‘The Lazarus Effect’ and the consequences of cheating death

One of the recurring themes of the horror movie genre is the exploration of attempts to cheat death. Zombies seem to have stumbled upon their own solution to this enduring issue,  although the side-effects are yucky. The “Final Destination” series of movies proved that when people try to alter their sealed fate, death just comes up with another creative way of carrying out its master plan.

Using the research lab to find ways of postponing a visit by the Grim Reaper is always a ripe theme for the “science gone bad” element of horror and science fiction films.

The latest movie to deal with laboratory experiments designed to reverse death is “The Lazarus Effect,” which starts out promising but eventually derails.

“Lazarus” has a similar set up as “Deep Blue Sea” in that a driven group of scientists and lab assistants are pushing the envelope on experimentation in hopes of discovering cures or ways to stall the devastating effects of diseases. Their efforts soon yield terrible results they are not expecting.

In “The Lazarus Effect,” Frank (Mark Duplass) and his co-researcher and fiancee Zoe (Olivia Wilde), financed by a grant and based at a university campus, have come up with a serum they hope can revive recently deceased people and provide a second chance at life.

Assisted by Clay (Evan Peters) and Niko (Donald Glover), with college student Eva (Sarah Bolger) serving as a videographer, Frank and Zoe take the next step — an unsanctioned test of injecting the serum into a dead dog.

Initially the experiment appears to be a failure, but suddenly the dog, named Rocky, jumps to life. Immediately, however, unforeseen things crop up. Poor Rocky seems to have developed a personality disorder, one minute docilely lying around, the next growling and in pre-attack mode, leading Zoe to make the most astute observation in the movie: Maybe Rocky was snatched from doggie heaven and is not happy about it.

A nonsensical side plot is that the university officials go after Frank upon learning about his experimenting on the dog, stating that was not approved when the grant was issued. Say what? How did these people think this serum would be effective if not tested on actual biological organisms? Because of this violation of the grant contract, all of the project data is seized.

This plot device is used as supposed  motivation for Frank and Zoe to continue the tests, as if seeing poor Rocky engaged in schizophrenic behavior, going from Benji to Cujo and back, is not enough to prompt more experiments.

Thus another dog is brought out for another test. But this time something goes wrong and Zoe is electrocuted. Well, shades of “Re-Animator,” as Frank, rendered crazed by Zoe’s death, decides to inject the serum onto her.

Zoe is revived, but like Rocky, her brain’s neural activity is in overdrive.

At this point, “The Lazarus Effect” takes a weird turn. The screenplay, by Luke Dawson (“Shutter”) and Jeremy Slater, goes with a premise that Zoe’s now super-powered brain can turn her into a person that is a mix of Carrie White (telekinesis), Freddie Krueger (dream invasions), mind readers and demonic possession.

While this ramps up the terror aspect of the movie, it does so at the expense of what could have been a chilling psychological thriller and a provocative look at the consequences of mankind trying to alter nature’s laws. Instead it turns into a puzzling potpourri of mayhem with an ending that is ominous but ultimately silly.

Character development is minimal. Only Zoe has a back story, haunted by nightmares that stemmed from a tragedy she endured as a child. Frank is seen as a man so driven in his research it isn’t until he almost loses Zoe that his passion for her surfaces. The other three characters are just typical potential victims once the violence starts.

While “The Lazarous Effect” uses all the tools to provide some scary moments, it soon spins out of control. The filmmakers might have had a better movie if they had just focused on the poor dog Rocky.

“McFarland, USA” a feel-good story about achieving great heights

Movies about athletes who are victorious despite overwhelming odds are always infectious and teeter precariously on the edge of being cliched. And even if they do become a little corny, there is no harm in them and the overall effect is that they are pleasing.

“McFarland, USA,” based upon a true story, is one such movie. In fact it could be described as the cross-country-running version of “Hoosiers.”

In this case it’s Kevin Costner playing the pivotal role of the high school teacher/coach on the brink of a career implosion who gets one last chance and is lucky enough to have the right mix of circumstances and people to pull off a life-changing event.

Much like Gene Hackman’s Norman Dale in “Hoosiers,” a college basketball coach who after a violent encounter with one of his players can only get a job coaching at a small high school in Indiana, Costner’s Jim White finds himself in a similar situation after an unfortunate locker room incident with a disrespectful player during the half-time of a football game in which the team is getting blown out. This set-to is another breakdown of control by White, and as a result the only job offer he gets is as a science teacher and assistant football coach at the high school in McFarland, an impoverished Central California town.

McFarland’s population is primarily Latino, people who labor long hours picking crops. The family is the backbone of the community and generation after generation assumes the mantel of working long hours to provide for their families.

White, his wife Cheryl (Maria Bello) and daughters Julie (Morgan Saylor), 15, and Jamie (Elsie Fisher), 10, arrive in McFarland in the fall of 1987 full of apprehension. But despite their preconceived notions they are not met with hostility.

At the high school, things go bad for White immediately with an on-field disagreement between the coaches during a 63-0 blowout suffered by their team. White is soon demoted to science teacher/PE coach.

It is during the PE classes, and before and after school, that White notices that a handful of boys seem to run great distances effortlessly, so he proposes starting a cross-country team.

