Leonard Nimoy — 1931-2015

nimoypop culture icon passed away today. Leonard Nimoy was, by my estimation, the Dalai Lama of world pop culture, recognizable, revered, respected.

And all because of a TV character. A character he played on a low-rated show that became the very definition of “cult favorite.” The cult grew and grew, and it endured and endures. Largely because of Leonard Nimoy’s inscrutable take on that Vulcan cipher, Mr. Spock.

Here’s a thorough overview of his life and credits. No, Spock wasn’t the first time this Boston Jew wore pointy ears. He turned up in a sci-fi serial dressed like that more than a decade before.

And the only performance that leaps to mind post-“Star Trek” is a winning turn as Golda Meir in the Ingrid Bergman mini-series, “A Woman Called Golda” in the ’70s.

He had a directing career that began with “Night Gallery,” peaked with “Trek” III and IV, and included “Three Men and a Baby.” The only person I ever heard bad mouth him was a screenwriter of one of the failed comedies that followed that (“Funny About Love”), though I haven’t read the many “Trek” memoirs. Surely some colleague there resented him and his success and careful stewardship of the character, who popped up on many series and and movies set in that future-verse.

It was as a director that I got to spend what I regard as my best day covering film and entertainment. He was location scouting a moment he wanted to make about the original “Siamese Twins,” Chang and Eng Bunker. When they retired from being a circus sideshow act, they settled in rural N.C. “Duet for Life” I think the script was called, and Nimoy and the local film commissioner and I road around White Plains (near Mount Airy, N.C.).

Nimoy charmed the descendents at the Bunkers, visited the house they lived in, where relatives held onto the bed they slept in (even after marriage), checked out a few other period-perfect locations.

He was pretty much done with “Star Trek” then, and was patient but insistent that there was nothing else to do with the character. Nimoy never got to make his “Duet” movie (Gary Oldman is planning on directing a film about them, now). And he came back to “Trek,” again and again, with increasing frailty but hearty good and gentle spirits. He made the first J.J. Abrams “Trek” work.

And now he’s gone. A good life, a long life, and a prosperous one.

nimoy

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Movie Review:” Queen and Country” has barely enough “Hope and Glory” to get by

qucounty“Queen and Country” begins with a reprise of one of the most famous scenes in British cinema. It’s that magical moment from John Boorman’s “Hope and Glory” when a schoolboy, living in London during The Blitz, turns a corner and is stunned by a scene of delirious chaos.
The Germans have bombed his school, and children are screaming — in delight — throwing their papers and books in the air, every child’s fantasy brought to life.
There’s nothing that jolly, jaunty or joyous in writer-director Boorman’s long-gestating sequel to that semi-autobiographical 1987 film. “Queen” is set in the early 1950s, just as Elizabeth was taking the throne, with Boorman’s hero just old enough to be conscripted into the Korean War era British Army. And while Boorman’s picture has the hallmarks of many a post-war “service comedy,” about training, feuding with superior officers and dating hijinx, the elder statesman of British cinema has conjured up a more melancholy and measured sequel weighted with adulthood and freighted with some of Boorman’s own doubts and regrets.
William “Bill” Rohan, played by Callum Turner of “The Borgias,” is still living in the enchanted mid-Thames River house “The Spinx,” where he and his mother and siblings decamped after a German bomb destroyed their house nine years before. The avid movie buff is a shy 18 year-old, unsure around girls, hoping the Army missed sending him a notice.
They haven’t, and his years-long aquatic idyll is over. On his first in boot camp, Bill meets and befriends Percy (Caleb Landry Jones), a conscript who is even more of a malcontent. Boorman serves up some standard issue service comedy gags — inept marching, a twitchy, martinet sergeant (David Thewlis), a long-suffering major (Richard E. Grant) and a role model Redmond.
Redmond (Pat Shortt of “Calvary”) is a “skiver,” a professional slouch, malingerer, “goldbrick” in U.S. Army slang. He has mastered the art of getting out of Army work and hard duties. He’s dodged being shipped to Korea, and he is the one who can help the new lads fend off discipline, duty and combat.
Bill falls for “the unattainable” girl, who lets him call her “Ophelia” (Tamsin Egerton), a posh, socially-connected college student. She is, as she always is in such “comedies,” the one he confesses his deepest feelings to — his hatred of Sgt. Bradley, who is forever dragging Percy and Bill and Redmond in front of the Major for minor “insolent” infractions, his disenchantment with Army life.
“Is there nothing good you can take from it?” she wonders. That’s when he talks about the cameraderie that is something like love shared by men who train to go to war together.
Boorman brings back one surviving member of the 1987 film’s cast, David Hayman (as Bill’s dad). Sinéad Cusack replaces Sarah Miles as Bill’s mom, Vanessa Kirby takes over for Sammi Davis as Bill’s war bride sister, Dawn, who married a Canadian, had children but never lost her wild streak.
And the esteemed John Standing (“V for Vendetta”) has the unenviable task of taking over for the late Ian Bannen, whose gruff, grumpy sparkle as Grandfather George is sorely missed.
“Queen and Country” stands on its own, for what it’s worth. But the filmmaker’s mixed emotions about the Britain that was lost in the war and buried in the less focused, less disciplined 1950s robs “Queen and Country” of the lightness and the life that energized the sentimental original film. Bill’s “discovery” of how movies are made and resolve to get into the profession are dead moments that could have been giddy.
The scenery is still stunning, but there’s little of the brio of a filmmaker who went on to make “Deliverance,” “Excalibur” and the glorious “Hope and Glory” in it.

