2014 Film Reviews
by Dr. Bob Blackwood

These movie review articles appeared in the Columbia River Reader and are copyrighted by Bob Blackwood

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Oscar Picks for 2014 

By Dr. Bob Blackwood

This year’s Oscar Picks are almost a crap shoot—e.g. 9 films nominated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for “Best Picture.”  Nevertheless, here we go.

“Best Picture”: Either Cuarón’s “Gravity” with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney with 10 Academy nominations or McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” with 9 nominations.  I liked Cuarón’s tight, 1 ½ hour thriller the best, but McQueen’s historical film has legs too.  Final call: “Gravity” with hopes that the inappropriate “science fiction” label (this film is science, not fiction) doesn’t kill its chances.

“Best Actor”: Probably Leonardo DiCaprio in Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” or Chiwetel Ejiofor from McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave.” Leonardo has never won an Oscar, despite very distinguished performances in Scorsese’s films; it is about time he won one.  Chiwetel may not have the push to walk away with the golden man, though his performance was flawless.  Final call: DiCaprio.

“Best Actress”: It could be another Oscar for Cate Blanchett in Allen’s “Blue Jasmine” or another Oscar for Judy Dench in Frears’ “Philomena.”  Cate has decades to go; conceivably, this might be Dame Judy’s last go-round.  Final call: Tossup.

“Best Supporting Actor”: I liked Jared Leo in Vallée’s “Dallas Buyers Club” for his in-depth performance as a dying transsexual; Michael Fassbender’s slaveholder in McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” was three-dimensional as well.  Final call: Leto.

“Best Supporting Actress”:  Jennifer Lawrence in Russell’s “American Hustle” created a memorable character that was funny too.  Lupita Nyong’o in McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” broke through to the public with this role.  Final Call: Lawrence.

Best Director: All of them—David O. Russell in “American Hustle,” Alfonso Cuarón in “Gravity,”  Alexander Payne in “Nebraska,” Steve McQueen in “12 Years a Slave” and Martin Scorsese in “The Wolf of Wall Street”—did beautiful work.  Final call: Cuarón.  He overcame some real challenges in re-creating outer space and making us care about his characters. 


Justin Chadwick’s “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” (MPAA: PG-13) is a history and a bit of a personal view of Nelson Mandela, the man called “Tata,” the “Father” of the new, integrated, nation of South Africa.  Perhaps some critics are unhappy that we did not get more details on Mandela’s political swings or they desired more personal angst from this lawyer who had received a life sentence for treason in 1961 for leading a campaign of sabotage against the white apartheid government of South Africa. 

Mandela should be remembered for what he was—a practical politician.  He and his African National Conference first tried a campaign of non-violent protest as Gandhi did.  It failed and was met with harsh reprisals.  He then sought leftist allies and led the ANC into violence.  By 1990, the pressure brought on by Mandela and his allies led to the government releasing him from his island prison after about 27 years, negotiating with him in privacy to bring peace, and led to his election as South Africa’s first black president, where he governed with fairness to all. 

Mandela received the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize, the Soviet Order of Lenin and the US Presidential Order of Freedom.  Has any other person gathered all three of these prizes? 

Idris Elba (the star of the British TV police show “Luther”) gave a very nuanced performance of Mandela as a lawyer and political leader, as a prisoner in as harsh a jail as the Afrikaners could create for a Black leader, and as the father of his country.  He is only matched by Naomie Harris (Eve in the James Bond film “Skyfall”) as Mandela’s wife.  If you want a picture of a man who moved the world, check it out.   

A Hit and a Miss

By Dr. Bob Blackwood

“Philomena,” directed by Stephen Frears (“The Queen,” “The Hi-Lo Country” & “Dangerous Liaisons”), stars Dame Judi Dench in the title role, a woman who has been searching for her son who was adopted 50 years ago. Steve Coogan plays a former BBC reporter searching for a good story.  “Philomena” and Dame Judi, plus the score and the screenplay, were nominated for Oscars.

