Thursday, November 7, 2013

Quick Reviews of Movies I’ve Seen Recently (10/15 to 11/7)

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ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW -- If you are a fellow Disney geek and/or have ever been to Disney World (especially, I reckon, if you are married with kids), then this wacky experiment -- filmed, guerilla-style, within the hallowed grounds of the Happiest Place on Earth and using Disney iconography in bizarre, borderline sacrilegious ways -- is a fascinating, gleefully twisted must-see. Its very existence must cause Disney nightly fits of rage -- not because it does them any real harm (it doesn’t, and they were wise to not make a stink about it), but simply because someone dared to make it!

THE FIFTH ESTATE -- Bill Condon’s slick drama does a good job of tackling Julian Assange & WikiLeaks from various angles. But it tries a bit too hard to attain a SOCIAL NETWORK-esque edginess and ends up sabotaging its innate intrigue. Benedict Cumberbatch is solid but Daniel Bruhl and David Thewlis steal his spotlight; also gotta love Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci as snarky, squabbling government officials.

KILL YOUR DARLINGS -- Part period piece, part noir mystery, part gay romance, this “Beat generation origin story” crackles with well-crafted atmosphere and character-driven melodrama. Daniel Radcliffe is fantastic as Allen Ginsberg -- his best and most eye-opening post-Potter work so far.

12 YEARS A SLAVE -- A staggering, unflinching, emotionally devastating movie-watching experience about Solomon Northup, a free northern black man in the 1800s who is kidnapped, brought to the south and enslaved for twelve years. Masterfully crafted by Steve McQueen, this film pulls no punches -- before all is said and done, you will have gone from cringing to crying to exulting and back again many times over. Unbelievable performances across the board, but breakout star Chiwetel Ejiofor, the always-amazing Michael Fassbender (one of the great villainous performances of the year) and heretofore unknown Lupita Nyong'o are standouts. Hyperbole doesn't do it justice. It is essential viewing.

CARRIE -- Basically a beat-for-beat retelling of the 1976 film, with a few extra bits from the book sprinkled in... but none of the beats or bits are remotely as good. Chloe Grace Moretz is okay but she’s no Sissy Spacek. Likewise, Julianne Moore puts her own spin on an iconic role but doesn’t come close to filling Piper Laurie’s shoes. On a positive note, Judy Greer is awesome, and the final act mayhem is pretty cool and earns its R-rating. All in all, a serviceable endeavor, but even more unnecessary than most unnecessary remakes.

ALL IS LOST -- Swirling seas, sharks and Mother Nature's wrath are no match for Robert Redford's commanding screen presence. The man can do more with one stoic, grizzled facial expression than most actors can do in an entire career’s worth of emoting. Not quite as edge-of-your seat intense as I would’ve liked (or maybe I’ve just experienced too much of that lately), but still a solid, minimalist story of survival with great attention to seafaring detail.

THE HUMAN SCALE -- Somewhat dry but thoughtful documentary that offers ideas and theories about what we can do to stop modern city living from consuming our humanity. (Spoiler alert: We're doomed.)

ABOUT TIME -- The latest from Richard “LOVE ACTUALLY” Curtis, about a nice bloke named Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) who discovers that he has inherited the power to travel through time, which he uses to find true love (in the form of Rachel McAdams). From the moment we glimpse an AMELIE poster on Tim’s bedroom wall, I knew this movie would be right up my sappy alley -- and indeed, it is ridiculously charming and funny and pulls on all the heartstrings. You (probably) won't even mind that the story/gimmick is a bit haphazard and makes less sense the more you think about. (Hint: Don’t think. Just feel the feels!)

BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR -- One of the most honest, raw and passionate films of the year, this three-hour, French, NC-17-rated, Palm d’Or-winning lesbian romance earns all of its accolades and controversy. Expertly crafted by director Abdel Kechiche, the story of young Adele (Adèle Exarchopoulos) and blue-haired Emma (Lea Seydoux) perfectly & intimately captures the exhilaration of first love, the intensity of sexual discovery, the complexities of adult relationships, the devastation of heartbreak and all points in between. The two lead performances are simply brilliant and utterly fearless; indeed, the much-heralded sex scenes are quite graphic but somehow never feel gratuitous -- a testament to the film’s power and the unbridled emotion that it both displays and evokes. A true work of cinematic art.

ESCAPE PLAN -- Watching Sly and Arnie play off each other as they try to escape from an inescapable prison offers lots of old school fun and is far more satisfying than either of their recent solo efforts. They are helped by a great supporting cast, too, including Dr. Alan Grant, Holly Flax and Jesus Christ (or Sam Neil, Amy Ryan and Jim Caviezel, if you prefer). Guessing they’ll never again recapture their glory days, but as long as they can give us this acceptable level of entertainment value, I, for one, will be happy.

LAST VEGAS -- A harmless lark starring a bunch of old actors that we all like doing wacky things at a bachelor party in Sin City. Not worth seeing in theatres but it should make an amusing diversion some lazy night on cable. Kevin Kline steals the show out from under De Niro, Douglas and Freeman. Features some nice Vegas scenery (with special emphasis on the Aria hotel), which naturally makes me want to go back ASAP.

THE COUNSELOR -- Who would’ve guessed that a film directed by Ridley Scott, written by Cormac McCarthy and featuring such a powerhouse cast (Michael Fassbender! Penelope Cruz! Javier Bardem! Cameron Diaz! Brad Pitt!) would be such a hot mess. It’s a bleak story about bad decisions and consequences, but that hardly matters because you won’t be able to get past all the clunky double-talk, dopey metaphors and non-sequiturs. That being said, thanks to Ms. Diaz, I will never be able to look at a catfish the same way again....

ENDER'S GAME -- This long-awaited adaptation of the sci-fi classic takes a little while to warm up, but once it hits its stride, it's quite entertaining. Asa Butterfield and Hailee Steinfeld do fine jobs and even Harrison Ford seems more or less engaged. Not a perfect film by any means, but a solid spectacle with just enough substance. Would make a great double-feature with STARSHIP TROOPERS for anyone who wants to overdose on “future dystopian bug-war with sociopolitical and moralistic commentary” goodness.

DALLAS BUYERS CLUB -- Matthew McConaughey gives the performance of his life as Ron Woodroof, a freewheeling, bull-riding, womanizing cowboy who is diagnosed with HIV, wages war against the stifling practices of the pharmaceutical companies and becomes an unlikely hero of the AIDS crisis in the mid-‘80s. A powerful, electric, inherently sad yet crowd-pleasing film that continues “The Age of McConaughey” -- an amazing run of no fewer than seven brilliant performances over the past couple of years. Hopefully this one will finally result in a much-deserved Oscar nod. Also keep an eye on Jared Leto, of all people, with an equally Oscar-worthy turn as Woodroof’s flamboyant partner in crime.

BAD GRANDPA -- The best thing about this movie is that Johnny Knoxville’s old-age makeup is freaking incredible and makes recent crap like THE IRON LADY and J. EDGAR look even worse. (Probably an impossibility for it to get an Oscar nod, but dammit, it would be deserving.) Fortunately, it's pretty funny, too, with all the lewdness & crudeness we’ve come to expect from the Jackass crew. There are even some laughs that weren't given away in the trailer! And the kid is great.

DIANA -- This biopic about the last two years of Princess Diana’s iconic life is flat, dull, riddled with clichés and more than a little tacky -- at times it feels like the script was adapted from the National Enquirer. Naomi Watts acts her heart out, but as has been the case over the past few years (see also: ADORE, THE IMPOSSIBLE, J. EDGAR, DREAM HOUSE and more), her movie is not at all worthy of her considerable talents.