2half-star6
MPAA Rating: unrated, with nudity, sexual situations, profanity

Cast: Callum Turner, Caleb Landry Jones, Pat , David Thewlis, Richard E. Grant, Vanessa Kirby, Tamsin Egerton
Credits: Written and directed by John Boorman. A BBC Films release.
Running time: 1:55

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Movie Review: “Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks” is far from light on its feet

dance
The dust rises in puffy clouds over every scene in the limply-named “Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks.” To call this comedy old fashioned, old school or just old and creaky doesn’t do this fusty farce justice. Even the cobwebs have cobwebs.
Cheyenne Jackson steps out of the shadows of supporting roles (he was a regular, for a while, on “30 Rock”) as Michael, a crude, cranky at-home dance instructor working Ground Zero of Florida’s retirement mecca — St. Petersburg and environs.
His off-color cracks don’t fly with his new customer, Mrs. Harrison (the great Gena Rowlands, of “The Notebook”).
“Just gotta get used to my sense of humor,” he explains.
“DO I?”
They don’t get along, and don’t set off much in the way of sparks, either. Michael’s gay, bitter about his work situation and touchy about Mrs. Harrison’s Southern Baptist bonafides. But he needs the job.
“We got off on the wrong foot.”
“I have a feeling you spend all DAY on that foot!”
And on it goes, this snappy repartee that’s some screenwriters’ idea of what the hip AARP set would find “with it” and “happening.” A few smart observations about ageing sneak into the bland banter.
“People start to disappear when they get older,” as in “nobody notices you.” Seniors of a certain age are living day to day, “people trying to make an interesting day for ourselves.” Michael is a compulsive, impulsive liar, and Mrs. Harrison won’t tolerate that. But she has secrets of her own.
Rowlands works at something like half-speed, here, something highlighted by a few on-the-phone arguments with that firecracker Rita Moreno as an irritable elderly neighbor.
Jackson tries too hard in almost every scene. Michael’s tin-eared cracks — about jitterbugging turning Mrs. Harrison into “a loose G.I. groupie” — “You’ll be waking up in the barracks tomorrow!” — feel sitcom trite and a little desperate.
Few studios bother to finance films for an older audience, and the films themselves too often make the mistakes “Six Dance Lessons” does. Your audience and your stars may move a lot slower. That doesn’t mean your movie should.

1half-star
MPAA rating: Unrated, with profanity, innuendo

Cast: Gena Rowlands, Cheyenne Jackson, Rita Moreno, Jackie Weaver, Julian Sands, Anthony Zerbe

Credits: Directed by Arthur Allan Seidelman, screenplay by Richard Alfieri. A Dada release.

