Fifty Shades of Grey: Chemistry, quality missing in film adaptation

It takes two to tango — one to lead and one to follow — in the feature film adaptation of E.L. James’ best-selling erotic novel “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

The follower, Dakota Johnson as the naïve and bookish Anastasia, is a breath of fresh air anytime she appears on screen and truly gives 110 percent of herself to every scene no matter how much clothing she wears.

However, the leader, Jamie Dornan as the charismatic and mysterious billionaire Christian, can’t dance to save his life.

In relationship-heavy two-handers like “Fifty Shades of Grey,” it’s important that both leads utilize the other’s performance to help elevate their own, but Johnson is acting against a brick wall.

There’s only so much an actor can do when given nothing to work with. It’s what makes Johnson’s honest portrayal of the loss of innocence more noteworthy.

It’s easy to tell that Dornan isn’t anywhere close to being the first choice for the role, as the Irish-born actor can’t seem to find any depth to a man hiding dark secrets.

He struggles to identify with the character and placates that lack of connection — and subsequent lack of chemistry with Johnson — by softening each of his lines to make them sound more attractive.

Whispering can be sexy, but not when it’s the only tone of voice used over a two-hour period.

Just as miscast as Dornan is sophomore director Sam Taylor-Johnson, whose lack of vision clouds any real character development in either lead and limits the film to late-night Cinemax fodder.

There’s no creativity in the film’s construction or development as if the actors directed themselves.

It’s ironic (and rather sad) that “Fifty Shades of Grey” scored the biggest opening weekend in history by a female director at just under $91 million.

Passionate filmgoers angry about the omission of Ava DuVernay from best director accolades for “Selma” need to be just as upset, if not more so, that Taylor-Johnson’s pedestrian, banal effort will be considered a greater success by Hollywood standards than the Martin Luther King, Jr. biopic based solely on box office revenue.

The “Fifty Shades” film is simply a tent pole in service of a financial empire — a means to further line investors’ pocketbooks through the licensing of everything from lingerie, oils and wine to stuffed teddy bears with handcuffs in their paws. 

“Fifty Shades” doesn’t need to be good to feed the beast, just buzz-worthy enough to draw interest and push product on the most ardent “Shade”-oholics.

There’s about 20 minutes worth of sex scenes in “Fifty Shades,” significantly toned down from the source material. Taylor-Johnson’s film sticks mostly to topless and rear nudity along with some glimpses of hair in places usually not shown on the big screen.

Who would have guessed that a movie about bondage and dominance could be so mundane?

For a book about sex, the film adaptation of “Fifty Shades of Grey” isn’t so much about the BDSM lifestyle as it is an inferior study of compulsion and control.

What doesn’t work most about this lackluster, cookie-cutter, sex-by-numbers escapade is the lack of character development, leaving viewers simply ogling Ana and Christian rather than identifying with them.

It could very well be that Dornan can’t handle a complex character, but even the most average thespian could act circles around Dornan’s bland, one-note, uninspired whisper performance.

Marcia Gay Harden is largely wasted in a throwaway cameo role as Christian’s mother.

On the good side, cinematographer Seamus McGarvey — who shot “Marvel’s The Avengers” and “Atonement” — does a wonderful job lighting and framing each scene.

Additionally, the film’s soundtrack boasts an impressive selection of top artists, including multiple tracks from Beyonce, whose remix of “Crazy in Love” is top notch, and Annie Lennox, whose cover of the classic song, “I’ll Put A Spell On You” at the film’s outset fools viewers that they’ll see a better movie than they ultimately get.

As is the case in many other genres, independent films like “Blue Valentine” and “Secretary” do a much better job balancing the emotional and physical of psychologically challenging romantic relationships.

“Fifty Shades” is much too mainstream to be filmed with an NC-17 hard cut that would offend too much of the country; too erotic to be given a softer, more emotional cut that truly examines the choices and mindset of those who explore BDSM lifestyles; and certainly too poorly made to deserve a sequel, but too financially important not to.


Kingsman The Secret Service: Firth steps out as action star

“Kingsman: The Secret Service,” an action adventure thrill ride from “X-Men: First Class” director Matthew Vaughn, gives viewers Colin Firth as he’s never been seen before — a fighter, not a lover.

