to Warren Beatty.

Shattered picture frame, shattered relationships.
Symbolism? A definite possibility.

Danny loses his nerve and loses his dinner. #OneBadDecision
Good thing he doesn’t lose his lunch. That would just be too much.

“It’s a good thing when he calls you Tom.” Good father/son moment.
This is a genuinely moving scene and sets up a memorable final scene/shot.

Final analysis: a surprisingly moving washed up rocker tale with lots of heart and laughs.

3 out of 4. Pacino is superb & has amazing chemistry with Bening. A heartwarming tale of redemption.

I have to admit, I was pleasantly surprised by this film. The trailer, which focuses mainly on the decades-old letter from Lennon, Collins’ life of excess and faux concert clips, didn’t do the movie justice. In some ways, this film reminds me of the similarly themed Music and Lyrics (2007). In that film, Hugh Grant plays a has-been 80s rock star holding on to the last vestiges of a music career by performing at smalltime clubs and state fairs. As the script would demand, Drew Barrymore enters his life and is a catalyst of change for Grant’s character, both personally and professionally. In this film, Collins befriends Bening who serves as confidant and muse to the derailed celebrity as he tries to put his life and career back on track. Fortunately, Collins doesn’t dedicate and play his new hit song for Bening during a live concert at movie’s end, as Grant does for Barrymore. This conscious effort to avoid schmaltz is one of the movie’s greatest assets, aside from its stellar performances. Pacino is predictably strong, and although this isn’t one of his finest performances, he’s thoroughly convincing not only in his portrayal of the larger-than-life singer, but also in his grungy, wrinkly and well-tanned appearance. Pacino is uber-charming in the film and plays the part of an old smoothie to the hilt. His screen chemistry with Bening is palpable and lends the film a fair amount of good-natured fun. The way Pacino infuses pathos into his character, in order to extract the optimal degree of sympathy from the audience, is absolutely brilliant. Indeed, we can’t help but cheer Collins on as he attempts to rectify past mistakes by inserting himself into the life of his adult son (Bobby Cannavale, in a pitch perfect performance)—whom he’s never met. The series of father/son vignettes, especially the movie’s final scene, serve to hoist the movie above the droves of middle-aged angst dramas that have graced the silver screen in recent years. Collins isn’t wildly original or overly inspirational, but it’s a highly effective, deeply affecting character piece that deftly sprinkles in some laughs and heartwarming moments amid the struggles of its title character; a fading celebrity, whose desperate attempts at remaining relevant and doing right by his family are strangely ennobling. All in all, Collins is a compelling slice-of-life tale and a friendly reminder that it’s never too late to make positive changes in our lives.

Tomorrowland (PG)

Directed by: Brad Bird
Starring: George Clooney
May 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Whereas Country Bears (2002), The Pirates of the Caribbean (2003) and The Haunted Mansion (2003) were all based on Disney attractions, this film is named after an entire section of the park.

Nice Tomorrowland alterations to the standard Cinderella’s castle Disney opener.
The fanfare sequence gets a futuristic upgrade. A creative flourish that recalls the Paramount peak morphing in the Indiana Jones films.

“The future is scary.”
Actually, the future is the future; it’s our perception of it that colors our emotions, one way or the other. On the opposite end of the spectrum from Clooney’s foreboding statement is Dr. Brown’s encouraging affirmation in Back to the Future III (1990), “Your future is whatever you make it. So make it a great one.”

The scene where the kid tests his jet pack is reminiscent of #TheRocketeer.
Skidding to a halt in the middle of a fallow field is a common denominator between both movies, but this film’s sequence is set during the day while The Rocketeer’s (1991) was filmed at night…and involved a statue rather than a real person.

It’s a Small World After All. The ride within a ride. Very cool.
This sequence is a lot of fun. It really taps into the excitement and mystique associated with the secret passageway fantasy trope, a la the magical coat closet in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005).

A thumbs up from the fixit robot.

“It’s hard to have ideas.” #HumanLimitation
Especially in postmodern times, when there seems to be a paucity of new thought.

The Tale of Two Wolves. Which one will you feed?
This motivational anecdote has been done to death in recent films. Since the moral of the story actually factors into this film’s climax, we’ll let it slide this once.

The Tomorrowland pin is like the #OneRing.
Bilbo and Frodo could see a metaphysical dimension atop the physical one by using the One Ring in The Hobbit and LOTR. The Tomorrowland pin functions in a similar manner, with the notable exception being that its user can’t see both dimensions simultaneously—only the futuristic environs. This causes obvious problems since the traveler is completely blind to objects and boundaries in the physical world as they move through the future city, which leads us to…

Trip down the stairs. A creative way to layer the Tomorrowland world over ours. #FindAField #HolodeckTech
I’m glad Casey took my advice and found a wide open space with which to explore Tomorrowland. Less contusions and concussions that way.

#BlackHole comic book. #BlastToThePast
Of course, The Black Hole (1979) was produced by Disney. Trivia: TBH was the studio’s first PG rated film.

Time Bomb. Cool concept/visual.
Although it does have a Clockstoppers (2002) freeze-frame vibe to it.

Last pin. New wrinkle.

“We are the future.”
“We are the world, we are the children.”

Holo-dog. Clever idea.
Don’t worry; his bark is way worse than his bite.

Wonder if Disneyland will make a Bathtub Ride based on this movie.
They have a teacup ride, right? Why not a Bathtub Ride? They’d have to design it as a water ride, though. Towel not provided. You can purchase one at the line entrance for $20.

“It’s not personal, it’s programing.”
Whenever someone says it’s not personal it always is. Correction: programming. Darn Twitter didn’t underline it as being misspelled.

“Well zippity doo for you.” Ha!
Another Disney inside gag.

The Eiffel Tower splits in half to become a rocket platform. Getting a bit #FarFetched.
My suspension of disbelief was completely obliterated by this scene. Some might find this launch sequence to be a unique way of utilizing the famous Parisian building, but I thought it was exceedingly daft and contrived beyond belief. There are a million other places on the planet to hide a space rocket, and the majority of them would’ve made more sense.

Flashes of the future. Hold on to your hat.
You’d think that if she saw it coming she would put her hand on the cap to keep it firmly in place. Casey either has poor judgment or slow reaction time.

“You want to sink.” Though overly doom and gloom, this is one of the better villain monologues ever.
Remember when Syndrome catches himself monologuing during a climactic scene in The Incredibles (2004), an animated smash hit helmed by this movie’s director, Brad Bird? Since Bird was so openly critical of villain monologues in that earlier film, you just knew he’d take painstaking efforts to insure that Nix’ sermonizing speech was incredible…and it is.

Kids walk through a stargate to recruit the citizenry of the new Tomorrowland. I want one.
A pin, that is. The teens hand them out at random like Golden Tickets in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971).

Final analysis: contains imagination and creativity but never quite achieves the state of awe it strives for.

2 1/2 out of 4. There’s plenty of movie magic here, but the pedestrian plot is a major drawback.

Despite its apparent surfeit of creativity, Disney’s Tomorrowland is simply a smoke-and-mirrors production that’s every bit as sleek, superficial and soulless as its titular city. Though saturated with technological wonders and mind-blowing visuals that pop out at us from every square inch of the screen, the futuristic metropolis is little more than empty artifice. It’s a cold, mechanical world where a bright future is subverted by a sinister all-seeing orb…this movie’s answer to Sauron’s baleful eye in LOTR. The trouble here is that instead of taking the time to craft a world that’s genuinely groundbreaking in conception and application, the “creative” minds at Disney Studios have merely settled for a pastiche approach, and the resultant movie suffers dearly for that decision. The first story derivation involves a flashback to George Clooney’s character as a boy. Young Frank Walker excitedly demonstrates the capabilities of his homemade jet pack at a science fair and is rejected out of hand by the movie’s antagonist, Nix (Hugh Laurie). By now, this science fair opener has been done to death in Disney films (reference Meet the Robinsons (2007) and last year’s Big Hero 6). Additionally, the jet pack was used extensively in The Rocketeer (1991). The Tomorrowland pin allows a person to walk around the futuristic city, but real world boundaries still exist, which limit the extent of a person’s movements in the alternate realm. This is an extremely clever concept (and it’s executed very adeptly in the movie), but it also hearkens back to Star Trek: The Next Generation’s holodeck. During the movie’s climactic events, characters use an energy portal to travel back and forth between present reality and the future dystopia, and it functions in a similar manner to ST:TOS’ Guardian of Forever (“The City on the Edge of Forever”) and the eponymous apparatus in the three Stargate TV series’. These are just a few examples of how the movie’s writers have borrowed liberally from other sci-fi/fantasy films. And then there’s the shameful product placement in the comic book shop, which features merchandise from Disney, Marvel and Lucasfilm (all owned by Disney), to the exclusion of the many other brands and products you’d find in a real comic shop. And then there’s the Eiffel Tower as rocket launch pad sequence which, despite earning points for its ingenuity and attempt at providing a history lesson, is utterly ridiculous…one of the dopiest plot devices/set pieces I’ve witnessed on the big screen in a great while. And then there’s the dubious decision to feature George Clooney as an action hero (his Batman days are long gone). Laurie is serviceable as the movie’s brooding antagonist, but his participation would’ve been more effective had he been cast against type—his part is painfully predictable. Casey’s (Britt Robertson from TV’s Under the Dome) enthusiasm and optimism is really what saves the day, both for the characters onscreen and the movie as a whole. Unfortunately, the bulk of her dialog and the simplistic, straightforward story (free from any emotional complexity or genuine jeopardy) render the whole proceedings as a kind of lavishly produced Disney Channel movie of the week. As such, the preteen set will probably embrace the film, while the rest of the audience will more than likely feel tepid toward the final product. So, will this film inspire a sequel? Tomorrow will tell.

The Age of Adaline (PG-13)

Directed by: Lee Toland Krieger
Starring: Blake Lively
April 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The Age of Adaline

“The first and last chapter of her story.”
From that description, you’d think the narrator was referring to someone with a short lifespan, but nothing could be farther from the truth.