Running time: 1:47

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Movie Review: “My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn”

refnAs accounts of movie-flops-in-the-making go, “My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn” is a pretty tame affair. The stakes are low. Nobody died or divorced, nobody’s career ended.
The director of “Drive” only loses his temper when he has to admit, upon finishing it, that he’s wasted years of his life making “Only God Forgives.” But his documentary filmmaker wife’s camera captures hints that he knows the film is a bad idea much earlier, maybe in pre-production.
Lacking the deadly splendor of on-set accidents, casting bungles and money-devouring madness that documentary makers captured while “Apocalypse Now” (“Hearts of Darkness “) and “Fitzcarraldo” (“Burden of Dreams”) were unfolding, “My Life” plays as more intimate. And dull.
“Only God Forgives,” named by readers of the Village Voice as “the worst film of 2013,” polarized critics and scared off audiences. But Refn simply frets on camera about “not repeating myself.”
He turns to fabled filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, most famous for a movie he was not allowed to make (“Dune”), for advice.
“Why are you working for ‘success?'” Jodorowsky wants to know. “You need to have the pleasure to do it!”
Movies are cumbersome, expensive ocean liners that you cannot stop on a dime, even if you know they’re half-baked. So they’re off to Bangkok– family in tow — to shoot this thriller about a drug smuggler, played by Ryan Gosling when Luke Evans had to drop out (not depicted), who is coerced into finding and punishing his brother’s killer by their Lady Macbeth Mom (Kristin Scott Thomas).
Gosling is always a good sport, standing up for his “Drive” director with just a knowing smirk, in or out of gory makeup.  He dotes on their children, and only once allows himself to be sarcastic at some misguided compliment.
“What’s THAT supposed to mean?”
“Make it dirty, unique, interesting, never seen before,” Refn, the son of Danish filmmakers tells his fight choreographer. “And VIOLENT.”
We see a little of that violence, with Scott Thomas asking her director, “So you’ll kill me and disembowel me tomorrow?” They do.
We see Refn rethink a complicated motorcycle shootout on the fly, and we watch him hold his temper as his wife keeps filming him as he tries to unwind or figure out a way out of this fix.
Liv Corfixen, a pretty blond captured in several scenes, asking questions off camera in others, follows her husband all the way to Cannes, long past the point Refn shouts “I think it’s a BAD film” at her.” She even shows him reading the nastiest reviews.
“Why do they have to be so mean?”
“In a way,” she answers, off camera, “you asked for it.”
Perhaps he did. But that’s not really compelling enough to warrant a documentary.

2stars1

MPAA Rating: unrated, some profanity

Cast: Nicolas Winding Refn, Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas
Credits: Directed by Liv Corfixen. A Radius/TWC release.

Running time: 1:01

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Movie Review: “Everly”

everly-movie“Everly” is the sort of gonzo guns and Ginsu knives thriller Tarantino made back before he discovered the joys of bloat.
It’s the sort of movie where the titular heroine (Salma Hayek) takes bullets and stabbings and keeps coming back for more.
It’s one of those films in which an apartment building is isolated by corrupt cops, and legions of bad guys are sent in to kill this lone, short sexy Mexican woman — kind of a Robert Rodriguez version of “The
Raid.”
It has the sort of bad guy who hisses lots and lots of threats as his minions are slaughtered by this lady, trapped with guns, dead bodies and a sack of cash in the apartment where the bad guy kept her as his
concubine.
“Frankly, death by my sword is an honor you don’t deserve.” Yeah, he and most of his hired killers are Japanese Yakuza, mobsters with lots of tattoos. And sure, we expect him to eat those words for lunch.
Then there are the neighbors, kept women one and all, women with killer skills which they’re obliged to try out since the woman called Everly has a high price on her head and they’ll like to kill and collect.
Christmas is coming, the movie reminds us. They all have bills to pay.
My favorite moment was the arrival of a dapper, white-haired Japanese gentleman (Togo Igawa) who only knows two words in English. He is “The Sadist,” he says with a bow as his gang of bandits get the drop on Everly. And this, he gestures to a hulking nutjob locked in a cage he’s brought with him, is “The Masochist.”
That’s for the torture sequence in this Joe Lynch (script by TV vet Yale Hannon) gore-fest. Yes, “Everly” is a good picture for the fake blood industry as our heroine spills gallons of it — but very little of her own, despite the holes in her torso.
An instantly forgotten genre picture — the dapper “specialist” character has been in so many Japanese crime movies that the convention was mocked on “The Simpsons” years ago — “Everly” has just enough novel touches to entice aficionados, but not enough to transcend the carnage and cliches. But Hayek, back in the sort of B movie that launched her career, gives good value and will make you cackle in surprise, if you’re the sort who can giggle at the old ultra-violence as it is served up in heaping helpings here.