By far the most mainstream work in the long and celebrated filmography of the Academy Award-winner, Firth is charming and dynamic in this modern imagining of independent gentleman spies and everything you could possibly hope for out of an international man of mystery.

Homage to spy films throughout the decades, “Kingsman” has a lot of the uninhibited panache of a Roger Moore-era James Bond film with the violence turned up to 11.

Parents of younger viewers need to be aware that “Kingsman” cranks up the gore considerably, especially during the chaotic fight sequence in the church featured in the trailer, which could be considered a ‘G’ or ‘PG’ rate cut in comparison to the hard ‘R’ version shown in theaters.

Though talented actors — Samuel L. Jackson, Mark Strong, Michael Caine — are littered throughout the supporting cast, Firth is worth the price of admission and the only real reason to see “Kingsman.”

Don’t try and understand all the nuances of an uneven film, but sit back, relax and enjoy vintage spy comedy in a modern age.


Jupiter Ascending: Sci-flop not worth your time

It’s unfortunate that “Jupiter Ascending,” the latest sci-fi adventure from the Wachowski directing team of “Matrix” fame, wasn’t released last summer like originally scheduled.

The film, which believes itself to be the second coming of the original “Star Wars” trilogy, is more like the Jar Jar Binks of the sci-fi genre, heavily derided, over-animated and just not that good.

It certainly doesn’t seem like the extra seven months taken following its July 18 expected release date helped the overall aesthetic of the film.

To be sure, “Jupiter Ascending” is a terrible film lacking in any semblance of character development, cohesive plot or sense of purpose.

But films like “Jupiter Ascending” are necessary evils that remind us just how fortunate we are for movies like “Edge of Tomorrow” or “Guardians of the Galaxy,” science fiction films with an actual point of view and something interesting to hold on to.

Or better still, “Jupiter Ascending” should make viewers more appreciative of Christopher Nolan’s space odyssey, “Interstellar,” which hits on a lot of the same plot points — previously home-bound hero rockets off into unknown worlds to save the people of Earth in a big-budget, special effects heavy adventure film.

Everything that “Jupiter Ascending” doesn’t have going for it — quality acting performances, adept storytelling, cinematically beautiful visual effects — “Interstellar” has in spades.

Nolan’s movie is a little long and pretty wordy, but there aren’t any flying dinosaur battles ripped from the excess pages of “Transformers: Age of Extinction.”

Bad acting abounds in “Jupiter Ascending,” from Mila Kunis as the damsel in distress to her one-note savior, Channing Tatum.

The worst offender, however, is Academy Award nominee Eddie Redmayne, who awkwardly whispers his way through the film like he’s hoping viewers don’t remember he’s the same actor who just won a BAFTA (British Academy) award for best actor as Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything.”

It’s plausible to think that producers believed the name recognition of Tatum and Kunis would be enough to get people in the door early and the $175 million they spent on special effects would keep buzz going.

Except “Jupiter Ascending” is so bad, you won’t find yourself caring so much about the plight of the characters as much as how long before the film ends so you can go home.

The biggest problem with this sci-fi dud is that it’s another poor outing for originality in filmmaking, strengthening the case for Hollywood producers to spend more money (and waste viewers’ time) with unnecessary sequels.


A Most Violent Year: Quiet drama honors gangster genre

Hollywood is putting serious pocket change into remaking vintage films using modern technology for new audiences.

It seems as though no film is beyond the grasp of remake-hungry directors, though there are still some movies that need to be left untouched.

You just can’t remake “The Godfather.”

“A Most Violent Year,” a little-seen film that the National Board of Review chose as the best of 2014, isn’t a “Godfather” rip-off or remake, but carries with it all the lessons modern filmmakers can learn from the Francis Ford Coppola crime classic.

J.C. Chandor’s third feature film — following 2011’s breakout hit “Margin Call” and 2013’s “All Is Lost” — stars Oscar Isaac as a businessman trying to stay clean in a dirty, corrupt heating oil industry.

The film gets its title from the background in which it is set — New York City in 1981, a disproportionately violent year in the town’s history.

At its core, “A Most Violent Year” is a brilliantly simple film masquerading as a gangster morality play.

Isaac’s Abel Morales, a Latin American immigrant who believes in the “American dream” in its purest form, wants to do right by his wife and daughters.

His sense of honor in a land of thieves and crooks that rob his company help define him as a more conflicted, modern day Michael Corleone, a role Isaac plays with understated, refined grace.

