Monthly Archives: March 2017

Opening in Las Vegas, March 31, 2017

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Interesting mix of movies this weekend.

The likely box office champ, if it can knock off Beauty and the Beast, is Ghost in the Shell (53), based on a popular manga (I’ve never read a manga in my life) starring Scarlett Johansson in a tight body suit. There’s flak that the part is not played by an Asian actress. Getting lackluster reviews. I’m on the fence about seeing it in a theater, but seeing Scarlett kick butt in spandex is good for a rental.

The other major release this week is Baby Boss (50), with the voice of Alec Baldwin as an infant born that can talk and hold meetings. Sounds like a cute idea for a short, but I would be loathe to see a feature-length film of this. I believe Baldwin does get a chance to say “Always be closing.”

In the art houses are a couple of worthy films. Personal Shopper (77) is the latest from the intriguing if enigmatic Oliver Assayas, and stars Kristen Stewart. For fun, check out the comments on the review in the New York Times, and see the extremes on Stewart–some proclaim her the worst actress in the world, others the greatest. I still haven’t made up my mind. They used to say to judge an actor watch them all play Hamlet, I suppose for women it would be Cleopatra or Lady Macbeth.

Also out this weekend is one of the nominees for the Foreign Language Oscar, Land of Mine (75), a Danish World War II film. It’s about German POWs sent to Denmark to clear land mines, so the title is apparently a pun, but maybe that’s just the English title. Getting a job clearing land mines can not be a good thing.

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Review: Get Out

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On the surface, Get Out is a basic horror film, largely structured around The Stepford Wives (the original, not the horrible remake). If every character had been white, or race had not been commented on, it would have been a solid thriller. But write and director Jordan Peele added another level, which makes Get Out a great conversation piece. It’s a metaphor for our so-called post-racial society.

Peele is one half of Key & Peele, the great comedy duo, and I’ve seen this film described as a comedy, but I wasn’t doing a lot of laughing, as it’s as creepy as hell. I don’t want to give too much away, as I had no idea what was coming, but a young black man (Daniel Kaluuya) is visiting his white girlfriend’s (Allison Williams) family for the first time. He’s worried, of course, as he’s from the city and the parents are both doctors and live in the leafy suburbs. Williams assures him they are not racist.

When he gets there, though, something is odd. They treat him politely, almost too much so. And what’s with the servants, two black people who act as if they are lobotomized? It becomes even more odd when a party is thrown, and all the white guests patronize him, like making sure they let him know that they know Tiger Woods or asking him about the “American black experience.” When the one black guest, who also seems somewhat vacant, has a moment of lucidity, he tells Kaluuya to “Get out!”

What we have is a genuinely scary horror film combined with a racial commentary. This is nothing new–over forty years there was Blacula–but Peele makes some interesting commentaries on the persistence of black stereotypes–one woman at the party feels his bicep, as if he were on a slave auction block. The home of Williams’ parents (played eerily by Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener) has an almost plantation vibe, though you can’t quite put your finger on why.

Peele show great promise as a filmmaker. The direction is basic, as he doesn’t employ too many tricks and lets the story breathe.  Sometimes the foreshadowing is a bit oversold–early in the film Williams and Kaluuya hit a deer on the road. Later we see a closeup of a deer’s head trophy on the wall. It’s not hard to figure out what will happen to that trophy.

Was Irving Thalberg right about the Marx Brothers or: How I learned to stop worrying and love their MGM films

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Whenever the topic of the Marx Brothers and their cinema careers is discussed these days, it’s become conventional wisdom to state that their earlier Paramount films were superior to their later MGM films.

This 2013 article from the now defunct website The Dissolve sums up this perspective. Namely that while MGM producer Irving Thalberg saved their careers after they’d fallen out of favour at Paramount, their 5 MGM films as a whole were weaker than their 5 Paramount films. This is because the 5 Paramount films showcased Groucho, Chico, Harpo & Zeppo at their anarchic hilarious best with virtually no restrictions placed on them whatsoever. In contrast, their MGM films (minus Zeppo) saw them become less inspired and zany, the jokes reduced, overblown musical numbers appeared more often and significant time wasted with boring romantic subplots involving even more boring personalities. The Paramount films may have been cheaper and more rudimentary but they contained the Marx Brothers at their peak.