2stars1MPAA Rating: R for strong bloody violence, torture, nudity, sexual images and language

Cast: Salma Hayek, Togo Igawa, Laura Cepeda,Gabriella Wright
Credits: Directed by Joe Lynch, script by Yale Hannon. A Radius/Dimension/TWC release.

Running time: 1:32

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Movie Review: “The Lazarus Effect”

LZARus“The Lazarus Effect” is what happens when hip, smart actors commit themselves to a horror movie, body and soul.
Mark Duplass (“Safety Not Guaranteed”), a mainstay of indie cinema’s microbudget “mumblecore” movement, and recent convert Olivia Wilde
(“Drinking Buddies”) ably play a scientist couple whose work has led to a serum that brings the dead back to life
And with director David “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” Gelb in charge, you can be sure this isn’t some brain-munching zombie apocalypse.
“Lazurus” is a lean and unfussy horror tale built on sharply-drawn characters and spare, uncluttered dialogue.
What the scientists and their team (Donald Glover, Evan Peters, and as their new intern-videographer, Sarah Bolger) are trying to do is
“give doctors time,” create a bigger window for coma patients and those whose hearts have stopped to be resuscitated before brain damage
sets in.
In extreme, blurred close-ups, Gelb captures early experiments in which a twitch of life is seen in this pig or that dog. Then, Rocky, an
intense and well-trained canine actor, rises from the operating table. Success! Let’s take him home!
“Are you sure you want to keep this in your house? This thing could go Cujo on you in a hurry!”
They ignore that. Not bothering with the rules is kind of the M.O. for Frank (Duplass).
Next thing they know, Big Pharma has swooped in on their university lab and seized everything. But if they can replicate their
discovery in a late night session, maybe they’ll get the credit after all.
When you’re rushed, you’re careless. And when you’re careless around high voltage, you’re asking for an electrocution.
“I thought I lost you,” Frank whispers to his love.
“Yeah, you did.”
“But I DIDN’T.”
Zoe is dead, then revived. And that’s when things turn deadly and a long night turns into a nightmare.
You don’t have to be a mere mortal male to find the gorgeous and intense Wilde scary, and she amps up the terror. Gelb zeroes in on her stare, and keeps his
camera close, reinventing visual tropes as old as the first ghost story, as familiar as Dr. Frankenstein’s lab, his experiments and his
dilemma. Should man play God?
An 82 minute movie shouldn’t have space in it to touch on the afterlife, faith (Zoe is a Catholic near-believer) and guilt. But “The
Lazarus Effect” does.
There’s no point in overselling a conventional, rarely surprising horror picture, a picture that manages one good, cheap jolt and a
solid hour of dread. But “Lazarus” reminds us that a genre overwhelmed by junk fare doesn’t need to be that way. It’s not
effects, gore or novelty that matter. It’s all in the execution, and electrocution.

2half-star6MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of horror violence, terror

and some sexual references

Cast: Olivia Wilde, Mark Duplass, Sarah Bolger, Donald Glover, Ray Wise
Credits: Directed by , written byLuke Dawson, Jeremy Slater. A Relativity release.

