All Things Entertaining and Cultural

At the Movies — 13 Films from Winter 2014-2015

untitled (2)As usual, film distributors are insuring against short memories and saving their best releases for the end of the year when voters consider their award choices.

Among 2014 movies, one summer release, Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood,” has been making a mockery of the late-season trend and glomming many major awards. In remains my choice for Best Picture, but being from a second-class movie town like Philadelphia, that doesn’t exhibit some contenders until after post-year nominations are announced, I have not seen some movies that might challenge “Boyhood.” My diary also has a Best Actress from early in the year, Lindsay Duncan, from “Le Weekend,” who, to my mind, eclipses Reese Witherspoon for “Wild” and other contenders for that accolade. I have not seen Julianne Moore in either of her movies or Jessica Chastain in “A Most Violent Year,” and one of them may make a difference, particularly Moore as the woman dealing with early onset Alzheimer’s in “Still Alice.”


Here are capsule reviews of several current movies, many of which rank as candidate for post-year nominations and honors. The movies will be listed in alphabetical order.


BIG EYES, a movie by Tim Burton — Though Tim Burton plays it straight in this movie about a monomaniac who uses his wife’s talent to feed his ego and become fabulously wealthy, the oversized peepers in the pictures Margaret Keane produced so prolifically matches the make-up style Burton typically uses to decorate his characters. “Big Eyes” is about mediocrity that makes Thomas Kincade look like Rembrandt. Keane’s one-every-15-minute portraits of children with huge, sad eyes go beyond kitsch in a way that makes their popularity bathetic. It’s also about showmanship, salesmanship, and entrepreneurial genius that Keane’s husband, Walter, uses to become a star and turn his wife’s paintings, credited to him, into a lucrative international sensation. You watch Christoph Waltz as Walter and you wonder why no one before him thought of mass production via screen prints, posters, T-shirts, coasters, dishes, etc. before he made a marketing art of such things.

Unfortunately, “Big Eyes” is as mediocre as Margaret Keane’s oeuvre. It’s enjoyable but it lacks substance. Themes, such as the control Walter places on Margaret and her daughter or the pathological extent of ego, remain too comical and cartoonlike to have any depth or make any statement about chauvinism or pathologies associated with self-grandeur. The Keanes’ story, even when it’s intense, is played for cuteness. Burton is right to keep everything light, and good at doing it, but the movie comes off as fluffy and an unfulfilling as a Keane masterpiece. The glory of the film is Christoph Waltz, who is fascinating no matter how irritatingly over the top his character becomes. Waltz is an actor of immediate charm. The minute you spot him on the screen, the movie brightens, and you want to find out about this ebullient and whimsical character. Even when he shows Walter’s seamier side, and makes a desperate move to influence a court case, Waltz amuses and fills the theater with energy. Amy Adams is also good. You see that her Margaret isn’t quite the dupe she seems to be and that she may be doing a little bit of manipulation on her until she tires and becomes fearful of Walter and is less amused by his stunning prowess as a businessman. Like a battered NFL wife, Margaret is willing to go along with Walter’s ruses and her own anonymity when she sees the $millions burgeoning in her bank account.

Adams, one of the more lauded young actresses of recent movie years, has a knack for channeling Doris Day, the exact actress you’d expect to see as Margaret had “Big Eyes” been made at the time of the Keanes’ success. Jason Schwartzman, Krysten Ritter, and Terence Stamp are amusing in supporting roles. “Big Eyes” won’t bore, but it’s definitely a movie for when you want a mindless flapdoodle, as opposed to a film with substance. Even “Night at the Museum” beats it for general entertainment value.