This true story shows the viewer how harsh things were in the Ireland of the 1950s for an unmarried woman who was trying to keep her son while working in an abbey as a laundress.  Though she could have kept her son for 100 pounds plus her labor, she didn’t have 100 pounds. All she earned was her keep.  An American couple paid a $1000 US to the sisters in the Abbey, an adoption mill, for the right to adopt the child. 

From that point on, as far as the nuns were concerned, that child was none of her mother’s business.  They lied to her repeatedly.  Only the hard-edged questioning and researching of Coogan’s character made the difference.  But, Philomena, the victim of the nuns’ conspiracy, forgave the nuns.  She was the true Christian here, the only one who could overcome her own concerns, and even reminded the reporter that he should be forgiving them too.  It has sort of a happy ending.

Luc Besson wrote the story and co-produced “3 Days to Kill,” which was directed by McG (born Joseph McGinty Nichol, the director of “This Means War,” “Terminator Salvation,” and “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle”).  Besson is one of the best filmmakers around, but this film—which stars Kevin Costner as a CIA agent with a wife (played by Connie Nielsen) and a daughter (played by Hailee Steinfeld)—just doesn’t mesh properly. 

Yes, the action sequences play beautifully.  Costner’s assassin piles up roomfuls of bodies of our country’s enemies and does it with great style.  Unfortunately, he has been in the business for 32 years, and he is dying from brain cancer that will take him in months, not years.  Lucky for him, a sexy CIA handler (Amber Heard, who can never really go undercover wearing those skin-tight outfits) offers him an expensive experimental drug which may save his life.  But, of course, he has to keep killing until the worst of the enemy are eliminated.  Meanwhile, his daughter keeps whining with the usual teenage angst.  After awhile, I kept hoping that either The Wolf (Richard Sammel) or The Albino (Tómas Lemarquis) would take out the daughter; then, Costner could get back to something he was good at and interesting cinematically—shooting people.  As a father, he was a real killer.


“Transcendence” & “Brick Mansions”: A Miss and a Hit

By Dr. Bob Blackwood

I was looking forward to cinematographer Wally Pfister’s debut as a director in “Transcendence” (MPAA: PG-13) with a cast starring Johnny Depp as a computer researcher, Rebecca Hall from “The Town” as his wife and fellow researcher, and the very accomplished Paul Bettany, playing a good friend in the same business.  Some nutty terrorist decides to kill Depp, a man who has reached new heights in preserving human thought and perceptions.  His wife decides to preserve Depp’s personality and human intelligence in their new massive computer.  Hmmm….

Although all the scientists are friendly to the concept of preserving human intelligence in a computer, problems start to arise.  Before you know it, some nervous people feel Big Brother has returned, as a computer ordering mankind about rather than simply responding to necessary requests.  How does it end?  I think that should be saved for the viewers. 

I do have a problem with the pacing of the film.  In addition, I was hoping that maybe some sort of compromise could be reached between the political and military forces, whose members have given so much to our country, with this new very responsive electronic creation.  What modern society can function without computers?  True, sometime our computers break down or make computing errors, but primarily they are making our life richer by their existence.  However, my virtue of hope rests in a religious and humanistic context which does not exist in this film.  It would spoil that old “man vs. machine” plot.  Where have all the flowers gone?

Camille Delamarre’s “Brick Mansions” (MPAA: PG-13) is a Canadian re-make of Luc Besson’s French film “District B13.” Besson co-scripted this film.  It opens with one of the best action openers I have ever seen: David Belle, as in “District B13,” escapes a crew of gangsters by flashing his “parkour” skills—a somewhat martial art he helped create—part acrobatics, partly using whatever objects are available. Wow!

The late Paul Walker enters as an undercover cop, seeking to catch dope-dealers and to help the denizens of this ghetto in Detroit that is surrounded by a giant wall with policemen at each entrance/exit.  Belle and Walker are soon a dynamic duo not only stopping the drug-dealers but also facing down the Mayor of Detroit who was planning to chase out or kill off all the residents and turn the land over to unscrupulous urban developers.   In the end, even the gangsters are backing Walker and Belle.  It has a happy, if improbable, ending.  This is a fast-moving film that doesn’t give you time to run-out for more popcorn. 