He manages to get seven boys to join the team, scoring a superb runner, Thomas (Carlos Pratts), and although the team finishes last in its first competitive effort, a four-school invitational, the McFarland runners on their next outing just barely lose to a top caliber team.

“McFarland” follows the blueprint of such sports stories, showing White, who is basically learning on his own while he coaches, as he gets the boys to sharpen their running skills. He knows he has a strong foundation — these boys are tough. They have to be.

There are the usual setbacks. Top-runner Thomas has family issues with a workaholic father and a younger sister who has become pregnant. Three of the team members are the Diaz brothers, Damasio (Michael Aguero), David (Rafael Martinez) and Danny (Ramiro Rodriguez), the latter being the least gifted but with a lot of desire, who have to balance their cross-country efforts while also working for their father in the fields.

As the team’s surprising successes mount, it proves a boost to the community, and led by Senora Diaz (a scene-stealing Diana Maria Diva), money is raised for uniforms and running shoes.

“McFarland” is a story about fortitude that leads to achievement, but also a study of growing respect and how a family can assimilate in an unfamiliar setting and learn lessons about life — like friendship and security — that cannot be bought.

Directed by Niki Caro (“Whale Rider”), “McFarland” was the product of three screenwriters — Chris Cleveland, Bettina Gilois and Grant Thompson — a collaboration that might raise red flags about massive rewrites. But the story moves smoothly. Costner is at ease here with his work as White, a man who is blessed with instincts but who also threatens to derail things with his impetuous behavior. Bello has a few moments as the firm foundation in the household, the person with the best family perspective.

The young actors playing the runners — also included were Johnny Ortiz as Jose Cardenas and Sergio Avelar as Victor Puentes — do a credible job of portraying teens who are not accustomed to being told they can accomplish something special.

“McFarland, USA” is the type of feel-good movie that can be refreshing alternative amid the action movies and intense dramas.

 

 

 

Oscars 2015: Funny guys get serious and Streep closes in on 20

Truth be told, the Academy Awards is an extravagant exercise in self-congratulations, totally subjective with no hard data to back up why one choice is made above others. It’s all a matter of personal preference. But it is difficult to resist getting caught up in the speculation and glitz of the proceedings.

This year there seems to be more intense controversy over the nominations, particularly surrounding “American Sniper” — dismissed by detractors as a glorification of what they see as a sneaky and dishonorable way of waging war — and “Selma” — a film nominated for Best Picture while its director, Ava DuVernay, and lead actor, David Oyelowo, were not among the nominees in those categories. But let’s take a look at those who were nominated:

BEST ACTOR

Three of the actors in this category found their initial fame as comedic performers who have proven they can handle drama as well. Bradley Cooper is a finalist for the third straight year, showing that his nominated work in “Silver Linings Playbook” two years ago was no fluke. Cooper’s turn as Chris Kyle, a Navy Seal sharpshooter credited with the most kills in the Iraq conflict, has been knocked for being an inaccurate portrayal of the late Kyle, showing him as a patriot and loving husband and father with no flaws. That aside, one cannot deny Cooper’s incredible depiction of a man ultimately affected by what he experiences in Iraq and how he manages to recover before it destroys himself and his family.

Another actor known for his funny work is Steve Carell, earning his first nomination as the tragic John du Pont in “Foxcatcher.” Carell is almost unrecognizable as du Pont, using a prosthetic nose to match du Pont’s, as well as the physical mannerisms of this wealthy man who believed that founding a wrestling school that would turn out Olympic-caliber competitors might exorcise the emotional demons of his financially well-to-do but otherwise empty existence.

And the third nominee who made an impression for laugh-inducing roles, Michael Keaton, is a favorite to win the Oscar for his role in “Birdman” as Riggan, a former action hero star who tries to resurrect his sagging career and recapture meaning in his life via a stage play he has put his money and soul into. This one-track shot movie comes off as a live play and focuses on this flawed, self-indulgent man who despite his shortcomings develops a self-awareness that has the audience rooting for him.

Another favorite in this category is Eddie Redmayne, playing the brilliant physicist Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything.” Redmayne had to really get into the physical aspects of the role, showing the increasingly debilitating decay of his body as a result of ALS — Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Confined to a wheelchair for most of the movie, Redmayne delivers a performance that Oscar voters generally love — emotionally complex and honest in showing the courage and the less than honorable parts of the man.

The most tragic performance is presented by first-time nominee Benedict Cumberbatch in “The Imitation Game” as master decoder Alan Turing. Socially inept but brilliant and not afraid to point out his brilliance, Turing was an unsung hero of World War II, breaking the Nazi radio communications code that enabled the Allies to counteract planned attacks. Turing was the right man at the right time, one who could overstep emotional reactions and apply logic and common sense that sometimes led to heart-wrenching decisions. Then, for all his work, Turing became an outcast for his homosexuality and was only appreciated for his contributions to the war effort long after he died.

Who will win: A real toss-up between Keaton and Redmayne. Keaton’s film was one all performers could identify with, but Redmayne’s total immersion into the character of Hawking likely will get him the Oscar.

Vernor’s Ticket choice: Redmayne.

BEST ACTRESS

Julianne Moore may finally claim an Oscar for this, her fifth nomination, for her wrenching work in “Still Alice.” Playing Alice Rowland, a linguist professor who is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at an age when one would not expect to get such a horrible disease, Moore has earned praise from just about every faction of the entertainment industry.