BIRDMAN, a movie by Alejandro González Iñárritu — No amount of schizophrenia, hallucination, angst, or torpor, real or imagined can make Michael Keaton’s character, the goofily named Riggan Thomson, into a person we care about or who remains interesting for long. Keaton is fine at playing the elements of Riggan, an no doubt he will glom awards that more rightfully should be Eddie Redmayne’s or Benedict Cumberbatch’s, but he does nothing to make Riggan empathetic. Perhaps that’s his and Iñárritu’s objective, but to me, the lack of caring make “Birdman” cold, boring, and more open to criticisms about the liberties it takes about realities of life and the theater. To me, the movie comes off as phony from the beginning, and while I admired Keaton’s effort and though Edward Norton was terrific as a matinee idol with a bloated ego, I watched unmoved and unentertained until Iñárritu’s allegedly ambiguous ending. A fuller review is posted at


FOXCATCHER, a movie by Bennett Miller — The characters in “Foxcatcher” are laconic in general and, when they do talk, speak in short, clipped phrases that compactly communicate what they want to say. Bennett Miller tells his stories in pictures, and they are articulated but not enough to keep “Foxcatcher” lively or compelling from a cinematic point of view. “Foxcatcher’s” virtue, and its reason for success is the suspense it breeds as a new way of telling an old-fashioned murder story.

The newspaper I’ve been associated with for several decades is the Delaware County Daily Times, and it is in the vicinity of Foxcatcher, the estate John duPont shared with his mother. The closest thing American has to a dowager heiress. The proximity, and knowledge of the story, made the film especially interesting to me, and through his restrained style Miller relates the story of men who want to achieve more than they want to speak. He is aided by fine performances by Mark Ruffalo, Vanessa Redgrave, Channing Tatum, and Brett Rice. Steve Carell has his most demanding film role to date as John duPont, a part that goes more against type than his appearance as the overreaching stepfather in “The Way Way Back” last year. He acquits himself well, but unlike Christoph Waltz or Michael Keaton, you can see him working at the performance and controlling duPont’s tics, quietness, and proclivity for platitudes.

Miller tries to give “Foxcatcher” some texture as a character study, for instance when John duPont orders the sale or slaughter of his mother’s stable following her death, but it is the plot that leads to the killing of David Schultz, and the psychosexual relationship with Schultz’s brother, Mark, that keeps one attentive. The rest is gloss. High-toned, but still gloss.

Mark Ruffalo, by keeping his character, Dave Schultz, totally natural and less actory than Carell’s or Tatum’s, delivers the movie’s most complete performance. You see Schultz’s devotion as a father and family man as well as his talents as a wrestler, a team organizer, and a coach. It is when Ruffalo’s Schultz begins to receive the credit and respect duPont wants for himself that duPont begins to turn on him.

Tatum works well in the laconic mode. He lends a sweetness to Mark Schultz who is not stupid as much as trusting and more willing to be led than his brother is.

“Foxcatcher” holds your attention but by the story more than the psychology or dynamics behind the story.



THE HOBBIT: The Battle of the Twelve Armies, a movie by Peter Jackson — Peter Jackson has been quite canny with his series of presentations from the Tolkien canon. He shrewdly uses the dialogue, special effects, and mass action from a genre of battle film he helped to create with his “Lord of the Rings” trilogy while fusing it with the mythology and characters that have earned Tolkien generations of fans. In other words, Jackson delivers classy shlock with all of the Medieval costuming and grooming of “The Game of Thrones” and all of the lore of a beloved science fantasy classic. The result is more akin to watching “Thrones” or any battle picture than it is revelling in characters Tokien carefully created.

This “Hobbit,” like other Jackson incarnations, concentrates on the armor, the effects, and the fighting more than it pays attention to story. Characterization is done neatly but also plays second fiddle to big scenes of armies who dazzle with both the size of their force and the elegance of their choreography.

What fascinates me most about movie after movie in which forces of good band together to obliterate forces of evil via mortal combat and collateral death is how the audience always vies for the good guys and wants them to prevail while, in actual life and world affairs, any move to tame or stop a rogue movement is looked on with horror and mitigated by the softness of the public towards warfare than might matter and, one day, promulgate, peace.

“The Battle of Twelve Armies” is typical stuff. It’s better than most of the movies featuring interestingly uniformed and coifed warriors that will proliferate from late winter through the summer. It has some decent acting and random though rare traces of wit. In the long run, however, it’s hordes of caparisoned actors running at each other at they brandish their swords and battle axes, roaring and blowing trumpets along the way. Jackson at least attempts to tell a story as his mayhem proceeds.


