Testament of Youth
⋆⋆⋆½ out of four stars
Rating: PG-13 for thematic material including bloody and disturbing war related images.
Theater: Edina.

“Testament of Youth,” James Kent’s stately screen adaptation of British author Vera Brittain’s 1933 World War I memoir, evokes the march of history with a balance and restraint exhibited by few movies with such grand ambitions. Most similar films strain at the seams with bombast and sentimentality. By invoking classic shots from past wartime classics, the film will remind you of the degree to which Hollywood molded our ideas of conflict and places — putting “Testament of Youth” in a continuum of commercial high-minded war movies.

“Testament of Youth,” however, is not fiction; Vera and the other major characters are real-life figures. The movie is also the stronger for having no battle sequences. There are just enough shots of life in the trenches to give a glimpse of a hell, peopled by exhausted, mud-covered soldiers who are almost unrecognizable from the vital young men who left Britain thinking they were bound for glory. All this is viewed through the eyes of Vera, played by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander (“Ex Machina”). “Testament of Youth” might be described as a feminist war film, because it is saturated with Vera’s frustration by her parents’ limited ambitions for her and later by her contempt for war.

The film begins with Vera chafing over her parents’ efforts to groom her into a model future wife. She gets her wish and goes to Oxford, but soon leaves school for grueling training as a nurse. She becomes a tough, smart woman of action. At no point does the film coddle her with misty soft-focus photography. The more Vera sees, the more she internalizes the grim reality she absorbs. While hardly cold, “Testament of Youth” avoids the temptation to elicit tears. As for the bright, handsome eager beavers who excitedly troop off to a war they believe will end in a matter of weeks, they haven’t an inkling of the fate that awaits them.
STEPHEN HOLDEN, New York Times

 

Madame Bovary
⋆⋆½ out of four stars
Rating: R for some sexuality/nudity.
Theater: St. Anthony Main.

 

“Madame Bovary, c’est moi,” Gustave Flaubert said of his most famous fictional creation. Impulsive and vain, she is hardly the most sympathetic character in 19th-century literature, but she is among the most vivid. Flaubert illuminated her inner life and outward circumstances with a clarity that set a new standard for the novel, one that continues to beguile his followers.

And also filmmakers. The novel’s style and structure elude cinematic capture. Yet there have been at least a half-dozen renditions over the years. Now French director Sophie Barthes has made a compact, lavishly decorated English-language version, with Mia Wasikowska as the most notorious adulteress in Normandy. The film is nothing great: It’s a B+ term paper that dutifully checks off the costume-drama boxes of the post-Merchant Ivory era. The men in Emma Bovary’s life are reduced to their caricatural essences. What wildness there is in this “Madame Bovary” belongs to Wasikowska, an actress who is frequently more interesting than her material. She was terrific as Jane Eyre in 2011, with a special gift for making her characters feel at once bracingly modern and entirely of their own time.
A.O. SCOTT, New York Times

 

Max
⋆⋆½ out of four stars
Rating: PG for action violence, peril, brief language and some thematic elements.

“Semper fidelis,” the Romans used to purr into their dogs’ ears, long before the Marine Corps adopted the Latin for “Always faithful” as their motto. Most faithful of all? Marine Corps war dogs. That’s the message of “Max,” a touching if somewhat clunky crowd pleaser about one such dog who comes to live with the family of the soldier who died serving with him in Afghanistan.

Back home, Max is in shock, inconsolable and too erratic to return to duty. Justin (Josh Wiggins) has to put down the video games and try to calm a distraught animal that howls in the night, shakes in fear at fireworks and only will bond with the boy who smells like his beloved former owner. Director Boaz Yakin (“Remember the Titans”) shoves in weighty subplots such as Justin getting mixed up with crooks, thanks to his talent for burning copies of unreleased new video games. That gives Max a chance to battle the bad guys’ dogs. But the heart of “Max” is a boy growing up and learning to understand an always faithful dog. As sentimental and manipulative as their bonding moments are, they make “Max” work. You don’t have to speak Latin to know a darned good dog, and a passable dog movie, when you see one.
Roger Moore, Tribune News Services