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The End of the Tour

If a film that is primarily about two men talking to each other — an interviewer and the subject of his article — sounds less than exciting prepare to have your notions shattered by “The End of the Tour.” This is cinema that is both compelling and intelligent and that’s a rare commodity these days. James Ponsoldt’s film (scripted by Donald Margulies) is fact-based, adapted from David Lipsky’s book detailing his five-day interview with fellow author David Foster Wallace. The film begins with an offscreen NPR host (it sounds like Robert Siegel but he’s unbilled so I can’t be certain) announcing Wallace’s death, apparently by suicide and Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) delivering an on-air appreciation. Later at home he digs out his old audio tapes of his visit leading to the movie-long flashback of that event. Lipsky, a minimally successful fiction writer, was working at Rolling Stone when he discovers Wallace’s “Infinite Jest” through the urging of his girlfriend. He convinces his editor to underwrite following the author on his book tour even though, “Rolling Stone doesn’t interview writers” and heads off to the snowy northwest where Wallace teaches writing at a small college.

While there are other characters threaded throughout the narrative (notably Joan Cusack as a gushy escort who enthuses that after hearing Wallace speak she just might read his book), this is essentially a two-character study of the shifting reactions between the two men. Wallace (Jason Segal) is initially welcoming, even insisting Lipsky stay in his spare room (piled high with comp copies of his book) rather than a motel. There is a sense that in the initial interchange he is guarded in his responses, but then this is a man who is also extremely uncomfortable in his own skin. He professes not to understand the point of interviews and it is possible he’s agreed to one out of curiosity but is unprepared for how probing an extended one will be. Lipsky both admires his subject and is envious of his success — he may in a sense want to be Wallace; are his questions an attempt to know his subject or learn how to become him? Wallace becomes more prickly as the questions become more personal and the two have a major falling out that may not be fully healed by the time the week is over. I doubt I’m doing the film justice but please take my word for it that “The End of the Tour” is more interesting that watching paint that doesn’t dry. If only for the performances — Segal delivering an eye-opening one and Eisenberg in a less flashy turn that anchors the film — this is a film you should not pass by.

2015 / Lionsgate / 106m / $19.98 [R]

Back to the Future, 30th Anniversary Trilogy

While I liked the original “Back to the Future” well enough — without considering it, as some do, one of the greatest movies ever made — the sequels struck me as pretty unnecessary. Well, except of course as a means of cashing in on a successful production by offering more of the same. Seen in retrospect and offering the bittersweet evidence of a young and physically agile Michael J. Fox, they become something else if not something more. Fox may never have been one of our great screen actors (though “The Frighteners” gives evidence that his talent went largely untapped) but he was an adept comedian and he and Christopher Lloyd (trotting out his usual wackdoodle persona) make a terrific team. If you take the sequels as no more than a further opportunity for these two to bounce humorously off each other you’ll get more out of them, not unlike watching lesser efforts of great comedy teams.

In case you’ve forgotten the first has Fox at Marty McFly travel back in time to 1955 courtesy of a Delorean that crackpot inventor Lloyd has gussied up into a time machine. The object of this journey is to make sure Marty’s parents get together and he gets born.

In the second, Lloyd whisks him into 2015 (yup, our current year and this trilogy set was released on the same day Marty arrives) because the young man’s as yet unborn children are in trouble. Complications ensue causing Marty to return to 1955 to retrieve a sports almanac that alters everything leading to Marty’s 1985 “present” (except oddly the outcomes of the games recorded therein). This installment is nothing if not ridiculously complicated. The final film (which is actually the second part of the second film) has Marty travel back to 1885 whence Doc has been hurled in the cliffhanger that ends the second. The chief fun here is to see director Robert Zemeckis indulge in a variety of in-jokes based on various classic westerns, including shooting some of the film in John Ford’s beloved Monument Valley and giving cameos to various members of Ford’s stock company, such as Harry Carey, Jr. None of these films will ever be mistaken for great contributions to the art of cinema (except by a deluded few) but they are amusing. I don’t regret having had to see them again, but if fortune smiles, I’ll never have to do so again.