THE IMITATION GAME, a movie by Morten Tyldum — Morten Tyldum, whose name sounds like a recipe direction for beating a genius to idiocy, does a fine job of blending two distinct elements , Alan Turing’s role in creating a program that could detect and decipher Nazi Germany’s Enigma Code, and Turing’s arrest and conviction for gross indecency, the charge British law ascribed to men caught having homosexual relationships, in the years shortly following World War II. It is Tyldum skill at keeping both stories simultaneously immediate and compelling that makes “The Imitation Game” such a potent movie. You understand all of Turing’s frustrations as he copes with military authority and criminal law while being a genius who marches to his own drum, and competently. Benedict Cumberbatch, in a more animated performance than usual, makes Turing’s traits abundantly clear as he makes you like and root for the mathematical savant and technician who so greatly helped the Allied effort in World War II and may have constructed what amounts to the first utilitarian computer.

While the outcome of both threads of “The Imitation Game” are known, some made familiar by Hugh Whitemore’s wonderful 1986 play, “Breaking the Code,” Tyldum’s movie, and Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Turing, keep you in suspense and make you want to see all that happens and to witness ultimate results. Tyldum’s storytelling, from a screenplay by Andrew Hodges and Graham Moore, is as intelligent as his movie’s lead character, and as charismatically sly. It entertains while keeping you curious, and it shows Turing in several lights, including as a chap who likes to pop to the pub for a pint, as opposed to confining him to sterile geniushood.

Parts of the movie make be predictable, such as Charles Dance’s intelligence commander becoming impatient with Turing’s progress and miffed at his refusal to adhere to military protocol, but they all contribute to the whole because viscerally, even beyond Turing and his story, we are all hoping his machine works, the Enigma Code is cracked, and the Nazi war strategy compromised. It’s like a mini-V-E Day when Turing’s victory is complete and put into action.

Dance is true to form as the traditional military figure who is not without wit or imagination but prefers order to it. You can’t expect his character to be anything less than nonplussed when he learns Turing has gone over his head to Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, Keira Knightley could be an Oscar contender along with Cumberbatch for her performance as the lone woman member of the Enigma team, Joan Clarke. Knightley goes beyond fulfilling her assignment as the movie’s primary distaff representative, to being a multi-faceted character who can challenge Turing and the other men with whom she must work. Matthew Goode, as another Enigma colleague, Rory Kinnear, as too devoted a police detective, and Allen Leach and Matthew Beard, as decoders, also add to the strength of Tyldum’s movie.


INTERSTELLAR, a movie by Christopher Nolan — This movie was a constant surprise and so enjoyable, I didn’t even mind some of its Hollywoodisms, such as having a Texas school in the next decade ban all mention of the 1969 moon landing as fictional and anti-historical. (Thank goodness in Nolan’s movie, the school administrators are among the villains.) Unlike “Gravity,” which stunned most as a collection of gorgeous computer generated pictures, “Interstellar” has a strong story that keeps you gripped and makes you want to see how all turns out. The blend of science and sentiment, even sentimentality, in the script Nolan wrote with his brother, Jonathan, fascinates enough to give “Interstellar” narrative traction. You enjoy the relationship between the characters, even those that are formulaic, you go along with the championing of a space program, you care about the dilemma of an Earth so overcrowded and picked over in terms of resources, the most logical recourse is to seek other inhabitable regions in the universe, and you find the science interesting, especially because its tenets seem plausible. The mission of the astronaut played by Matthew McConaughey is juxtaposed well with scenes of his family and NASA laboratories on Earth. Nolan has also been canny about planning the look and feel his space terrains, especially the ones that allegedly have water and elements that can sustain human life.

In terms of special effects, the all-purpose robots designed for “Interstellar” are about the most remarkable since C-3P0 and Aroo-Detoo. They are composed of four equal-sized rectangular stainless steel prongs that can affect walking motion, approximate the use of arms and hands, think with lightning speed, and do a mean cartwheeling somersault when they want to move quickly over a distance. It is fun to watch these creations at work and to hear what they have to say.