This conventional wisdom – which has been around for a while – seems to be taken a step further these days. Just the other week I was heard on a podcast an expert on Marx Brothers say that ALL of their Paramount films were superior to even the best of the MGM films, specifically ‘A Night At The Opera’. This is a pretty amazing change in perspective as for decades ‘A Night At The Opera’ and their final Paramount film ‘Duck Soup’ were battling it out for what considered the best film of their illustrious career.

Indeed, growing up I felt pretty much the same watching the Marx Brothers films. Their final Paramount film ‘Duck Soup’ was my favourite not only because it had an insane amount of great jokes but because it didn’t have the endless music numbers that the MGM films or the Chico piano/Harpo harp solos which seemed like unnecessary intermissions from the comedy.

One on occasion when their first MGM film ‘A Night At The Opera’ came on TV, we actually edited out the romantic subplot and the music numbers so we could just have the 40 minutes of pure comedy. It was like YouTube before YouTube existed!
Time marches on and I hadn’t seen a Marx Brothers film for close to 20 years when the opportunity arose recently to watch a bunch of their MGM films and see how they held up. And I was pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed all of them on their own terms, even without edits.

It brought back to mind the process by which they were brought over to MGM by Irving Thalberg. His philosophy basically was that the brothers couldn’t be completely anarchic that they had to be helping people (usually a young romantic couple) to get more audience sympathy towards them. Also, he believed in reducing and spacing out the amount of jokes so audience laughter wouldn’t drown out the next rapid-fire joke. And also he believed in using MGM’s great resources for more elaborate music numbers, some with the Marx Brothers but not always.

It’s fair to say that these changes Thalberg installed (who died tragically young in 1936) – while well received by critics back in the day – are now considered at the heart of the decline of the Marx Brothers as a cinematic force.

It is true that there are issues with the Marx Brothers MGM films, especially the last three made after Thalberg’s untimely death. Post-Thalberg the studio seemed to lose a bit of interest in them and the A-Grade gloss and production they were given in ‘A Night At The Opera’ and ‘A Day At The Races’ is downgraded. The straight romantic leads get worse, the plots seem a bit more ho-hum and many of the musical numbers are dull and not even that well-staged.

But while many carp about what’s absent from the MGM Marx Brothers films, too often it’s forgotten how much good stuff there still is in them. Their most acclaimed MGM film ‘A Night At The Opera’ has more laughs than probably all of the comedies released this decade combined. One only need to look at the Quotes section on its IMDB page to see the incredible array of great one-liners it had. And of course this excludes all the great silent comedy Harpo provides.
Even what is widely considered to be their weakest MGM film, ‘The Big Store’, has some great comedic scenes, particularly an early scene where Groucho & Harpo are trying to fool a potential client that they are a prestigious detective agency.

And the bigger budgets MGM were able to offer over Paramount could be used not just for surface gloss, but for impressive comedic scenes. For example the finale to ‘Go West’ where the Marx Brothers are driving a train to overtake the bad guys while totally dismantling the train at the same time is a marvellous comedic and technical scene, and above all else a great demonstration of the comedy team actually being good guys while being total anarchists.

And, as derided as it is by Marx Brothers aficionados, Thalberg’s belief that having the brothers act not as total anarchists and instead be helping other characters actually works for me. It’s not like they’ve abandoned their anti-establishment ethos; they’re almost always helping out individuals who are being pushed around by people in power, whether they be pompous establishment types and/or powerful crooked businessmen. And they not only save the day but totally humiliate those in power in the process.

To be sure, the later MGM films began to seem tired and uninspired. Especially their MGM farewell ‘The Big Store’ which has some misfiring comic routines, a neverending musical number ‘The Tenement Symphony’ whose negative reputation is fully deserved and it’s rather sad to see stunt men obviously standing in for the Marx Brothers during the action finale.

But overall, rewatching four of their MGM films again was a highly enjoyable experience. I think the critical consensus now has gotten too negative to these films. Perhaps they don’t reach the inspired lunacy of their peak Paramount efforts but they have so much pleasurable to offer. Just enjoy them for their own sake.