Counter-balancing Abel in their marriage, Jessica Chastain continues to prove why she’s the best actress working in Hollywood with a scene-stealing performance as Abel’s wife, Anna, whose Mob family background casts a shadow over Abel’s legitimate business operations.

It’s Chastain’s on-screen presence that sneaks up on viewers focused on the nuances of Isaac’s performance as Anna provides the unseen but loudly heard muscle backing Abel’s calm and calculated demeanor.

Chandor’s script provides both Juilliard-trained actors a treasure-trove of character development material from which to mine, allowing Isaac and Chastain to give some of the year’s most compelling performances.

As Abel’s right-hand-man, Albert Brooks lightly evokes Robert Duvall’s performance as concerned mob lawyer Tom Hagen from “The Godfather,” while “Selma” star David Oyelowo is capable as an assistant district attorney investigating the Morales’ business.

But it’s Elyes Gabel — in a critical supporting role as a fearful truck driver thinking of taking matters into his own hands — that offers up the best work from the supporting cast.

His nuanced performance helps give added meaning to the delicate balance between right and wrong in Abel’s struggle to achieve the American dream.

“A Most Violent Year” is as important a film for what isn’t on screen as for what is.

Chastain, with her finger on the trigger throughout, is never granted the opportunity to explode into rage and order a “Godfather”-esque series of hits to even the score.

Chandor, in both his script and direction, values restraint as a means to uphold Abel’s moral compass and flip the stereotypical gangster genre on its head.

For a film titled “A Most Violent Year,” there’s a glaring minimalism of actual violence in preference to the looming threat of violence, terror through fear, rather than action.

The film will likely be remembered most for its climatic chase scene, clearly influenced by “The French Connection.”

It’s actually “A Most Violent Year” and not “Selma” that has suffered most from poor release scheduling, which prevented the film from real consideration for Academy Award nominations.

A Golden Globe nominee, Chastain would have been the shining star in an otherwise lackluster Best Supporting Actress category, while Isaac would have found himself in the middle of a difficult to crack Best Actor race.

Cinematographer Bradford Young, also responsible for the Oscar-nominated biopic “Selma,” provides a gritty depth to “A Most Violent Year,” evoking classic ’70s films like “Taxi Driver” and “Dirty Harry.”

Many critics bemoan a lack of a nomination for Young’s work shooting “Selma,” but “A Most Violent Year” is his career best work.

Chandor’s best effort to date, “A Most Violent Year” honors its gangster genre predecessors while going somewhere new in the story telling, a lesson worth learning by the rest of Hollywood.


Selma, The Imitation Game: Strong leads pace Oscar-nominated biopics

There’s no reason not to like “Selma,” the Ava DuVernay-helmed drama which chronicles the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, during the 1960s led by captivating activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

British actor David Oyelowo makes the most of a poorly outlined script by first time screen-writer Paul Webb, largely succeeding in the attempt to provide a larger picture of King the man while given limited opportunity for character development.

There are better movies yet to be made about King’s life, achievements and character as DuVernay’s third feature film simply scratches the surface of a complex and powerful leader.

“Selma” is the rock dancing along the top of the water of importance, skipping around from beatings in the streets to White House visits, from quiet personal moments to loud public emotions without ever diving into any of them.

Too grand for its own good, the film lacks the depth and gravitas that the first feature centering on King deserves and suffers from the same one-note flatness that befell Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken.”

At the outset of the film, DuVernay chooses to counterbalance King’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech with a rural church bombing, a point never revisited again in the film.

Malcolm X, a significant figure within the civil rights movement, is relegated to a single scene, while a measured performance from Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King is marginalized and largely pushed off to the side.

Supporting performances in “Selma” are a mixed bag from the uneven, haphazard performance from Tom Wilkinson as Lyndon B. Johnson to the completely flat, uninspired Tim Roth as Alabama governor George Wallace.

Among the minor players in the film, Henry G. Sanders’ moving portrayal of a grandfather mourning the death of his grandson provides “Selma” with its most poignant moment, and then is relegated again to the background.

“Selma” is an important film for how it frames today’s fragile racial climate following Ferguson and similar events, but its omission from larger Oscar accolades isn’t a black or white issue, nor is it a political issue. It’s a matter of quality in a given year.