Paul Walker’s last film, “Fast and Furious 7,” will be released next year.  Enjoy the summer.

Chef Foley of Ireland“Jersey Boys” & “Chef”: From the Falsetto to Lip-Smacking Good

by Dr. Bob Blackwood

Clint Eastwood doing a musical? Yes, you may have seen his “Bird” and “Honkytonk Man” with their stories of musicians, but those were all Eastwood’s films (the product of an “auteur” as the French critics would say).  His “Jersey Boys” (MPAA: R) came out after the Broadway show on The Four Seasons was a Broadway hit; it’s not an “Eastwood” film as the others are. 

Eastwood took at least three of his performers—John Lloyd Young as Frankie Valli, Erich Bergen as Bob Gaudio, and Michael Lomenda as Nick Massi—from the Broadway cast.  Vincent Piazza as Tommy Devito was Lucky Luciano in TV’s  “Boardwalk Empire.” Christopher Walken plays ganglord Gyp DeCarlo, a friend of the boys.  Eastwood takes the young men’s story, shows their attempts in the 1950’s, when they tried out different names before finally emerging onto the sales charts in 1960 renamed The Four Seasons.

Valli’s on-the-mark falsetto and Bob Gaudio’s music worked well for about 12 years, despite the British Invasion and other competition.  When DeVito allegedly misappropriated the group’s money, only Gyp DeCarlo and Valli’s determination saved them.  The group made good money on the road throughout the Seventies. 

The film works best when the actors are singing and when they are fighting among themselves.  This is not Eastwood’s greatest film, but it will be a commercial success. “Jersey Boys” cost an estimated $40 million; it has already earned over $21 million in the first 10 days.  Eastwood always watches the budget.

The California kitchen comedy “Chef” (MPAA: R) is a film that was written, directed and stars Jon Favreau—also an “auteur” in my mind. 

If you have ever worked in a restaurant, you know that the chef is often a sensitive person, an artist, and a performer.  The chef tries to keep the owner happy, the patrons smiling and the kitchen crew working hard.  No one can do it all every day. 

John Favreau as Chef Carl Casper first tries to keep his owner happy (Dustin Hoffman) but, in doing so, fails himself as a chef before a prestigious food critic.  Almost everyone else—including his young son (Emjay Anthony), Scarlett Johansson as the hostess & his friend, Sofia Veraga as his wealthy ex-wife—sees Casper as too self-involved.  When his ex gives him an old food truck, however, he revamps the truck with his son and his Number 1 guy (John Leguizamo).  Casper finds happiness being his own boss and loves his work.  The film has a happy ending with a lot of laughs along the way.   It has appeal to a mass audience from children to senior citizens.       

“A Most Wanted Man” Meets “Lucy”

By Dr. Bob Blackwood

Anton Corbijn made a fine character study with George Clooney as a hitman preparing for his last assignment in Italy in “The American” (2010).  He has done it again with Philip Seymour Hoffman as a battered contemporary German intelligence officer in “A Most Wanted Man,” a film based on a novel by John Le Carré.  What kind of a man is Hoffman’s Günther Bachmann?

He is a workaholic.  He doesn’t have a life; he has a job.  He talks to people in all walks of life gathering information.  He is paunchy, smokes incessantly, enjoys alcoholic beverages, and often looks like a member of the walking dead.  Suddenly, he discovers that an active political dissident (half Russian, half Chechen) from the USSR, underplayed well by Grigoriy Dobrygin, has moved into his city, Hamburg, though he has no passport.  Why did he come there? 

An idealistic lawyer (Rachel McAdams), who helps immigrants, takes an interest in the undocumented man with a past.  We discover the former dissident may collect a 10,000,000 Euro inheritance.  Also, Gunther discovers that a US intelligence officer, well-played by Robin Wright with a mixture of professional concern and imperial strength, is now his partner.  When she refers to his previous experience on operations with American partners, Gunther says simply, “They didn’t end well.”