Opening in Las Vegas, March 24, 2017

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Looks like an exceptionally crappy weekend for new releases.

The most high-profile is Power Rangers (44). Do kids even know Power Rangers anymore? When they were around I was too old for them, so will today’s adults drag their kids on a nostaglia trip. Supposed to be bad, anyway. At least they have a gay character, which is progress considering an actor on the TV show was fired for being gay.

Another odd bit of nostalgia is Chips, (29) a TV show that no one I knew watched. Apparently the small group of die-hard fans are even angry at this film, which somehow misrepresents the integrity of the show or some such nonsense. Is Dax Shepard in anything good?

Life (55), not named for the game or the cereal, is about a space mission that finds life but it turns oh so wrong. Sounds like an Alien rip-off. With Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Reynolds. Note in the trailer that it looks the black guy is the one who gets attacked first. Nice to see racist tropes are still alive.

Woody Harrelson plays a lovable misanthrope in Wilson (50). There was another film called Wilson, back in 1944, about Woodrow Wilson. And Harrelson’s first name is Woodrow. Coincidence?

Finally, and appropriately, is The Last Word (40), about Shirley Maclaine trying to craft her own obituary, and hires Amanda Seyfried to write it. Of course they bond after initially hating each other. So original.

Review: Beauty and the Beast

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It is certainly not unreasonable to see Disney remaking many of their classic animated films as live-action as cynical cash grab. The question of “Why remake a great film,” especially only 25 years later, is usually answered simply with, “to make money.” But while watching Bill Condon’s version of Beauty and the Beast, the cynicism washes away almost immediately, from the use of the Beast’s castle taking the place of Sleeping Beauty’s castle in the logo opening. This Beauty and the Beast is not just a remake of the original, it’s a tribute to the movie-making process.

I haven’t seen the first Disney Beauty and the Beast in many years (for that matter, I haven’t seen the Jean Cocteau version) so I don’t know what if anything is different. It seems the same. Belle (Emma Watson) is a bibliophile in a provincial French town. She is pursued by a callow egomaniac, Gaston (Luke Evans) who is determined to marry her, despite not having a thing in common with her.

Meanwhile, an equally callow prince, after turning away an old woman from his castle, gets a curse put on him, turning him into something that mostly looks a mountain goat with sharp teeth. His staff are turned into objects, though they can talk and move. The old woman, who turns out to be an enchantress (not a witch, thank you) gives him the time it takes for a rose to lose all its petals. He must fall in love, and get someone to fall in love with him, or be stuck forever. But he isn’t optimistic–“Who would love a beast?” He must not know about furry conventions.

Through the actions of Belle’s father, a kindly artist (Kevin Kline), she gets herself imprisoned by the Beast (Dan Stevens, motion-captured). The staff, led by Lumiere, a candlestick, and Cogsworth, a clock, try to push the two together. Here is where there is some present-day discomfort: is this the Stockholm Syndrome? Does this give hope to every guy who would love to kidnap Emma Watson and make her love them? It’s a touchy area, but the script walks a fine line–they fall in love because they find things in common. Luckily there is not Trump/Clinton disagreement to break the deal.

The film is absolutely sumptuous. Count on Oscar nominations for costume and production design. The overall look is classic fairy tale, though there are real things mentioned, like Shakespeare and the Champs-Elysee. But there is also a contemporary feel to it. It moves quickly, and there is a meta nature to it, particularly from Josh Gad as Gaston’s companion. There was big brouhaha among the religious right about Gad playing a gay character, with august figures like Franklin Graham calling for a boycott. Gad is playing a gay character, no doubt about it, and there are also three swordsman who are put into women’s dresses who seem to be very happy about it. I also appreciated the stage-like casting, with a lot of diversity. There are interracial relationships, and it made me all warm and gooey inside.

The cast acquits itself. Everyone wondered about Watson’s singing ability, and while I wouldn’t advise a recording career, she was fine. It’s tough when you put great singers like Audra McDonald in the cast to compare. Emma Thompson is Mrs. Potts, Ewan McGregor is Lumiere, and Ian McKellen is Cogsworth. McKellen, after a long and largely obscure (at least in America) classical-stage career, has now been in numerous box office hits. He also has the funniest line of the film at the end, which I won’t spoil.