Adaline has five locks on her door. Not very trusting for an immortal.
In a later scene I did a recount and I think there might actually be six locks on her front door. But who’s counting?

“Magical” lightning bolt makes Adaline immortal. #OriginStory
Here’s the element that makes this a sci-fi story. It’s hokey, but no more so than the conceits behind The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) or The Time Traveler’s Wife (2009), etc.

“Since I Don’t Have You” by #TheSkyliners. My dad’s favorite song.
I’d recognize it anywhere.

Adaline does her best #SherlockHolmes routine on a young suitor. #SolidDeductions
Ellis should quit while he’s behind. But he doesn’t. And so the story continues.

“Jenny kissed me.” Not familiar with that poem. But then, I’m not a know-it-all.
Truth be told, my knowledge of poetry is next to nil. Guess that means it’s time for me to take a rhyming pill.

Ellis keeps sticking his hand where it doesn’t belong. A dangerous habit for a professional painter.
Turns out Ellis isn’t a professional painter after all, he was just painting his flat. But to be honest, I’m not really sure what he does for a living. Seems like Ellis is a jack-of-all-trades sort.

“I don’t like having my photo taken.” And with good reason.
I don’t like having my photo taken either, but not for the same reasons as immortal Adaline...obviously.

A horse that can pitch? #DumbestJokeEver
But sometimes jokes are so dumb they’re actually funny. Such is the case here, much to Ellis’ relief.

Adaline has a pet photo album. Her priority is pets over people. The curse of immortality.
While pets have a shorter lifespan than humans, you don’t have to worry about them learning your secret. Plus, you can take them with you when it’s time to reinvent yourself in a new area.

An indoor, outdoor theater. Fascinating!
Placing the luminescent stars on the ceiling is a nice touch and certainly enhances the overall mood.

Ellis says Jenny has nine lives. Not far off the mark.

Superb acting by #HarrisonFord when he meets Adaline/Jenny. #StateOfShock
Scenes like this should come as no surprise, but sometimes the mind drifts to Indy and Han and we forget what a tremendously talented performer Ford really is.

“It was fleeting, inconsequential.” Nice cover.
I mean, he named a comet after her for crying out loud.

Never challenge an immortal to a game of #TrivialPursuit.
Kiss your winning streak goodbye, William.

Of comets and proposals. #NearMiss
A really good scene. Superbly performed and rife with meaning.

Scars don’t lie.

“You’ve lived, but you’ve never had a life.” The price of immortality.
You can never live up to your fullest potential if you’re always looking over your shoulder.

“Nothing makes sense without her.” #TrueLove

“My name isn’t Jenny.” The cat’s about to come out of the bag.
I was hoping she wouldn’t spill the beans here, but if she hadn’t, the movie would’ve run at least another half hour.

First gray hair...normally not a cause for celebration. Unless you haven’t aged a day in over 100 years.
I was less than thrilled when I plucked my first gray, but then again, I’m a vain man.

Final analysis: a thoughtful examination of mortality and the human experience.

Shades of #
ForeverYoung and #TheCuriousCaseOfBenjaminButton, but with its own unique twist.
By featuring main characters who, in some regard, exist apart from the normal flow of time, these types of films make us stop and take a long, hard look at our lives. By identifying with these characters, we gain an outsider’s perspective on our own lives, which reminds us just how precious a commodity time really is.

2 1/2 out of 4. A farcical romance with Sci-Fi trappings. Has a message, but is fairly unmoving.

So the basic premise here, a woman achieves immortality after drowning in freezing water and being resuscitated by a well placed, well timed lightning bolt, is as unbelievable as they come; a story right out of a classic sci-fi pulp digest. The narrated narrative itself, which spans a century, reveals the plight of Adaline Bowman (Blake Lively) as she moves through time without aging and without making any serious connections with people for fear of growing too close to someone that she’ll have to run away from when her wrinkle free skin betrays her to aging “contemporaries.” The movie’s inciting incident occurs when Adaline unwittingly falls in love with Ellis (Michiel Huisman), a relationship she knows is ill-fated from the outset but is helpless to resist. Further complicating the story is the “meet the parents” scene where Ellis’ father, William (Harrison Ford), recognizes Adaline from the past. As a one-time lover of Adaline’s, William’s random reunion with the ageless woman explodes the implications of the story. The movie splits its time between four genres: Drama, History, Romance and Sci-fi. In many respects, the story feels like it was written by Nicholas Sparks, which screenwriters J. Mills Goodloe and Salvador Paskowitz should take as a compliment. The sci-fi elements are of the softer variety, resembling the works of Fitzgerald more than those of Wells. The former wrote the story-turned-movie The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), a tale about a man who ages backwards. Here, the title character maintains a normal temporal trajectory, but will forever remain untouched by the ravages of time. The period elements are extremely well done and have attained the appropriate degree of authenticity to keep us engaged in the story’s fantasy. The acting is also superb. Ford’s portrait of a man yearning for the past and pining over the life that might have been is truly exceptional, and Kathy Baker, as Ford’s jealous wife, is also terrific in an ancillary role. Lively delivers a genuine, understated performance that very easily could’ve ended up being mawkish in the hands of a less skilled actor. At times, Lively’s Adaline seems detached or aloof. Such muted emotions are not only appropriate, but are keen observances of human behavior since an ageless woman would learn very quickly how to suppress her feelings in order to protect her identity as well as safeguard against over-investing in the lives of mere mortals. In the end, this film won’t set the world on fire, but it’s an intriguing examination of the human condition with respect to our perception of time and our own mortality. The underlying question “What good’s immortality if you can’t even enjoy it?” permeates this bittersweet tale. Fans of Sparks style decade-spanning romances should find the film heartfelt and emotionally satisfying. Those who appreciate finely mounted slice-of-life stories should also enjoy the film. But those who would prefer that sci-fi elements be kept out of their down-to-earth dramas might feel left out in the cold.

Furious Seven (PG-13)

Directed by: James Wan
Starring: Vin Diesel
April 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Can’t believe it’s been well over a year since his passing. How bitterly ironic that it was a car accident that took him from us.

“You can’t outrun the past.” Unless you have a really fast car.
That’s equipped with a flux capacitor.

“An open road helps you think.” Conversely, heavy traffic constricts thinking.
Or worse yet, fuels #RoadRage.

Who brings a sledgehammer to a cemetery?
And what good would it do to shatter a headstone anyway? The family would still know where the grave is and public records would have an accurate record of who’s buried in the plot. Strange motivation.

Amazing fight scene at the PD. A real backbreaker.
A friend of mine (a female mega fan of Johnson’s) says The Rock’s physique is too big now. Opinions?

“No more funerals.” In an action movie? Not likely.
Of course, we’re tricked into thinking that one of the main characters will die, but…psyche!

What happens when neither driver flinches in a game of chicken? #BahBoom #AirbagCheck
This just shows how insanely macho Diesel and Statham’s characters are. However, it’s this excess of testosterone that makes for a thrilling showdown at movie’s end.

God’s Eye. The Patriot Act on speed.
Similar to “The Machine” in TVs “Person of Interest.”

“Completely wrong thinking. And I like it.”
A quote that perfectly captures this movie’s fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants plot.

Backing a car out of a plane. #InsaneButterflies
If you allow yourself to get lost in this sequence, it’s quite an adrenaline rush.

“Touchdown, baby.” And we’re not talking about football.

“You might want to put on your helmet for this one.” A fitting slogan for the entire movie.
Make sure your seatbelt is snug too.

“Double alpha.” #ManCandy Ha!
Tyrese Gibson is this film’s comic relief and is quite effective in his role.

“What’s real is family.” #TrueThat
One of the only redeeming aspects of these characters is how they look out for each other as if they were a biological family.

The #Goldfinger dancers are a bit much.
However, this is an action movie, and they are in Dubai.

Game of Chicken 2.0. Just as destructive as the first.
With a twist at the end. It’s all about getting the upper hand.

“Woman, I am the cavalry.” #OneManArmy
A great line taken right out of Schwarzenegger’s playbook.

“The street always wins.” Good line.
And the street always extracts its price in blood.

Final analysis: amazing action sequences compensate for the movie’s shallow characterizations.
The touchy feely sequence at the beach doesn’t make up for the dearth of character development throughout the rest of the movie.

3 out of 4 stars. The touching tribute to #PaulWalker at movie’s end puts it over the top.

Back when The Fast and the Furious was released in 2001, I’m sure no one could’ve guessed that the concept had the potential to spawn a franchise that would span fourteen years and include seven films (to date). Of course, the bigger headline here is that this is the final film to feature Paul Walker, who fatefully died in a car accident back in November of 2013. His work lives on in this movie, which contains original footage plus a few CG facial composites of the actor near the end of the film. If you’re a fan of the series, you’ll be ecstatic over this movie’s soft-core plot and hardcore action sequences. Replete with stock characters and customized cars (I’d prefer the reverse), the film is chockablock with high-octane stunts that achieve a high level of success with varying degrees of believability. Judging by the action scenes alone, this film is arguably the finest in the series. The protracted adrenaline rush that begins with parachuting cars and ends with Walker sprinting for his life toward the safe end of a bus that’s rapidly plummeting off a cliff is one of the finest action sequences in film history—immaculately storyboarded and supremely executed by director James Wan. As for the movie’s acting, Vin Diesel is as wooden as your grandmother’s armoire, but somehow manages to be the glue that holds the whole works together in his starring role as gearhead ringleader, Dominic Toretto. On the other side of the law, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is sidelined for much of the movie but makes the most of his limited screen time with several Schwarzenegger style feats of machismo during the movie’s climax. Kurt Russell is a nice addition to the cast as the leader of a secret spy organization, but his character doesn’t factor into the action as much as we’d like. As for the rest of Toretto’s posse, each member of the diverse cast plays his/her part well, but none of the performances stand out as exceptional. But, this kind of movie typically doesn’t feature fine acting, so fairness demands that I refrain from criticizing the performances too harshly. In the end, this full throttle actioner fills the bill as a pulse-pounding popcorn flick. And while it’s sad to see Walker drive off into the sunset, the movie appropriately pays its respects to the actor while bringing closure to his character’s story line. Thanks for all the miles and memories, Paul. RIP

Avengers: Age of Ultron (PG-13)

Directed by: Joss Whedon
Starring: Robert Downey Jr.
May 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Avengers Age of Ultron

Iron Man needs to watch his language.
According to Captain America—the Avengers’ Arbiter of Appropriateness.