Of the other four nominees, Rosamund Pike is a standout as Amy Elliott Dunne in “Gone Girl.” A first-time nominee, Pike is mesmerizing as Amy, whose disappearance and possible murder, with her husband being a prime suspect, ignites a media frenzy. Then there is the startling revelation that totally changes the perception of Amy as a supposed victim. The brilliance of what she pulls off is stunning and frightening.

Marion Cotillard, an Oscar winner for “La Vie en Rose” in 2007, is a surprise nominee for “Two Days, One Night,” playing Sandra, a young Belgian mother who discovers that her workmates have opted for a significant pay bonus in exchange for her dismissal. She has only one weekend to convince her colleagues to give up their bonuses so that she can keep her job. As a surprise nominee, it is unlikely she garnered enough votes to overtake Moore.

Felicity Jones is fine as Jane Hawking, the steadfast wife of Stephen Hawking, staying with her husband through all the tribulations of the man’s disease, but her performance lacks any memorable moments that would put her over the top.

The same applies to Reese Witherspoon — also a previous Oscar winner –  in her role as Cheryl Strayed in “Wild.” It’s a physically challenging performance, portraying this woman who went on a 1,000-mile hike in an effort to discover herself after being lost for a few years following the death of her mother and crumbling of her marriage. Witherspoon is strapped with a character that comes off as irresponsible and self-indulgent, who may have gotten back on track but offers little else to share.

Who will win: Moore.

Vernor’s Ticket choice: Pike. She is absolutely chilling as a supposedly sweet but unappreciated wife who launches a fiendish plan of revenge. It’s scary and haunting.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

This one appears to be a slam dunk. There are tragic figures, like Robert Duvall’s Joseph Palmer, a longtime magistrate accused of murder in “The Judge” and whose alienated son Hank (Robert Downey Jr.) must defend him in court. Also there is Mark Ruffalo as David Schultz, the Olympic wrestler in “Foxcatcher” whose work relationship with John du Pont goes horribly awry for no apparent reason. Ethan Hawke has earned his second nomination portraying Dad in “Boyhood,” and Edward Norton has some great moments as the arrogant stage actor Mike in “Birdman,” a person who can function only while in a role while stumbling in his real-life encounters.

But the standout here is longtime character actor J.K. Simmons in “Whiplash.” As the intimidating perfectionist instructor Fletcher at a prestigious music conservatory, Simmons is positively riveting, completely unpredictable. Every moment he is on screen, his presence commands your attention. He has succeeded in having the three words, “not my tempo,” a trigger for panic attacks among musicians.

Who will win: Simmons

Vernor’s Ticket choice: Simmons

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

It looks like Patricia Arquette, as the mother in “Boyhood,” is the favorite to win in this category, although Emma Stone, as Riggan’s embittered daughter Sam, takes what could have been a cliched role of the alienated offspring and adds some surprising depth and perceptiveness. She could be a dark horse here.

Laura Dern also cannot be counted out, playing Cheryl Strayed’s mother Bobbi in “Wild.” As Dern portrays Bobbi, it shows why Cheryl became so lost when her mother passed away. Dealt a bad hand in life, Bobbi refuses to wallow in self-pity, saying that for all the problems, it is her life and she is not backing away. She proves to be a pillar of emotional strength for Cheryl and a great loss when she dies.

Keira Knightley is exceptional as Joan Clarke in “The Imitation Game,” a brilliant woman who not only breaks through in a man’s world as one of the vital code breakers in World War II but also serves as a bridge between the socially clumsy Alan Turing and his colleagues. She also develops a close bond with Turing, emotionally strong but, because of his homosexuality, not physical.

And then there’s Meryl Streep, picking up an unprecedented 19th nomination for her work as the witch in the musical “Into the Woods.” A winner in three of her previous 18 nominations, Streep, who never seems to give a bad performance, nevertheless may be overshadowed in this category this time out.

Who will win: Arquette

Vernor’s Ticket choice(s) : A tie between Stone and Dern (Hey, it has happened before, when Katharine Hepburn for “The Lion in Winter” and Barbra Streisand for “Funny Girl” both took home Best Actress Oscars for 1968).

BEST PICTURE

Although a maximum of 10 movies can be nominated, only eight got the nod this year. Unfortunately, two nominees have sparked controversy because of their political aspects. “American Sniper” and “Selma” both have been criticized for inaccuracies, and sadly, the snubs of DuVernay as director as Oyelowo have some people claiming racism.

Among the other nominees, “Birdman,” “Boyhood,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “The Imitation Game,” “The Theory of Everything” and “Whiplash,” “Birdman” seems to be the favorite, a movie about acting that actors can identity with. “The Imitation Game,” “The Theory of Everything” and “Whiplash” are great character studies and likely will cancel each other out. “Boyhood,” which was filmed over the course of several years, presents an interesting concept in film making, but some critics have said that other than that it really has nothing more to offer.

The most fun movie among these is “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” a quirky movie by Wes Anderson, whose films are an acquired taste. Those who love his movies really love them. Others find them just too strange. But only Anderson could make a movie about a hotel concierge actually engaging.