The film is getting good but not strong reviews, and it seems most of them have to do with the business aspects. But one can only review the film before you, not the reasons for its existence. On that level, I had a fine time with Beauty and the Beast. It’s a magical two hours.

Opening in Las Vegas, March 17

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The big opening is Beauty and the Beast (65), which may become the biggest film to ever open in March. I saw it today in a theater where it occupied about eight screens and still had to sit in the second row (but they were reclining seats, so it was all good). This is the next Disney wave–making live action remakes of their animated hits. I will have a review up soon.

The Belko Experiment (43) seems like a good rental for a rainy Saturday afternoon, and the fulfillment of a fantasy of many an office worker–killing off all your co-workers, especially the one that steals food out of the break room frig.

Finally, The Sense of an Ending (62), which was a fine novel by Julian Barnes about an older man who discovers something abouty his past from an old diary. Again, probably a rental, but I can’t see paying $10 to see it. With Jim Broadbent.

Other films that opened in the USA, February 2017

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As we went a couple of weekends in February without doing posts documenting the films released on those weekends, I thought I would fill in the gaps by documenting them here

The Great Wall (IMDB rating 6.3) – Notable as being a major hybrid US/China film aiming to create a blockbuster and appealing to both countries, this Matt Damon starring action film has had a poor critical reaction and disappointing financial results (in both America & China) so that concept will be put on hold for now seemingly.

Fist Fight (5.8) – A film based around a looming fist fight between two teachers after one gets the other fired seems a pretty thin concept for a feature-length film and judging by its IMDB rating and critical reaction, it didn’t seem to be up to the task. Certainly the trailer suggests it all has the negative clichés of modern Hollywood ‘comedies’: crude, clumsy and no sense of comic timing at all.

A Cure For Wellness (6.6) – Watching the trailer for this film about a mysterious ‘wellness’ clinic made it seem initially intriguing but this is a classic case of a trailer giving away far too much of its narrative so it ended my interest in it. A box office flop and critically maligned.

Everybody Loves Somebody (6.6) – Mexican film about a woman running into complications when she gets a co-worker to pose as a boyfriend for a family wedding

Keep Quiet – (6.1)  Documentary about a European politician who is openly anti-Semetic… only to discover that he is Jewish!
XX (4.7) – Something that used to be quite common back in the late 1960s/early 1970s (especially in British cinema) – a horror anthology. In this case its four stories all written and directed by women. Unusually for a horror-related film it’s been much better received by critics than by the public judging by its IMDB rating.

From Nowhere (7.3) – This story of undocumented teenagers trying to not only stay in school but stay in the USA certainly seems timely considering the political climate at present in the country and it certainly seems to have struck a chord with critics and at film festivals leading to it getting a release. Also of interest is that the director is Australian Matt Newton who is from a very well-known and successful showbiz family and had developed a fairly successful acting/director career in the 2000s before constant public headlines for his behaviour and legal troubles stopped it in its tracks. Having relocated to the USA this seems like an impressive first step in rebuilding his career.

Lovesong (6.4) – Relationship drama between two female friends which uses that old trope of the low-budget indy film – the impromptu road trip! Well-received by critics according to Rotten Tomatoes

Get Out (8.3) – One of the most significant films of the year for multiple reasons. A breakout box-office smash that has had an enormously positive critical response (99% on RT) and clearly had a very positive public response. These aren’t qualities you usually associate with a horror film. Its racial and socio-economic elements certainly seem to have helped it strike a chord amongst the USA public in these politically tumultuous times.

Rock Dog (5.6) – Animated film which apparently is another China/USA co-effort which like The Great Wall has flopped at the box office. Luke Wilson provides one of the voices who seems to have completely disappeared this decade after being everywhere in the 2000s.

Autobahn (5.7) – This action film about drug smuggling and the like has a a troubled history – originally scheduled for release in 2015 but the distributor went bust and it’s limped out to virtually no interest. Even the likes of Anthony Hopkins, Ben Kingsley and up-and-comers like Felicity Jones in the cast hasn’t saved it from public apathy and critical derision.

