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Reese Witherspoon

Reese Witherspoon

“WILD” My rating: B+ (Opens wide on Dec. 19)

115 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Man-against-nature stories are fairly common. Women-against-nature…well, that’s a rarer breed.

In “Wild” a perfectly unglamorous Reese Witherspoon plays real-life writer Cheryl Strayed, who some years ago hiked more than 1000 miles along the Pacific Crest Trail, which begins at the Mexican border and ends in Canada.

Strayed‘s story, as recorded in her 2012 memoir Wild, was both an escape from a tormented past (a failed marriage and drug addiction, for starters) and a long trek toward self discovery.

That journey, and the agonizing personal history that got it all started, have been effectively realized by Witherspoon (another Oscar nomination seems inevitable) and director Jean-Marc Vallee, who guided Matthew McConaughey to a best actor Oscar in “The Dallas Buyers’ Club.”

That earlier film was a middling movie elevated by a terrific lead performance. “Wild” raises the bar considerably — not only is Witherspoon superb (for much of the movie it’s just her and the scenery), but the storytelling technique proffered by Valee and screenwriter Nick Hornby (“High Fidelity,” “About a Boy,” “An Education”) almost perfectly captures the key elements of Strayed‘s tale through visual and aural poetry rather than conventional narration.

The film begins with Strayed, a tenderfoot in both the literal and figurative sense, setting out on the trail maintained by the National Park Service.

She has crammed her backpack with so much equipment that she moves like Atlas straining to lift the entire Earth.  The damn thing is so heavy it constantly threatens to flip her onto her back and leave her clawing the air like a helpless turtle.

Her new hiking boots are too tight, resulting in blood and blisters. Initially she’s lucky to cover five miles a day. She has never pitched a tent before, or tried to cook on a propane camp stove. She’s not sure how to deal with the rattlesnake in her path or the coyotes that howl all night.

But she’ll learn, just as she’ll learn to deal with heat and snow and physical exhaustion.

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Martin Freeman as Bilbo (left), and Richards Armitage as Thorin (right)

Martin Freeman as Bilbo (left), and Richards Armitage as Thorin (right)

“THE HOBBIT: BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES” My rating: C (Opens wide on Dec. 17)

144 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

I am so over Peter Jackson’s Tolkein obsession.

It’s not that “The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies” is incompetent filmmaking. Rather, it’s empty filmmaking.

It’s got plenty of spectacle — beginning with a dragon and ending with an hour of uninterrupted combat — but it seems not to be inhabited. The characters are paper thin, and even those with whom we’ve developed some an affinity aren’t on the screen enough for genuine emotions to emerge.

Maybe this is what comes of taking a simple children’s adventure and ballooning it into a 9-hour trilogy.

Perhaps Jackson long ago emptied his quiver of tricks and is now reduced to repeating himself.

And the stuff that once wowed us — the CG that made the original Ring Trilogy such a technological marvel — now seems rather old hat.  So many of the effects on display here look patently artificial rather than real.

For hardcore fans, of course, none of this matters.  Having invested at least 15 hours in the first five Tolkein-inspired films, they’re not about to bail on the big conclusion. They’d probably stick around to watch Bilbo read from the White Pages.

Basically “Battle of the Five Armies” can be broken down into three segments.

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Noah Wiseman, Essie Davis

Noah Wiseman, Essie Davis

“THE BABADOOK”  My rating: B+ (Now showing at the Screenland Armour)

93 minutes | No MPAA rating

The Australian-made “The Babadook” so seamlessly merges the supernatural with the psychological that it’s impossible to say if what we see on the screen is really happening or if it’s unfolding in its tortured heroine’s head.

Either way, writer/director Jennifer Kent has given us an unnerving experience, marked by two superlative performances that grab us by the throat and won’t let go.

Amelia (Essie Davis) is a widow raising her seven-year-old son Sam (Noah Wiseman).  Like a lot of single moms, she’s struggling — financially, emotionally, sexually.

But Amelia has a special cross to bear, for Sam is, well, different. The kid is cute and bright and is working on a magic act.  But he’s also a handful, a tyke who so fears monsters under his bed that he has fashioned his own dart-shooting crossbow and a shoulder-mounted catapult to hold them at bay.

That’s only the beginning of Sam’s behavioral problems. He rarely sleeps through a night, usually waking Amelia to search his room for supernatural invaders (she is majorly sleep deprived). During waking hours Sam demands his mother’s undivided attention and he’ll throw a grand mal temper tantrum when he doesn’t get it.

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Chris Rock in "Top Five"

Chris Rock in “Top Five”

“TOP FIVE” My rating: B  (Opening wide on Dec. 12)