1985, 1989, 1990 / Universal / 116m, 109m, 119m / $49.98 [PG]

The Curse of Oak Island, season 2

“The Curse of Oak Island” is brought to you by Prometheus Entertainment — the same folks responsible for those ancient aliens shows on the History Channels. The do love unsolved mysteries at Prometheus, and I suspect they prefer them to stay that way because otherwise, it would mean the end of the TV shows. Now Oak Island, off Nova Scotia, is quite a mystery and, unlike UFOs it is undediably real, a hole dug Cthulhu only knows how deep and cleverly booby-trapped. Discovered about 200 years ago, it has been attacked by a series of folks who believe there is treasure at its bottom but who have been repeatedly foiled from getting more than a little over 100 feet down. Artifacts of obviously human origin have been found but skeptics suspect the thing is merely a sinkhole. The presence of coconut fibers in the shaft suggests otherwise (remember Oak Island is not a tropical locale). Per the theories tossed about willy-nilly in the series, it may hold pirate treasure or Marie Antoinette’s jewels or Shakespeare’s original manuscripts or the treasure of the Knight’s Templar or the Ark of the Covenant (for some reason the Prometheus people are mighty fond of the Ark) or even the Holy Grail.

How some of the more far-fetched suppositions are arrived at provides what entertainment value is to be had from “The Curse of Oak Island.” At one point a guest “expert” takes the Lagina frères, Marty and Rick (who are the current treasure hunters) miles and miles away to show them a Native American rock carving that he claims will link Oak Island to the Holy Land. Now not only is this artifact nowhere near the Island but the carving looks nothing like the eight-pointed decoration featured in wall paintings in the Middle East as claimed. The brothers, however, are suitably impressed as they also are by finding a few Spanish coins that predate the discovery of The Money Pit as the shaft has come to be called. I invite my readers to check out their pocket change; do all the coins date from this year? (Admittedly the discovery of a Phoenician coin some years back is a puzzler.) But it’s still enough that the brothers forge on as they will continue to do because the show has been renewed for a third season. Despite the DVD case’s promise that “The Answer is Down There,” don’t hold your breath expecting to learn it anytime soon.

2014-15 / History, Lionsgate / 430m (2 discs) / $14/98 [NR]

Four Warriors

These days, any film that involves medieval soldiers and contains some element of fantasy is compared to “Game of Thrones” and so it is with “Four Warriors.” Now I haven’t seen any episodes of the apparently widely popular TV series, but I have seen stills and I can vouchsafe at least that “Four Warriors” was not made with a similarly lavish budget. That’s not necessarily a bad thing (some of my very favorite movies are low-budget affairs) and as director Phil Hawkins’ film is set among the peasant class with nary a castle in sight the lack of money doesn’t mar the production until the end. Four battle weary crusaders have returned to England and on the way back home, encounter a village where all the men and children have been abducted. Their leader, Richard (Christopher Dane, who also scripted) theorizes slavers but as we’ve seen black figures that flit swiftly through the woods we can surmise something else is responsible. Richard wants to get back to his wife but his comrades (Fergal Philips and Glenn Speers) outvote him; even the Saracen captive they’ve brought back (Hadrian Howard) opts to help out.

The menace is a demon in search of a crystal in the nearby caves; the abducted men have been monsterized into his minions and the children are employed digging away to find the object that will allow the demon to rule the world or something along those lines. Fantasy fans will find “Four Warriors” comfortably familiar stuff, but those who insist such efforts be stuffed with special effects of one kind or another will be disappointed because this production has (surprisingly) none at all. A few might have gussied things up a tad but the film manages quite nicely without them. The only disappointment is the makeup for the demon and the rigid masks worn by the kidnapped men who’ve become his lackeys. The relationships are all nicely drawn — between the warriors themselves and between them and their captive and with the women left behind in the village. The dialogue may not be memorable but it rings true and the performances are solid. The production has been lensed in natural locations and makes good use of the landscapes. If you can tolerate your fantasy on a small scale, you’ll find much to appreciate here.