What will win: “Birdman”

Vernor’s Ticket choice: “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” I know of at least one Academy voter who expressed to me her enthusiasm for this movie as Best Picture.

Some tidbits:

For Bradley Cooper, this is his second nomination in a movie with “American” in the title (“American Sniper”),  having been nominated last year for “American Hustle.”

The age range in the Best Actor group of nominees is 32 (Redmayne) and 63 (Keaton).

Julianne Moore has been nominated in three different decades: twice in the 1990s, twice in the 2000-aughts and once in this decade.

Although Laura Dern plays the mother of Reese Witherspoon’s character in “Wild,” the two actresses are only nine years apart in age. Dern is 48 and Witherspoon will be 39 in March.

Robert Duvall’s seven nominations have been spread out over 42 years, with his first nod, as Best Supporting Actor, taking place in 1972 for “The Godfather.” The longest time span between nominations for him was 16 years, between his 1998 supporting role nomination for “A Civil Action” and 2014 for “The Judge.” And by the way, Duvall’s first significant movie role was as Boo Radley in the highly acclaimed (and Best Picture nominated) “To Kill a Mockingbird” in 1962. His one Oscar was in 1983 for “Tender Mercies.”

At age 83, Duvall is the oldest among the acting nominees. Emma Stone at 26 is the youngest.

In looking at Meryl Streep’s unprecedented 19 nominations, 7 more than the two second-most nominated stars, Katharine Hepburn and Jack Nicholson with 12 apiece, her Oscar nods have taken place in five consecutive decades: two in the 1970s, six in the 1980s, four in the 1990s, four in the 2000-aughts and three in this decade.

She has had nominations in consecutive years six times: 1978-79, 1981-83, 1987-88, 1998-99, 2008-09 and 2013-14. While she won her first two Oscars within three years of each other — the Best Supporting Actress for “Kramer vs. Kramer” in 1979 and Best Actress for “Sophie’s Choice” in 1982, her third Academy Award did not come until 29 years later in 2011, Best Actress for “The Iron Lady.” In that 29-year period, she was a nominee 12 times.

Nine actors are experiencing their first nominations: Steve Carell, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Keaton, Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Rosamund Pike, J.K. Simmons, Patricia Arquette and Emma Stone. The “late bloomers” in this group are Simmons at age 60 and Keaton at age 63.

Patricia Arquette is the only Arquette with a nomination, as brother David and sister Rosanna never have been nominated.

 

 

In ‘The Loft,’ cheating leads to trouble

“The Loft” is a prime example of the type of movies that are put into theaters during the down months leading up to the summer blockbuster season. These films, usually with modest box-office expectations, are released quietly in the spring  in hopes of making some money before heading off to pay TV, DVD/Blu-Ray land.

As such, “The Loft” is a decent effort, a mystery that effectively keeps the audience guessing while the story overwhelms the thin characters.

Erik Van Looy, who directed the original Belgium-made version of this film in 2008, titled simple “Loft,” gets another crack at this very adult thriller that is based on a screenplay by Bart De Pauw and Wesley Strick, the latter who among his 17 writing credits include “Wolf” in 1994 and “Arachnophobia” in 1990.

Karl Urban, who plays the current Doc “Bones” McCoy in the rebooted “Star Trek” series of movies, leads the cast as Vincent Stevens, an architect whose latest high-rise penthouse project includes a loft he has reserved for himself and four other friends. This loft is designed to be a place where these men can carry out their extramarital affairs and whatever other fantasies in which they might indulge.

This arrangement becomes a nightmare when a young woman is found dead on the bed, handcuffed to the bed post with her other free wrist slashed in an apparent suicide, or a murder made to look like a suicide. Since only five keys to the loft were issued — and the burglar alarm was shut off — only the five men had access to the place.

The men gather at the loft to try to solve the mystery and figure a way out of this mess. In addition to Vincent there are Chris Vanowen (James Marsden), a psychiatrist; Philip Trauner (Matthias Schoenaerts, reprising his role from the 2008 original film), half-brother of Chris and who has just recently married the daughter of a wealthy building contractor; Luke Secord (Wentworth Miller) and Marty Landry (Eric Stonestreet).

“The Loft” is non-linear, as it uses flashbacks to build the story and present possible suspects and motives in the woman’s death. In between the flashbacks are current-day scenes of each man being interrogated by a pair of police detectives, Huggins (Kristin Lehman) and Cohagen (Robert Wisdom).

While the script adeptly offers bits of the mystery puzzle, forcing the audience to pay attention, it provides little in presenting characters that are worth caring about. Urban’s Vincent clearly is a bad influence on his friends, a man who has no qualms about cheating on his wife Barbara (Valerie Cruz) and cynically issuing the keys to the loft during the reception following Philip’s wedding.

Of the four friends, Philip, who has a drug habit and seems nowhere near ready to settle down, is at first the only willing recipient of the key and use of the loft. Marty is the man who expresses crude and sexist views, especially when drunk, but seems to be just all talk.

Chris and Luke just go along with all this, trying to resist temptation. Of the men, Chris is the most sympathetic, striving to stay faithful to wife Allison (Rhona Mitra) despite a growing estrangement. His resolve is tested when he meets Anne Morris (Rachael Taylor), an assistant to a congressman and the sister of a former patient of Chris who committed suicide.

