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 clich├ęs, 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!