WILD, starring Reese Witherspoon

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Wild is the true story of Cheryl Strayed (played by Ms. Witherspoon), a troubled young woman who chooses to hike the Pacific Crest Trail’s thousand miles in an attempt to exorcise emotional chaos, put some distance (literally and figuratively) between herself and a significant other or two, and generally clean up her body with a hundred-day knockout punch.

Most people don’t get up in the morning and say, “Wow, I’ve screwed up my life and my life has screwed up me, so I’ll walk from the Mexican border to Washington state,” but then not everyone gets matching tattoos with her husband right before filing for divorce. The divorce papers include the change of name from whatever-it-was-before to “Strayed,” and that’s not because that was her maiden name.

The scenery is gorgeous. Ms. Witherspoon does a great job as Cheryl, hiking alone without any previous hiking experience a trail which is usually undertaken only by experts. Her inexperience gives us a few laughs, particularly with the backpack filled with everything except a refrigerator and set of encyclopedias.

I’m not sure the movie depicts the walk with any accuracy. I’m not a hiker, but there doesn’t seem to be a moment when Cheryl-the-novice is unable to move for pain. Nor does she weep her head off with the complete overwhelmingness of what she’s set out to do. She simply giggles and says, “Yeah, I think about quitting all the time.” Different personalities, different responses to seeming impossibility, I guess. Frankly, her approach is more likely of success than mine. I’d have (maybe) gotten to Kennedy Meadows and called an ambulance to drive me anywhere right now as fast as you can.

There’s a fantastic goldmine of an advertisement for REI, the camping store. No one who sees this movie will ever get his hiking boots anywhere else. I know I’m going to buy mine there.

Because this movie does make you want to go hiking. Or at least think about hiking. Or at least open a window and let in the fresh air while wearing your new REI boots-with-one-year-warranty. And all of that is good.

Also good are the parts of the movie that deal with Ms. Strayed’s great personal loss. The flashbacks are emotionally wrenching. These are the best part of the movie and the core of it. The long walk is a hoped-for catharsis for her heartbreaking loss.

Do not take your children. Drug use. Sexual situations. Language. I would have liked it better with a different set of problems to be overcome, but it’s a true story, and if the real Cheryl Strayed was a heroin addict who slept with anyone who asked, I guess that’s what the movie’s going to show.

INTO THE WOODS, starring Meryl Streep

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Call me ridiculous, but I didn’t know Into the Woods was a musical. And not a musical like The Sound of Music where people do a lot of talking and then burst into songs about raindrops, kittens, and copper kettles, but the kind where people are singing all the time about everything.

Mrs. Baker wants a baby. There’s a decent and reasonable explanation why she can’t have one, but there is one way. A woman who wants a baby will do what it takes, especially if there’s only this one time. Only one chance.

Mrs. Jacksmom is starving. She needs food. Cinderella needs a prince. Prince Charming needs a bride. Rapunzel needs her freedom. The Wolf needs a meal. Red Riding Hood needs a grandma. And so on.

But the Witch (Ms. Streep) needs herself back. That’s controlling here. Everything that is done is done at her bidding and for that reason, although the other people have their own reasons for what they do. Their own wishes.

Dreams come true (Chris Pine as Prince Charming is a dream come true, right?). Some people don’t make it. The duet of Prince Charming and Rapunzel’s Prince is worth the price of admission. It’s hilarious, if far too short.

UNBROKEN, starring Jack O’Connell

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Unbroken is the story of Louis Zamperini, a young American soldier who faces the peril of the sky, the peril of the sea, and the peril of a Japanese POW camp in WWII.

It is also the story of human resilience, perseverance, and downright guts. One is faced with the question of how much one man can endure and how sadistic another man can be in finding out the limits of his opponent’s strength.

It also answers definitively (not that it is asked in the movie, but you can’t help but thinking this) the question often posed about Jews imprisoned by Nazis: “Why didn’t they revolt?” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this over the years–as if unarmed civilians carrying their babies and/or starving to death are generally able to overpower armed young men in their prime and in their phalanxes. The answer given in this movie is: if trained American soldiers stood at attention and took unconscionable brutality in the course of their captivity without revolting, then such a revolt is quite obviously–and please don’t ask again–impossible.

