Tuesday, August 25, 2015


--> Greta Gerwig     Lola Kirke
           Mistress America is the name of a short story one of the two main characters, Tracy (Kirke), is writing during her first year of college.  It’s about a new friend she has just met, Brooke (Gerwig), who will eventually be her half sister when their two parents get married.  The twist is that Brooke is unaware of Tracy’s using her as a main character in her story.  This turns out to be a big deal toward the end, which makes me think that Noah Baumbach (director) and Greta Gerwig (writers) intended this to be a point of discussion, not only during the film but later among viewers as well.  He has been writing and directing for years (While We’re Young, Frances Ha, Greenberg, The Squid and the Whale), sometimes with her collaboration, and presumably they’ve had to deal with this issue in their own lives.
           In this comedy/drama, Tracy is having a pretty miserable time in her first year of college in New York City, and when her mother urges her to get in touch with her fiancé’s daughter, Brooke, who is older and has been in the city for a while, Tracy follows through.  The two meet and hit it off right away; Tracy is fascinated with vivacious Brooke, and sees her as having all the personal qualities she herself lacks and wishes she had.  Interestingly, as time goes on, she “adopts” some of these qualities and becomes more self-assured and confident in the process.
           Brooke has numerous of money-making projects on the burner at any one time, the most important at the moment being that of opening up a restaurant with her fiancé (whom we never meet because he’s overseas) to be called “Mom’s.”  To do this, they need a number of investors, which introduces all the main characters into the plot, including one of Brooke’s old friends, Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind) and her husband, Dylan (Michael Chernus) whom Brooke was previously engaged to.  Brooke has been left feeling that Mamie-Claire and Dylan both “owe” her, and since they have money, she decides to visit them—along with an entourage of Tracy, Tracy’s friend who has a car, and his clingy girlfriend.  Particularly when they’re all together in this luxurious home, the movie turns into a stage play, which might be a drawback to some, but didn’t bother me. 
           Mistress America is primarily a comedy showing the quirks and foibles between couples and friends and common sources of conflict such as jealousy, competition, ownership, and attention.  Many will enjoy the dialog, but it came across as too artificial and glib at times, and the thought occurred to me that people just don’t talk that way in real life.  Nevertheless, the film will appeal to many for a light, enjoyable evening out and the possibility for some serious discussion afterwards.

Be cautious in making short stories out of the lives of people you know.

Grade:  B                                                                   By Donna R. Copeland


Lake Bell     Owen Wilson     Pierce Brosnan

           There is no escaping the relentless strain of one close call after another in No Escape.  It starts out with gunfire and a slit throat, which should tell you something about what is to come.  The premise of the film is a good one; after his business fails, Jack Dwyer (Wilson) takes his family to his new job in an unspecified Asian country completely unaware of the political unrest brewing.  The natives are wising up to big companies coming into their country and exploiting them (e.g., privatizing their water supply on the stated intention of water purification), the business of Jack’s new company.  As soon as the Dwyers (Bell as Annie) arrive in the country and register in a hotel, the gunfire starts, phones don’t work, and snow comes on the TV.  A coup is suddenly taking place.
           But throughout the rest of the film the Dwyers with their two young girls in tow, are running, running, running, jumping from one building to another, hiding underneath something to avoid the mobs and gunshots, fighting (literally) for their lives, and trying to strategize plans and make their way to safety in a city completely new to them.  Not much happens beyond the close calls.  Hammond (Brosnan), whom the Dwyers meet on the plane when one daughter asks about his scars, is a mysterious fellow who magnanimously offers them a ride to their hotel, and suddenly reappears just the nick of time on several occasions.
           Owen Wilson is much better known for lighter roles (except for Behind Enemy Lines), but steps up to a more complicated role here of being a nice guy, good husband and father, and then compelled to protect his family at all costs.  He and Bell have good chemistry as a husband and wife, and both actors are exemplary in their performances.  Brosnan is perfect for his (by now expected) role of someone who is ambiguous initially, but ends up being a hero.
           My problem with this film is the script.  I cannot see the purpose of a movie that has one close call after another for the entire film.  There is little comic relief or even dialog that reflects the humanity of anyone, except perhaps for a conversation between Jack and Annie toward the end.  The Dwyers are constantly quarreling with one another about strategy, and the kids’ roles seem like they’re written by someone who doesn’t know kids at all.  The girls—especially the older one—end up being rather annoying—which shouldn’t happen in this kind of film!
           How much better it would have been if the writer/director John Erick Dowdle (written with his brother and producer Drew) had offered more background on Jack’s new company, on the brewing unrest within the foreign country, of Jack’s failed business, and the relationship between Jack and Annie before the action, all of which could have eliminated some of the too numerous close calls and senseless violence.  As it is, the film goes far beyond plausibility.  And as an aside, who would go to live in a foreign country without making any attempt to learn a few basics about the language?