Half of this year’s nominees for Best Picture are biographical films, and several also worthy films in the same genre (“Big Eyes,” “Foxcatcher”) sit idly by on the sidelines.

Racial bias didn’t cause the Academy to overlook DuVernay for a directing nomination, but rather that five directors had more impact on cinema this year. The fact that Clint Eastwood — who made a better film (“American Sniper”) and is universally beloved by the Academy in spite of political differences — didn’t receive a directing nomination should be just as shocking.

The same is true for Oyelowo as King, but the effort doesn’t match up with the likes of Bradley Cooper’s chameleon performance in “American Sniper,” Eddie Redmayne’s physical transformation to play Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything” or Benedict Cumberbatch as code breaker Alan Turing in “The  Imitation Game.”

What works for the leads in this year’s other top biopics, especially for Cumberbatch, is the depth of character each actor is able to achieve thanks to a quality script and allowances from the director to immerse themselves in the character.

A film like “The Imitation Game,” which sees Cumberbatch shed most of his “Sherlock” persona to portray a complex man helping to save Britain while hiding a dark secret, offers the time for character development.

Viewers are allowed to see how Turing became the man who shortened World War II through mathematics, while also providing audiences with the social context in which Turing, a closeted homosexual, lived in.

Cumberbatch is able to live in the duality of Turing’s character — the public, dry and off-putting persona of Turing the professor as well as the private Turing, struggling with sexuality in an unforgiving world.

The film, respectively directed by Morten Tyldum, captures Turing in a much more complete way than “Selma” does King, and is helped by a strong performances from Keira Knightley as a colleague aiding in secret due to sexism in the workplace.

“The Imitation Game” also does a better job of providing larger context to the film’s stakes than “Selma,” whose scenes of violence feel largely forced outside of the troopers’ attack on the bridge.

“Selma” is a great story told well; “The Imitation Game” is a fine story told greatly.

Both films are among the year’s best and are worth seeing in theaters, though neither rises to the year’s elite category.


American Sniper: Compelling Cooper performance stuns audiences

By now, if you haven’t seen or heard about Clint Eastwood’s epic war drama “American Sniper,” odds are good that the cell phone reception on that deserted island you’ve been living on is spotty at best.

The drama kicked off its national release with six Academy Award nominations — including Best Picture and Best Actor for Bradley Cooper — and completely dominated the cinematic landscape.

The film made $90.2 million, becoming the largest January weekend release in history and besting the $68.5 million pulled in by “Avatar” in a single weekend per “Variety.”

It isn’t an accident either.

Whether out of a sense of patriotism or Oscar buzz or a love for war films, Clint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper or any combination of reasons, everyone knows someone who’s seen “American Sniper” at least once, if not many more times.

What a great thing for cinema that thought is.

Put all the politics aside. Cast away the agendas on either side of the aisle and what the film is or isn’t saying and whose side “American Sniper” supports on any number of hot-button issues.

“American Sniper” is an important film within the current cinematic climate because of what the film truly is, an intimate character study of a Texas man. Certainly the context of “American Sniper” is modern warfare, but the film — and especially Cooper’s stunning performance as Navy SEAL Chris Kyle — is much more than a simple story of battles home and abroad.

Try watching interviews of Chris Kyle promoting his 2012 autobiography, on which “American Sniper” is based, and then see if you can figure out where Kyle stops and Cooper begins in the mesmerizing cinematic portrayal.

Criticizing the film for its subject matter is criticizing Chris Kyle the man as no actor in several decades has done as complete a job becoming the person they are portraying on screen as Cooper does mirroring Kyle step for step, word for word, nuance for nuance.

The rare leading man who views himself as more a character actor, opting for substance over style, Cooper’s portrayal transcends the film itself — a remarkable performance from a remarkable actor and one that will define the rest of his long career.

Sienna Miller does an admirable job facing the daunting task of counterbalancing Cooper’s performance while simultaneously honoring Chris’ wife Taya, who served as a technical advisor on the film. It’s a thankless role that could have been the film’s downfall, but Miller’s performance is steady enough to carry the film forward when needed.

The biggest flaw in “American Sniper,” which is minor enough in larger context, but noticeable enough to be distracting, is the use of clearly fake, plastic dolls serving as placeholders for real infants during dramatic home scenes between Kyle and his wife.