“Send out the twins.” Olsen or Wonder?
An inside joke since the Olsen’s sister, Elizabeth, plays the Scarlet Witch in this film.

Hulk deals with the bunker. Perfect man for the job.
The not-so-Jolly-Green-Giant runs right through it as if it was made of balsa wood, never breaking his stride. An impressive visual.

#SentryMode. Cool concept.

“You could’ve saved us.” #Nosebleed

Nice inside gag.

“He’s fast and she’s weird.” Ha!
Quite a pair these wonder twins. But where’s the monkey? Oh wait, that’s from the other comic book universe.

“Will Thor be there?” Women everywhere are thinking the same thing.

A suit of armor around the world. Interesting concept...and wholly improbable.
An extremely daft idea by Stark. His motivation here strains credulity, much like the plot itself.

#StanLee sighting in a bar. #Excelsior!
That’s the name of a starship in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984). It also happens to be an exclamation frequently used by Lee which, in Latin, roughly translates as “ever upward.”

Trying to lift Thor’s Hammer scene is hilarious. Echoes of #

“Peace in our time.” Peace through superior firepower. #UltronIsBorn
The latter is a quote from Star Trek: TNG’s “The Arsenal of Freedom.” The former is reminiscent of General Chang’s (Christopher Plummer) line “No peace in our time” in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991). A Trek double dip. No extra charge.

“The geometry of belief.” Ultron sets himself up on a throne. Recruits two disciples.
Shades of the antichrist sitting on a throne in the rebuilt temple in the Bible’s book of Revelation.

#AndySerkis is nearly unrecognizable here. Strange to see him out of a CG guise.
A nice bit of surprise casting.

The “mind games” visions contain some fascinating character moments.
These vignettes serve as the only significant source of character development for many of the characters in the film.

Code Green turns into a Code Red.
They should’ve left someone behind to keep an eye on “angry” Banner.

“Go to sleep. Go to sleep.”
“Go to sleep little Hulkie…”

Safe house. Something tells me it won’t be for long.
In action movies, the characters can’t sit around the campfire singing “Kum Ba Yah” for too long.

Graduation then sterilization. Sad story.
This scene contains some good character background for Black Widow. It’s the first time in two movies that I actually felt like I learned something about her character and felt sympathetic toward her.

“Multiplying faster than a Catholic rabbit.” Hilarious!
Or tribbles in a grain bin.

“It’s not a loop. It’s the end of the line.”
Kinda’ like this movie’s runaway elevated train sequence, which is conceptually similar to the one in Spider-Man 2 (2004).

“How about nonce?” Ha!
Downey Jr.’s comedic timing is impeccable.

“I can choke the life out of you without changing a shade.” Great line!
My favorite line in the movie, zucchinis not withstanding. Amazing how eloquent Banner can be compared to his alter ego.

The new guy hands Thor his hammer. Woah!
Does that mean this guy (my comics buddy tells me his name is Vision) is worthy of ruling Asgard?

“It’s about whether he’s right.” Interesting point.
The story flirts with relevance here.

Ultron’s been juicing. #VibraniumSmoothie
I hear mangos are best for sweetening up vibranium’s bitter aftertaste.

“The earth will crack under the weight of your failure.” #Ultron’sMonologuing
A poetic line brilliantly delivered by Spader, who was the perfect choice to voice the titular villain.

“If you step out that door, you’re an Avenger.” Nice moment.
This scene stands out as the only instance where my emotions were engaged during the entire film.

“Ooo, do you kiss your mother with that mouth?” Way to turn the tables, Fury.

#HideTheZucchini. Hilarious line.
Again, the incisive dialog written for Downey Jr. is perfectly suited to his talents.

“There is grace in their failings.” #RedeemingQuality
An interesting story twist since one AI wants to wipe out the human race because of its flaws and another AI wants to preserve humans because of their flaws.

Banner might swim to Fiji. Just as long as it isn’t Tahiti.
Reference: Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Final analysis: a decent follow up to the first film with new heroes and villain and action aplenty.

2 1/2 out of 4. Overstuffed with action to the point that I need to see it again. Darn it.

Overstuffed is the operative word when describing these Avengers films. They’re chock-full of colorful characters (in colorful costumes) and mind-blowing action sequences. The one thing these movies aren’t overstuffed with, however, is plot. Of course, the Avengers films are exemplars of the summer blockbuster, designed to entertain a mass audience and extract a price from them so as to ensure the release of the next big blockbuster. Filling the role of cinematic roller coaster, these films are breezy, twisty thrill rides that typically place an emphasis on action before story (and just like with a coaster’s ups and downs, the only function of the brief character moments is to bring us to the top of the next peak so that we can take a plunge into yet another exhilarating, gravity defying action progression). In an effort to be fair to the film’s creative elements, I’m not even going to address the top-notch directing, acting, VFX, etc, in my assessment of the film. What ails this sequel is its “everything including the kitchen sink” story. Like its predecessor, there’s enough story in Ultron to fill two to three movies. Likewise, there are enough plot holes and leaps of logic here to fill two to three movies as well. First of all, Ultron’s transformation to the dark side is so quick it gave me a whiplash. Also, Stark’s decision to create Ultron in the first place seems rushed and foolhardy…and extremely contrived since the story sits in idle until the villain is introduced. No one can say that Stark’s heart isn’t in the right place (well, actually…) in attempting to defend the Earth from intergalactic invaders, but has he so quickly forgotten the Iron Monger tragedy in Iron Man (2008)? Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) used Stark’s technology against him in a clear evocation of the 9-11 tragedy. Here, Ultron uses our own planet against us in a unique twist on the WTC and Pentagon terror strikes. 9-11 symbolism is also evinced in the scene where Iron Man shoves Hulk downward through a building, forming a cloud of smoke and debris on the city streets below that’s eerily reminiscent to what we witnessed on that fateful day back in 2001. Whedon certainly isn’t the first superhero film director to create such visual echoes in his films: Christopher Nolan employed 9-11 imagery in each of his Batman films. Another visual motif, which has been repeated ad nauseam in recent superhero movies, is the giant landmass used as WMD set piece. In Superman Returns (2006), Lex Luthor’s (Kevin Spacey) grand scheme was to drop a gigantic, crystalline mass into the Atlantic Ocean, which would wipe out a large portion of the Eastern seaboard with the resultant tsunami. More recently, in X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), villainous Magneto airlifts an entire stadium, which creates maximum destruction and mass casualties (and speaking of DOFP, that film featured Evan Peters as Quicksilver, but Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays him here, which is more than a little confusing at first). In this film, Ultron elevates a large section of an Eastern European village with the intention of dropping it like a meteor from the sky, causing an extinction level event on our planet. For the next film, let’s hope Whedon can come up with a more original threat than this tedious and tired story device. As for everyone’s favorite green giant, Hulk is completely underserved in this film. Not only is Hulk sidelined for much of the action, but he’s purposely constrained from doing what he does best—smash things. The only time Hulk really lets loose in this movie is when he goes on a rampage in a city filled with innocent bystanders. This attempt at generating character complexity falls flat and actually diverts us from the main story. Hulk’s contribution to the team during its many melees is negligible at best, which is a massive disappointment. Note to Whedon: in the next film, release the shackles and set Hulk free to fulfill his function on the team (and some character development wouldn’t hurt either). Another disappointment here is the absence of Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson (star of the hit TV show Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D and prominent side character in the Marvel stable of films) and Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts (who is mentioned several times, but never materializes onscreen). Of the ancillary characters actually featured in this film, Stellan Skarsgard’s Erik Selvig appears in only one scene…what a waste of an incredible talent. All is not lost, however, as there are a few good character moments in the movie, like when Black Widow opens up about her tragic past and when the team seeks refuge at Hawkeye’s house. But these heartfelt, human segues are few and far between amid the onslaught of confrontations. In the end, if you liked the first film, you’ll probably like this one too. The corollary holds true for those less impressed by the franchise. As overstuffed as the plot is, it all somehow manages to cohere. When all is said and done, kudos goes to Whedon, not for his creative genius in realizing the movie’s many action scenes, but for fitting them all into a canny, wieldy tapestry. He’s a master at keeping all the plates spinning at the same time. Let’s hope they don’t all come crashing down like chunks of a European village in the next film.

Ex Machina (R)

Directed by: Alex Garland
Starring: Alicia Vikander
April 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Ex Machina
Not quite. But certainly a unique entry into the genre.

First prize. #InstantCelebrity
Nothing new here…everyone wants a piece of success.

“Follow the river.” In which direction?
Pretty vague directions when dropping someone off in the middle of the wilderness.

Key card photo. Can I get a retake?
Remember that frightened look. You’ll see it again at the end of the film.

Gorgeous view from the patio. I can almost smell the pine trees.
The lab is situated in a remote region of a forest. Not only is the compound isolated, its tight, spare and windowless interiors lend it an institutional feel. Good thing Caleb doesn’t have claustrophobia.

Nathan wants Caleb to get past the “freaked out” stage.
Caleb should listen to his anxiety.

Data audit? Don’t sign the contract Caleb.
Of course, if he withholds his signature we don’t have a movie.

The Turing Test. Baptism of fire.
“Who’s Turing?” you ask. Reference The Imitation Game (2014).

Hello Ava!
Say it like “Hello Nurse!”