Moviegoer beware unrelenting violence of almost every kind.  This is an action film with little else.

Grade:  C-                        By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, August 20, 2015


--> Jesse Eisenberg   Kristen Stewart   Topher Grace   Connie Britton   John Leguizamo   Tony Hale

           We meet Mike (Eisenberg) and Phoebe (Stewart) when they’re at the airport waiting to board their plane for a vacation in Hawaii.  That is, we meet Phoebe waiting intently; Mike is in the men’s room in the midst of a panic attack.  It’s clear he’s a bit of a wuss and a stoner, but Phoebe is incredibly patient with him until they get back home and the trip has been aborted.  Then he begins to fray on her nerves.  Without knowing much about the film beforehand, one would think this is going to be a love story in which he learns to step up to the plate.
          But soon after, mysterious (dangerous) things begin to happen.  A strange older woman comes into the cash and carry store where he works, and seems to be giving him a warning, but it’s all gobbledy gook to him, and he just thinks she’s strange and needs to go—which she does, leaving behind the soup and drink she had picked up to buy.  Then he sees two men messing with his car, and he goes out to run them off, but they have guns and his life is in danger. 
           Obviously, there is more to this than a simple love story; it involves the CIA’s secret operations and revelations about Mike’s own past, as well as others’.  It’s a bit disorienting to notice that he often seems clueless, but somehow he knows how to handle himself in a fight, and has background knowledge about things he has no recollection learning.  Through it all he is resistant to take action except when he is threatened, and uppermost in his mind is getting to go back home with Phoebe.
           As the revelations keep coming, and his life is threatened more and more, he learns something about Phoebe that makes him question even her and her motives.  And you really wonder whether this man is going to survive at all.
           But Eisenberg, who has received high marks in a number of hits (The End of the Tour, The Social Network, Zombieland, The Squid and the Whale) is a wonder in pulling off his character in American Ultra.  At times, addled, neurotic, and clumsy, he still is able to make Phoebe laugh at his humor (he even draws cartoons) and see him as the kindest person alive.  And then you the viewer watch him in combat, and go “Whoa!”
           Stewart is impressing most viewers with her talent recently (namely in Clouds of Sils Maria and Still Alice), and she is just as good here, merging into a more and more complex role as the story proceeds.  She is essential in helping us see Mike’s character.
           Smaller, but critical roles are played by Connie Britton, Topher Grace (ah, how you’ll love to hate him!), John Leguizamo (as a colorful paranoid drug dealer with good intentions), Walter Goggins (who ever heard of a bad guy who breaks out in peals of laughter?), and Bill Pullman (who gives an ugly twist to government insurgence.
          Although this film directed by Nima Nourizadeh is clearly meant to be a fun caper—which it is!—it does make serious statements about the U.S. government and its recent history of overstepping boundaries and keeping tabs on American citizens.  So with the spoof, maybe we need to keep a vigilant eye on its workings.

Surprises keep unraveling in this “love story” within an action film.