It’s baffling that something so trivial and unrealistic would be used and the fake baby’s appearance is so jarring that it can knock viewers completely out of their cinematic experience.

Obviously, this error can definitely explain Eastwood’s absence from Best Director accolades, but fortunately, “American Sniper” is so brilliant in the other 131 minutes that it’s just as easy to fall right back into when the film moves on.

What Eastwood gets right in his direction is a delicate balance of an intensely accurate depiction of modern warfare offset with hard-hitting drama, the best of a newer brand of “action-drama” cinema.

In stark contrast, Michael Mann’s dark and brooding cyber-thriller “Blackhat,” starring Chris Hemsworth as a veteran hacker helping the CIA prevent terrorism, is exactly what Hollywood wrongly assumes complex action-dramas are supposed to be.

Released last weekend, the film is clunky, overly technical and difficult to follow, definitely not the sort of film Hemsworth fans thought they were getting upon seeing the trailer.

It’s difficult to believe that “American Sniper” viewers ended up watching the film they believed they were going to after watching its trailer, but not in the same way.

Eastwood’s film provides so much more depth of character thanks to a complex, yet compelling performance from Cooper.

Worth every penny of the five, six or seven times it needs to be seen in theaters, “American Sniper” is an instant cinematic classic and among the best films of the 21st century.


Revisiting Boyhood: ‘I just thought there’d be more’

Coming-of-age films are nothing new.

Boy starts out young and naïve, things happen, boy matures, end of film.

Filmmakers have always circumnavigated lengthy time jumps in these sort of movies by casting multiple actors to play the same part at different ages.

In the case of the Golden Globe-winning drama “Boyhood,” director Richard Linklater took the slow approach, filming segments of his movie over the past 12 years as young actor Ellar Coltrane grows up in the film around him.

The film, which missed out on the Cinematic Considerations 10 best films of 2014, is worth a second look following an initial review in September.

A lot is made of the 12-year filmmaking process, and indeed, “Boyhood” and Linklater need to be commended for their dedication to the project.

There certainly isn’t another film like “Boyhood,” but that fact alone doesn’t make the film any good, just unique.

Imagine a film where events feel like they’re happening around the main character rather than to the character, where the character doesn’t really experience any growth or development besides physical appearance and you’d have Mason, “Boyhood’s” defacto protagonist.

A voyeur of his own life, Mason idly watches as things happen around him. Life affects him only peripherally.

“Boyhood” is the “Seinfeld” of cinema; it’s a film about nothing.

You can easily see Coltrane becoming disinterested in the filmmaking process throughout the years, as his character Mason becomes disillusioned from the world.

Nothing can be done about the film’s significant pacing issue. “Boyhood” cannot shortchange any of the 12 years of filming, making it difficult to leave scenes on the cutting room floor. The film does not move crisply from year to year and two hours into the film, “Boyhood” can easily leave the viewer exhausted past the point of enjoyment.

There are moments where “Boyhood” rises above its 12-year gimmick and provides quality scenes — most notably sequences featuring Marco Perella’s daring portrayal of Mason’s first alcoholic step-father attempt to propel “Boyhood” in an actual direction.

Ethan Hawke offers up the film’s best performance and shows the most character development as the frequently absent hippie father turned square dad.

Groundbreaking not for the content, acting or cinematography, “Boyhood” is heralded for its actual 12-year filming time, allowing characters to naturally age physically on screen.

There’s been a large amount of groupthink among critics who feel compelled to congratulate Linklater’s determination and creative vision to attempt such a different style of filmmaking that valid critiques of the film’s actual merits have been largely absent.

These reviews of the film suffer from the same lack of individuality that Mason bemoans to his girlfriend Sheena during a road trip late in the film.

Set aside the time element of “Boyhood” and what is left? Twelve separate short films loosely tied together based on common characters. Is that truly noteworthy?

The film is a kitsch time capsule that elevates the mundane for two hours and then laments how boring the journey was.

When Mason prepares to go off to college, his mother Olivia (Golden Globe-winner Patricia Arquette) cries for her own lost life as much as the departure of her son.

“I just thought there’d be more,” she laments.

For “Boyhood,” a critically acclaimed, ground-breaking film, I just thought there’d be more.


Taken 3: Leave Liam Neeson’s family alone

Enough already.

There’s no more story to explore in the now-tired “Taken” franchise which saw a former CIA operative (Liam Neeson) rescue his kidnapped daughter in the first installment, then save himself and his ex-wife in the sequel.