Bitter Harvest (7.2) – Judging by the critical reaction and trailer, this mixture of romance and war in 1930s Soviet Union/Ukraine seems like a cornball version of Dr Zhivago. Has a decent IMDB rating though.

My Life as a Courgette (7.9) – This stop-motion European animated film was Oscar nominated for Best Animated Feature and considering it has a 100% RT rating, that isn’t a surprise. Certainly seems like one to watch out for.

Fabricated City (7.9) – South Korean film about a person trying to prove his innocence with the help of his virtual gaming friends certainly feels like a more modern narrative than most films.

Pelle The Conqueror (2017 re-release) (7.9) – Re-release of the 1987 Best Foreign Film Oscar winner, starring Max Von Sydow.

Review: Kong: Skull Island

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Here’s a rarity–a blockbuster, tent-pole picture that doesn’t play dumb and is satisfying on almost every level. It also has a King Kong that doesn’t have a thing for white women, removing the racist stigma of three previous American Kong films.

Set in 1973, Kong: Skull Island is sort of a mash-up between Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World and Apocalypse Now (lest we miss that connection, there is a character named Conrad, after the author of Heart of Darkness, and another named Marlow, who was the protagonist of that novel). John Goodman plays a scientist who works for a government agency that searches for monsters, which is a stretch of the imagination, and he has satellite photos of an uncharted island. Along with a few other scientists, he is able to wrangle an Army escort.

This brings Samuel L. Jackson into the picture, as a the colonel of a helicopter squad just about ready to go home after the peace treaty (when you’re in a movie, never do anything dangerous when you’re about to retire or be sent home). Jackson, with his dead-eyed stare, is very good, less of the parody of himself that he has become (he doesn’t say motherfucker, but he does emit a “Bitch, please!” Also on the ride are a professional tracker (Tom Hiddleston) and a photojournalist (Brie Larson).

What’s unique about Kong: Skull Island is there is no teasing. In many monster movies, such as the first King Kong, which is a great picture, you don’t see the creature until well into the movie. That is not true here. As the helicopters fly in, Kong is there, swatting them out of the sky. Since the soundtrack is a boomer playlist, instead of Wagner playing as the copters go in, it’s Black Sabbath.

Many men of his men are killed and Jackson wants revenge. But, as the party is split into two, the civilians (Hiddleston, Larson, and Goodman et. al.) discover an inhabitant on the island, John C. Reilly, who crash-landed during World War II. He’s the Colonel Kurtz of the story (though he is named Marlow), who lives with an indigenous tribe and tells them all about Kong. “He’s like a God here,” he says, and the protector of the tribe from underground dwelling lizard-like creatures.

That’s a lot stuff, but it keeps things moving. There are some great action scenes. Kong will, of course, eventually tee off against the “big one,” and it’s a great fight. A few characters are surprisingly killed off, and there is a real sense of danger.

But what I most appreciated was Larson was not set up as the Fay Wray/Jessica Lange/Naomi Watts character. She’s a woman in man’s field, no nonsense about her job. Kong does not become enamored with her (Hiddleston does, sort of), so we lose the fear-of-miscegenation angle that the previous films have unfortunately displayed (see the scene in Inglorious Basterds where the original King Kong is discussed as a metaphor for American slaves).

The film was directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, whose only previous feature was a Sundance film, The Kings of Summer. Unlike some indie directors, like Josh Trank, Vogt-Roberts seems right at home in big-budget land. I also liked the cinematography of Larry Fong, who gives Skull Island unearthly light that makes a viewer feel just a bit uncomfortable. Fong has shot many of Zack Snyder’s films, that you can hardly see at all, so it’s nice to see Fong out from under Snyder’s untalented thumb.

Kong will be back, and if you stick through the credits you’ll see the connection to Godzilla. I already feel like that the climactic fight in Kong: Skull Island was a fight with a giant lizard, so the upcoming film may be overkill. But I’ll buy a ticket.

Opening in Las Vegas, March 10, 2017

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Only one film opening this weekend, Kong: Skull Island (63), which is the umpteenth resurrection of the big ape. This seems interesting enough that I want to see it–I’m kind of intrigued by the allusions to Apocalypse Now (and by extension, Heart of Darkness). It’s setting up for a King Kong vs. Godzilla movie, but don’t you know that there already was one: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/King_Kong_vs._Godzilla. I have a pleasant memory of watching this film in my local library when I was about six or seven. If I remember correctly, it was a draw.