Running time: 1:22

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Movie Review: “Maps to the Stars”

maps12stars1

The girl wears elbow-length gloves and hair that hides other burn scars from her face. She’s made her way to Hollywood by bus, but knows enough to hire a limo to get around town.
Within days she’s found a job as an actress’s personal assistant — thanks to being Twitter pal of Carrie Fisher — and a boyfriend who happens to be the limo driver, but also an actor. Or actor-screenwriter.
She (Mia Wasikowska) seems a little off, knowing but naive, so the beau (Robert Pattinson) is on the mark when he says, “Look, Agatha, I think you’re a little crazy.”
But so is another Hollywood insider who sees her and sizes her up. “For a disfigured schizophrenic, you’ve got the town pretty wired.”
“Maps to the Stars” is Hollywood outsider David Cronenberg’s twisted take on Hollywood and Hollywood “types,” a depraved and despairing look at the damaged goods that make their way from the rest of the world into show business. This unblinking yet unsatisfying ensemble drama features kinky sex, ruthless opportunism, violence and psychosis. Very Cronenberg.
There’s a needier than needy actress, played by freshly-minted Oscar winner Julianne Moore. Havana is doing some seriously sick therapy to prep her for the role she hopes she was born to play — as her incestuous, child-abusing mother, a “cult figure” starlet (Sarah Gadon, seen in flashback) who died decades ago.
The town’s hot shrink/guru is played by John Cusack, who is treating Havana and married to brittle, broken stage mom Christina (Olivia Williams). He’s trying to keep his latest book tour on track as their cruel child star son (Evan Bird) attempts to salvage his career by making a sequel to the movie that made him. All Benjie has to do is stay sober (he’s 13), stay out of the tabloids and not kill the younger, cuter co-star who upstages him in every scene.
Writer Bruce Wagner, whose screen credits go back beyond “A Nightmare on Elm Street 3,” swirls these types into a toxic cocktail of dysfunction, desire, ambition and glib one-liners, a tale of incest in a hierarchy where that could be seen as a canny career move.
Cusack’s Dr. Feelgood About Yourself has many of the best lines — “If we can name it, we can tame it…No one escapes the long arm of Twelve Step.”
Moore makes Havana believably high mileage and high maintenance in a performance that is raw and manic. Her skimpy wardrobe gives away Havana’s desperation, a weepy, aging wannabe willing to dive into a threesome to close the big deal. Williams turns Christina into a shattered, guilt-ridden apologist for the monster-child she created, Bird does well in playing an ulfiltered Bieberesque creep.
The acting is generally better than the broad satiric and pervy points Cronenberg (“A History of Violence”) and Wagner want to make, though Wasikowska and Pattinson barely register, a bland protagonist who instigates all that follows (Agatha connects to one and all) and her bland reactor/suitor.
The take-away here is the sangfroid it takes to hide your schadenfreude, the fake smiles when you run into a hated rival who just won a role you covet, the power games that play out in Cronenberg’s trademark sexual ways. That’s not exactly fresh ground.
So for all the biting scenes that show Youngest Hollywood’s drinking and mating rituals (sophisticated insults, juvenile indiscretions, drugs, guns), all the sharp observations about the souls that are sold for fame and the false prophets that the Walking Soul-Dead follow, the director and screenwriter lose their way in the clutter, “Maps” or no maps.

maps2MPAA Rating: R for strong disturbing violence and sexual content, graphic nudity, language and some drug material

Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Julianne Moore, Evan Bird, John Cusack, Robert Pattinson, Olivia Williams

Credits: Directed by David Cronenberg, written by Bruce Wagner. A Focus/eOne release.