Yes, there is some action here, but it is an actors’ picture.  Willem Dafoe, as a clever banker, appears to help the former dissident.  When the dissident does collect his inheritance, he determines to give it all to charity. Of course, there is always a hitch. You will find yourself totally within another, darker world, which grows darker as the film progresses. 

Philip Seymour Hoffman died at 46 years of age from a drug overdose. His last leading role in “A Most Wanted Man,”—based on  John LeCarré’s post-9/11 novel—will have a limited release in July 2014.  Hoffman allegedly became very close in his own life to the uneasy German intelligence officer that he played in this film.  He was one of the best American actors of his generation.

This is the last film in which Hoffman is the lead actor.  However, he will make an appearance in the next two “Hunger Games” films.

The 1970’s tale of we humans only using 10% of our minds has been scoffed at by modern science, which claims we use all we have if we are lucky.  In any case, in Luc Besson’s “Lucy,” we see Scarlett Johansson, as a drug courier, receiving a huge jolt of consciousness when she inadvertently ingests a large amount of a new drug.

 Slowly, she knows more, then she strikes back at her gangster connections and makes this an action picture. Finally, she has almost godlike powers—we are in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001” almost.  I know; you’re thinking, “Isn’t being the most beautiful young actress on the screen enough for her?”  No, and let us leave off any sexist comments, please.  What we do see is an action film with beauty beating up all the beasts.  There, you wanted it; Besson gave it to you.

“Godzilla,” “Only Lovers Left Alive” & Another

By Dr. Bob Blackwood

“Godzilla” is back.  That Japanese creation, which allegedly owed its origins to American atomic testing, frightened me a bit in 1954, though I laughed a lot.  By the time of “Mothra vs. Godzilla” (1964), I was cheering on the big dinosaur hulk and the twin fairy sisters while Mothra menaced mankind. 

The Godzilla in this year’s Gareth Edwards’ film of the same name (MPAA: PG-13) is almost cute in appearance as he stalks two giant radioactively-twisted cockroaches/lobsters (one of them can fly), creatures who have no redeeming virtues.  Instead of a steady development of fear, as in the 1954 Japanese film, the audience is glad that Godzilla can handle these creatures.

The cast, including—Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Bryan Cranston, and Ellizabeth Olsen—all get cricks in their necks looking up at Godzillla, but they are glad to see him.  Not every genetically radioactively-exposed creature is hostile to mankind, including each of us, I suppose.  It was fun.  Alright, it slowed down in the middle, but it sped up at the end. And, it is a box office blockbuster. 

Jim Jarmusch’s “Only Lovers Left Alive” (MPAA: R)  is the story of two vampires who have been living together (more or less) as lovers for several centuries.  Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is an alternate musician today (references to 17th-19th century composers are made too); Eve (Tilda Swinton) is just a rich kid.  Thanks to a doctor who provides them with Type “O” for a high price, they are not stalking teenagers on the street.  Besides that, they might be knocking off potential audience members of his.

I know this is a vampire flick, but it reminded me more of international spies hiding out in a foreign country.  I almost expected Eve to mention MI-6 at times.  Instead, however, she permitted her sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska) to visit them.  The seemingly younger and certainly immature Ava soon kills off Adam’s most useful human contact, Ian (Anton Yelchin), as a sort of midnight snack. Some vampires have no style at all; she didn’t even have a cape.  The film’s ending is grim but humorous.  Try it; it tastes differently from other vampire films.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” Meets “Calvary,” A Study in Contrast

By Dr. Bob Blackwood

Frank Miller—former comic book author and graphic novelist—and Robert Rodriguez—filmmaker (“From Dusk Till Dawn”)—created a sequel to their “Sin City” (2005) with the appropriate film noir title: “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For.”  With the high contrast black and white look with only occasional splashes of color, like its predecessor, it may be the most visually stylized film this year. Although some critics are knocking this sequel, I think it flows better than the original film. 