Grade:  B                        By Donna R. Copeland


--> Bel Powley     Alexander Skarsgard     Kristen Wiig     Christopher Malone
           The execution of Diary is vey well done--artistically and movingly rendered; however, the way the material is handled by writer/director Marielle Heller leaves much to be desired. Apart from the beautiful palette, the clever animated cartoons, and the appealing main character, the story turns out to be a sad, sordid one with no responsible adult in sight.  And because of that, it's hard for me to believe a young woman could turn out as well as the protagonist does in the film. More likely she wouldn't be able to rise above her experiences and learn from them--as Minnie did--or worse could have resorted to more desperate measures to escape her life.
           The three main actors—Powley, Skarsgard, and Wiig—are gifted in their art and seamlessly portray their characters here.  As Charlotte the mother, Wiig shows her to be so narcissistic and shallow it's impossible for her to provide maternal care and devotion to her two daughters, despite her good looks and charming personality.  She has even conveyed to her older child that Minnie will never measure up to her, particularly in looks.  And in the end she has a plan for Minnie that will make her to be just as unhappy as she is.
           Skarsgard aces the role of the immature male Monroe who seems only to have enough ambition to retire early. He's always ready with an excuse for his bad behavior ("I have needs too" "I'm only human"), usually in the realm of blaming others.
           Powley is amazing in her characterization of confused teenager Minnie needing guidance but not realizing it. She's able to be the sexy young woman and child of wonder, while still posing existential arguments within herself.  
           While the actors are very good, this is a difficult film to watch.  It’s like reading someone else’s diary and feeling like a snoop.  Yet, I believe that it is a realistic picture of how a budding young girl and an older man can get started in an affair, especially in the context of an oblivious mother and an undisciplined man.  Only once is there a responsible adult intervening (and even he does not discuss what he has found out with the girl; he tells her mother, his ex-wife) and at no time is statutory rape mentioned.  The girl is left to figure things out for herself on her own.
           Diary was a hit at Sundance, and it’s praised for giving a tell-all account of a teenage girl’s life.  I just wish some material had been included that would show some positive influences on Minnie to help her get to the place she did.

A peek at a teenage girl’s inner life and risky behavior.

Grade:  B-                                   By Donna R. Copeland


Nina Hoss     Ronald Zehlfeld     Nina Kunzendorf

            A story of betrayal, blind trust and denouement, Phoenix will pull you in and keep you engaged throughout.  It starts out mysteriously with two women in a car, one driving and the other in head bandages so only her eyes show.  We learn that Nelly (Hoss), who got plastic surgery after facial disfigurement in the Nazi concentration camp, asked specifically to have her previous look preserved as much as possible, even when she was given the opportunity to take on a new identity and a new life.  Her companion is taken aback by this; Lene (Kunzendorf) is solicitous and clearly cares about Nelly and wants to talk about a new life in Palestine. 
            But Nelly has something else in mind, which is to try to recapture her “old” life; she wants to reconnect with her husband Johnny (Zehrfeld).  She was a singer in a club in Berlin when the Nazis arrested her for being a Jew.  So she returns to the club in search of Johnny.  She still has black eyes from the surgery, and her appearance is altered to some extent, so when Johnny (Zehrfeld) sees her at the club, he doesn’t recognize her; however, he realizes she is similar enough to his wife that she could get the missing woman’s inheritance, and he would give her a cut in the deal.
            Nelly decides to go along with the plan, hoping Johnny will ultimately recognize her, but she doesn’t have all the facts, and therein lies the intrigue and value of this tale.  It touches on the German people’s wanting to whitewash their involvement in what happened in the war (as illustrated by Johnny’s telling Nelly not to worry about looking like her old attractive self; no one will want to ask her about her real experience in the concentration camp, such as disfigurement and a tattoo on her forearm); people’s tendency to resist change and want to hold onto the past (as illustrated by Nelly’s naïve belief that she could return to her old life); and the effects of betrayal, which are unpredictable and uncontrollable by another person (as illustrated by Lene’s decisions).
            This beautifully rendered film by Christian Petzold (Barbara, Jerichow) has depth and provokes questions that could be discussed long after Phoenix is seen.  What if Nelly had listened to Lene and moved on to Palestine?  What was the ultimate fate of Nelly and Johnny (because the ending was ambiguous)?  Why wouldn’t her German friends wonder about Nelly’s apparent avoidance of horrors in the concentration camp?  Why wouldn’t they ask about a tattoo?  Is it love or something else that propels one back to a seemingly doomed relationship?
            Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld are regulars in Petzold’s films, and are perfectly cast in this film and perform their roles admirably in Phoenix.  Petzold keeps the film nuanced and paced so the full story comes out gradually, and to top it off, the ending is perfect.

A bit of mystery about two people post WWII with larger implications.

