Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Quick Reviews of Movies I've Seen Recently (11/8 to 12/31)


THOR: THE DARK WORLD -- I didn't love the first THOR when it first came out but grew to appreciate it more after THE AVENGERS. This sequel also benefits from a post-AVENGERS boost -- very solid and entertaining (especially whenever Thor & Loki interact) and a worthwhile entry into Marvel's second phase. Picking out the Joss Whedon dialogue tweaks would make a fun drinking game. The post-credit sequence is a thrilling puzzle for non-comic geeks but I'm sure it'll all make sense soon....

THE BOOK THIEF -- A fine tale that will tug on a heartstring or two if you're an old softie (like me) and/or if Holocaust films get you every time (like everyone). Particularly worth watching for Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson, not to mention yet another solid score by the maestro of our lives, John Williams.

THE WIND RISES -- Studio Ghibli presents a fictionalized biography of Japanese airplane designer Jiro Horikoshi. Although his inventions went on to cause great devastation in World War II, this is ultimately a story of dreams, creation and love, as well as a sweeping portrait of pre-war Japan. If this is indeed the great Hayao Miyazaki’s final film (please no!), it is an intimate, bittersweet, complex and all-around lovely swan song.

NEBRASKA -- Alexander Payne continues his streak of greatness (he is now 6-for-6 as a director) with this very funny and superbly crafted take on smalltown middle America and missed opportunities. Bruce Dern is fantastic as an old codger who embarks on a quest to claim a supposed million-dollar prize, while June Squibb steals the show as his exasperated wife. Surprisingly good, nuanced work from Will Forte, too -- who knew?

PHILOMENA -- An engaging film based on the true story of a Irish mother who attempts to find her long-lost son (conceived out of wedlock, taken from her and given away for adoption by the Catholic church). Stephen Frears perfectly mixes feelings of thoughtfulness, poignancy and outrage, while bouncing smoothly between offbeat humor and pathos. Steven Coogan and Judi Dench have surprisingly great chemistry and make one of the year’s best on-screen duos.

FROZEN -- The perfect marriage of classic/modern Disney style/sensibility. Funny, smart, touches on poignant themes, tugs on the heartstrings, has fun with Disney clichés, amazing animation, a great story, memorable characters (Princess Anna rules and Olaf is hilarious) and perhaps best of all, it marked the first time I had new Disney songs stuck in my head immediately following the movie since the '90s. Simply put, an instant classic and the best offering from Walt Disney Animation since THE LION KING. (Worth seeing in 3D for the film itself, as well as the excellent preceding short!)

BRAVE MISS WORLD -- An important and moving documentary about strength and empowerment among rape survivors, anchored by the perspective of Linor Abargil, an Israeli model who won the Miss World pageant just weeks after being brutally assaulted. She went on to fight for her own justice while also helping other victims break their silences (and whose testimonials appear in the film, as well). It is an intimate portrait of survival but also feels like an epic hero's journey... which it is.

DEAR MR. WATTERSON -- Not much deep insight to be found in this documentary (lots and lots of talking heads, but no Bill Watterson to be found), but if you're a Calvin & Hobbes fan, it's a joyful, gushing love letter that will make you want to dust off your copy of “Something Under the Bed is Drooling” immediately.

THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE -- Seriously good stuff that improves on the first installment in every possible way. The new additions to the cast are great (especially Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Jena Malone -- her introduction as Joanna met all of my expectations from that memorable scene in the book). And of course, Jennifer Lawrence is a goddess of badassery. From the story to the acting to the action to the feels, everything is on point and the result is arguably the all-around best blockbuster of the year.

IS THE MAN WHO IS TALL HAPPY? -- Michel Gondry and Noam Chomsky sat down and had a series of conversations about life, the universe and everything, accompanied by animated interpretations of those conversations by Gondry himself. The result is quite a trip, both intellectually and aesthetically.

OLDBOY -- Spike Lee's remake of the classic Korean revenge thriller may be the single most unnecessary remake in the long, sad history of unnecessary remakes. A lifeless rehash that has absolutely nothing to offer. Actually, that’s not true -- the gratuitous Elizabeth Olsen nudity is nice. But beyond that, this is another nail in Lee’s increasingly irrelevant coffin.

HOMEFRONT -- A mildly enjoyable action flick starring Jason Statham and written by Sylvester Stallone and everything that entails. James Franco as a scene-chewing, meth-dealing villain is a nice touch -- plus appearances from Kate Bosworth, Winona Ryder and the great Clancy Brown! It's dumb as shit but the ass-kickery hit the spot for me that day.

MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM -- I actually saw this on the day Nelson Mandela died, which added an extra boost of emotion to the experience. It's a standard but well-made biopic with an outstanding performance by Idris Elba. There will hopefully a truly great movie about Mandela someday, but for now, this does a fine job celebrating his remarkable life.

OUT OF THE FURNACE -- A number of tremendous performances, led by Christian Bale and Casey Affleck, help raise this dour & violent but otherwise empty & unremarkable revenge/redemption story to a watchable level.