As a mystery, “The Loft” unfolds at a brisk and challenging pace, although once all is unraveled there are some plot holes. The result is a mildly entertaining movie that could have been masterful had the main characters not been so shady and unworthy of compassion.

In ‘Taken 3,’ trouble comes home for Bryan Mills

For former government operative Bryan Mills, his ex-wife Lenore and his daughter Kim, family therapy comes in the form of mortal peril — kidnappings, chases and fatal violence. As much as he tries to be a divorced father and toe the line of being an ex-husband, Mills (Liam Neeson) stumbles along. Then trouble arrives and he is back in his element — but the stakes are high with Lenore and Kim in the line of fire.

After the traumatic events of “Taken” and “Taken 2,” one cannot blame Mills for wanting to stay anchored in the United States, away from human traffickers in Paris and avenging fathers of dead human traffickers in Istanbul. Unfortunately, Mills and his loved ones cannot escape bad things even at home.

The screenwriting team of Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen are back for their third installment of life with Bryan Mills, while Olivier Megaton is directing his second film of the “Taken” series.

Like its predecessors, “Taken 3″ spends some of its early moments focusing on Bryan’s relationship with Kim (Maggie Grace) and Lenore (Famke Janssen). Bryan and Kim have overcome some of the alienation that plagued them in the original “Taken,” but she still teases him for being “predictable.” She also cannot work up the courage to discuss some personal issues with her father. Meanwhile, Lenore’s marriage to Stuart St. John (Dougray Scott, taking over the role from Xander Berkeley) is hitting some rough patches and she turns to Bryan to vent.

Once the family update is complete, the anticipated action finally begins. Bryan suddenly finds himself a suspect in a brutal — and very personal — murder he did not commit. Obviously framed, he transforms into his operative mode, escapes arrest and goes underground.

Fortunately, he has his colleagues like Bernie (David Warshofsky), Casey (Jon Gries) and particularly Sam (Leland Orser) to assist him.

Leading the police investigation is Franck Dotzler (Forest Whitaker), who upon finding out more about Bryan Mills realizes he will not have an easy time tracking this man down.

While Bryan plays cat and mouse with Dotzler and his squad, he also needs to find out who committed the murder and is trying to frame him.

The hardest working people on the film crew, other than the stunt people, had to be the film editing team of Audrey Simonaud and Nicolas Trembasiewicz, who pieced together all the action scenes. The quick cuts — unfortunately a staple of these kinds of movies — have a jerky and dizzying effect and are hard to follow.

As Bryan continually eludes the police and gets closer to discovering the truth, the plot twists really are not that surprising. The only question is how Bryan will resolve the situation.

Per usual, Neeson continues to build on his recent evolution into an action star, although at age 62 he inevitably will have to slow down. Grace as Kim does not get to do as much in “Taken 3″ as she did in “Taken 2″ except snarl at the police officers pursuing her dad.

Whitaker’s Dotzler is one of the high points in the film. His quirky habit is having a rubber band around his wrist that he pulls and twists as he contemplates the case and meets repeated frustration in his attempts to bring Bryan to justice. Dotzler is smart and honorable, soon developing a respect for Bryan’s resourcefulness.

“Taken 3″ is a cookie cutter action flick, pure guilty pleasure. It is lifted by Neeson’s Bryan Mills, a man who can survive under the gun but has his emotional vulnerabilities. Some promotional teasers have stated this will be the last in the “Taken” series. Of course, that really depends on how well this one does at the box office. But it would be nice if Besson and Kamen would give Bryan Mills a break and allow him a quiet, violence-free old age.

Fake scares dilute effectiveness of ‘The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death’

When it comes to horror movies, the sub-genres — the crazed killer(s) on a slasher spree, the demonic possession, the monster/zombie rampage and the paranormal/ghost story — are recycled with a few tweaks here and there to keep the fans interested. Of these themes, the ghost story has the most disadvantages because there are fewer options to maintain a fresh and creepy presentation. Mysterious bumping and creaking, furniture moving on its own and fleeting ghostly images can only go so far in making an impact on an audience.

“The Woman in Black: Angel of Death,” the sequel to the well-received 2012 film starring Daniel Radcliffe, is one of those follow-up movies that really adds nothing to the story.

The premise shows some initial promise. The story takes place in 1941. With England  being pummeled by bombings as part of the Nazi Blitz, a group of children who have no immediate relatives is rounded up to be taken to the rundown Eel Marsh House as a temporary and supposedly safe orphanage.

The adults in charge are Jean Hogg (Helen McCrory), a strict school mistress, and her assistant Eve Parkins (Phoebe Fox), who has a better grasp of handling these vulnerable children than her boss.

Times are desperate in England, which is the only rationale for sending already emotionally distressed children to a remote, derelict ruin like the Eel Marsh House, with limited access and surrounded by dreary and creepy woods, and, of course, a cemetery.

The script by Jon Croker does not devote much time in developing characters of the youngsters, focusing primarily on Edward (Oaklee Pendergast), a boy who has gone mute in the aftermath of a bombing that killed his family.

The set-up is effective in that children are now facing potential peril, so it would have been better if some of these young people were given a chance to display some personality.

