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Thumbnails May 15

by Tony Medley

Far From the Madding Crowd (10/10): While the problems of Thomas Hardy’s headstrong independent Victorian woman, Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan), and the three men in her life didn’t really interest me that much prospectively, a bravura performance by Mulligan and strong supporting performances by Matthias Schoenaerts, Tom Sturridge, and Michael Sheen, along with spectacular cinematography and a story told with good pace made this one of the best films I’ve seen this century.

Woman in Gold (9/10): This is a brilliant movie telling the true story of Maria Altman’s (Helen Mirren) pursuit of a painting stolen from her family by the Nazis with many flashbacks to Vienna in 1938 (young Maria is well played by Tatiana Maslany, who looks are remarkably like a young Helen Mirren) that includes exceptional cinematography of the Austrian locations and some nasty business with the Nazis. Mirren is, hands down, the best actor in the movie business today.

Child 44 (8/10): I cringed when I saw the 137 minute runtime but the tension in this film never let up. Tom Hardy and Noomi Rapace give captivating performances as a conscientious 1953 Soviet cop and his troubled wife, good people trapped in a brutal society, as does Gary Oldman. Tightly directed with surprisingly good pace, this is partially based on a serial killer named Andrei Chikatilo, in Soviet Russia in the early ‘50s. But there’s a lot more to the film than that.

Ex Machina (8/10): This is the best, most credible, of the artificial intelligence movies to date. Alicia Vikander is such a gorgeous robot that she makes the implausible story credible, aided by fine performances by Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac. Director Alex Garland keeps the tension up and the pace moving by tackling many thought-provoking existential issues. I was pleasantly surprised, rewarded, by what I had just seen.

Clouds of Sils Maria (8/10): There is a lot of talk, but there is pressure throughout that writer/director Oliver Assayas handles well enough, thanks in large part, to Kristen Stewart's (Valentine) exceptional performance. There are superb scenes between Stewart and star Juliette Binoche (Maria) in which Valentine is rehearsing the lines of a play with Maria and one keeps getting the feeling that neither of them is acting and that the lines they are reciting are really the way each of their characters feels, young Valentine and older Maria. It is a mesmerizing dichotomy. It might be a chick flick, but it's a good one.

Beyond the Reach (8/10): This is a tight little thriller reminiscent of the classic short story “The Most Dangerous Game,” well directed by Jean Baptiste Léonetti with fine performances by Michael Douglas and Jeremy Irvine. The cinematography (Russell Carpenter) of the desert is wonderful and the acting is its equal. Michael Douglas is a hateful but believable bad guy and Irvine makes you feel how hot it is out there in the Mojave desert, especially when you have no shirt, pants, or shoes. It kept me on the edge of my seat throughout.

True Story (6/10): A film with potential that's done in by Jonah Hill, who is not up to the task of portraying such a complex character. His shortcomings are exposed by James Franco’s excellent performance as a charming, manipulative man accused of murdering his family.

The Connection (5/10): I’m not sure why we need another The French Connection (1971), even if it is told from the French/Marseille point of view. Without William Friedkin and Gene Hackman, however, this pales in comparison. But every movie must stand on its own and this one doesn’t. In French.

Furious 7 (2/10): This is a cockamamie amalgamation of absurd car chases, even more ridiculous fights, and more noise than you can tolerate blasting away at you for almost 2 ½ hours. The story makes no sense. What the filmmakers thought might pass for a plot, the pursuit of a McGuffin in the form of a computer memory card, is completely forgotten at the end.