Directed by Angelina Jolie, this movie is another in the long line of good dramas about WWII, may they continue to roll off the presses so that we never ever forget. It suffers from being in theaters in company with The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game. If you can only see a movie or two this holiday season, both of those are better stories with better actors than Unbroken has. And, if you can only see one WWII movie from the Jolie-Pitts this year, definitely see Fury because it’s way better–but don’t take your kids to that one if they or you are uncomfortable with ordinary *#%@ing soldier-talk.

All that said, it’s a good movie. You’ll like it, and kids over ten or so with some understanding of the War will benefit from seeing it. You can talk about courage and suffering and protecting your friends and not throwing blood into the water and how-could-these-men-be-so-brave-because-I-would-immediately-break-into-tiny-pieces.

(Caveat, because there are horrible parents out there who say things like, “Look, Mr. Zamperini could stand up to the Japanese prison guards who were torturing him. Can’t you at least put up with a few bullies?” Because no. If your kid is getting bullied, get it fixed or haul him out of that horrible school with the administratively impotent principal.)

Rotten Tomatoes gives it 51% (green splat), and that’s probably because it’s not tense or suspenseful, just brutal. The flashbacks to the 1936 Berlin Olympics are nice. There’s really no need to see this one on the big screen; it’s okay to wait for the DVD or streaming versions.

THE IMITATION GAME, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley

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In a movie which could have been subtitled “in which a gay man saves over ten million lives and takes two years off the life of Adolph Hitler”, Benedict Cumberbatch gives a stunning performance as the great British mathematician Alan Turing. Not far behind him is Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke, a fellow math wizard and code breaker at the Brits’ famous cipher center at Bletchley Park.

Their task, and that of their team of proto-geeks, is to break the Nazis’ “unbreakable code” using a captured “Enigma” machine, on which the code changes daily. While they toil to find the solution to the seemingly impossible problem, Allied soldiers die in the field, Londoners perish under buildings in night bombings, Royal Navy ships are sunk. As you suspect, whole-hearted determination, almost preternatural brain power, the Treasury of England, and a little bit of luck combine to prevail over the code, over the Nazis.

And therein lies the question of right and wrong, good and evil. Is it right to demean, arrest, demonize, humiliate, and internally mutilate a man who breaks the back of Nazi Germany, simply because he is gay? Obviously not. Obviously Alan Turing should have had parades in his honor (alas for the clandestine services, there are never parades), a knighthood at the very least. Too bad he was gay. Too bad that negated all the good he had done. Too bad QE2 didn’t pardon him for his gay behavior until 2013. Twenty-thirteen! It’s beyond comprehension, but at least it was finally done.

The moral(s) of this movie, which you should definitely see–it is smart, funny, somber, victorious, deeply moving, plus Churchill is mentioned (I love him lots)–is (are) that it takes immense effort to overcome evil, that such overcoming doesn’t necessarily happen the moment you put your heart and mind into it, and that even then, maybe no one will notice, and you have to continue to live authentically as yourself. So do that.

And for those of you still mired in a world where you can’t look a gay person in the eye and ask how his or her day went, how his or her partner is doing, it is time to stop that and show respect for humanity, for people’s work, for people in general who aren’t doing anything else than wishing you well and trying to live their own lives. Plus maybe–you don’t know–maybe they are saving yours.

A must-see movie.

THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING

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The Theory of Everything is the story of the life of Stephen and Jane Hawking, he of the gigantic brain, she of the enormous capacity to love, to live, and to cope with her husband’s tragic and debilitating illness.

I have not loved a movie so much in a very long time. Perhaps not since Inception. This movie resonated with me completely. When the credits began to roll, I was wiping tears.

The story takes us from grad-school-Stephen’s days at Cambridge when he has not yet decided what topic to pursue for his doctorate through his diagnosis and decline. We see him as a real person, not a legend. A student who came to Cambridge because Oxford was tired of him (their loss!). A brainiac of immense magnitude endearingly falling in love, an accomplished Oxbridge physicist falling down, staying down, then determining not to be held down by his body’s limitations.

There is love and hope and sorrow and grief and coping and not coping and moving along and proclaiming at the last, in better words than this: “If I can do this, you can do something.”

It really does give one pause to consider the level of determination needed to carry on with motorneuron disease for fifty (!) years, and not just to carry on, but to thrive, to write, to teach, to work. Which is not to say that other people with this condition who do not do these things are not coping–God bless them and strengthen them and their families for all good things and hope and love–only that for this particular man to achieve as he has achieved is phenomenal.

