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Weekend movie roundup: Raw determination and dedication to one's craft

In theaters Aug 1: Tales of professional triumph
In theaters Aug 1: Tales of professional triumph
Universal/Long Shot/Sony

This weekend it's all about professional excellence: what drives it, what develops it, what forces come against it, and whose forces prevail. What does it take to give life the what-for and triumph at the top of one's field?

This week's openings offer a deep bow to accomplishment of all flavors, be they mental, physical, spiritual, or simply of pure stamina - and sporting more than one Oscar-worthy turn to boot.

All three open today, August 1, 2014. Check IMDb.com or your local listings for ticket information.

PS - You'll notice the conspicuous absence of "Guardians of the Galaxy" here; scheduling conflicts prevented me from screening it in advance, but you can be sure I'll be catching it on my own! Also opening today.

Get On Up: Pure grit and global influence
Get On Up: Pure grit and global influence Universal Pictures

Get On Up: Pure grit and global influence

With regard to the obvious, Get On Up fires at full 5-star capacity. Packing major firepower from director Tate Taylor ("The Help"), titan producer Brian Grazer (holy moly, just look'im up), and risen star Chadwick Boseman, it delivers everything one could ask for with regard to performance, musicality, and heart.

A+ there, no question.

I adore the fact that no prostheic makeup of any kind was employed. Though Boseman towers over Brown by a full 7" and bears little resemblance his bone structure, I nevertheless forgot who I was looking at on several occasions, so completely did Boseman personify Brown's mannerisms and personal demeanor. (You can learn more about how he accomplished that here, and the effect it had on those around him, including those who knew Brown.)

It's not about looking like one's subject, but rather about conveying that person. It's not about physicality, it's about essence. About personhood. And not only does this make for a much more resonant portrayal, but it also clears the way for some truly stellar acting. Anyone with the basic structure can wear the makeup and achieve the resemblance; only a true actor can accomplish it without the safety net. The subject, the actor, the audience: win win win.

Director Tate Taylor beautifully depicts what young James was seeing as a child, as "the funk" was born within him and empowered him to triumph over whatever horrendous event was befalling him (and there were many). One scene in particular reminded me of "Begin Again", as the performers in the moment transformed into the full musical production that only James could envision. Brilliant.

Where "Get On Up" lost some ground from me was in non-musical technical execution and its handling of domestic violence. Screen writers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth employed two unusual structural devices to tell the story, both of which could have been highly effective in their own rights, but fell short in the finished product. There just wasn't enough command and artistry in the direction, and their power was lost.

And I'll grant that everything needn't be held up as societal commentary, but to present three such scenes and say nothing about them is just plain hurtful, especially after early on in the film, Brown waxes poetic about how it's a man's job to cover his woman. There's an entire enormous conversation underway around this issue, and to present violence as something that turns women on is egregious. (And for the record, we're not talking about Christian Grey & Friends here, that's a whole different enormous conversation.)

So that's why it lost a star and a half, but for the main reason to see it, see it. And I strongly urge you to have some James Brown at the ready for the ride home.

You're gonna need it!

Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Nelsan Ellis, Dan Aykroyd, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Jill Scott, Lennie James, Aunjanue Ellis, Fred Melamed, Allison Janney, John Benjamin Hickey

Directed by: Tate Taylor

Story: Unflinching biopic of the legendary James Brown, from his childhood of extreme poverty to becoming one of the single most influential musicians in history. (Biography, Drama, Musical)

3.5/5 Stars | Themes: Ambition, Competence, Humility, Legacy, Perseverance, Vision, Zest

Rated PG-13 | 138 min. | Official Site | Official Facebook | View Trailer | My Full Review

Screened Jul 29th at the Edwards Grand Palace theater in Houston TX

Code Black: The real denizens of the ER
Code Black: The real denizens of the ER Long Shot Factory

Code Black: The real denizens of the ER

There’s a place known as C-Booth. It’s a three-bed trauma bay in the old Los Angeles County Hospital, the public hospital in which a rule-bending (and occasionally low-level breaking) physician set up a system on the fly. People would come from great distance to observe it in action. It was wild (to us), unfettered, and astonishingly effective.

Here Dr. Ryan McGarry began his training and found his calling. But upon completing a mandated year-long stint elsewhere, he returned not to the legendary trauma bay but to the bright, spanking-new L.A. County Hospital built in his absence. For reasons I shan’t spoil here, it wasn’t just the environs that had changed. It was the very nature his career.

We here in Houston are blessed to have one of the fearsomely few public hospitals like this in our midst, the Ben Taub General Hospital which has long housed one of the most renowned emergency rooms in the country.

It takes a certain, very special, very specialized person to work a hospital emergency room, and with "Code Black", we get to peek at how it all started, and to face where it all is today.

Directed by: Ryan McGarry

Story: A peek into the maverick history of emergency medicine, what it has become under a burdensome healthcare system, and the effect it’s having on its people. (Documentary)

3/5 Stars | Themes: Ambition, Competence, Featured, Perspective, Purpose, Social Concern and Change, Teamwork

Not Rated | 78 min. | Official Site | Official Facebook | View Trailer | My Full Review

Screened Jul 26 via studio screener

Magic in the Moonlight: Games people play
Magic in the Moonlight: Games people play Sony Pictures Classics

Magic in the Moonlight: Games people play

I have a love/hate relationship with Woody Allen's work. This one I love - right up there with "Hannah and Her Sisters", "Bullets Over Broadway", and "Crimes and Misdemeanors".

Almost intolerably witty and delightful, "Magic in the Moonlight" wafts along the fragrant breeze of the south of France with a lilt one can almost hear echoed in Emma Stone's voice as she leans in earnestly to access "the unseen world."

This, to of course the great chagrin of the world's most talented - and skeptical - illusionist, played by a spot-on hilarious Colin Firth. Thus commences a world-class battle of wits as the two begin a dance to determine who holds the superior - and correct - understanding of the cosmos. This isn't the kind of role that gets one noticed for Best Actor Oscar, but that doesn't mean it isn't deserving (and may the odds be ever in his favor at the Golden Globes).

Allen is at the very pinnacle of his game here. The dialogue sports myriad lines worthy of memorization, the characters are tightly woven and well-actualized, no subplot disturbs the pace. The only autobiographical indulgence this time is the romantic charge between individuals of a 28-year age gap, but it's never anything that intrudes or feels as though Allen's processing his issues via film (as he's done occasionally).

This one's just pure, sweet, pretty fun that's almost intolerably disarming. I would've stopped it one scene short, but no matter."Magic in the Moonlight" is for fans of whimsy and romance with a healthy dose of rational logic, Allen fans or not.

Starring: Colin Firth, Emma Stone, Simon McBurney, Hamish Linklater, Eileen Atkins, Jacki Weaver, Marcia Gay Harden

Directed by: Woody Allen

Story:  A world-class illusionist responds to a friend's plea to expose the charlatan who's convinced the friend's loved ones that she's a psychic medium - only to find out that she may actually be.  (Comedy, Romance)

4/5 Stars | Themes: Ambition, Competence, Humor and Human Comedy, Man vs. Man, Zest

Rated PG-13 | 97 min. | Official Site | View Trailer

Screened Jul 21 at the Edwards Grand Palace theater in Houston TX