There’s no one left Neeson’s character cares about to kidnap, so obviously the solution is to frame him for the murder of the ex-wife he just saved in the last movie.

Action sequels, of which “Taken 3” is just the latest example, have plot holes for days, but that’s not the reason to see B-rated, shoot ’em up thrillers.

Fortunately, what “Taken 3” has going for it is a lot of above-average, high-paced car chases, hand-to-hand combat and gun battles.

Though it’s lost all the depth and luster of the original, “Taken 3” is worth seeing if viewers just want to forget about their troubles for a while.

Don’t worry though, as quality action films are on the way this weekend with the release of Clint Eastwood and Bradley Cooper’s “American Sniper” and Chris Hemsworth’s “Blackhat.”


Into The Woods: Misunderstood film an above-average movie musical

Many audiences have left the Disney-produced fairy tale film, “Into the Woods,” disappointed and with little right to be.

Certainly, the studio is to fault for not clearing up the confusion surrounding the film. Too many people have left screenings surprised they just watched a musical and many others probably were in shock when the film doesn’t end with Cinderella’s marriage to the prince.

But moviegoers should have seen this coming.

The film, a clear adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s 1986 Broadway musical of the same name, is a darker intersection of several classic fairytales, including “Cinderella,” “Jack and the Giant Beanstalk” and “Little Red Riding Hood.”

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) rightly rated “Into the Woods” PG “for thematic elements, fantasy action and peril, and some suggestive material.”

The film is more “Snow White and the Huntsman” than the animated classic “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.”

Moviegoers, especially those expecting their money back, need to take more care in researching the content of a film before purchasing a ticket. Disney didn’t help matters with an ambiguous trailer promoting the film, but the studio can’t be held entirely responsible.

Setting aside those complaints, “Into the Woods” does a remarkable job of faithfully adapting Sondheim’s award-winning musical to the big screen.

Director Rob Marshall, best known for his work on the Academy Award-winning “Chicago,” is blessed with a talented cast led by “Pitch Perfect” star Anna Kendrick as Cinderella and British sensation James Corden as the narrating Baker.

The best performances in the film are actually given by the biggest — and youngest — unknowns with Broadway’s latest “Annie” Lilla Crawford as Little Red Riding Hood and Daniel Huttlestone, best known as Gavroche in Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables, as Jack.

It’s all too common to cast either actors who can’t sing well enough or worse yet, singers who can’t act well enough to be convincing.

What works in both performances, more so than any of their more famous counterparts, is that Crawford and Huttlestone maintain a balance in their responsibility both acting the part and singing the songs.

Huttlestone’s “Giants in the Sky” — along with Kendrick’s “On the Steps of the Palace” and Meryl Streep’s “Witch’s Lament” — is a musical highlight.

The film isn’t without its flaws. Chris Pine as Cinderella’s prince is largely overdone in a very William Shatner-esque way, which doesn’t really work throughout much of the film, but is quite hilarious within the shirt-ripping, water-splashing duet “Agony.”

Johnny Depp’s performance as the Wolf felt too campy, though the limited screen time helped prevent the film from veering too close to 2014 “Annie”-bad territory.

Overall, “Into the Woods” is a surprisingly darker, but satisfying retelling of classic fairy tales and a faithful interpretation of Sondheim’s musical worth seeing.


Wild: Witherspoon delivers Oscar worthy performance

Some films are designed for escapism, a chance to remove the viewer from the everyday grind and stresses of real life and pull them into somewhere new and exciting.

Other films are meant to draw the viewer into a cinematic experience, offering us something to learn from along the way.

Cheryl Strayed’s true-life story of a newly single woman hiking the 1,100 mile Pacific Crest Trail as a means to cope with loss isn’t meant as escapism.

There’s a passionate message of empowerment and rebirth in “Wild,” the latest film from director Jean Marc Vallée of “Dallas Buyers Club” fame. The film is an emotional roller coaster that will resonate with anyone who has lost a close loved one or feels alone with a sense of loss.

With a terrific script adapted from Strayed’s 2012 book by Nick Hornby, the film itself centers around Strayed’s journey from southern California to Canada and requires a tour de force performance from its leading actress.

A film like “Gravity,” for example, could have been as good if not a better movie with another actress taking the reins from Sandra Bullock.