Who won’t like this film?  People who can’t accept men and women stereotyped as macho men vs. slutty women, or viewers who like subtlety in screen performances.  Who will like this film?  Several film critics, people who like graphic novels, and audience members who can be mesmerized by the emphasis that Eva Green can deliver as a two-timing, aristocratic sex-bomb.  I’ve always remembered Green’s carefully nuanced performance as the wife of the last King of Jerusalem who had a yen for Orlando Bloom’s blacksmith in “The Kingdom of Heaven” (2005). 

Yes, Jessica Alba is back as another 1940’s-type sex object. Mickey Rourke is as tough as ever. Josh Brolin shows anxiety in his romancing. And Bruce Willis makes an appearance. The rest of the cast is distinguished; I only wish they had more to do.

In “Calvary,” Brendan Gleeson plays a widower, Father James, who became a Catholic pastor in the town of Sligo.  While hearing confessions, a man threatens to kill him in seven days, not because he is a bad priest but because Father James is a relatively innocent one.  The would-be murderer was raped by another priest many times during his childhood. This is his way of “evening up the score.” For the most part, Gleeson keeps his concern about the threat to himself. Adding to Father James’ grief is his daughter (Kelly Reilly) who joins him after an unsuccessful suicide attempt.

Does this destroy the good priest? For about half of the film, he shows his sharp wit in dealing with his occasional parishioners.  He’s both a good man, and no man or woman’s fool.  The closer he gets to the end of the week, however, we see dramatized weaknesses in Father James, but we also see strength.  And, he comes to terms with his daughter.  The conclusion is for you to see.

The director, John Michael McDonaugh, made a good Irish comedy in “The Guard” (2011) with Don Cheadle; he created a great tragicomedy here.  Cinematographer Larry Smith opens our eyes to the beauty and the horrors of Irish life.  And the supporting cast—Chris O’Dowd, Aidan Gillen, M. Emmet Walsh, Orla O’Rourke and others—could not be better.  Give it a look.

Denzel Knocks It Home; Shawn Levy Is Called “Out”

By Dr. Bob Blackwood

The last time Denzel Washington worked with Antoine Fuqua in “Training Day” (2001) as a gritty antihero, Denzel won an Oscar for Best Actor.  I don’t think he will win one again for “The Equalizer,” but I think the film will do well commercially.  Why? The plot is about an older man (Robert McCall, the same name as the TV character in the 80’s show) who works in a hardware supermarket called Home Mart.  He has the respect of his fellow workers.  But one evening in a diner right out of Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks,” he meets a young Russian hooker (Chloë Grace Moretz) who soon is being brutally victimized by a well-connected Russian pimp (David Meunier).  Moretz underplays her role well.

Slowly, McCall changes into what he had been; a killer employed by a US government agency.  He takes care of the pimp.  When the Russian oligarch (Vladimir Kulich) sends his best man (Marton Csokas), the tough guy is dealt with, though we see Csokas’ character has some depth in his interaction with McCall.  By the end of the film, the oligarch regrets his earlier decision. 

This film enrages some film critics, too bad.  Almost all of them have given Denzel’s performance praise; you have to.  He conveys determination with a subtlety that many other actors totally lack.

In addition to the main plot, we see McCall helping out other folks who have been leaned on by the powerful.  I don’t pretend to be a Hollywood producer, but I suspect a lot of moviegoers feel in some way that they have been leaned upon by individuals and organizations.  I think the film will be a financial success if word-of-mouth and a good opening-weekend mean anything.  Let’s see if a sequel pops up in a couple of years or so, though Denzel has many offers of employment.

I really looked forward to seeing a humorous film in Shawn Levy’s “This Is Where I Leave You.”  It certainly has a good cast.  Jane Fonda is the matriarch of a family whose Jewish atheist husband has requested that his whole immediate family sit shiva for him for seven days, though none have had religious instruction.  Of course, the cast of children—Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Adam Driver and Corey Stoll—just drop everything and stay, even though they are all yuppies. Don’t make me laugh. 