Grade:  A                        By Donna R. Copeland


Thursday, August 13, 2015


Jesse Eisenberg   Jason Segal   Mamie Gummer   Anna Chlumsky   Joan Cusack

           The End of the Tour:  What an extremely well crafted film!  Usually, I’m disinclined toward movies that are primarily of two people having a conversation, but this is a notable exception where David Foster Wallace (Segal), a celebrated novelist (Infinite Jest), is continually spilling out pearls of wisdom when he is being interviewed for five days by Rolling Stones reporter David Lipsky (Eisenberg).  According to Wikipedia, “The novel touches on many topics, including addiction and recovery, family relationships, entertainment and advertising, film theory, United States-Canada relations (as well as Quebec separatism), and tennis.”  Mixed in with the pearls is the dross—Wallace’s self-deprecating, apologetic, self-contradicting comments that become of interest because they reveal so much about his person in such a brief period of time.  Lipsky is a perfect foil by virtue of his admiration of the celebrated writer and their almost humorous competitiveness with one another over women.  Wallace talks too long on the phone with Lipsky’s girlfriend, and Wallace accuses Lipsky of flirting with Wallace’s ex-girlfriend in the kitchen.  (It was actually refreshing to see the two intellectual men behaving a bit macho.)
           When Lipsky goes to interview Wallace, he is taken aback by the man’s eccentricity, which only serves to whet his interest.  Wallace is obsessed with hurting others or using them, while at the same time, guiltily enjoying the adulation he is receiving.  He seems to be in a constant dialog with himself about existential matters, comforted by the fact that he can “see everything” from his perspective, but finding that that keeps him from functioning at times.  For instance, in reflecting on how people admire him and think he’s great, he can’t enjoy it because the higher the admiration, the more he fears being a fraud.  Such insights as these keep Wallace in a constant state of unease.
          Both actors seem hand-in-glove for their parts, but Segal is the biggest surprise in that he has mostly done comedy, but here he is a serious actor who knocks it out of the park.  Eisenberg has been acknowledged numerous times by being nominated for awards, and he does an outstanding job here; it’s just that his role is secondary to Segal’s in this production, and Segal comes through with skills we didn’t know he has.  Both are superb.
          James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now) has assembled a cast and crew that achieve perfection and balance under his direction.  He wisely inserted characters on the tour that will balance out the philosophical discussions between the two men.  On the tour, the “escort” (a cameo role for Cusack) is just what she is supposed to be, a cheerleader and guide for anything her visitors desire.  Friends Julie (Gummer) and Sarah (Chlumsky) also provide interest and levity in their cameo roles.
          I can’t say too much about the music by Danny Elfman; it captures every mood and goes with the story in a seamless progression.

An intelligent discourse on fame with existential musings.

Grade:  A                                          By Donna R. Copeland

Wednesday, August 12, 2015


Henry Cavill   Armie Hammer   Alicia Vikander   Elizabeth DeBicki   Jared Harris   Hugh Grant

           Brisk, exciting, funny—The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is entertaining and intriguing from start to finish.  Solo (Cavill) pops up well dressed in East Germany in a car repair shop, and has a caustic back-and-forth with the mechanic who finally slides up from under the car.  It’s Gaby Teller (Vikander), whom the Americans and Russians need to locate her father, a missing German scientist who has been kidnapped and forced to work for an evil company that wants to rule the world by developing state-of-the-art nuclear warheads.
           Solo’s plan is to whisk her away and take him to her uncle Rudi (Sylvester Groth) who knows where her father is.  The trouble is, they are followed by an amazingly fit, persistent character in a reckless car chase through the streets, and Solo finally has a physical altercation with him.  They do manage to escape, with Gaby none too pleased to be on board.
           When Solo meets with his boss Sanders (Harris) the next morning (in a public restroom no less!), he is astounded to meet up again with the mysterious man who turns out to be a Russian spy, Illya (Hammer).  Woe of woes they are now charged by the CIA and KGB with being partners in protecting Gaby and locating Teller.  Illya will be identified as Gaby’s fiancé while Solo is to go undercover at the evil company and learn what he can from their operation, particularly its current head, Victoria (DeBicki).
         In the process of the operation, we are entertained by Illya’s ill ease in a “romantic” relationship, his deficit in anger management, and Gaby’s delight in taunting and thwarting him every step of the way, such as drinking vodka and dancing sexily in the hotel room when he is trying to concentrate and maintain his composure. 
           Meanwhile, Solo easily seduces Victoria at her lavish Italian villa on the Mediterranean, with no apparent thought about her master plan and the viciousness she is capable of.  She knows who he is when he crashes her elegant party, and is relishing the thought of besting him.
           Casting for the film was spot on, with Cavill showing the right amount of greasy charm, class, and brilliance; Hammer adopting a convincing Russian accent, and achieving the right balance in social anxiety, sheer muscle strength, and competitiveness; and Vikander managing to be sexy, a physical wonder, and always sensible.  The two men’s competitiveness is a hoot, first one then the other being one up.  Vikander fits in easily as a mediator and matching strategist.  I loved the equality among all three characters, with each making essential judgments and suggestions in carrying out their mission.  Sanders, Grant, and Kuznetsov as the CIA, MI6, and KGB agents, respectively, are exactly right as well, although I must say, seeing Grant in that role was surprising, but he did it well.
          Guy Ritchie, the director—as well as co-writer with Lionel Wigram and others—might have an especially clever, charming, and entertaining spy thriller on his record with this film.  The audience in the screening I attended was consistently engaged and responsive.  Cinematographer John Mathieson (Phantom of the Opera, Gladiator, 47 Ronin) deftly wielded the camera, managing to convey all the action in difficult-to-capture scenes, as well as playing up the luxury and elegance of place.