101 minutes | MPAA rating:R

Chris Rock long ago conquered the comedy concert stage and then put his mark on the TV sitcom with his semi-autobiographical “Everybody Hates Chris.”
But he had little luck on the movie screen, his most artistically successful effort being the 2009 doc “Good Hair.”
“Top Five” changes everything. Written and directed by Rock, this meta-saturated comedy/drama may be the biggest surprise of this holiday film season.
Yes, it’s funny, packed with in-your-face dialogue and snarky observations about celebrity and show business. It is frequently off-the-charts rude. It has broad audience appeal.
But it’s also achingly romantic. It’s not an art film, but an art film fan will find plenty to chew on.
Andre Allen (Rock) has abandoned a huge standup career and a series of hit action/comedies — he played a cop in a bear costume — to pursue his vision as a serious artist. (This movie would make a great double feature with “Birdman,” in which an action star played by Michael Keaton is on the same quest.)
Andre is in New York to promote his new film, “Uprize,” an aggressively unfunny (or at least not intentionally funny) historical epic about the bloody Haitian slave revolt of the 1790s. He’s also scheduled to attend his bachelor party, an event being videotaped for the Bravo reality show starring his [ glamour-puss fiancee, Erica (Gabrielle Union).
Things aren’t going well. Nobody likes “Uprize,” and increasingly Andre feels like an unpaid extra in Erica’s Bridezilla-ish publicity stunt. (Think the first Kim Kardashian nuptials; “Top Five” even lists her current husband, rapper Kanye West, as one of its executive producers.)
And to put the frosting on this ugly cake, Andre’s handlers have set him up to spend the day with Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), a New York Times reporter profiling  the floundering star. Given that one of the Times’ critics regularly savages his movies, it’s little wonder that Andre isn’t looking forward to submitting to a journalistic evisceration.

TO READ THE REST OF THIS REVIEW VISIT THE KANSAS CITY STAR WEB SITE AT  http://www.kansascity.com/entertainment/movies-news-reviews/article4407647.html

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Joel Edgerton and Christian Bale as Rhamses and Moses

Joel Edgerton and Christian Bale as Ramses and Moses

“EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS” My rating: C (Opening wide on Dec. 12)

150 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Ridley Scott’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings” runs for almost 2 1/2 hours — and that still isn’t enough time for it to figure out why it’s here or what it wants to say.

It’s based, of course, on the Old Testament story of the exodus of the captive Hebrews from Egypt, but the filmmakers are obviously ambivalent over matters of faith. Heck, they explain away the story’s supernatural elements as the result of a bump to Moses’ noggin.

This is the second monster-budget biblical epic of the year (it follows Darren Aronofsky’s over-produced and over-thought “Noah”). If Hollywood doesn’t believe, why does it bother?

In a word: spectacle. Scott and his visual wizards pull out the stops to create the thriving Egyptian capital of Memphis, the parting and unparting of the Red Sea, a slam-bang  battle with an invading army.

But on a spiritual and dramatic level “Exodus” is a creaky affair.

Most of us are familiar with Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 “The Ten Commandments,” an alternately silly and awe-inspiring affair. DeMille may have had the dramatic instincts of a snake oil salesman, but he was a fierce believer in his own showmanship, and if you can ignore the absurd emoting, his epic remains ridiculously entertaining.

Scott, on the other hand, delivers a film that is, well, grumpy. For all the f/x wizardly, there’s not much joy or discovery to be had. “Exodus” feels like a paint-by-numbers job assembled by an indifferent committee.

TO READ THE REST OF THIS REVIEW VISIT THE KANSAS CITY STAR WEB SITE AT http://www.kansascity.com/entertainment/movies-news-reviews/article4407196.html

 

 

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Matthew Vandyke and freedom fighting colleagues

Matthew Vandyke and freedom fighting colleagues

“POINT AND SHOOT” My rating: B (Opens Dec. 12 at the Leawood)

83 minutes | No MPAA rating

When we first see Matthew VanDyke, the subject of the riveting and perplexing documentary “Point and Shoot,” he’s dressed like a ninja and addressing his video camera as he describes where on his body he can hide knives.  The guy looks like a laid-back hippie, but he wants us to be aware that he knows his way around deadly weapons.

VanDyke is tall, thin, and good looking…but there’s a whiff of asshole-ism in the air.  What kind of dweeb makes videos of himself brandishing weapons?

Marshall Curry’s doc — a collaboration with VanDyke — immerses us in an impressive true-life story.  VanDyke grew up a loner in Baltimore, tormented by obsessive compulsive disorder (he’s always having to jump up to wash his hands and cannot abide being near sugar). He immersed himself in violent video games, make-your-own-adventure books and action movies. VanDyke  was one of those guys who took Schwarzenegger and Van Damme seriously.

A MENSA brainiac, he studied the Middle East at the University of Maryland, graduating summa cum laude, and went on to graduate work at Georgetown U.’s Walsh School of Foreign Service.

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girl-walks-home-alone“A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT” My rating: B+
(Opens Dec. 12 at the Tivoli)

99 minutes | No MPAA rating

How the hell did this movie ever get made in Iran?

That’s what I found myself asking about 10 minutes into the evocative, eerie, totally mesmerizing “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night,” a vampire movie unlike any we’ve seen before.

As it turns out, “A Girl Walks Home…” wasn’t made in Iran. Oh, it’s in Farsi (the language of Iran) and the cars bear Iranian license plates and the principal players were born in Iran.  Plus, the lead character wears a chador, the long cape-like garment that is more or less required of women in female-phobic Iran.

But Ana Lily Amirpour’s Sundance-sponsored debut feature was actually shot near Bakersfield, CA. Which explains how it can dish nudity, drug abuse, lurid violence, and a huge shot of slow-simmering sexuality — topics the Iranian morality police would never countenance.

Their loss. This is a terrific film, not so much for its narrative (which deals mostly in suggestion) as for the haunting atmosphere it evokes.

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