How many computer nerds wouldn’t get a #
Ghostbusters reference?
Especially since Caleb holds his own during the Trek talk later in the movie. I chalk this up as a nitpick.

Ava turns the tables on Caleb, grills him with questions. Be careful, Caleb. Nathan is listening.
Also, learn from this incident. If she can turn the tables on you once…

“You shouldn’t trust anything he says.” Now we have a story.
Of course, everyone in the audience knows Nathan is full of it even before Caleb conducts his first session with Ava, so not much of a surprise.

Hacking the world’s cell phones. A map of how people think. Fascinating!
And frightening!

If you could go anywhere in the world, where would it be? Ava chooses a traffic intersection. #PeopleWatching
You’d find Data hanging out on the other side of the intersection, except he’d be engaged in small talk with passersby (TNG’s “Starship Mine”).

Ava plays dress up for Caleb. She looks kinda #PlainJane now.
Darn it! No more “curve” appeal.

“Engage intellect.” The discussion on #JacksonPollock and #
StarTrek is intriguing.
Nathan’s Pollock painting does look like something Data would hang in his quarters.

Ava asks some tough questions for an AI.
Be very wary, young Caleb.

“Ava’s body’s a good one.” Uh, yeah!
The understatement of the year.

Caleb finds the skeletons in Nathan’s closet. #Sexbots
Hopefully there aren’t any minors in the audience since this is a Rated R movie (the fact that I’m bring this up reveals my distrust of parental “wisdom” in bringing younger kids to see such films), but just as a precaution: #FullFrontal.

Ava gives herself a physical upgrade. Thank God she put all the right parts in the right places.

Final analysis: an intriguing premise that asks some important questions about the essence of existence.

3 out of 4. The Shakespearean ending is a miss, but the rest is a salient examination of sentience.

Deus ex machina is a Latin term that means “god from the machine.” The technique, which introduces a new character at the end of a story that swoops in and miraculously solves all of the problems, was employed by playwrights during Greek theater’s nascent period. Over time, the writing device fell out of favor and is now considered a universal no-no. In the new movie, which tellingly leaves out the deus (god) part of the title, we find a twist on the much impugned story device—we know who the agent of change is early on in the story, but how that character plays into the film’s climactic events is very much in question until the very end. The story here isn’t earth-shattering: A wealthy tech mogul lures a bright young computer nerd (under false pretenses) into conducting a Turing test on his latest android, who just happens to look like a supermodel. What works here is the examination—through the eyes of a machine—of what it means to be human. The mental chess match between Ava (Alicia Vikander) and Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is intriguing, and some complex emotional and psychological subjects are broached, such as: friendship, trust, sexuality and, of course, the essence of sentience. Another successful aspect of the film is its skillful thematic layering: the juxtapositions between the open spaces of the surrounding forest and the cloistered confines of the sterile lab, biological and mechanical beings and even good and bad people are all expertly woven into the movie’s narrative tapestry. The isolation from civilization and claustrophobia inside the compound both serve to enhance the film’s melancholic mood and are symbolic of how each of the characters is, in his/its own way, physically or mentally trapped. Lots of food for thought here, which makes the movie a joy watch. The small cast also suits the static, minimalist story. Each of the performers does fine work, but the lack of star power here (Oscar Isaac isn’t quite a household name yet, but will be come December) is one of the movie’s only drawbacks. The main problem with the film is its ending, which squanders a promising premise and solid setup with a predictable, even telegraphed, resolution that’s right out of Macbeth. In the end, Ex Machina is a stylish, thought provoking sci-fi yarn that should stand the test of time—well, at least until the androids take over and eradicate any trace of human existence.

Home (PG)

Directed by: Tim Johnson
Starring: Jim Parsons
March 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


The best species at running away. The Boov will move.
And their new home world looks a lot like Earth.

Welcome to Happy Humantown. A nice place if you’re into relocation.
For some reason the word “forced” was erased before I hit the Tweet button. I meant to say “forced relocation,” i.e., a human reservation.

Send vs Send All button. #BadDesign
Isn’t it nice to know that it’s not just us humans who hate this potentially catastrophic email option?

Antarctica...the only place on Earth with no Boovs.
Probably has something to do with their skimpy outfits.

Love the Slushious machine.
Nice mash-up of the words slushy and luscious.

“We are definitely not doomed.” Uh, yeah you are.
Politicians, who put on a brave face so as to not create a panic among the populace, often say the exact opposite of the truth. I guess exposing kids to this reality right off the bat is a wise move.

The party evite is humorous. #ThirdRockFromTheSun
The line in the movie is “third planet from the sun,” but it seemed appropriate to throw out a hashtag for John Lithgow’s TV comedy of an alien family conducting cultural observation on our planet. #SimilarTheme

Boov turns car into a slush-mobile. A thousand bubbles per pint.
For some reason this modified vehicle, though radically different in body style and technological capabilities, reminds me of the flying car concept in The Absent Minded Professor (1961).

“Every time you lie you turn green.” That’s what happens when you drink too much #BustaLime.
A Boov tell. Maybe we can win the planet back with a well played hand of poker.

Boov rhymes with groove.
And with all of those appendages, Oh proves to be a natural at cutting a rug.

Sad-mad. “Humans are more complicated than it said in the pamphlet.”
Don’t worry, Oh, we human males can’t figure out the females of our species either.

Nine mistakes and you’re out. Oh has made 62 mistakes. He’s the #JarJar of the Boov.
This character trait—error-prone—is a bit too telegraphed in the story and is a clear rip off of Star Wars’ JarJar Binks.

Oh cancels his evite just in the nick of time.
And with the crisis averted, the movie ends right here. Not quite.

“Curse you and your tippy toe tallness.”
Though not quite Yoda-esque, the Boov’s assimilation of English has some curious, linguistic aberrations.

Bubble car chase is a lot of fun.
This sequence is the visual zenith of the movie. It’s a frenetic, fun-filled chase scene that’s right up there with the best efforts of Lucas and Spielberg.

The only thing that can halt the Gorg advance is a #BurritoTorpedo.
I think I ordered that at Taco Bell once. Didn’t agree with me.

“He runs toward the danger?” Oh learned that from a humans person.
Must’ve been a soldier or fire fighter.

Captain Oh is given the Shusher. The Boov celebrate their new leader.
Now shush so I can think!

The mother/daughter reunion scene is special. Anyone have a tissue?

“You were scared? I almost made a Number Three!” Hilarious!
The funniest line in the movie, tentacles down.

The real identity of the Gorg is a nice twist. A riff on #
StarTrek’s #Balok.
From the original Star Trek series’ episode “The Corbomite Maneuver,” for all you diehard Trekkers out there. Yes, I am part of the body. Additionally, the subplot involving the Gorg (similar in sound to Gorn, right?) being the last of its kind is similar to the creatures in “The Man Trap” and “The Devil in the Dark.” Also, the repository of Gorg offspring inside the rock is similar to the chamber of silicon nodules in “The Devil in the Dark.” Queen to queen’s level three?

“Every day is best day ever!”
Unless you’re having a bad day.

Final analysis: an alien invasion story with some good laughs and a heartwarming finale.

2 1/2 out of 4 stars. Fairly pedestrian at times but rallies for a resolution that’s straight from the heart.

The alien invasion premise has been done ad nauseam in films (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Alien Nation) and TV (V, Earth: Final Conflict) over the years and has become an unofficial sci-fi sub-genre. Unfortunately, the variation on the theme featured in Home isn’t groundbreaking in either its conception or execution. On the run from the dreaded Gorg, the Boov invade Earth and relocate the entire human population to a carnival style reservation area, and no one protests their captivity since they now have an amusement park existence—go with it, it’s a kid’s movie. A young girl, Gratuity “Tip” Tucci (Rihanna), hiding out inside Boov inhabited territory encounters Oh (Jim Parsons), a mistake prone purple skinned alien whose bad decisions and clumsy pratfalls drives the plot. Whereas the standard issue story is the film’s greatest detriment, the unlikely friendship that blooms between Oh and Tip is what makes the film fly. Also, the finale, though certainly not original, is a genuine tear-jerker that should leave most adults in the audience feeling satisfied with the end result; kids will probably love this movie no matter what, thanks to its explosion of colors, sleek technology and fast paced plot. That model—entertaining the kids while servicing the adults with meaningful storylines—was pioneered by Disney and perfected by Pixar. Indeed, for the better part of two decades now, Pixar has been the undisputed leader in producing animated films that succeed at captivating the young minds in the audience while simultaneously engaging adult viewers on a deep emotional level (reference WALL-E and Up). Up until the last few years, most animated films were only able to achieve the former, but now the other major animation houses have begun to adopt Pixar’s adult-centric formula…with great success. Home is certainly an exemplar of that strategy, especially during its surprisingly powerful resolution. In some key ways the ending here reminds me of the one in Disney’s Mars Needs Moms (2011), another animated film that stages a tearful reunion between mother and child during the movie’s climactic passage. In the end, Home isn’t Earth-shattering, but it is a heartwarming tale of courage, compassion and companionship. Above all, the film shows us, in stark contrast to Boov mores and mannerisms, what it really means to be human. They say that home is where the heart is. If true, it shouldn’t be too hard to find room in your heart for Home.

Insurgent (PG-13)

Directed by: Robert Schwentke
Starring: Shailene Woodley
March 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

I got it from the movie poster. A nice turn of the phrase “defy gravity.”

Peace is an obligation.
Marital Law is immediate. War is imminent.

“You killed us all.” Bleak nightmare.

Tris self-sheers. She wanted to do something different.
Her new coif makes her look like the girl in The Fault in Our Stars. Correction: self-shears. Also, Twitter doesn’t have an italics feature, otherwise I would’ve italicized the word “do” to create a pun with the shortened version of hairdo. And now I’ve ruined my magic trick by explaining it.

Jeanine inspects the founder’s version of the AllSpark.
This rectangular, rune-scrawled object also reminds me of the artifact in The Fifth Element (1997).