But that aspect is devoted entirely to the adults. Eve at first seems to be a grounded young woman who has managed to maintain a positive perspective in the midst of the horror of German aggression. Jean is authoritarian and often cold — this is her way of coping with the grim reality of war.

A third adult is introduced upon the party’s arrival at Eel Marsh House — Harry Burnstow (Jeremy Irvine), a young pilot who seems to have a lot of time to drop in at the house, with hints of him having designs on Eve.

Once the people get settled into the house — not exactly the most cozy of lodgings — it is time for the creep show to start.

But after a decent build-up of dread, the spookiness deteriorates. A major is problem is that writer Croker and director Tom Harper overuse the gimmick of the fake scare. Sure, they make the audience jump, but it is all just a tease. It’s cheap and lazy.

Eve and Edward are the only ones who become aware of the malevolent spirit of Jennet Humfrye, still out to wreak havoc in response to the death of her illegitimate child Nathaniel. Amid the not-so-scary incidents, Eve tries to unravel the mystery of the haunting, and along the way, confront an unfortunate incident in her own life.

The action intensifies later in the story, but the conclusion wilts in its soggy resolution. One cannot help but wonder if the director and writer had not expended so much energy on thinking up the inconsequential scares they might have been able to create a truly nerve-wracking story of a restless, vengeful spirit.

Code-breakers go up against the Germans in ‘The Imitation Game’

As in any conflict, not all the battles are fought on the front lines, and wars often are affected by what is going on in places where bullets and bombs are far away.

“The Imitation Game” is an intriguing look at how England dealt with trying to decode the many German military transmissions that used the Enigma code, a complex method of encrypting them so that any interceptions of the messages virtually were undecipherable. Things were dire in Europe as the Nazis easily could communicate their plans and were sweeping across the continent, overtaking countries at an alarming rate.

In England, a team of brilliant mathematicians and cryptanalysts was being put together to decode the messages. One man who was not called but volunteered his services was Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch). As job interviews go, Turing’s lacked tact but was brutally honest.

“You need me more than I need you,” he informed Commander Denniston (Charles Dance), whose working relationship with Turing would be strained at best. Turing, however, had an ally in Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong), a high-ranking intelligence official who had earned the confidence of Winston Churchill. Thus Denniston had to chomp at the bit because not only was Turing drafted to work as a decoder but per Churchill’s decree was put in charge of the program.

“The Imitation Game,” directed by Morten Tyldum (“Headhunters”) and adapted for the screen by Graham Moore from the book by Andrew Hodges, is not a linear presentation. It jumps around in time to focus on three different phases of Turing’s life. There are scenes of his early teenage years when as a brilliant student but social outcast the young Turing (Alex Lawther) is befriended by a classmate, Christopher Morcom (Jack Bannon). Christopher not only introduces Turing to cryptology but also triggers homosexual feelings in the teenager.

Another aspect of Turing’s life that is explored is in the early 1950s when his home is burglarized and police grow suspicious when he insists there is no need to investigate. Not willing to drop the case, Det. Robert Nock (Rory Kinnear), presses on with the investigation, revealing a part of Turing’s private life that was against the law at the time.

The movie mostly centers around Turing and his team’s seemingly insurmountable task of trying to discover the key to breaking the code among 150 million million possibilities — in only a 24-hour period because each new day the key was changed.

Turing concludes that a machine needs to be designed that could wade through all the possibilities at a much faster rate, and he is able to secure funding to build it.

“The Imitation Game” also zeroes in on Turing’s personality and his shaky relationships. Despite being in charge, Turing fails at gaining the respect of his colleagues, especially Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode from “Stoker”). Luckily for Turing, one of the people who tested to be brilliant enough to be on the team is Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), who serves as a bridge between Turing and his team.

Turing and Joan develop an unusual relationship, growing to care for each other without any physical attraction. When things unravel between the two, Joan proves to be the much more mature and perceptive one.

Cumberbatch likely will be an Academy Award nominee for his performance. He presents Turing as the complex man he was. Turing was brilliant, arrogant, unwittingly funny and deeply compassionate about his work. Even when the code is finally broken, it is Turing’s Spock-like logic, devoid of emotional considerations, that leads to the wrenching decisions that had to be made by the English military brass, essentially having to respond to one threat while allowing others to go unheeded as part of the wartime strategy.

The tragedy of Turing’s life was that his contribution to the war effort was not made known to the public until nearly 60 years after his death by suicide. Aside from that, his private life put him at odds with English law, making him even more of an outcast.

As portrayed by Cumberbatch, Turing was not a warm person, someone people would want to hang out with. He realized his intellectual superiority and was not shy about expressing it. He was a lonely man whose primary function of his relationships, aside from the private ones (which are hinted as being devoid of any emotional bonds), was to get the job done no matter how bad feelings were hurt. As cold as this was, it proved to be a valuable commodity when dealing with the horrifying threats of Nazi conquests.

WAHLBERG PRESENTS A CRUMBLING LIFE IN ‘THE GAMBLER’

The pressing problem with “The Gambler” is that the main character, Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg), does not seem to care much about his destructive path, so why should anyone else?

A remake of the 1974 movie of the same name that starred James Caan, “The Gambler” is the study of wasted potential, of a life degraded by an insatiable desire to beat the odds despite the enormous setbacks.