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS -- A young folk singer struggles, musically and spiritually, amidst the burgeoning scene of early ‘60s Greenwich Village in the Coen Bros.’ latest triumph. Brilliant crafted, desperately melancholy, strange but resonant and loaded with the Coens’ unmistakable brand of dialogue, humor, situations and characters -- all of which generate themes, thoughts and emotions (not all of them pleasant) that linger long after the credits roll.

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG -- Another glorious journey into Peter Jackson's vision of Middle-earth. This installment improves on the first and has a fun, serial-like feel --  you could almost imagine it broken up into segments that end with, "Stay tuned next week -- same Hobbit time, same Hobbit channel!" Visually, it looks great; the 48fps high-frame rate lends itself nicely to the CGI-heavy experience (Smaug himself is a digital miracle). Could've maybe done with the gratuitous Legolas subplot, but overall, it's a hugely satisfying fix and I wish we could have more, every year, forever.

AMERICAN HUSTLE -- The acting power and pure entertainment value on display in David O. Russell's satirical con romp (romp-con?) is supremely awesome. Over-the-top, infectious fun, crazy ‘70s hair and outfits and not much more -- and there's nothing wrong with that. Christian Bale is a titan. Bradley Cooper and Jeremy Renner are great. Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence are gifts from God. This movie is just plain enjoyable and I like it more every day.

SAVING MR. BANKS -- As a fan of all things Disney and most things schmaltzy, I liked this story of the making of MARY POPPINS very much. Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks are great as ever (though the trifecta of Bradley Whitford, B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman steal many a scene). If nothing else, it will make you want to re-watch MARY POPPINS ASAP, and that is not a bad thing.

THE GREAT BEAUTY -- A dizzying assault on the senses and an enthralling reflection on the decadence of life, love and Rome. Brilliantly directed by Paolo Sorrentino, with a tremendous lead performance from Toni Servillo, this is one of the great foreign-language films and movie-watching experiences of the year.

ANCHORMAN 2: THE LEGEND CONTINUES -- There are laughs to be had in this highly-anticipated sequel... but as we probably should have expected, it isn't in the same stratosphere as the original. Too much rehash (and oddly, too much Steve Carell -- turns out a little Brick goes a long way), much of which falls flat. And perhaps most egregiously, not a single quotable line springs to mind. Perhaps it will get better upon further viewings, but for now, relative to my anticipation, this may be the disappointment of the year.

HER -- Spike Jonze is at the top of his game with this futuristic love story about a lonely man (Joaquin Phoenix, quickly becoming one of the best actors around) who develops an intense relationship with his computer operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Expertly realized, beautifully acted (Amy Adams is also at her all-time cutest), wonderfully creative, eerily prescient, utterly unpretentious and deeply affecting on many personal and universal levels.

THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY -- Quite the ambitious vanity project for Ben Stiller... but instead of a wondrous, epic ode to creativity and self-discovery, it’s an utter snoozefest. Also one of the most annoyingly product-placement-filled movies in recent memory... now if you'll excuse me, I need to finish my Cinnabon, order from Papa John's and sign up for eHarmony.

THE WOLF OF WALL STREET -- Martin Scorsese once again proves that he is the reigning master of his craft with this scathing, wildly entertaining but jaw-dropping look at the madness and excesses of Wall Street. Leonardo DiCaprio gives arguably the performance of his career as Jordan Belfort, who lies, cheats and snorts coke out of hookers’ assholes on the way to ridiculous fortune with minimal consequences. Would make one hell of a triple-feature with GOODFELLAS and CASINO -- yes, it’s that good.

THE PAST -- A man returns to France to finalize his divorce and gets caught up in a web of intrigue in this complex domestic drama from Iranian writer/director Asghar Farhadi. Like his great A SEPARATION, it is a gripping tale with many layers of revelations and emotions that peel away slowly, methodically and authentically.

LONE SURVIVOR -- This real-life story of a Navy SEAL mission gone awry contains plenty of jingoism and the gunfights are brutal -- but there's some effective humanity and procedure in there, too. Not a great film, but the ensemble cast is strong and it’s a big step up for director Peter Berg following last year's BATTLESHIP debacle.

AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY -- There's some serious acting on display in this uber-dysfunctional family drama (Meryl Streep! Julia Roberts! Ewan McGregor! Julianne Nicholson! Chris Cooper! Sam Shepard! The list goes on.) Some powerful, dialogue-driven moments, too -- I've seen audiences applaud big action sequences before, but can't remember the last time I've seen it happen for words. But in the end, it's a little TOO much of everything and strains under its own weight.

THE INVISIBLE WOMAN -- A good-looking and slow-burning period piece about Charles Dickens' illicit relationship with a young girl/muse. Excellent direction from Ralph Fiennes and an even better lead performance.