You just can’t make “Wild” work without Reese Witherspoon.

Witherspoon plays Strayed with total commitment and honesty, baring her soul and body (quite literally) on screen in one of the most heartfelt performances in several years.

Audiences, especially predominantly female ones, will find themselves drawn to the unbridled vulnerability Witherspoon is able to draw from, pulling viewers deeper into the story.

Laura Dern, often the daughter and never the mother in feature films, provides a subtle, yet important counterbalance to Witherspoon’s at-times manic performance as Strayed’s mother.

The Pacific Crest Trail itself becomes a leading character within “Wild” with its expansive and varied landscapes painting a tremendous background for Strayed’s emotional journey of self-forgiveness.

Vallée’s decision to shoot the trail entirely in natural light is an inspired one that helps to maintain “Wild’s” grounded reality.

Led by an Oscar-worthy performance from Witherspoon, “Wild” is definitely one of the year’s best films and well worth seeing more than once.


Unbroken: Jolie mishandles World War II drama

“Unbroken” director Angelina Jolie wants viewers to pigeonhole her film into a single word: resilience.

It’s there in all the film’s soon-to-be-cliché catchphrases: “If you can take it, you can make it” and “A moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory.”

“Unbroken” is a film that insists upon itself, knowing its story is inspiring and refuses to allow audiences to forget it.

The movie shows so much promise in its first act, where World War II hero Louis Zamperini’s pre-war exploits — both as a youth and Olympic athlete — are seamlessly woven into what would otherwise be a routine inspirational film set in an already crowded genre.

Once “Unbroken” moves past the early years and dedicates itself solely to Zamperini’s trials and tribulations as a Japanese prisoner of war, the film largely fails to live up to the grandiose expectations it has bestowed upon itself.

There’s not enough grit within the blinding light of “Unbroken,” an area in which 2014’s other World War II film “Fury” excelled.

And it’s a problem that “Unbroken” needs to be compared with “Fury,” because the two films could not be more opposite in directorial style and cinematography, but it is all too often the case in the World War II genre.

Because of the nature of the story, “Unbroken” can’t seem to separate itself from the rest of the genre.

Jack O’Connell as the resilient Zamperini is effective in keeping the film centered and evoking the support and sympathy of audiences, hitting on all the right notes. Missing from the performance is a larger sense of Zamperini’s development of faith in God, which plays a larger role in the book and cannot be faulted to O’Connell.

The best performance in the film, however, is given by Japanese rock star turned actor Miyavi as POW camp leader “The Bird,” a violent, irrational man whose complexities are poignantly evoked both verbally and non-verbally by Miyavi.

In another year, where J.K. Simmons’ stunning turn as a demanding music instructor in “Whiplash” isn’t also eligible, Miyavi’s mesmerizing performance would make him a clear frontrunner for best supporting actor awards.

For a film whose mantra is “If I can take it, I can make it,” “Unbroken” certainly insists upon its viewers taking every plodding second of its 137 minute running time.

“Unbroken” is a very good movie, just not a great one.


Night At The Museum 3: A fitting tribute to late Robin Williams

Now that the final installment of “Night at the Museum” has arrived in theaters, it’s sad to think that this will be the last time that comedy legend Robin Williams will be shown on the big screen.

Sure, we can hear his voice again as Dennis the Dog in the upcoming animated feature “Absolutely Anything,” but it just won’t be the same.

Things aren’t quite the same in “Secret of the Tomb,” the last of the “Night of the Museum” movies pitting Ben Stiller as a bumbling security guard managing exhibits that magically come to life at night.

The story isn’t really relevant and takes a general backseat to the notion, played up in the film itself, that with the death of Williams, this is the end for a heartwarming era in comedy.

Stiller does yeoman’s work in a pair of roles as the driving force propelling the plot forward, while Rebel Wilson of “Pitch Perfect” fame tries a little bit too hard to throw her weight around in a secondary role as a guard at the British Museum.

Through some sort of bittersweet irony, Williams has an incredibly poignant final monologue that is all the more heart-breaking in the larger context.

“Secret of the Tomb” also marks the final film for another cinema legend, the great Mickey Rooney.

While the film itself isn’t up to the standards set by the franchise original, “Secret of the Tomb” will help provide viewers some closure on the loss to two comedy heavyweights.