Bennett is a professor of literature and the author of a modest-selling novel. But he is living two lives. By day he teaches college kids — although he concedes his students probably will gain nothing from his class other than the necessary credits for a degree. By night he engages in big-stakes gambling — at which he is not very good.

He racks up sizable debts to a couple of nasty loan sharks: Mister Lee (Alvin Ing) and Neville Baraka (Mark Kenneth Williams), and has a week to come up with money numbering in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

As played by Wahlberg, from the script by William Monahan based on James Toback’s 1974 screenplay, Bennett is self-centered and self-loathing and very exasperating. Despite being alienated from his wealthy mother Roberta (Jessica Lange), she gives him the money to repay his loans. Does he seize the opportunity to get out of hot water?

No spoilers here.

There are a couple of positive aspects of “The Gambler.” In the classroom scenes, Wahlberg shows he can do more than physical, action roles, managing to keep the students off balance and adeptly turning the lectures into his own self-exploration.

Also a highlight is John Goodman as Frank, a huge, menacing loan shark with a shaved head and a darkly humorous but deadly philosophy on business and life. It is yet another set of scene-stealing performances by Goodman.

Wasted is Brie Larson as Amy Phillips, one of Bennett’s promising students who inexplicably falls for him even though in her job as a cocktail waitress she is aware of his destructive gambling habit.

Ultimately, “The Gambler” is all about Bennett, and the frustration therein of waiting for this man to somehow redeem himself, to do something he certainly could be resourceful enough to pull off, if only he cared. Even in the end, the audience is left with the suspicion that despite apparently seeing the light, Bennett will not peel off the dangerous path he has taken.

 

Trekking 1,000 miles to get back on track in ‘Wild’

“Wild” is one of those risky projects wherein the story zeroes in on one character, and if that person is not very interesting or sympathetic, the entire film can fall flat. This movie comes very close to taking that spill.

Fortunately, “Wild” is propped up by the presence of Reese Witherspoon in the lead role, giving a performance that has earned a Golden Globe nomination and should be a contender for an Academy Award nod also.

Witherspoon has had her detractors over the years — in 2012 she received the EDA Special Mention Award from the Alliance of Women Journalists for Actress Most in Need of a New Agent for her role in “This Means War” — but one cannot deny that, in whatever role she takes on, she is watchable.

She is on the screen for almost all of the movie’s 115 minutes of running time, mostly in scenes where she is trudging along, reeling from the burden of an overloaded backpack. She is grimy and sweaty and out of breath.  And those are her better moments. Otherwise, while taking a break from her hiking quest, she is building the character of her role as Cheryl Strayed. That’s where the real strain is because Cheryl Strayed as presented here just is not that interesting.

“Wild” is based on the autobiographical book by Strayed, a Minnesota woman who went on a 1,100-mile solo hike along the Pacific Coast trail as a means of self-discovery following the death of her mother and subsequent fall into a life of drugs and sex.

Those of us who have had hiking experience can relate to the discomfort Cheryl endured during her months-long trek — the sore muscles, the bruises from the constant thumping of the pack against your back, the blisters and toenail damage.

The rest of the movie simply does not do enough to lift Strayed’s bland character. Her failed marriage to Paul (Thomas Sadoski) is barely fleshed out. Too bad because despite all their problems the two people have managed to remain friends. Gaby Hoffman is underused as Cheryl’s loyal friend Aimee — viewers get little insight into that friendship.

On the plus side, Laura Dern delivers an under-appreciated performance — no nominations yet — as Cheryl’s mother Bobbi. This woman’s life certainly would serve the basis for a more emotionally wrenching movie. Married to an abusive, alcoholic man, Bobbi makes do with what she has. The best scenes in “Wild” feature Dern and Witherspoon. The highlight is a flashback scene in their home when Cheryl incredulously asks Bobbi how she can cultivate a positive attitude given the troublesome life of which she has been dealt. Bobbi replies she has no regrets — the bad marriage did produce two children she adores — and that she is not going to allow all the mishaps to define her life.

Bobbi exudes an optimism despite the financial difficulties, the domestic upheaval and even the health setbacks.

Cheryl responds to the loss of her mother in the most disrespectful way — indulging in drugs and cheating on her husband — until she sees a book in a local store about the Pacific Coast trail. Thus she decides to embark in this long hike as a way to get back in track.

There are some humorous moments as Cheryl, an inexperienced hiker, stumbles along, especially burdened by a backpack stuffed with a lot of junk she does not need. Also, Cheryl does mutter a few witty, sometimes macabre observations. There is even a funny encounter with a reporter for a magazine that focuses on hobos.

Along the way, Cheryl meets other fellow hikers, and there is some tension given the possibility these people might harm her. But the film does capture the camaraderie of dedicated hikers. Especially standing out are Kevin Rankin as Greg, Cathryn de Prume as Stacey and Cliff DeYoung as Ed, the latter a grizzled veteran of the outdoors who helps Cheryl discard much of the items she thought she needed to haul in her backpack.

The script was written by Nick Hornby, himself the author of “Fever Pitch” and “About A Boy.” Jean-Marc Vallee (“Dallas Buyers Club”) directed “Wild” and put together a visual treat, thanks to the natural beauty of the west coast wilderness. But the character of Cheryl Strayed, even in the end, does not stand out. She is on the receiving end of wisdom and generosity throughout her journey, but she shares no insight, no advice to others who have endured similar difficulties. All the gifts she received are never reciprocated.