Peter shouldn’t have insulted Tris’ parents.

The easy way...but under protest.
It’s not the same as the “easy way” in Back to the Future II (1989), though.

Why doesn’t Caleb help out Tris when she’s attached?
I only ask this because he just made his first kill. Yes, he’s probably in shock over such an action, but his sister’s life is literally hanging in the balance. Correction: attacked. The new predictive function on iPhones thinks it’s being helpful when presenting words that look similar to one another. In a darkened theater, with a darkened phone screen, it’s easy to select the wrong word. The defense rests.

Welcome to Fort Factionless.

Don’t call Four Tobias. He won’t even let his mother call him that.
It’s not wise to call Indiana Jones “Junior” either.

“I always loved watching him sleep.” #Creepy
Unless you’re a betrothed Minbari.
The dystopian landscape is really well done in this film.

Fittingly, all Candor clothing is black and white.
‘Cause that’s the way they see the world. Get it?

“May the truth set you free.” And destroy your reputation and alienate your friends.
I meant to say, “alienate you from your friends.” But I trust the point was made.

“I killed Will.” Chills!
A very well-acted scene as Tris resists the truth serum with every ounce of her strength so as to not reveal her deep, dark secret.

“Thank you for your candor.” Up yours!
Or as Scotty would say, “Up your shaft!” (ST:III)

Jeanine is searching for a “special” Divergent. Gee, I wonder who that could be.

10% Divergent equals a bullet to the head.
This story element, which doesn’t appear in the book, is very effective in ratcheting up the tension.

Four shooting Eric cheapens his death. I much prefer Tris stabbing Eric in the book.
It was too soon to knock off the arrogant henchman. The audience needed to derive a greater feeling of vindication and satisfaction from Eric’s death. As filmed, it’s just a shallow slaying.

I could’ve skipped seeing Four’s tattoos again.
I know this gratuitous scene was placed here just for the teenybopper fan girls in the audience, but seeing Four’s tattoos once was quite sufficient. Actually, I could’ve skipped such a visual altogether, but that’s just me.

“We have plenty of guards.” Now that’s cold.
Jeanine shows Peter no respect, just like Peter shows Tris no respect. Bitterly ironic.

First sim: Tris must rescue her mother from a burning, flying house.
This is a superbly crafted sequence, but it’s overlong and overblown.

“Scary boyfriend skills.” Gotcha.
This is a pretty weak “Ah-ha!” moment. In the book, Tris knows she’s in a sim because Four grabs her on the shoulder where her bullet wound is, something her caring boyfriend would never do.

Amazing FX on the building demolitions.
If you’re into large-scale destruction.

“Are you real?” Better check his tats to make sure it’s really Four.
On second thought, let’s not.

Tris confronts her dark side.
This good half/bad half conflict has been done ad nauseam throughout TV/film history. The earliest example I can recall is when the transporter splits Capt. Kirk into good/evil halves in TOS’s “The Enemy Within.”

Divergents...the true purpose of the experiment.
As the culmination of the five factions, this revelation isn’t that much of a surprise; nor is the fact that they should be looked upon differently since they’re…different.

There’s hope beyond the wall.
But is there any hope for those inside the wall? Stay tuned.

A mass exodus of Divergents.
See you later Factionistas!

Final analysis: a solid follow-up to the first film, with some significant twists from the book.
Actually, the divergences from the book are extensive. Here are just a few: Marcus has a more prominent role in the action, there’s no AllSpark artifact and the loyal Dauntless join with the factionless to march on Erudite as a retaliatory response to the wrong’s committed by Jeanine and her lot in the first film.

3 out of 4 stars. Some good action scenes and some superb FX. A solid set-up for the finale.

As sequels go, Insurgent, based on the teen book series by Veronica Roth and the follow-up to last year’s Divergent, is a solid effort. The middle chapter of any trilogy typically has an identity crisis—it’s either too similar to the initial movie or it strays too far in the wrong direction so as to be virtually unrecognizable when measured against the original concept. Whereas you’ll probably be lost if you haven’t seen Divergent, Insurgent stands on its own and is a logical extension of the first film rather than a radical departure from it. The vast majority of middle films will either end with a cliffhanger (i.e., Vader’s mind-blowing revelation that he’s Luke’s father in Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back) or the continuation of a journey (i.e., The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers). With Insurgent, something strange happens for a middle chapter film…it resolves. In fact, it resolves to the degree that the saga can end right here with the characters living reasonably happily ever after. Of course, there are enough plot threads still dangling out there to justify extending the story, but the fact that it could’ve ended right here is a truly bizarre anomaly for a mid-trilogy film. Shifting gears to production, the bombed out environs are exceptionally well staged here; the rough, rubble riddled landscapes perfectly mirror the arduous psychological and spiritual journey the characters embark upon in the film. Indeed, the physical structures are soon transformed into mental ones as we get a glimpse into the architecture of the mind: Tris is subjected to a new battery of sims, just in case we didn’t get our fill of them in the last movie. Aside from the city exteriors, the only other environment worth mentioning is the Amity faction, which perfectly reflects the natural, serene vibe of its inhabitants. Since there are only a few substantive character moments in the movie, the acting won’t stand out as stellar…more like serviceable. The action sequences are mildly entertaining, but are somewhat standard issue for what we’ve come to anticipate from non-bloody, teen-centric confrontations. So, what can we expect from Allegiant, the final film in the series? Those who’ve read the books might feel like they have an inside track to what will happen, but if this movie’s deviations from book to script are any indication, we could be looking at a significantly different cinematic conclusion to what appears in Roth’s novel. To their credit, these adapted screenplays haven’t been slavish in their adherence to the source material, and the alterations have provided some interesting surprises along the way. And really, not knowing everything that will happen in a movie is part of its allure, right? Purists will probably disagree, but these Divergent screenplays have been faithful in the areas that count, but have deviated only where needed in order to make a good movie…which, at the end of the day, is what matters most. If the concluding chapter is as good as the first two, this will go down as one of the better trilogies in recent years, and second only to The Hunger Games in the YA dystopian market. Let’s hope the studio bean counters resist the urge to split the last book into two movies as was done with the Harry Potter, Twilight and The Hunger Games series. The penultimate movie in each of those franchises was disappointing and egregiously added filler just to stretch out the story in order to make more money. This brand of cinematic hucksterism, which compromises artistic integrity, subverts authorial intent and fleeces its audience, is downright despicable. The studio executives who conceived and engage in such practices should be tarred and feathered. I say that with as much candor as I can conjure.

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (PG)

Directed by: John Madden
Starring: Judi Dench
March 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

#MaggieSmith most definitely isn’t getting her kicks on Route 66.
It’s abundantly clear that this scene was written only to generate a laugh. Since the meeting is in San Diego, why didn’t Patel and Smith just fly into the city’s airport rather than driving a convertible across the scorching hot desert?

“Get her some boiling water.” A humorous scene on the proper way to make a cup of tea.

“Why die here...when I can die there?” Quite a sales pitch.
Smith tells Patel to shut up and let her do all the talking during the meeting with David Strathairn. Patel exercises restraint for about 14.3 seconds.

Taxicab Confessions: India Edition.
Or, as the plot soon reveals, Strangers on a Taxi.

Sagai= Engagement Party. Let the drama begin.

“I went with low expectations and came back disappointed.” The eternal pessimist.
Maggie Smith’s line actually sounds like it could’ve been delivered by one of the two old coot critics in The Muppet Show.

“The fastest fox in the forest.” Or, the fastest talker in India.

“There’s just so much bloody potential” in life. And so many frustrating limitations.
Sometimes having too many options is worse than just choosing among a handful of opportunities. Having seemingly unlimited potential might also lead to a kind of ennui that prevents the person from getting anything done in life...the “Jack of All Trades, Master of None” syndrome.

#DevPatel asks his mom to take one for the team. Humorous.
Most women wouldn’t resist such an offer. I mean...we’re talking about Richard Gere here.

The wants and fears monologue is poignant.
One day after watching the movie I don’t really remember what was said here, but I’ll trust my earlier self that this was a great scene.

#DevPatel should’ve learned the choreography. He looks like a doofus on the dance floor.
Actually, that’s still better than what I could do in his place. #TwoLeftFeet.

“Shall we write the next chapter?” That’s when you know you’ve spun a good yarn.

“How much time do you have?” Way to go for the jugular.
A question you should never ask someone over 65.

Death by cow. Amusing.
Of course, there’s cultural relevance here since the train’s passengers would all be placed in harm’s way in order to save a cow…a sacred animal in Indian society.

I don’t do advice...I do opinions.
But if you offer your opinion on how something should be done, isn’t that kinda’ like offering advice, right?

The roots and wings wedding speech is touching.
Especially the script change portion at the end.

“There’s no present like the time.”
A nice play on words, but also a poignant nugget of wisdom. This phrase reminds me of Gandalf’s instruction to Frodo in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001): “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

Final analysis: a natural extension of the first film with some new adventures and characters.
Although I miss Tom Wilkinson from the first film, the addition of Richard Gere, Tamsin Greig and David Strathairn were good casting choices that paid off huge dividends in the film.