Review: Logan

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Logan is getting some great reviews, I think partially because though it’s a Marvel property it doesn’t seem like one. No cities are destroyed, there’s no Spandex, and it’s far more character-driven that most comic-book films.

However, though I liked Logan for the most part, let’s not go overboard. This, the swan song of Hugh Jackman playing the role of Logan/Wolverine, has some effective moments and good performances, as well as some savage action scenes (no cities may be destroyed, but more than one person loses their head) there is not a lot of originality to the script, by director James Mangold. While I was watching I thought of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, and also Stranger Things (which, granted, came out after Logan was written). A writer on the Cracked website compares it point by point to Children of Men, and it’s very convincing.

The year is 2029. and Logan is working as a limo driver. Mutants have ceased being born (I may have missed something in the canon, otherwise I don’t know why this is). He drinks a lot and is starting to feel the effects of age (he is over two-hundred years old). His healing properties are far slower, and he walks with a limp.

Logan also cares for Professor Charles Xavier, who has a brain disorder–when he doesn’t take his medicine his mind can create an earthquake-like occurrence. He is being kept in a toppled water tank near the Mexican border.

Xavier has picked up the presence of another mutant, a girl called Laura. She is brought to Logan from Mexico City by a nurse who has witnessed a genetic experiment to create mutants by artificial means. Thus, Laura, who is largely mute through most of the film, bears an uncanny resemblance to Eleven from Stranger Things, except Laura’s power is to be a baby Wolverine, clawing and ripping at her foes.

Of course, the evil corporation that is conducting the experiments has people looking for her, especially Boyd Holbrook, as a man with a mechanical arm. Logan and Xavier set out taking her to a haven for mutants in North Dakota for crossing into Canada (the immigration aspects are interesting, given the times we live in).

The gruff hero helping a child (as it turns out, children) is as old as movies, it seems, and Logan doesn’t really further the genre. Jackman, who has played Wolverine in eight films now, still manages to make the character interesting, especially in his frailties (though he still can use those claws). Patrick Stewart, as Xavier, who is also likely done with the character, goes out on a high note, although some may consider his British stage acting a bit hammy. It occurred to me that this might be an opportunity for Stewart to get an Oscar nomination (he’s never had one), but at this time last year I was thinking about John Goodman for 10 Cloverfield Lane.

I dare not spoil what happens here, but it is poignant without being too awash in sentimentality. It’s a fitting end for both Logan and Xavier’s characters, but as a guy who wrote for Marvel Comics once told me, “No one stays dead except for Uncle Ben.”

Logan, at two hours and seventeen minutes, is a bit too long, and has too many cliches, but it’s okay and a must for X-Men fans.

Opening in Las Vegas, March 3, 2017

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The big opening this week is Hugh Jackman’s swan song as Wolverine in Logan (77), which is getting good enough reviews that I’ll go see it, even though I haven’t seen the other two Wolverine solo films. Jackman has now played the character eight times, and except for actors who appeared in the old serials I don’t know of one who has played a character so many times. No one has played James Bond that many times.  I guess Robert Downey Jr might be close with Iron Man (including his cameo in the second Hulk film). Anybody else have some suggestions?

Also new this week is the art-housey A United Kingdom (66), starring Rosamund Pike and David Oyelwo as a mixed-race marriage with the caveat being he is king of an African country. I’ve seen the trailer many times and it looks obvious and boring.

Anna Kendrick, who I found to be delightful, is in another romantic comedy, Table 19 (39), about a spurned bridesmaid. Though I like Kendrick, she makes movies that I don’t want to see. She should step out of her comfort zone more often.

I’m not quite sure what The Shack (31) is about, but it seems to be about faith and forgiveness, and a little too spiritual for my tastes. Sam Worthington, who you think would have been a bigger star after Avatar. The title sounds like a horror movie to me.

Finally there’s Before I Fall (58), based on a YA novel about a girl who must live the same day over and over again. I remember reading a story with that plot forty-some years ago. I’ll pass.