 

 

‘The Theory of Everything’ is a story about perseverance

For those who see the title of the movie “The Theory of Everything” and break into a cold sweat, accompanied by flashbacks of those torturous high school and college science and math classes, rest assured this film is not two hours of a professor at a chalkboard, lecturing away.

Instead, “The Theory of Everything” is the story of two people who faced a sobering challenge and prevailed.

Eddie Redmayne is generating Academy Award buzz for his portrayal of the renowned physicist Stephen Hawking, whose theories on black holes sent shock waves through the scientific community. But this aspect of his life is not covered in detail in “The Theory of Everything.” Instead, the movie, based upon the book by Hawking’s ex-wife Jane, focuses on their relationship and his battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

While a graduate student at Cambridge in the early 1960s, Hawking meets Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones), a friend of his sister, and despite their religious differences — she is a member of the Church of England and he is an atheist — they fall in love.

However, the early signs of ALS set in and Hawking is told he has maybe two years to live. But instead of giving up, Jane vows to stay with him and help him deal with this degenerative disease, and they are married.

As his body deteriorates, Hawking  remains focused on his work, and Jane becomes an emotional force and source of strength in their marriage, which produces three children.

Redmayne’s performance is exceptional, not only in portraying the debilitating aspect of the illness that leads him to being wheelchair bound, but also the difficulties in speech. Hawking is seen as a man still strong in mind and determination although growing weak in body.

The script by is Anthony McCarten, and as portrayed by Jones, Jane is seen as a woman who sometimes stumbles but never wilts under the pressures of having to provide constant care for her husband.

The movie does not delve into the  strains of the marriage, although it does show how the Hawkings grew apart. Encouraged by her mother, Beryl (Emily Watson) to join a church choir as a release from the enormous burdens of caring for her husband, Jane does so and meets the choir director, Jonathan (Charlie Cox), a widow who soon also becomes a helper in the family, and inevitably he and Jane develop strong feelings for one another.

Meanwhile, Hawking grows close to one of his nurses, Elaine Mason (Maxine Peake), and eventually he and Jane are divorced and he marries Elaine while Jane weds Jonathan.

The screenplay by McCarten, along with the direction of James Marsh, handle this aspect of the Hawkings marriage delicately. In real life, there was a period of alienation between Stephen and his ex-wife and children, and there were even suspicions by his family, never proven, that Stephen was being physically abused. Eventually there was reconciliation with his children and Jane.

In the end, “The Theory of Everything” is the story of triumph. Hawking has lived decades beyond what was expected, as ALS is a fatal disease. And when Hawking makes a public appearance long after he has lost his voice via a tracheotomy and must communicate electronically, he writes, “There should be no boundaries to human endeavor. We are all different. However bad life may seem, there is always something you can do, and succeed at. While there’s life, there is hope.”

 

Predictable story, but cuteness, small details lift ‘Penguins of Madagascar’

You can’t go wrong with penguins. Right? Well, “March of the Penguins” was a fascinating real-life documentary, and Bugs Bunny’s Warner Bros. cartoon adventures in which he has to keep a mute penguin out of peril (“8-Ball Bunny” and “Frigid Hare”) were good for laughs.

When it comes to “Penguins of Madagascar,” these critters may be spread a little too thin.

Much like Skrat, the acorn-obsessed saber-toothed squirrel in the “Ice Age” series, the four penguins in the “Madagascar” animated films work better in short, energetic spurts rather than in a feature-length movie.

“Penguins of Madagascar” is a pleasant enough movie, a nice time for the family. Children will enjoy the visual antics of the stars while adults will find occasional amusements in the jokes that youngsters will not understand.

“Penguins” opens with a prelude about how the four creatures got together as kids, led by the Skipper, who entices Kowalski and Rico to rescue a runaway egg that hatches and becomes the fourth in their group, Private.

Years later, this group faces its greatest peril when it encounters Dr. Octavius Brine, also known as Dave, a revenge-minded scientist. The penguins suffer a few setbacks and soon find themselves forced into an uneasy alliance with an undercover group called The North Wind, led by a fox named Classified (voice of Benedict Cumberbatch).

Skipper (Tom McGrath) and his boys are at strategic odds with The North Wind in a typical match of an elite, high-tech unit versus a tight-knit group that relies on its resourcefulness rather than gadgetry. While they have the same foe in Dr. Brine/Dave, the two factions bicker on the methods to bring down the villain.

Character development tends to bog down the story. Skipper finds his leadership questioned while Private (Christopher Knights), although adored by his fellow penguins, is not considered a key player in the attempt to foil Dr. Brine. Classified’s leadership also falters along the way.

The story leads to a predictable conclusion that includes an unlikely hero. It’s a good tale for children. Adults, meanwhile, should stay alert and catch all the humorous little details obviously inserted for their benefit by the writing team of John Aboud, Michael Colton,Brandon Sawyer, Alan J. Schoolcraft and Brent Simons — there are plays on celebrity names throughout.

As usual, the visuals are a stunning array of computer-generated animation, a joyride of cuteness throughout.