2 1/2 out of 4. A cultural and relational journey that was worth the return trip.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011) was a crowd-pleasing, life affirming dramedy based on Deborah Moggach’s book of the same name. Most of the principal actors have returned in the sequel (Tom Wilkinson is out, while Richard Gere and David Strathairn are in), and the setting, tone and theme (i.e., making the most of the Golden Years) is fairly consistent with that of its predecessor. So why a sequel? Well, the first film was a modest hit, especially among the AARP set, so there was certainly financial justification for green lighting a sequel. Tapping the scintillating cast (which includes: Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Penelope Wilton, etc) for one more go-round also must’ve seemed like a surefire way to win at the box office. Ultimately, having a built-in audience is the kind of safety net studios, like Fox Searchlight, are greatly desirous of, provided that the majority of that audience is still around to enjoy the sequel (after all, it’s been four years since the release of the first movie). Life imitates art in the follow-up film: just as the title has been established as a recognizable, bankable brand for the film franchise, it’s also inspired a franchise of hotels “stretching across India and beyond” in the world of the story. Sprinkling additional curry into the savory story are subplots involving: engagement/wedding parties (with plenty of Bollywood-style pomp and dancing), a surprise visit by a hotel inspector and a handful of percolating romances, all of which bloom into relationships by movie’s end…just in case we never get another chance to advance the story with this gracefully aging cast. What ailed the first film, i.e., shallow characterizations, uncomplicated plots and a heaping helping of sentimentality, also afflicts the sequel. Conversely, the elements that worked well in the original movie—gorgeous Indian locales, a dazzling cast, a positive, inspirational, meaningful story line—work like a charm here as well. The generation reconciliation between Patel and Smith’s characters, who are co-partners in the hotel franchising venture, is a clever way of keeping young and old viewers engaged throughout the movie. Also, when not preoccupied with sophomoric subplots, the movie effectively presents us with a sometimes humorous, sometimes profound look at what it means to grow old. The straightforward plot is the perfect compliment to the film’s feel good exuberance, and is the antithesis of the typical, dreary old age film like the uber-depressing Amour (2012). When all is said and done, this Second film is tons of fun and has a lot of dignity to go along with its levity. So, will there be a Third film in the series? And will Maggie Smith’s character return? Time will tell. But to be on the safe side, the studio should start production sooner rather than later. With a cast this seasoned, time is of the essence.

Chappie (R)

Directed by: Neill Blomkamp
Starring: Sharlto Copley
March 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


A documentary style opening that details the plight of robo-cops in Jburg.
This mockumentary style opening has become a signature of Blomkamp’s films.

Criminals seek a robot remote. Well, even Data had an off switch.
The first in a long string of silly story devices in the movie.

Robot Gangster #1. A hair braided scheme.
A robot police force that can be shut off with the click of a button? What is this, I Robot (2004)?

A retarded robot. Ha!
One of the only funny lines in the film.

A rubber chicken...Chappie’s first toy.
All of the rubber duckies were sold out at the novelty store.

Chappie learns how to shoot a gun...sort of.
Too bad some of Chappie’s previous police programming couldn’t kick in here. No latent memories or abilities when your memory is wiped, I guess. Bummer!

Nurture your creativity. Inspirational thought of the day.
Check your desk calendar and I bet you’ll find something similar in it.

Chappie is pimped out. Gangsta Bot.
This transformation into a hood is good for a few laughs but the whole concept gets dafter as the story goes along.

Which dog do you want to be?
Is this like that motivational anecdote that asks: Which wolf will you feed today?

The new firmware functions like malware.
Surprised myself on this one.

Chappie meets his big brother, Moose.
A mechanical version of Rocky and Bullwinkle?

Gearing up for the heist. Slow motion team shot is similar to the one in #
Various permutations of this scene can also be seen in Mystery Men (1999), The Right Stuff (1983) and even The Magnificent Seven (1960).

The Moose is similar to AT-STs in #
StarWars and the big bots in #RoboCop. A decades-old design.
This is such a rip-off it’s not even funny. The only thing that’s new here is the Moose’s ability to fly. Wait a minute; I thought only pigs could do that.

Jackman’s having far too much fun with his new toy.
Like a kid in an arcade with unlimited tokens.

Live rounds in the office.
The fact that Jackman is allowed to carry a gun inside the office to begin with is ridiculous. He’s an engineer not a bounty hunter, darn it.

Transferring consciousness. Yeah right.
Last year we saw two films where a person’s essence was downloaded into a computer: Transcendence and Lucy. Both movies were mediocre at best, although Lucy was far more entertaining, thanks to its butt kicking heroine.

I didn’t realize a person’s entire consciousness could fit on a flash drive.
The same daffy resolution appeared in Lucy where her consciousness was transferred into a flash drive. Here, Patel’s soul is downloaded into the CPU of a robot in a matter of minutes. It takes me longer to download a movie on iTunes!

Final analysis: an intriguing premise that didn’t even come close to living up to it’s potential.

The titular robot is completely unsympathetic and the characters are as 2D as the ones in that
He-Man cartoon.

2 out of 4. Flirts with a message about AIs, but is banal beyond belief. Blomkamp’s first disappointment.

Neill Blomkamp’s films have seen a steady decline in quality and approval over the years. His first film, District 9 (2009), was a critical and financial success and was nominated for Best Picture—quite an honor for a sci-fi film. Blomkamp’s next project, Elysium (2013), while visually engaging and thought provoking, received a tepid response from critics and audiences alike. Now we have Chappie, the story of a repurposed police robot that achieves something akin to sentience thanks to a program created by his “maker,” Deon Wilson (Dev Patel). However, Chappie unwittingly falls in with the wrong crowd and is soon transformed into a gangsta’ bot, much to his creator’s chagrin. The story is contrived (robot police force plus a giant Mech equals RoboCop) and formulaic (the transference of a person’s consciousness into a machine is similar to Transcendence and Lucy) and has none of the ripped-from-the-headlines relevance of Blomkamp’s earlier films. Besides a paper thin subplot involving Deon’s rival engineer Vincent (Hugh Jackman), the daffy transformation during the movie’s climax is ludicrous to the extent that it completely obliterates any chance the movie had of being a success. If there’s a plus side here, it’s that this film, like the director’s earlier efforts, features extensive on location shooting in Johannesburg, South Africa, which is a huge boon to the film’s gritty visual style. Indeed, the ramshackle, seedy environs of Joburg are the perfect compliment and backdrop to the criminal activities that transpire throughout the film. Where the acting is concerned, only Patel (along with Sharlto Copley as the voice of Chappie), shines here: everyone else, including Jackman and Sigourney Weaver, is extremely wooden in their respective portrayals. Of course, the main problem with the performances is that the actors didn’t have much to work with, thanks, in large part, to Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell’s anemic script, which is riddled with pedestrian dialog, shallow characterizations and standard situations with fairly obvious solutions. All of these negative aspects could’ve been overlooked if Chappie had been rendered more like E.T. and less like Alf in the movie. Even something closer to Short Circuit’s (1986) Number 5 would’ve stood a better chance of winning over the audience. Chappie’s aping of the hoodlums is funny for about five minutes, after which the ghetto speech and swagger becomes exceedingly offensive and tiresome. It’s natural that we should want to pull for the impressionable automaton (who is the lead character, after all), but due to the Chappie’s annoying and irredeemable qualities, we simply cannot bring ourselves to cheer for the rabbit-eared robot. The fact that we’re prevented from fully identifying with the eponymous android is this film’s Achilles ’ heel. A movie featuring an unsympathetic robot is about as useful as a heap of spare parts. Though it pains me to say this, Chappie is crappy.

McFarland, USA (PG)

Directed by: Niki Caro
Starring: Kevin Costner
February 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

McFarland, USA
From Disney studios? You betcha’!

Costner as a high school football coach. It fits, but I thought this was a cross country movie.
Beware the job ending ricochet.

“Are we in Mexico?” Must’ve taken a wrong turn at Albuquerque.
If you’re not familiar with this reference, you need more Looney Tunes in your life.

Welcome to McFarland. Have a chicken.
The new family pet.

Invisible, expendable kids. Sad.
This is a disheartening indictment on the state of our education system.

“Congratulations, you just made the cross country team.” Ha!
No tryouts necessary. Now go run ten miles.

First meet. Palo Alto. No respect for team “Taco Bell.”
Racism in any form is ugly, but when it’s employed in a taunt it’s like squirting lighter fluid on an open flame. Of course, the team uses the anger from those taunts to fuel their revenge tour all the way to the state finals.

Makeshift course for hill conditioning. “The higher the better.”
The almond mounds serve a double purpose: hills to train on and physical reminders of how it took many hours of hard work from an army of low wage pickers to build them.

Costner must overcome the team’s “picker” mentality.
A rigid pattern of thought that leads to the conviction that things will never change for the better.

The bridge scene is moving.

Costner rides a pink “Barbie” bike. He rode a purple girl’s bike in #ThreeDaysToKill.

“Good race amigo.” Ha!
Paybacks are sweet.

Costner learns how to cut cabbages. Earns respect and the title “coach.”
Note to self: If ever you complain about your job at any point in the future re-watch this scene for a reality check and be grateful for what you have.

“Who’s tougher?” Good pep talk.

“McFarland’s going to state.”
A bit of a spoiler, but you could probably guess this from watching the trailer. Anything less would make this a fairly unremarkable story, yes?

“We’re not the chiefs, we’re the indians.” Sage advice.
A lesson that’s better to learn as a young man than an old one.

Costner’s “superhuman” speech is truly inspiring.

Danny Diaz saves the day. What a moment!
One of the ultimate examples of teamwork I’ve ever seen in film. Goose bump inducing.

Final analysis: an inspirational true story sports movie that hits all of the right emotional notes.
In the theater I attended, the entire audience began applauding when the end credits started to roll. Proof positive.

3 out of 4 stars. A heartwarming and crowd-pleasing film with another tailor made role for Costner.