           The film has an exciting end, and a smooth segue into a preview for a follow-up movie.

Clever, well choreographed, and entertaining twists in an old favorite.

Grade:  B+                        By Donna R. Copeland


--> O’Shea Jackson, Jr.   Corey Hawkins   Jason Mitchell   Neil Brown, Jr.   Aldis Hodge   Keith Stanfield   Marlon Yates, Jr.
           This is a heavy-duty docu-drama that is more than a picture of the beginnings of rap and its appeal; Straight Outta Compton illustrates very well for us some of the reasons for the extreme rage felt by people in the black community—all over the country.  A number of times we are shown how the men would just be on the street or in a parking lot and policemen would stop and order them to get on the ground with their hands locked behind them and search them with no legal justification.  It’s sobering to realize how long this has been going on largely unchecked until recently (which is thanks to videos)—and perhaps not even now.  It remains to be seen how much actually changes in the near future. 
           The film does a great job in introducing those of us largely unfamiliar with the genre to some of artists who got the movement started.  The names of Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Tupac, and Snoop are well known, but I for one never listened to their music that much.  As an aside, the film’s putting names to faces in the beginning helps a great deal.  Most impressive are the emotional tone of their songs and the reflection of their immediate experience in life that is expressed so grippingly.
           The rap songs created a great deal of concern, especially by law enforcement officials and particularly by the number “Fuck tha Police.”  There was a riot at a concert in Detroit after the song was performed, when someone (we don’t know who) started firing shots in the air.  The rappers always defended their lyrics on the basis of the right to free speech.
           The account of the artists’ personal relationships is another feature that keeps the viewer locked in.  Easy-E, Dr. Dre, and DJ Yella were members at the start of the group N.W.A. (Niggaz wit Attitudes), and Ice Cube and McRen were brought in early on.  After their success with “Boyz-n-the-Hood” and “Easy Does It”, an agent, Jerry Heller (Giamatti), approaches Easy-E about representing N.W.A., and he does indeed bring them to fame, starting out with the major release, “Straight Outta Compton”.  (Compton, California, is where the core group members lived.)  Thousands attended their concerts, and as a testament of their music’s power, almost everyone attending knew the lyrics and could rap along with the performers.
           But after a couple of years, first Ice Cube, then others, like Dre, had suspicions that Heller and Easy-E were not giving them their fair share.  So Ice Cube set out on his own as a solo act, and sometime after Dre went with another group (Death Row Records and Suge Knight), although he too ended up wanting to be on his own.  His statement is “You can’t put a price on peace of mind.”  These discords were powerful and emotionally draining, but perhaps not surprising, given their artistic, creative personalities. 
           Straight Outta Compton, directed by F. Gary Gray (The Italian Job), is very well done, and seems as relevant today as ever with the issue of race relations heated up.  The actors bring every character alive, and the part of Ice Cube is played by his son in real life (O’shea Jackson, Jr.)Paul Giamatti is in his element with this type of role, and easily portrays the transition of the rappers’ regard for him.

Enlightening picture of how Hip Hop came of age.