Running time: 1:51

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Movie Review: Smith and Robbie fail to spark in “Focus”

focussmithThe trouble with movies about “The Big Con” is that they condition us to not believe anything we see up on screen — relationships, who is conning whom, deaths, etc.
“Focus” one-ups that by pushing a romance to the fore, one that is supposed to be fun, sexy, cute and believeable. And when we don’t buy the veteran con man (Will Smith) in love with the hot young acolyte (Margot Robbie), well, what is there to cling to? They generate about as much heat as John Travolta and Menzel managed on Sunday night.
Chemistry, or the lack of it, burns a big hole in this supposedly romantic, unconvincingly tense, feebly comical caper picture from the guys who gave us “I Love You, Phillip Morris,” Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. It’s got an “Ocean’s 11″ sheen without the requisite snap, a “Grifters” without a sexual spark.
Smith is Nicky, a third-generation hustler who runs a team of pickpockets, grifters and thieves who show up at major sporting events and ruin a lot of peoples’ vacations. When Jesse (Robbie) throws herself in his path in a swank restaurant where she’s just lifted the wallet of a mark, Nicky sizes her up, shoots her down and inspires her plea.
“Teach me.”
So the script has Nicky unleash every Big Con cliche about a “touch,” what to do with a “poke,” what the “Toledo Panic Button” is, etc.
“Die with the lie,” he preaches. “You never drop the con. You never break.”
Jesse gets in on his “Big Game” operation at the Super Dome, which provides the film’s first actual surprise. But how can this love connection work out when nobody can ever trust anybody else?
Robbie is a pretty — no, gorgeous, stunning, perfect face. And a fairly bland actress. Smith should have developed some romantic comedy chops, and he’s OK with a one-liner. But seriously, these two in the clinches? It’s like Neil Patrick Harris is in the room — dying, all over again.
“Focus” is stolen by two supporting players, the only actors to give it the colorful characters it needs for that breath of life. B.D. Wong is an amusing, super-rich gambler who gets into a competition with Nicky. And Adrian Martinez chews it up as the sarcastic, crude-talking, walking sight gag, Farhad — the team’s tech whiz.
Weak villain, a couple of eye-rollingly unlikely cons and dead stretches that make 105 minutes play like 145 and you’ve got “Focus,” the last dog of February, where comatose con job movies are released to the sounds of silence.

1half-star
MPAA Rating: R for language, some sexual content and brief violence
Cast: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Rodrigo Santoro, B.D. Wong, Gerald McRaney, Adrian Martinez
Credits: Written and directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. A Warner Brothers release.

Running time: 1:44

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Movie Review: “A la Mala”

lamalaMaria Laura, the heroine of our story, is thin, slinky bombshell of an actress who uses her talents to flirt with other women’s beaus to test their loyalty. The acting roles aren’t there, but there is no shortage of women who need a professional breaker-upper.
Men are putty in her hands. If there’s a hint of yard dog in them, she tempts it out.
She has a plain Jane roommate, Kika, a goofball acting pal and this one client, Pamela, who produces a TV show and promises Maria Laura a career-making role, if she can tempt her ex away from his new model-skinny girlfriend. But the ex is rich, handsome, charming and righteous, so Maria Laura is caught on the horns of a dilemma. Will her “ethics” allow her to follow her heart?
Or should I say, “Corazon”? “A la Mala” is a Mexican romantic comedy in the “How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days/Failure to Launch/40 Days and 40 Nights” mold. Change the language to English, switch the starlet to Olivia Wilde, or this year’s Olivia Wilde, and you’ve got a rom-com as shiny, shallow and cliched as anything Hollywood has turned out over the past dozen years.
The ex, a tequila mogul played by Mauricio Ochmann, even has a gay best friend — OK, gay assistant with his best interest at heart.
The upper class settings, swank apartment, Maseratis and Rachmaninoff concerts, give the film the sheen of “the Other Mexico.” And the camera just loves Aislinn Derbez, who starred in the Acapulco edition of “Gossip Girl.” The role demands little of her, but she gives this disguise-loving clothes horse an awkward, needy charm.
The problem is that her friends have shortened Maria Laura’s name to “Mala,” as in “cruel.” And Derbez suggests nothing of the sort. Mala has no cruelty about her and precious little guile.
It’s no more surprising when she starts to fall for Santiago patas arriba (head over heels) than when her friends tell her that she’s gone patas arriba over him.
Daniela Schmidt gives Pamela a jealous, manipulative edge. And Papile Aurora, as the Spanglish speaking roommate, has a funny, Spanish-as-a-second-language scene or two. Derbez gets by on stumbling charm for much of the film as Mala juggles, reacts to clever schemes that go awry and tries to avoid closing the deal with Santiago and crossing several ethical lines as she does.
“A la Mala” begins with promise and finishes well enough to justify the investment in time. It’s all that dull, formulaic stuff mediados película (mid movie) that sucks the salt right off the tequila glass and leaves this one too stale to swallow.