As sports go, cross country running isn’t one of the more exciting ones to watch. It also isn’t one of the more exciting sports to base a movie on. However, this film is surprisingly watchable thanks, in large part, to its star. Kevin Costner, the undisputed king of sports movies, plays Jim White, a failed football coach who gets a crazy idea to start a cross country program in the small farming community of McFarland, CA. Costner slips into this role as easily as when he puts on his favorite pair of boots: his rugged, Everyman appeal is a huge boon to his portrayal of Coach White. Not only does Costner look the part, but the veracity he brings to the role makes it seem like he really is a high school coach. In fact, Costner’s performance is so convincing and so effortless that the line between performer and character is exceptionally blurred at times: Costner the actor is subsumed into Costner the coach. As easy as it would be to give the lion’s share of the credit to Costner and his screen wife, Maria Bello, it’s really the no-name cast of Hispanic actors who are the heart and soul of the film. What shines through the most in this story is the hardworking and family focused citizens of Small Town, USA. The movie effectively explores how the other, other half lives and serves as a poignant reminder of the humble beginnings many people come from…and the scores more who never get the chance to improve their circumstances in life. The movie is educational; both in how it raises awareness of the lesser-known sport of cross country and in the way it reveals the inner workings of the Latino culture. The movie is also inspirational, depicting the means by which perseverance and teamwork can pave the pathway to success. Though the sports elements, and even the exultation and satisfaction over seeing the team win big, lend the true story its feel-good exuberance, the film attempts to impart something much deeper than just a standard chronicling of yet another high school championship team. The movie takes us back to the basics—dedication, loyalty and community, to name a few. In the final analysis, the biopic aspect is far less compelling than the movie’s subtle reminder of what really matters most in life: keeping the main thing the main thing. It’s a universal challenge that applies to those living in a sprawling metropolis or in McFarland, USA.

Kingsman: The Secret Service (R)

Directed by: Matthew Vaughn
Starring: Colin Firth
February 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Kingsman-The Secret Service
Firth won the Academy Award for Best Actor for The King’s Speech (2010). What does that have to do with this film? Nothing, other than the fact that they both have “King” in the title.

A surprise cameo from a galaxy far, far away.
He’s an over-the-pond professor who did his doctoral thesis on “The Multiplicative Capabilities of Interconnected Moisture Vaporators.” It was released in book form by Tosche Press.

#SamuelLJackson with a lisp is a hoot.
I know it’s mean-spirited to laugh at a person with a lisp, but Jackson’s delivery makes it impossible to keep a straight face.

Holo-glasses...a nifty invention.

“Manners maketh the man.” Firth teaches some thugs a lesson. An exciting fight scene.
And more than a little unbelievable. But it’s also a lot of fun, which is all that matters, I suppose. Correction: “Manners maketh man.”

Amnesia darts would come in handy.
Sometimes a self-inflicted amnesia dart would be helpful.

“Like in
My Fair Lady.” Hilarious!
This is the scene where I knew we had a runaway romp on our hands. Flawless comedic timing.

This elevator ride reminds me of the Haunted House ride at #Disneyland.
Without the silly vertical wall paintings.

The body bag initiation puts things into perspective.

There’s no name for the Chinese “thecret thervice.” I’m dying!
Easily one of the funniest scenes in the movie.

Choose a dog...but choose wisely.
At least he didn’t select a Chihuahua.

The skydiving scene is as pulse-pounding as they come.
This was an extremely well executed action sequence that makes you feel like you’re free-falling right along with the rest of the characters.

“Give me a far fetched theatrical plot any day.” Here, here.
Movies with overblown, hyper real action scenes and melodramatic villains have their own unique charm.

Jackson and Firth share a “happy” meal.
Wonder who got to keep the toy.

Fitting Room 3. Bond’s Q would be envious.
Actually, he’s probably the one who invented all of these weapons and devices.

The three J.B.s scene is amusing.
No, one of them isn’t James Brown. Or Josh Brolin. Or Justin Bieber. Gag!

Brutal, protracted fight scene in a Kentucky church.
In truth, it was too long and too bloody for my taste. And how many bullets does Firth’s gun carry anyway…50?

“This ain’t that kind of movie.” Clearly not, from what happens next.
Remember this line. It comes back around to bite Jackson in the ath.

Reconnecting the satellite link. I’m literally biting my fingernails.

OMG! The head exploding sequence is probably the funniest macabre scene I’ve ever seen.
Sometimes, when something strikes my funny bone just right, I just start laughing uncontrollably. This sequence had that effect on me; like I’d inhaled a deep lungful of laughing gas.

Final analysis: the best un-Bond movie ever, with incredible action scenes and humor to spare.

3 out of 4 stars. I haven’t laughed this hard in the theater in quite some time.

I must admit that this film took me by surprise. I knew it was going to be an action packed spy flick (based on the comic book “The Secret Service”), but I had no idea it would have laugh-a-minute hilarity to go along with its thrill-a-minute intensity. Though belonging to an altogether different narrative universe, this film reminds me of last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy, which was a very effective mixture of humor and action. That formula works like magic here on a story that boasts a truly unique spin on the by-now hackneyed sub-genre of spy thriller. This might look like a spy movie spoof, but looks can be deceiving—like the dressing rooms inside a particular London tailor shop. This film is actually more like an alternate reality version of a MI6 mission—it’s what a Bond movie would look like if it were directed by Robert Rodriguez. As would be expected, Colin Firth, Michael Caine, Samuel L. Jackson and Mark Strong are all superb in their roles, but it’s really youngster, Taron Egerton, who steals the show as Firth’s protégée and Kingsman initiate, Eggsy (no, it’s not a typo). Egerton plays Eggsy with a chip on his shoulder, but also infuses him with just enough good-natured irreverence and boyish charm to make him appealing to the audience. Kudos goes to director Matthew Vaughn (X-Men: First Class) for prohibiting his action sequences (with the exception of the church debacle) from running away with the movie. The character development is fairly shallow here, and yet we’re still fully invested in what happens to them, which is somewhat of an anomaly for a contemporary action film. The real star of the movie is the screenplay, written by Vaughn and Jane Goldman. The dialog is razor sharp and witty beyond compare. The story skillfully pokes fun at the spy genre without outright lampooning it. It’s also a well crafted yarn that includes several gobsmacking plot twists. The only caveat here is that the film might be offensive to some viewers (e.g., the pervasive foul language, inappropriate sexual references and mass killings inside a church). The parenthetical items notwithstanding (and lest we forget, this is a Rated R film), this is the most hilarious thrill ride that’s graced the silver screen in quite some time. So has this movie done enough to garner a sequel…or a franchise? In a word, yeth.

Jupiter Ascending (PG-13)

Directed by: The Wachowskis
Starring: Channing Tatum
February 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Jupiter Ascending

Failure agrees with you. Ah, brotherly love.
Ok, I’m just gonna’ come right out and say it…Eddie Redmayne is creepy weird in this movie. His Botox lip job speech was probably intended to give him a tough guy, Marlon Brando in The Godfather vibe, but this character quirk just looks awkward and bizarre. In The Theory of Everything, Redmayne played a character that was in pain but doesn’t show it…here he looks like he’s in pain but isn’t.

“Urges and obligations.” The death of romance.
Yeah, talk about a gigantic buzz kill.

Tatum takes out some grays. Exciting action scene.
The first time around, anyway. Redmayne’s instant replay is redundant and anticlimactic.

Tatum and Kunis encounter trouble on the beam up.

“Sharing has never been a strong suit of your species.” Sad, but true.
No, you can’t have any of my popcorn.

Jupiter is kidnapped in a cornfield by bounty hunter scum.
This scene reminded me a lot of Signs (2002). A far superior film to this one.

Now we know where crop circles come from.
As if there was any doubt…after seeing Signs.

“Where do you get those lightbulbs?” Was that a pickup line?
Are light bulbs the new code word for melons?

“I will never complain about the DMV ever again.” No kidding. These people are as anal as the Vogons.
By comparison, this movie makes The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005) look like the finest sci-fi story ever written.

Jupiter drops a vial. Way to go, you just killed 100 people.
Their essence is spilled all over the deck floor. Talk about wasting already ignominious deaths.

Dino warriors drop in for dinner.
Funny, they didn’t even touch the salad.

The elephant guy at the helm made me chuckle.
I wonder why we’ve never seen an elephant-like alien before in any other sci-fi movie. Maybe because it’s utterly ridiculous looking.

Jupiter is buried in a complex inside Jupiter’s eye. A little too on the nose?
Or tongue in cheek? Or self-indulgent, cutesy writing?

Tatum takes his jacket off. Wait a minute, I didn’t know he was Birdman.
As bizarre as Birdman is at times, at least it has a chance of winning an Oscar.

Final analysis: an ambitious project that ends up being an uninspired knockoff of
The story galaxy trots and introduces us to many people on different planets who have little to say and even less impact on the story…a cheap imitation of Frank Herbert’s masterwork of sci-fi literature. This star tour does little to advance the plot and actually makes it bog down with predictable reactions to common situations, all held together by a string of sensory overloading action sequences.

2 out of 4. Weak dialog and an insipid plot make this film fall flatter than a crop circle.

When I first saw the trailer for this film I was immediately impressed by the visual effects and the basic premise—a young woman discovering that she’s actually a star princess (hey, it appeals to the fanboy in me that revels in the populist fantasy of The Last Starfighter…or that other little movie about some kid named Luke joining a rebellion in a far, far off place). It did look a tad “teeny” (i.e., The Hunger Games or Divergent) to me and the inclusion of teen heartthrobs Mila Kunis and Channing Tatum did little to dissuade that notion. Normally, in order to give each movie a fair shake, I start out with a rating of 2 out of 4 stars and adjust up or down accordingly depending on the quality of the film as it progresses. In this case, the needle never budged during the entire movie. Clearly, Warner Bros. thought enough of this project to attach some top talent (and some notable supporting players like Sean Bean and Eddie Redmayne) along with topnotch FX to it, but they clearly should’ve spent some more time and money on this confusing, uninspiring story. I believe it was somewhere around the half hour mark when I asked myself, “Where is this movie going?” There’s no McGuffin to drive the plot. There’s no clear-cut goal. Kunis seems completely unaffected by the fact that she’s actually an intergalactic princess and that little gray guys with fangs are chasing her around the city. Tatum’s acting is patently flat and judging from his character’s appearance, his mother was an elf and his father was a werewolf. Eddie Redmayne clearly hasn’t worked out all of the physical kinks from his turn as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything; his stiff gait looks like he’s had a ramrod shoved up you-know-where and his tightlipped speech hints at a Botox session gone horribly wrong. Kunis’ Jupiter is an indecisive, dimwitted ingénue who consistently makes poor decisions, requiring white knight Tatum to swoop in and rescue her. This pattern occurs ad nauseam in the film—i.e., Kunis marrying Redmayne, who she just met, and then nearly signing ownership of the Earth over to him—and is utterly ludicrous. Like the narrative equivalent of a pinball game, the story bounces from one planet to the next and the plot gets murkier with each new locale the characters visit. The bounty hunter subplot goes nowhere, the action scenes are overblown and the story doesn’t take us anywhere emotionally despite taking us on a whirlwind tour of the cosmos. The only thing I found remotely compelling in the film is the notion that the Earth is just a small cog in an expansive industrialized universe. However, this concept is briefly introduced and then quickly abandoned for one of the film’s myriad action sequences. To call this movie a disappointment is a galactic understatement, especially since it was written and directed by Andy and Lana Wachowski, masterminds behind the Matrix trilogy. If, by some fluke of fate, this movie should perform well enough to inspire a sequel, it should be called Jupiter Descending.