The human characters are no less likeable. You understand the competence of McConaughey’s character from the instance he appears, even before he heads into space for a sacrificial mission that can save future generations of people living on a parched, vegetation-less Earth. Anne Hathaway’s character impresses as a scientist above all. There is give and take between her and McConaughey, but it is Platonic, and Hathaway’s character is love with another astronaut doing research on one of the inhabitable bodies. Michael Caine, as always, is entertaining. John Lithgow is fine as McConaughey’s father, a farmer who is also versed in science. Mackenzie Foy, Jessica Chastain, and Ellen Burstyn are all effective as McConaughey’s daughter at various stages of her life. (McConaughey, because he is on a multi-year mission and traveling faster than the speed of light, does not age as his children do.)

While Nolan keeps “Interstellar” rooted on the human side, he does stint on scenes of asteroid showers, difficult gravitational forces, black holes, and other sequences that add moments of classical outer space adventure to his movie. All tiebacks in “Interstellar,” even when predictable, are gratifying, and it is good see Ellen Burstyn have some noble scenes as the daughter McConaughey’s character reunites with when she is in her 80’s and enjoying her last breaths.


INTO THE WOODS, a movie by Rob Marshall — For the second time in his career, Broadway director-choreographer has done a masterful job in turning a hit Broadway musical into an equally excellent and accessible movie. Marshall sets “Into the Woods” as if it was a fairy tale. Scenes are shot in close-up. Performances are encouraged to be big and a tad cartoony. Sets and production numbers are lavish. All of the actors do well under Marshall’s direction, and Emily Blunt, James Corden, and Tracey Ullman offer the bonus of seeming naturally and in human scale even as they outsize their characters for the purposes of the movie.

Because of his ability to keep Into the Woods’s various plot threads clear and his discipline about not going overboard with effects or production values, Marshall teaches directors that ruined “Hairspray,” “Rent,” “The Producers,” and other recently filmed Broadway musicals how smart adaptation is done. About the only person whose matched him in bringing a Broadway musical intelligently to the screen is Bill Condon with “Dreamgirls.”

In “Into the Woods,” composer Stephen Sondheim’s, whose lyrics provide basic continuity, and book writer James Lapine show familiar characters such as Jack and the Beanstalk, the Baker and his wife, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Cinderella, and de rigueur princes, stepsisters, and witches as they pursue all they wish for. They then show what “ever after” might look like and that is not always lived happily. (As Sondheim says in a lyric from a different show, “Ever after can mean one week.”)

Marshall moves his story along at a comfortable and absorbing pace while giving several magnificent entertainers the chance to amuse the “Into the Woods” audience grandly.

Meryl Streep, who plays the witch, is, we all know, capable of everything, and she adds to her canon of brilliance by playing a woman who may be haggard and ill-tempered but who is practical, pragmatic, and practical as well. She may also be the most useful and honorable character on the screen. Streep shows you the witch’s superiority while also betraying some human qualities, especially she is viewing her daughter, Rapunzel, from a distance. She does a great job with her shows, although “Children Will Listen” is truncated. In “The Last Midnight,” she sings my favorite lyric is all musical comedy literature, “You’re so nice. You’re not good, you’re not bad, you’re just nice. I’m not good. I’m not nice. I’m just right. I’m the witch. You’re the world.” She does all well.

The actress who stands out, however, is Emily Blunt in the pivotal role of the baker’s wife. Blunt finds an authenticity that eludes most of her castmates. It’s not that they are oversized or doing anything wrong, but only that Blunt manages to blend depth and simple humanity into her performance, perhaps because she is not playing a member of the royal family or a character with trait that makes her sheltered, eccentric, or in some way outlandish.

