GLORIA -- Gloria is an older single lady who likes to go out and have fun and meet people and knows what she wants out of life -- the tricky part is wading through the muck and finding it. This Chilean film from director Sebastian Lelio follows Gloria through a series of emotional ups and downs, successes and failures, perfectly mixing feelings of joy and melancholy. Easily one of the best films about love, sex and relationships among the elder set that I can recall, presented with complete sincerity, but containing themes that are universally relatable regardless of age. Above all, it features one of the best, most complex and fearless performances of the year from Paulina Garcia, who is more deserving of an Oscar nod than any actual nominee not named Cate Blanchett. A truly wonderful film that should be added to your Netflix immediately -- though, fair warning, the Spanish-language version of the song “Gloria” will likely be stuck in your head for weeks afterward.
THE LEGO MOVIE -- Can't blame anyone for being skeptical and expecting little more than a 90-minute toy commercial -- I felt that way, too, at first. As a lifelong LEGO maniac, I walked in with low expectations but high hopes. Turns out the material was in good hands: Directors Phil Lord & Christopher Miller knocked it out of the park with the help of a whip-smart, funny script, a game voice cast, and most importantly, a love of all things LEGO. Visually, this world is astonishingly detailed -- entirely made out of CGI LEGO, from skyscrapers to drops of water -- and will likely take many viewings to fully absorb. The supporting cast of LEGO characters should appeal to every level of geekdom. There's a gleeful, feverish excitement, much like you may have once felt during a particularly creative burst of LEGO energy as a kid. Hard to believe but THE LEGO MOVIE is the first must-see film of 2014.
THE MONUMENTS MEN -- George Clooney directs this true story about a motley crew who attempt to save and protect priceless works of art from the sore-loser wrath of the Nazis as World War II winds down. Since it's essentially a pseudo-heist film starring Clooney and a band of merry pals, it's easy to make any number of "OCEAN meets PRIVATE RYAN" jokes. Unfortunately, it never comes close to the ring-a-ding-ding snappiness of the former or the gravitas of the latter. The story is innately interesting and the cast is obviously watchable (Clooney! Damon! Murray! Goodman! Blanchett! The guy from THE ARTIST!), but the whole thing just isn't handled well. It feels very episodic and fails to engage most of the time. There's probably a good movie to be made about these unsung heroes, but unfortunately this isn't it. You’re better off watching this clip from Linklater’s BEFORE SUNSET which sort of sums things up.
ROBOCOP -- There is apparently no stopping the ‘80s remake trend even though they keep getting more and more unnecessary. The original ROBOCOP is a classic -- a perfectly realized vision of the future by Paul Verhoeven, loaded with satire and R-rated gory goodness, with actors like Peter Weller and Kurtwood Smith providing untouchably iconic performances. The remake, while competently made on a technical level, is stripped of literally everything that made the original great. There is no emotional heft or sense of satire (no sense of humor at all, really), performances are bland (with the exception of Samuel L. Jackson and Michael Keaton, both of whose presences are wasted) and the visuals and action offer nothing that we haven’t seen before. There is simply no reason for the movie to exist, especially when a sparkly new 4K-restored Blu-Ray of the original is on sale for less than the price of a movie ticket on Amazon.
WINTER'S TALE -- There’s a lot going on in this movie about love and destiny and miracles and angels and demons over the course of a century in New York City. I have not read Mark Helprin’s novel, but I can see how it might be sprawling, detailed and emotionally-involved. Unfortunately, Akiva Goldsman’s adaptation is none of those things. Story-wise, it is weird but not exactly complicated: Good-hearted thief meets dying girl and believes it is his destiny to save her life with love, all while being pursued by a demon gangster intent on preventing such miracles. But Goldsman’s screenplay is a mess, littered with bad dialogue, plot points, flying horses and “rules” that seem to come out of nowhere. Goldsman’s career has been topsy-turvy to say the least -- he wrote BATMAN & ROBIN, for God’s sake, but also won an Oscar for A BEAUTIFUL MIND. In his directorial debut, he pretty much throws everything at the wall to see what sticks -- plus he must have called in a number of favors from past collaborators, including Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly. Colin Farrell and the lovely Jessica Brown Findlay try their best to generate some chemistry but they just have nothing to work with. On the plus side, the film does feature some nice cinematography and a particularly bizarre cameo appearance. But even as a mild curiosity, it’s just not worth the effort.