And that is the problem, not many laughs.  O, sure, insults and slights, yes; laughs, no.  The trouble is in the script.  I’m sure Mr. Levy will do better next time.  He is also producing and directing “Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb” which is in post-production. 

Two Entertaining Films and a Nightmare

In Theodore Melfi’s “St. Vincent” (MPAA: PG13),  Bill Murray plays an unmarried Vietnam vet who is fond of alcohol and has a pregnant Russian “girlfriend” (Naomi Watts) whom he can afford.  Watts is so convincing in her character that I didn’t recognize her until half-way through the film. In any case, Vincent’s life is simple and satisfying to him. 

His new next-door neighbor (Melissa McCarthy), however, has a mess. She is living with her young son (a very talented Jaeden Lieberher) and starting a new job before her divorce is final.  She needs a babysitter.  For $12 an hour, she gets the best Vincent can give her son.  Vincent doesn’t change his life, but the youngster sure asks intelligent questions—which Vincent usually avoids. 

I thought Melissa McCarthy, who usually looks like a train-wreck, was looking her best and acting as a concerned, though challenged, mother with a husband who doesn’t want to settle their divorce.  You sympathized with her.  In his cranky way, Vincent sympathizes too.  He handles people as only Vincent can.  What’s wrong with a happy ending for a change?  I like an audience that laughs during a comedy.

David Leitch & Chad Stahelski’s “John Wick” (MPAA: R) doesn’t have any real laughs, just a sardonic snicker or two.  Wick (Keanu Reeves), “The man whom you send to kill the Boogeyman,” left his Russian mob boss (Michael Nyqvist) five years ago and, recently, his wife died.  He acquired the cutest puppy in the world; he loves it.  The mob boss’ stupid son steals his car, beats Wick up and kills his puppy.  The son is stupid; the father is not.  He immediately tries to deal with Wick. 

Wick has a solution.  Kill every stupid mobster who walked into his house.  Kill anyone who tries to stop him.  And he proceeds to work on that goal for most of the film. I think it is fair to state that it seems only Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” used up more gunpowder than this film (excluding war films, of course). 

Wick is death on two feet.  He gets hurt; he gets out of it all somehow.  And, perhaps to some readers’ amazement, Reeves makes you believe he can do it.  He is a real action star.  His dramatic interaction with other actors is acceptable, but, man, does he show what a determined individual with the right equipment can do.  It is the action hit of the Fall, and allegedly he did 90% of his stunts. To be fair, however, Nyqvist almost steals the show with his perceptive and ironic comments.

Writer-director Dan Gilroy (“The Bourne Legacy”) has created “Nightcrawler” (MPAA: R).   Jake Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, a loner who haunts (and that’s the appropriate verb) the L.A. road system at night to get videotape and photos of bloody victims of car accidents, criminal assaults, and every other horror you can imagine.  Bloom rushes to his favorite TV station where the night editor (Rene Russo) pays him more and more as the weeks pass.  In the world where “If it bleeds, it leads,” Bloom delivers the goods, one way or another, legally or …. 

Gyllenhaal has tapered down to skin, bone and claws.  His blue eyes are as cold as the Atlantic Ocean on D-Day, for much the same reason.  I’m not fond of most contemporary “horror” films; they always seem to be pandering to the lowest possible emotions in the least intellectual way.  This film slowly shocks you, as Gyllenhaal reveals his morbid taste, his hatred for all mankind, and his well-developed “pay and play” argument for getting his night editor to share something besides her budget with him.

If you say, “I don’t want to see a film about a creep,” just remember, how many of them have you worked for or with?  If Gyllenhaal is not nominated for an Oscar for this performance, I would be surprised.  Riz Ahmed, as Lou’s much abused partner in Lou’s night cruising, downplays his role, but he convinces the audience that even a guy who’s really down on his luck can’t stand a monster.  Gyllenhaal is a beautiful monster.  See him; don’t be him.