Tracey Ullman also has a natural side to her as feeble-minded Jack’s put-upon mother. A pleasant surprise is Anna Kendrick, a good actress but not one you’d expect to find in a musical or playing Cinderella. Kendrick not only portrays her part beautifully but shows talent as a singer. She also endows Cinderella with some wit, especially when she sings, “On the Steps of the Palace.” (That number does make me ask one question. During the entire time Kendrick sings the song, Chris Pine, as the prince who is supposed to be chasing her, is stock still at the top of the palace steps in easy reach of his “prey.” Usually, the song is sung when Cinderella is already back in the woods and away from the prince. It seems odd to see him hovering and doing nothing when his next act will be to pursue the woman he loves. Why doesn’t he move towards her? The pitch he spreads on the step may provide an answer, but the scene remains awkward.)

Pine, like Kendrick, shows his versatility as the prince. His counterpart, his royal brother, played by Billy Magnussen, shows all of the playfulness and wit he displayed on stage while originating the part of Spike in Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.”

Johnny Depp, who loves to dress up and be extreme, is funny as the wolf wooing Little Red Riding Hood while considering how she’ll taste when eats her. Daniel Huttlestone is marvelous as Jack, showing a lot of poise for a young actor, especially one surrounded by a solid cordon of pros. Christine Baranski bring attention to the usually dismissable role as Cinderella’s stepmother. Frances de la Tour, seen more in sections than full face, looks like a determined giant. James Corden is excellent as the baker. You see his character’s soul and his will to be the best person he can be through his performance. I wish Marshall had retained the baker’s song, “No More,” possibly the most stirring in Sondheim’s score for “Into the Woods.” Corden would have made the number a defining moment, I’m sure.

“Into the Woods” goes beyond fairy tale into exploring a basic human dilemma, how to fight a destructive common enemy. In this case, the dilemma is not as poignant as some actual plights, because Sondheim and Lapine make the solution to easy.

“Into the Woods” entertains many generations on many levels. Bravo to Marshall for his achievement.


NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM: SECRET OF THE TOMB, a movie by Shawn Levy — For a piece of total fluff, this third installment of “Night at the Museum” has a lot of entertainment value and is a good “candy movie” to see as a respite from the heavier “Imitation Game,” “Wild,” and “Theory of Everything.” The characters, whether real or nocturnally activated museum exhibits, have their charm, and David Guion and Michael Handelman’s story moves along amiably with bits of honest suspense and mystery. Ben Stiller should receive more credit as an actor for his adroit and fussless performance. Rebel Wilson has some rousing scenes as a London museum guard. Robin Williams and Mickey Rooney make their final film appearances, and both acquit themselves well. Nothing is wrong with entertainment for entertainment’s sake, and Levy and his cast go about their business smartly. I had a good time, especially when Owen Wilson and Steve Coogan were onscreen as a cowboy and a Roman centurion. Monsters and dinosaurs coming to life are also pretty exciting.

ST. VINCENT, a movie by Theodore Melfi — The wastrel with a heart that might not be gold but that has a place for a lonely child may not be a new character, but Bill Murray plays Vince, a guy whose days are devoted to beer, women, and race tracks, with a satisfied nonchalance that make his cliché of a movie type watchable. Jaeden Lieberhar as the young lad who is put in Vincent’s charge so his mother can work a variety of shifts, helps add on the charm, so while “St. Vincent” is not all that different from many another movie and doesn’t grab you or make you feel for its characters, it does hold your interest. Vincent’s virtues, as seen by his “ward” are expressed a little thickly, but Murray and Lieberhar keep you amused enough to enjoy their escapades and their individual moments of introspection. Melissa McCarthy is OK as Lieberhar’s mother. Nothing outstanding, nothing wrong. Naomi Watts is almost unrecognizable as a Russian pole dancer who saves her real intimacy for Vince. Chris O’Dowd has a nice cameo as a priest.


THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING, a movie by James Marsh — Biopics have yielded most of the Oscars in recent years. For 2014, at least I see the performances of Bradley Cooper in “American Sniper,” my choice for Best Actor would be Eddie Redmayne because like Philip Seymour Hoffman and Daniel Day-Lewis before him in “Capote” and “My Left Foot,” he goes beyond the obvious traits of his character, the physicist Stephen Hawking, to show many sides of the figure’s personality and to reflect his attitudes, even in scenes after Hawking is stricken with the debilitating disease that paralyzes him at a young age. In addition to portraying the many facets of Hawking, including his sense of humor, Redmayne physically and facially plays the ordeals he goes through and the compensations he must make. You see the strength of Hawking’s character through the actor, and that makes Redmayne’s performance remarkable. He goes beyond his model is forming and presenting his performance.