Grade:  A                              By Donna R. Copeland

Monday, August 10, 2015


Margot Robbie     Chiwetel Ejiofor     Chris Pine

           This is a thriller that starts out rather slowly and peacefully with rolling hills in a lush green valley (filming was in New Zealand and West Virginia) where Ann (Margot) has been abandoned on her family’s farm after some kind of nuclear holocaust.  By some kind of accident of weather, the valley has been shielded from radiation that is rumored to be everywhere else.  Ann has her dog for company and is self-sufficient in getting food and other necessities, at least temporarily.  She wonders if she is the last person on earth, and then comes upon a man in a safe suit out on the road.  They’re both wary of one another and pull out guns immediately until they can determine the trustworthiness of the other. 
           Ann seems much less suspicious than the civil engineer Loomis (Ejiofor) who has radiation sickness, and takes him up to her house where she nurses him back to health, injecting into him some type of medicine he has that serves as an antidote.  He has been traumatized by recent events, and her tender, loving touch is like a balm for him. 
          The two start becoming close, and he begins to use his engineering skills in rebuilding efforts.  It’s clear they are from different cultures, he from the north and educated; she, the daughter of a southern farmer/minister who sees Loomis as someone God has sent to help her.  There is the budding of a romance, but he advises her that they should proceed slowly because of the effect it will have on both their lives.
           One day, Ann sees another man when she is out with her dog, and gets enough nerve to approach him with her gun in her hand.  Turns out, Caleb (Pine) is from a nearby mining town and shares many of Ann’s religious beliefs.  When she takes him to the house, Loomis is aghast that she immediately invites him to stay with them and fixes dinner for him.  But Caleb plans to stay only for a day or so because he is headed farther south. 
           Triangles are the most difficult of relationships, and when Caleb energetically helps out with chores and rebuilding—even helping to get a water wheel constructed to generate electricity—his stay is extended.  And this is when the story heats up with some of the expected twists and a rather ambiguous conclusion.
           I wondered how the title relates to the drama, and it seems that in the Robert C. O’Brien novel on which the screenplay is based, Ann has a childhood book called A to Z, and she concluded that if A is for Adam the first man, Z is for Zachariah, the last man—the situation she finds herself in before Loomis appears.  There is a reference to the book in the film when Loomis pulls it off the shelf in Ann’s library, and looks at it briefly.
           Zachariah explores the tension that exists in times of disaster between fear and charity.  Not only do Ann and Loomis embody these emotional reactions, all three characters relate their experiences with desperation and with other human beings dealing with the aftermath of the tragedy.  All convey the difficulty/necessity of maintaining hope during the bleakest times.  We are reminded of how critical survival skills are, sometimes making the difference between life and death.  It was also interesting—and imminently plausible—that people would venture out, not grasping the dangers of radiation.
           Craig Zobel shows his skills as a director (he also directed Compliance) of films that bring home points about human relationship, ethics, and fairness.  Zachariah is well paced, topical, and beautifully filmed (Tim Orr, cinematographer, and also for Manglehorn, Joe, and Prince Avalanche).  The actress Margot Robbie is not as well known as the other two, but she clearly carries her part forcefully here.  Ejiofor is one of my favorite actors, and he and Robbie convey as much in nonverbal signs as in what they say.  Pine manages to walk the fine line that he as a kind of intruder must in relationship to the other two who have become very close, but with each of whom he has much in common.

A film that prompts questions; how might you be in similar circumstances?

Grade:  B+                        By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, August 6, 2015


--> Joel Edgerton     Jason Bateman     Rebecca Hall

          I do love a good psychological thriller, and The Gift has all the essential ingredients—suspense, terror, fright, a social message, and above all psychological validity.  Joel Edgerton, who co-wrote Animal Kingdom and The Rover (similar themes) with David Michod, took the writing for this onto himself, and directed and acted in it as well.  He’s truly a talented individual.  Right from the beginning of this film—with the first shot being of an empty room as well photographed as if it were a painting and foreshadowing background music by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans—it grabs your attention and you sit up straight.  Edgerton is a master at foretelling what is going to happen later, although you may not catch its significance at the time.  Gifts obviously play a key role in the drama, all of them seeming odd at first, and later you realize the glass cleaner was prophetic.
           It turns out the empty room is in a house a California realtor is showing to a couple from Chicago.  It’s upscale, and Greg (Bateman) is on his way up the ladder in a flourishing company.  His wife Robyn (Hall) is a designer who we learn has undergone some traumatic experiences but is on the mend.  They have taken the house and are shopping for furnishings when a man in the department store approaches them.  Gordo (Edgerton) was a high school classmate of Bateman, and seems to want to reestablish old ties.  Greg appears to be a bit mystified, but gamely goes along with plans to call Gordo and get together.
           That’s when the gifts with notes start arriving—a bottle of wine, some fish food and then koi for their pond.  Robyn is touched, particularly when Gordy shows up at the house during the day with additional gifts and offers to be helpful, including getting the television and DVD player hooked up.  Yes, he does seem a bit socially awkward—which appeals to Robyn’s social tolerance—but Greg is irritated. 
           Edgerton takes us down the garden path, demonstrating how susceptible we are to sociopathic characters who are ever so clever in planting “ideas that take hold.”  He does this by keeping us guessing as to who the villain is and testing our limits of tolerance for other people who seem odd to us. 
           Bateman and Hall portray the couple very much in love and tender with one another until suspicion and doubt begin to creep up.  Bateman is good at playing the young executive trying to make all the right moves in a big company so he will be promoted.  Hall is convincing as a designer who personally has basic values of tolerance and justice, and along with that, has a questioning mind.  Edgerton knows creepy, and the thing I like most about his written and evocative portrayal of the character of Gordo is its realistic accuracy as well as its ultimate ambiguity.  That is, we’re unsure of where the boundary is between “sick” and simply odd.