2014 / Lionsgate / 92m / $19.98 [PG-13]

The Golden Cane Warrior (Pendecar Tongkat Emas)

When I think of Asian cinema, I have to admit that what springs to mind are Japan, China, Korea and Hong Kong but not Indonesia. And there must be far more going on there than I’d suspected because “The Golden Cane Warrior” is excellent on every technical level. Your reaction to the film otherwise will depend much on your enthusiasm or lack of same for Wuxia films. The story has Master Cempaka (Christine Hakim) aware that her death is approaching (though she’s remarkably spry in combat) and having to decide on the heir to the Golden Cane, a weapon whose use makes whoever wields it invincible. The potential heirs are her four students, all of whom are the orphaned children of her late enemies. Her choice of Dara (Eva Celia Latjuba) enrages Biru (Riza Rahadian) and he and his lover Gerhana (Tara Basro) kill the master and steal the cane before the secret of using it can be passed on. This is of little matter to Biru because once he possesses it everyone assumes he is undefeatable and lets him have his way, even to taking over the most powerful martial arts school in the land. Dara, meanwhile, goes on a quest to locate the only other person who knows the cane’s secret. It’s no spoiler to reveal that of course she does find the other warrior (which has its little surprises) and the two do battle with the villains.

Despite its period setting, “The Golden Cane Warrior” has none of the lavish sets of the Wuxias made in other countries. It is set among peasant villages so there’s not a palace or opulent temple to be found. But the landscapes in which the film takes place are breathtaking and director Ifa Isfansyah (who also was one of the writers) exploits them to the max (and the cinematography is glorious). It’s refreshing, too, to find one of these martial arts outings emphasize female combatants; the others I’ve seen, no matter the country of origin, may have women fighters but men dominate the action. This movie is practically feminist by comparison. I also appreciated that while wire work was used on occasion, it wasn’t of the outrageous (and to me comedic) variety that propels characters through the air like superheroes. And while I’m on that aspect, I’ll note that the action sequences are well integrated into a proper plot, not just an endless series of set pieces strung together by a flimsy premise. Of its kind this is a superior entry,

2014 / Well Go USA / 111m / $29.98 [NR]

Uncanny

Thanks to “Ex-Machina,” there have been several low budget — not to mention direct-to-video — productions playing with the idea of artificial intelligence housed in an android that can pass for human. “Uncanny” may be the best of the lot that I’ve seen but then the bar is pretty low. This one has scientist David Kresson (Mark Webber) invite reporter Joy Andrews (Lucy Griffiths) to spend a few days observing and interacting with his creation Adam (David Clayton Rogers) — a set-up remarkably similar to the Alex garland film. The reporter becomes less than objective when she and the scientist strike romantic sparks in each other but their growing attraction also prompts some erratic and undesirable behavior in Adam. That’s really all there is to the plot in an essentially three-character film (David’s financial backer is only briefly on screen and inessential to the story) with a lot — and I do mean a lot — of talk.

It is intelligent talk and it may even be scientifically sound — I cannot be the judge of that — but anyone expecting much in the way of action from a science fiction movie will be disappointed. Director Matthew Leutwyler may be trying to compensate with his constantly prowling camera but I grew weary of the constant lens flare and light bleaching out the image. And however intelligent the dialogue might be the final reveal is one that genre fans will see coming about 10 minutes into the film. (Those who recall a certain Alfred Hitchcock show about a ventriloquist will at the very least not be taken off guard.) And I prefer to forget the surprise that pops up after the credits have begun rolling; it’s that stupefying. In Webber, Griffiths and especially Rogers “Uncanny” has a trio of performers who keep the proceedings from bogging down in its talk. Genre fans at least may find some it of minor interest but not precisely memorable.

2015 / RLJ Entertainment / 85m / $27.97 [NR]

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