“The Theory of Everything” is a strong story because it’s one of care and victory. Hawking was as much the nudge to his professors and to the prevailing academic minds in physics at the time as Alan Turing was earlier to Cambridge mathematicians. Redmayne portrays both Hawking’s genius and the social and physical awkwardness that preceded his neural malady. Marsh constructs a wider world in which Hawking, via Redmayne, can be seen in an entire light and not just as man who has the resources and courage to conquer a crippling illness that was supposed to kill him 50 years ago.

“The Theory of Everything” also shows Hawking’s courage as a scholar. As further research disproves or calls into questions his previous theories, including the one that earned him his doctorate and got him labelled a genius in the first place, Hawking embraces the new evidence and is willing to jettison past victories and admit he was wrong. Marsh has made as good a movie about academic verity as he has about an outstanding personality of our time.

Felicity Jones is lovely as the young artist Hawking marries and show strength in devotion as the wife who gets Hawking through the majority of his crises. David Thewlis is fine as Hawking’s professor. Simon McBurney is excellent as the scientist’s father.


TOP FIVE, a movie by Chris Rock — Chris Rock may be the funniest comedian working today. His observation and expressions are keen and always on the comic mark. In “Top Five,” a title which refers to lists, Rock plays a comedian who is about to get married on television to his overly organized fiancée, a doyenne of reality television who has no talent beyond attracting a weekly following of millions to witness her shopping sprees. And her wedding. Rock’s character waffles between being a fatuous celebrity and a down-to-earth guy who can still commune with his mooching family and friends from his ‘hood. The one thing Rock’s comedian wants is to be taken seriously as a moviemaker, but he is plagued by a New York Times critic who claims he would never watch another Rock film if it was playing in his glasses.

(I told you Rock has a way with a line.) The full personality of Rock’s character’s personality comes out in “Top Five,” a reporter doing an interview, also for The Times, being the catalyst. “Top Five” doesn’t achieve the depth it looks as if Rock is aiming for, but it deftly shows the balance a star who remains in touch with reality has to find between being his image and being the man he knows he is (and was) away from (and before) all of the fame and glitter. It also features a romance you enjoy seeing unfold between Rock and the reporter, played with distinction by Rosario Dawson. Gabrielle Union is funny as the reality show fiancée. A scene in which Rock performs in a small Greenwich Village club is derivative of a lot of similar sequences from dozens of films, but here the gambit plays as if it’s fresh.


UNBROKEN, a movie by Angelina Jolie — Angelina Jolie has the penchant a lot of new directors do to linger on scenes or images until their movies look overly and self-consciously artistic, but in general “Unbroken” is a good and gripping piece of storytelling. Olympian Louis Zamperini’s ordeal as a prisoner is a Japanese war camp is harrowing and could possibly use more variation, but you certainly understand all Zamperini endured at the hands of his captors. Jack O’Connell gives a basic and fairly undistinguished performance as Louie, but Takamasa Ishihara as The Bird, the guard who constantly violated Geneva Convention to beat and taunt Louie, is amazing and, in a less crowded year for supporting actors, could rate an Oscar nod.

Jolie chronicles Zamperini’s life from the type he is learning to run track in California to his release from the agony of his imprisonment. Each of the steps could be compacted to some extent, but Zamperini’s basic story holds your interest. He becomes a symbol for the typical American boy who trained to achieve one remarkable feat, an unexpected gold medal at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and goes on to endure two others, months adrift on a life raft in the Pacific following a plane crash, and years being persecuted by The Bird at two Japanese POW camps, one that forced prisoners to do backbreaking labor. Each segment of the movie goes on a tad too long, but the result is bracing. Jolie does not show Zamperini returning to Japan to forgive his captors, an act foreshadowed in an early scene involving a priest. She handles that, and news of the hero’s death, on camera cards at the end of the narrative.