GRUDGE MATCH -- To its credit, this film delivers on its Rocky Balboa vs. Jake LaMotta promise. Too bad you have to slog through 90 minutes of bad dialogue, lame jokes and needless family subplots. A bad movie, to be sure, but when Stallone and De Niro finally meet in the ring, I admit it: I felt giddy.

Stay tuned for my epic Top 10 of 2013 + Year in Review!

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.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Super-Quick Reviews of Movies I’ve Seen Recently (9/18 to 10/14)


ENOUGH SAID -- Had a big smile on my face throughout this hilarious, touching, smart, ridiculously likeable pleasure of a film. Amazing chemistry between Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who is great, and James Gandolfini, who nails his final and perhaps unlikeliest role. Sad that we'll never see him take his career to the next level hinted at here.

DRINKING BUDDIES -- Funny, heartfelt & beer-soaked comedy from Joe Swanberg about love and friendship (and drinking beer). Great performances from a great cast including Jake Johnson, Ron Livingston, Anna Kendrick and Olivia Wilde, who is just a perfect specimen.

BLUE CAPRICE -- This reconstruction of the 2002 D.C. sniper killings is a quietly chilling, character-driven portrait of evil. Constant, heavy sense of dread -- the film even looks bleak. Excellent performances abound (though it is jarring to see Joey Lauren Adams so far removed from the View Askewniverse).

PRISONERS -- Intense, enthralling, unsettling, unexpected. Hugh Jackman is at the top of his game (and Oscar-worthy once again). While this slow-boiling mystery-thriller doesn’t quite reach the heights of such classics as THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, SE7EN and ZODIAC, it definitely deserves to be part of the conversation.

A.C.O.D. -- This comedy about an "Adult Child of Divorce" still reeling from his parents' feud features a powerhouse comedy cast including Adam Scott, Richard Jenkins, Catherine O'Hara, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Clark Duke, Amy Poehler, Jessica Alba and Jane Lynch -- but somehow only generates mild laughs and is ultimately forgettable.

THANKS FOR SHARING -- Listless comedy/drama about sex addiction. Decent performances from Mark Ruffalo, Tim Robbins and others, and I guess it means well, but constant tonal shifts are awkward and it’s just generally lame. Kudos to Gwyneth Paltrow, though, for continuing 2013’s trend of fit forty-something actresses showing off their bangin’ bods.

DON JON -- Bold, raunchy, funny success for writer/director/star Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Scarlett Johansson is at her bombshell best. Tony Danza steals some scenes. Brie Larson continues to impress (see also: SHORT TERM 12). Also serves as further proof that Julianne Moore should just be in every movie.

THE SECRET LIVES OF DORKS -- Biggest problem with this movie is that there's zero reason for it to exist at this point. Utterly inept script, direction, acting and tiresome “cinematic comic book” gimmick are just diarrhea icing on the turd cake.

THE YOUNG AND PRODIGIOUS T.S. SPIVET -- This story of a young genius who runs away from his eccentric family and treks to the Smithsonian Institute to accept a science award is wonderfully offbeat, emotional, funny, imaginative, occasionally dark and a visual feast -- in other words, vintage Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Looks great in 3D (thanks to a dude named Demetri Portelli, the same stereographer who worked on HUGO).

GRAVITY -- One of the most harrowing, thrilling movie-watching experiences in recent memory. Alfonso Cuaron is a master craftsman and undisputed king of the long take. By far the best work of Sandra Bullock's career and George Clooney is a man among men. A perfect mix of great acting, brilliant filmmaking, groundbreaking visuals to complement a refreshingly simple, human story. Arguably the best film of the year so far and an absolute must-see on the biggest screen possible.

RUNNER RUNNER -- Can't help but think that this movie was a practical joke that Ben Affleck, Anthony Mackie & Gemma Arterton played on Justin Timberlake and he just never figured it out. They all seem to realize that the movie is dumb and (over)act accordingly, but JT takes it so seriously. Poor guy. (Oh, it’s about the wacky world of online poker. Yawn.)

CONCUSSION -- Lesbian housewife gets hit in head, develops midlife crisis, becomes prostitute for kicks. Robin Weigert shines in this smart, well-written drama/semi-satire from first-time writer/director Stacie Passon.

I USED TO BE DARKER -- Engaging, low-key and contemplative look at a family in various stages of disarray. Potent, honest performances (especially Irish cutie Deragh Campbell in her first film) and excellent use of live music performances to advance plot & feelings.

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS -- Shaky-cam maestro Paul Greengrass delivers 133 minutes of expertly-crafted intensity, grounded by Tom Hanks' best live-action work in over a decade. A tremendous procedural that digs into the 2009 Somali pirate situation from various angles and results in a memorable cinematic experience.

WADJDA -- The first feature film shot entirely in Saudia Arabia (made by a female Saudi filmmaker, no less) is the story of a young girl who is determined to earn enough money, defy society and buy a bike so she can race against her friend. A wonderful triumph about the power of the human spirit and worthy of its current Oscar short-listed status.