Taken 3 (PG-13)

Directed by: Olivier Megaton
Starring: Liam Neeson
January 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


Nothing says “unpredictable” like a giant stuffed panda.
Or an early morning glass of wine…for a pregnant woman (of course, Neeson doesn’t know that his daughter is pregnant at this point, so we’ll let him off the hook on this particular charge).

Liam is framed, chased by cops and escapes via a sewer. Reference Harrison Ford in #
Way too many plot similarities here. But if you’re going to appropriate whole chunks of narrative, might as well steal from a great movie that’s stood the test of time.

Dukes of Hazard style jump over the freeway divider. Intense car chase.
Yet, it doesn’t hold a candle to the frenetic pursuits in the Bourne films.

Father/daughter reunion in a bathroom stall...sounds worse than it is.
I’m not even going to touch this one. Oops, did I just make it worse?

Liquor store shootout. Bad guy eats a bullet.
In fact, he feeds it to himself. There’s some maximum destruction going on in this scene; the rain of bullets, accompanied by glass shards flying like projectiles in myriad directions, is almost poetic. But what a squandered opportunity for an artistic shot of the Russian heavy’s blood mingling with the alcohol on the floor. Oh well, that image would’ve been too good for this movie anyway.

Liam kills a guy in his underwear and Kim is taken...again.
In fact, everyone in the Mills family is abducted in this movie: Lenore (Famke Janssen) is kidnapped by her murderers, Kim (Maggie Grace) is taken by her step-dad’s (Dougray Scott) thugs and Bryan (Neeson), for a short time, is held captive in a cop car. So, in that light, the plot does reflect the title.

Porsche vs jet. Spectacular crash.
But believable?

Warm bagels, warm heart.
This vital clue, delivered with as much sincerity as Academy Award winning Forest Whitaker can muster, is utterly ridiculous and sets up an extremely weak ending. What an unsatisfactory way to button up a largely enjoyable action trilogy.

Final analysis: an action packed series capper that could’ve used a higher octane script.

2 out of 4. Ironically, this final Taken is as “predictable” as its stock characters and standard plot.

It was readily apparent that the Taken series was running out of gas during its mediocre second chapter. Fittingly, this final act runs on fumes the whole way through until, like the wrecked Porsche at the end of the movie, it just can’t go any further. These characters can only be abducted so many times before credulity is stretched to the breaking point, right? Instead of focusing on abductions for this latest outing, the writers decided to try a new tack by making Bryan Mills (Neeson) a fugitive for killing his wife, which he didn’t do…of course. If this plot sounds familiar, it is: namely The Fugitive (1993). Trouble is, Harrison Ford already blazed this trail, along with David Janssen who originated the role on TV in the 60s. Taking nothing away from Neeson, Ford did the innocent man on the run routine much better. However, a derivative plot is far from what ails this movie the most. The formula has lost all potency by now since we know someone will be abducted and that Neeson will find and rescue the taken family member while dispatching a host of Baltic baddies in spectacular, though unbelievable, fashion. The previous two films saw the majority of their action unfolding in European locales, but this film takes place entirely in L.A., a rather banal locus for an action picture. The movie’s directing, writing and acting are all uninspired and perfunctory—even Neeson seems to be walking (when he’s not running) through his scenes. And several parts of the plot are just plain daft, i.e.: A highly skilled ex-special forces agent buys his twenty-something daughter a giant stuffed panda for her birthday? Is anyone that clueless or inept? Sure, a couple of the action sequences get the heart racing a bit, but they’re instantly forgettable (save for the jet clipping scene) due to standard storyboarding and filming. The only aspect that even remotely works here is Neeson’s three friends getting more screen time than in the previous two films. However, the downside is that their character development is razor thin and the dialog written for them (E.g., “Okay…okay…got it.”) is pedestrian beyond belief. This entire film looks like it was shot with economy in mind—it’s a substandard action film that squanders the considerable talents of Neeson and Whitaker on material that’s better suited to a direct-to-video release. In fact, it feels like the film was rushed through its paces just to get it onto the big screen and into the inevitable Taken trilogy box set. In the first two films, it was the characters that were taken for a ride; in this film, it’s the audience. Take my word for it.

Selma (PG-13)

Directed by: Ava DuVernay
Starring: David Oyelowo
January 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


The movie opens with an unexpected bang. What a senseless act of violence.
And it always seems like it’s the kids who pay the price…sad.

The right to vote unencumbered. No small ask.
Especially in the Deep South in the 60s.

“Dismantle the family.” A cruel strategy.
J. Edgar Hoover isn’t painted in a very favorable light in this film. He was also portrayed very unsympathetically in Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar (2011), which is probably one of the reasons why that film didn’t do too well critically or financially.

“Give us the vote” speech is sensational.
In fact, it makes you want to stand up and cheer. But save your applause for MLK’s final rousing speech from the steps of the capitol building in Montgomery, Alabama.

“God was the first to cry for your boy.” Rough scene.
What a powerful sentiment and reassurance for a grieving father. Even when he wasn’t reciting a speech, MLK had a way with words.

MLK takes a long time to answer no. An uncomfortable and telling scene.
And an agonizingly ambiguous scene. But, with as much time as he spent away from home, it’s no wonder why MLK had relational problems with his wife.

The debacle on the bridge is a rough sequence.

March 2.0 with mixed races.
The tide begins to turn. The scene where MLK kneels to pray and the masses behind him follow suit reminds me of when Aragon kneels to pay homage to the hobbits and his entire kingdom kneels behind him in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003). Note to women: that level of respect is enough to make a grown man cry. Works on me every time.

LBJ strikes down voting restrictions. Victory at last.
Persistence pays off…but at what price?

Footage of the actual march is deeply affecting.
Such archival footage provides authenticity and a profound weight to its historicity.

Final analysis: a deeply moving biopic centered on the landmark march for human rights in Selma, Alabama.

3 out of 4. A difficult film to watch at times, but the uplifting ending makes it a journey worth taking.

This film is riddled with pro/con contradictions. On the plus side we have a story that focuses on an iconic figure from American history at the crux of his most monumental mission to affect a sea change in our country’s civil rights. On the minus side we have a story that focuses on an iconic figure from American history at the crux of his most monumental mission to affect a sea change in our country’s civil rights. In other words, because this story is so familiar to our collective consciousness (MLK’s name should be familiar to every citizen in our country, if only because of the national day named in his honor), the subject matter is easily comprehendible but also entirely too predictable. The movie’s main challenge was how to capitalize on the story’s immediacy and accessibility without making it perfunctory or hackneyed. The results here are a mixed bag. First to what works well in the film. The use of original locations where the actual events took place, accompanied by period appropriate cars, costumes, etc, is a huge boon to the movie; they add the kind of authenticity that’s a prerequisite for quality biopics. Also, the film boasts a dazzling array of top shelf talent, including: Oprah Winfrey as Annie Lee Cooper, Tom Wilkinson as former U.S. President LBJ, Giovanni Ribisi as Lee White, Common as James Bevel, Dylan Baker as J. Edgar Hoover, Tim Roth as Alabama Governor George Wallace, Stephen Root as Colonel Al Lingo, Cuba Gooding Jr. as Fred Gray and Martin Sheen as judge Frank Minis Johnson (uncredited). Whereas the performers certainly did their part in effectively portraying key figures from the era of civil unrest depicted in the movie, the writing and directing are the more culpable culprits for the film’s underachievement. Director Ava DuVernay’s technique is fairly invisible, which is fairly consistent with the framing methods employed during the mid 60s, but the resulting film has very little visual panache and is somewhat muted and bland—the very antithesis of the period in question. It seems as if DuVernay was so concerned with accuracy and veracity that she eschewed creative impulses at every turn, sacrificing any modicum of style or art in the process. At times, the plot feels like a cause and effect string of the significant events and speeches in MLK’s life. Since these public addresses are mere dramatizations of his original talks, wouldn’t showing clips of MLK’s actual speeches have been more emotional and impactful (and economical)? One of the biggest detractors to the narrative is that it’s so preoccupied with telling a historically accurate tale that it sacrifices character development in every case except for the title character. Other than the scene where MLK’s wife asks him if he loves her, the event-driven plot preempts any kind of heartfelt interactions and, indeed, stays just outside the circumference of genuine, human emotion. Granted, this film isn’t remotely as insipid as a Lifetime special, but it’s a far cry from being a bracing biopic like Argo (2012). Final thought: when I screened the film, I ended up sitting next to two teenage girls in a packed theater. Though they whispered back and forth a few times, the movie seemed to hold their attention the whole way through. This heartened me since there were plenty of other, more age appropriate entertainments in the Cineplex for them to choose from. That they selected this film meant that either their parents/teachers obligated them to go or that they had a genuine interest in learning more about MLK’s amazing life story. If the latter is true, we can find some comfort in knowing that today’s young people still want to learn about history—an encouraging sign since we all know what happens to those who fail to learn from the past.