IN SECRET -- If there's one thing recent cinema has taught us, it's that French women named Therese used to get trapped in loveless marriages quite often. First, it happened to Audrey Tautou in last year's THERESE (based on the 1927 novel about Therese Desqueyroux), and now it's Elizabeth Olsen's turn in the story of Therese Raquin (originally written in 1867). Both stories are about oppressed lives and forbidden loves, but the former is a sumptuously-filmed character study while the latter is, well, a bit trashier. Aside from being trapped in a loveless marriage with her creepy little twerp of a step-brother (Tom “Draco Malfoy” Felton, who is forging a nice career out of playing creepy little twerps), Therese Raquin is crazily undersexed. Her urges eventually result in an elicit affair with a smoldering friend of the family (Oscar Isaac), with increasingly disastrous results. Sounds good on paper... but sadly, the film is devoid of much passion and the shenanigans fall flat. Olsen, Isaac and Felton are all very good, as is Jessica Lange as the domineering, guilt-tripping mother. But for a movie in which Elizabeth Olsen masturbates in the grass while watching a fieldhand flex his muscles, IN SECRET is surprisingly dull.
POMPEII -- What happens when you take the tragic love story of TITANIC, the sword-and-sandals drama of GLADIATOR and the sensibilities of Roland Emmerich, throw in Kit Harington’s abs, Emily Browning’s lips and a sneering Kiefer Sutherland, add a generous helping of cheese and infuse the undeniable technical skill of director Paul W.S. Anderson? The answer is a hugely entertaining cinematic spectacle that is the very definition of “so bad, it’s good.” Jon Snow stars as Milo, an orphaned horseman who becomes a slave who becomes a gladiator. His skills in the arena get him promoted to Pompeii (sort of a Triple-A affiliate of Rome), where he meets and falls in love with the upper-class daughter of a merchant who has already betrothed her to a crooked Roman senator who also happens to be the guy who killed Milo’s family years ago. (Whew!) Throughout all this melodrama, Mount Vesuvius bubbles ominously in the background. Finally, it erupts. The last 45 minutes are non-stop mayhem, fire and destruction as rivalries are settled, romances are fulfilled, Pompeii is obliterated and everyone dies spectacularly (not a spoiler). Let’s face it... sometimes you just need a disaster flick... and this one hits the spot.
OMAR -- This Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Film is a story of life, love and betrayal on the West Bank. Omar is a young Palestinian who routinely climbs the separation wall to hang out with his friends and share fleeting moments with the girl he hopes to marry. But behind the scenes, rebellion is brewing. Following a botched killing of an Israeli solider, Omar is captured, imprisoned, tortured and tricked into admitting his involvement. He agrees to act as an informant to secure his freedom and is forced to choose between his own well being and what he believes is right. But can he fully trust his Israeli contact? More importantly, can he trust his lifelong friends and the woman he loves? Wonderfully crafted by writer/director Hany Abu-Assad and featuring a host of great performances, the film is a high-stakes, twisty-turny thriller that contains layers human and political complexities, exudes slice-of-life authenticity and somehow invokes both ROMEO AND JULIET and CASABLANCA. Worth seeking out whether it wins the Oscar or not.
NON-STOP -- It’s been fun watching the great Liam Neeson become the most awesome action hero of the moment. Films like TAKEN and UNKNOWN are pure ass-kicking entertainment, while THE GREY takes things in a more interesting and introspective direction (while still kicking ass). Neeson is just so good and always brings layers of complexity and gravitas to his characters. NON-STOP is no exception -- not exactly a great film, but far more enjoyable and engaging than it might have been with any other star. Neeson plays a federal air marshal who gets involved in an apparent hijacking during a flight to London. The film is riddled with twists and chugs along at an unrelenting pace -- which is a good thing because I’m sure the plot makes less sense the more you actually stop and think about it. But as always, Neeson makes it work -- if he has been picking up where Harrison Ford left off in the ‘90s, then this is definitely his AIR FORCE ONE. (Though, admittedly, “I’m not hijacking this plane -- I’m trying to save it!” is no “Get off my plane!”) Also, keep an eye out for current red carpet darling Lupita Nyong’o, whose flawless presence commands the screen even in a tiny, thankless role.