WHIPLASH, a movie by Damien Chazelle — Few movie plots are more stock than the teacher, coach, or officer who practically brutalizes the talented underling into achieving his or her potential. Time after time, these movies prove entertaining, especially when you care about the character or real-life celebrity being whipped into shape. “Whiplash” doesn’t vary much from the formula established long ago by boxing and show business sagas. It gains its power by characterization. Miles Teller is a drummer who wants perfection even more than he wants fame, and he wants fame a lot. He pushes himself without encouragement, and he catches the ear of one of the toughest professors at a music college known for its high standards and talented graduates.

That teacher is played by one of the sturdiest character actors of our time, J.K. Simmons, who most people would recognize as the guy on the Farmers Insurance ads. Simmons is relentless, not only to Teller’s drummer but to everyone he tutors. He demands a lot and accepts no excuses. He is not above play cat and mouse games with his students in order to coax them, sometimes as they let off steam, to the next level. He will also get physically and verbally abusive without apology. Simmons’s teacher is one of those characters you love to hate. But you always respect him. What’s more, when the actor is on the screen, even in a corner of the frame, you can’t take your eyes off of him, and you’re always waiting for him to recoil and renew his spate of venom or harsh criticism.

The combination Damien Chazelle put together is good. Teller, tough though he can play, always has a touch of tenderness in him. Simmons’s professor knows he can always play off that boy who was never appreciated and needs to have some positive response to his determination to be a fine musician. Simmons handles every line, every situation with aplomb. Even when he is being encouraging, there’s something dangerous about him.

As will happen, the game the student and teacher ultimately play leads to a setback for both of them. Each in a way has fomented the other’s setback, and each by a vindictive act. The fun Chazelle provides, as writer and director, is to show us where the game leads. “Whiplash” goes beyond being a “tough coach” movie to one about men, one naïve, one experienced, having a war of wills. That war is an interesting to watch as anything else in the movie.

“Whiplash” may have some sequences that seem predictable or familiar, but they’re worth slogging through to get to the meat of the story and to see the amazing Simmons at the top of his game with a role worthy of his complete talent. As I’ve mentioned, Miles Teller is quite impressive as well.


WILD, a movie by Jean-Marc Vallée — Like “Unbroken,” “Wild” brings a best seller to the screen. At first, you think Cheryl Strayed’s trek through the Rockies might be tedious to too painful to watch a tenderfoot like her endure. Vallée, as he proved last year in “Dallas Buyer’s Club,” is someone who wants to go behind a story and make more than appears on the surface out of it. He has more beautiful scenery than the grit of Texas street life to deal with this time, but he shows the various kinds of people who, like Cheryl, played by Reese Witherspoon, hike the rugged mountains that rib America’s West Coast. The story grows in interest as Cheryl grows in competence. You care less about the life Cheryl leaves behind than you do about what might confront her as she walks alone for months and miles in the woods.

Luckily this isn’t a movie in which someone has to chew off his or her leg to survive, or fight a wolf in hand-to-hand combat. This is a movie about one gaining personal survival skills that will give her confidence to face the vicissitudes of everyday life when she returns to it.

So we look for uplift and, lo and behold, we find it. At times cloyingly, but most of the time through the natural progression of Cheryl’s walk.

“Wild” has enough variation to keep you going. Witherspoon seems to play emotion by the numbers and is a tad self-conscious in her portrayal. Better moments come when you get the feeling she isn’t thinking how to be effective and just living Cheryl’s life. Some of the people she meets, including three male campers who are always ragging each other and seem to be guys on a lark, play it more naturally. Laura Dern, as Cheryl’s late mother, has some wonderful scenes and never looks as if she’s wondering how to play a scene to make a splash,


Ranking the movies reviewed above, the list, in descending order would be “The Imitation Game,” “The Theory of Everything,” “Into the Woods,” “Interstellar,” “Whiplash,” “Wild,” “Top Five,” “Night at the Museum,” “Unbroken,” “Foxcatcher,” “The Hobbit,” “Birdman,” ” St. Vincent.”




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