A consummate thriller about gifts from one’s past.

Grade:  A                        By Donna R. Copeland


--> Miles Teller     Kate Mara     Michael B. Jordan     Jamie Bell     Tony Kebbell
-->          Fantastic Four in this case could be a reference to the utterly fantastic script that edges into being four times the ridiculous.   It starts out promising when a grade school kid reports in school that his career choice is to create a method of teleportation to another dimension.  Unfortunately, he has a bad teacher who won’t accept his dream and makes him do the assignment over.  But the plucky kid is not discouraged; on the contrary, he continues to build his invention in his garage with the help of his classmate whose parents have a salvage yard.
           In high school, Reed (Teller) and his friend Ben (Bell) present their invention at a science fair, and even though their demonstration of it ruins a light board and causes the lights to go out, they get a curious visitor, Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey), accompanied by his scientist daughter Sue (Mara).  Storm offers him a scholarship and a chance to collaborate with him and Sue in bringing his dream to fruition at his private company.  Sue has already been working on a similar project.
           They make progress after Dr. Storm brings in a cynical scientist, Victor (Kebbell), who had become disillusioned with corporate management and was working alone until Storm brings him back into the fold.  He also forces his errant son Johnny (Jordan) to work on the project; and although Johnny is resentful, he takes to Reed, and diligently works alongside him.  The operation is a success when they send a chimp out and successfully bring him back.
           Enter one of the corporate suits who is now interested only because he sees something in it for him, and immediately sees that bringing in NASA and the government will make him look really really good.  This makes the idealistic young scientists who are thoroughly committed to their work antsy, and they decide to take a flight on their own so it’s their names written in lights.  Reed wants his old friend Ben to be a part of the rewards, so calls him up and insists he come with them.
           The four take off, unbeknownst to anyone else, even Sue or her father.  The men are supposed to spend only a few minutes away, plant a flag and come back.  However, once they get there, their curiosity gets the best of them and they go exploring, three of them barely making it back.  Open Pandora’s box and…Yes, the three, along with Sue who discovered their venture and was helping to bring them back, return, but radically changed. 
           This is where I think the story derails.  When they arrive back they have special powers, but are in the hands of the U.S. government, which is using them for its own purposes, namely war.  They’re kept separated from one another, so can’t work together to disengage themselves and regain control of their lives.  If you see the film, you’ll know if and how they work that out.
           I was on board for the first half of the film, which is interesting in considering what going to another dimension might be.  Although I’m not totally in sympathy with the corporate world or government, I did not appreciate how they’re portrayed here as completely uncaring, self-serving, warmongers who would not even respond to the explorers’ questions about what happened to their teammates.  This is unnecessary and irresponsible on the filmmakers’ part in my opinion.
           There are also some plot holes or gaps that don’t make sense; for instance, the one who was left behind does eventually get a chance to come back, but he immediately wants to return to the other dimension.  So why does he express relief that he is rescued and then immediately want to return?  He gives an explanation, but that doesn’t answer the question of why he returned in the first place if he was happier elsewhere.
           I also have the perennial problem in action movies that they must always contain two features:  car races/crashes and fistfights.  No matter how many advanced scientific tools they have at their disposal, we must always have one of each of these, and usually many more.
          The four main actors, Teller, Mara, Jordan, and Bell, are top-notch, and it’s too bad the script, direction, and production let them down.  I did appreciate their value in loyalty and collaboration and their commitment to science for its intrinsic value.

An adventure that comes up low on fuel.

Grade:  C-                        By Donna R. Copeland