As for comments, “Yeah, but he’s an atheist,” whatever. You should be able to learn from whomever you bump into, not only people who are exactly like you. And frankly, if you cannot learn a thing or two from the courage and determination of Stephen Hawking as told in this movie, I am indeed sorry. “Yeah, but they actually get divorced,” please. Please. I knew a person 30 years ago who divorced her husband because he lost hearing in one ear and couldn’t hear her talking in bed, and she didn’t want to move to the other side of the bed. The right side was her side. (She was in a bowling league with me, if that tells you anything.)

Rotten Tomatoes gives Theory an 81% fresh rating. I’m guessing the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will take a look. My guess is Eddie Redmayne for best actor and even a possible best picture nod. Mr. Redmayne’s portrayal of the physical decline of Dr. Hawking is impressive, and reminded me somewhat (though entirely differently) of Dustin Hoffman’s performance in Rain Man. The movie is appropriate for older children, but mine would have been bored and possibly grossed out by various medical situations. I heartily (and even demandingly) recommend you see this movie.

THE JUDGE, starring Robert Downey, Jr. and Robert Duvall

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The Judge is not so much a courtroom drama as it is the story of a last-ditch effort to salvage something positive from a horrible father-son relationship. I’m not 100% sure the movie delivers, but it does try, and that’s something. I kind of liked it in a “Robert Downey Junior is gorgeous and the rest of the movie is okay” way. I mean, he’s worth watching. The rest of the cast is fine. Robert Duvall is fine, not achieving greatness in this role, but then, he’s already done that.

There are no real authentic emotional moments. We don’t laugh or cry. There’s no real suspense. We don’t gasp. We don’t grab the arm of the person we’re sitting with. I thought things like, “Yeah, that’s right,” and “No, that probably wouldn’t happen,” but I was never wholly engaged in the story. Plus, the end of the trial and the end of the movie were both unlikely and not fully grounded in human nature. People do what people do, and it’s jarring when movies make people do what people would not do in the situation. When that happens, I’m pulled out of the experience and I start to think bad things about the writers and the director.

Robert Downey, Jr. is Hank Palmer, a high-powered and very expensive criminal defense lawyer. He goes home to Small Town America for his mother’s funeral and, while there, must interact with his oddly non-emotive brothers and his emotionally withholding father. He also runs into an old girlfriend and her daughter who are supposed to matter to the plot, but I’m not sure they do. Girlfriend is played by the lovely Vera Farmiga. There’s an awkward bit with her daughter.

Robert Duvall plays Joseph Palmer, Small Town America’s presiding judge for the past 42 years, who finds himself on the wrong end of a murder charge. He needs a first-rate lawyer, but doesn’t want his son to defend him because he doesn’t like him. Events occur that force the Judge to retain his son (albeit pro bono), and through the process of the ongoing case we see into the broken father-son relationship.

The movie goes from scene to predictable scene, I’m yawning here. The story was nice and almost sort of believable, but then they did that thing they did in Sweet Home Alabama at the end. You know that part where a seriously successful person decides it’s maybe better to be mediocre and ordinary and live in Podunk than it is to be out there being amazing.

Maybe for a lot of people this is true. But a brilliant lawyer like Hank Palmer is no way in a million years going to be happy living in rural Indiana trying simple assault cases and aspiring to be nobody. I don’t buy it. World class brains don’t settle. They can’t. Mozart can’t decide to be Salieri anymore than the other way around.

I had a few problems with the script. Here’s one: the prosecutor is a guy from out of town. It’s Billy Bob Thornton and he’s fun to hate in lots of movies, including this one, but–and I’m no expert–murder cases are handled by the D.A., not by someone who traveled down from the Big City because he wants to put an arrogant family in its place. He’s never referred to as the D.A., and he’s totes non-electable to the position, so I don’t know. I hated him so much as POTUS in Love Actually that I still can’t deal. (Shoot, now I’m thinking about Hugh Grant dancing down the stairs in Number Ten. Now you are too.)

It’s not a great movie, but it’s okay, and if your choice is this movie or Left Behind, you need to choose this one. It’s good enough. Probably worth your money. Not spectacular. Not nearly as good as the trailer made us hope it would be.