2stars1

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some sexuality/nudity and language.

Cast:  Aislinn Derbez, Mauricio Ochmann, Papile Aurora, Daniela Schmidt, Luis Arrieta
Credits: Directed by Pedro Pablo Ibarra, written by. A Lionsgate/Pantelion release.

Running time: 1:45

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Movie Review: The Troubles, vividly seen from a soldier’s eye view, in “71”

71It wasn’t that long ago.
The streets were littered with barricades, and at night, you could see the bonfires scattered all along the religious fault lines of the city.
Graffiti covered the walls — an “I.R.A.” slogan here, a “No Pope Here,” there.
And the hatred just seethed, turning husbands and fathers into bomb builders and gunmen, sons into cold-blooded murderers.
Yann Demange’s “71” takes us back to the swirling maelstrom of the peak of the civil war in Northern Ireland. Set just three years after “The Troubles” began and a year before “Bloody Sunday,” it’s an intricate, intimate thriller about a single soldier’s nightmare day and night on the front lines.
Jack O’Connell of “Unbroken” stars as Gary Hook, a working class recruit into a British Army still divided along class lines. Hook is shipped to Northern Ireland, where he’s exposed to an idealistic, posh upper class lieutenant (Sam Reid of “Belle” and “Anonymous”) and the depths of animosity between Catholic “republicans” and Protestant “loyalists” in Belfast.
Lt. Armitage has some sort of “win their hearts and minds” delusion about the Army’s “peacekeeping” role there. It’s why he orders riot gear left behind as they accompany heavy-handed cops on a raid on the apartment of I.R.A. sympathizers.
A riot ensues, and when circumstances separate Hook and another recruit from their unit, one is summarily executed and Hook flees for his life, through the bowels of the Catholic stronghold, a day and a night of terror, bloody entanglements, wounds and confusion.
Demange, working from a clever, gritty Gregory Burke script, hurls obstacles aplenty at this frightened boy. This last incarnation of “The Troubles” had plenty of infighting, so bloody-minded young turks (Killian Scott plays their leader) are hunting Hook just to execute him, while older, cooler I.R.A. heads (David Wilmot) try to find the lost soldier just to calm the situation.
The foppish but humane Lieutenant wants to ameliorate his blunder and recover his missing man, but the brooding, brutish head of undercover operations (Sean Harris) has other motives.
The journey here is a one in which Hook, if he lives or dies, has his eyes opened at the nature of the fight and his place in it.
“You’re just a piece of meat to them,” a kindly civilian (Richard Dormer) warns him. Catholic women try and protect soldiers, a small loyalist boy (Corey McKinley) spews such hatred that we and Hook wonder if he can be trusted and how long it will be before he becomes a killer.
O’Connell keeps fear close to the surface of his performance, even as flashbacks suggest a tough background that may play a hand in whether Hook lives or dies.
The violence is immediate and personal. Demange, keeping his camera hand-held through the chases through alleys, backyards and apartment blocks, makes this film as visceral an experience as Paul Greengrass’s breakthrough movie, “Bloody Sunday.”
Demange’s movie isn’t nearly as moving as that one. It’s more removed, observing and casting blame for that awful conflict far and wide even as it remains fixed on this one young man’s fate, making us care about that fate. But “71” is rare enough and good enough to make us long for more thrillers with context and consequences, something sorely missing from your average Hollywood action picture.

3stars2MPAA Rating: R for strong violence, disturbing images, and language throughout

Cast: Jack O’Connell, Sam Reid, Sean Harris, Charlie Murphy

Credits: Directed by Yann Demange, script by Gregory Burke. A Roadside Attractions release.

Running time: 1:39

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