5 Centimeters Per Second: Great anime from Makot Shinkai. This touching and at times sad story follows a boy and girl from childhood to adulthood, chronicling their friendship and separation and how it affected them both. Shinkai has dealt with smilar material before in two other excellent films, "Voices of a Distant Star" and "The Place Promised in Our Early Years," and here he reveals the same knack for portraying the delicacy of human emotion in animation but without the sentimentality that usually plagues these sorts of stories. BTW, the title refers to the rate at which a cherry blossom petal falls through the air.
30 Minutes or Less: This is a raunchy comedy about two idiots who try to make some money by kidnapping a pizza delivery man, strapping a bomb to his chest and sending him off to rob a bank. The humor is crude (and mostly pretty lame), the language excessively foul ... in fact, if you were to edit out every F-bomb from this 83 minute film, you would end up with a movie about thirty seconds longer than the trailer. Still, I tried my very best to keep an open mind ... the basic premise was interesting and I had every intention of sticking it out but Beth and Sieren made me turn it off after about a half hour. I'll try to watch the rest of it alone at some future date and if it's any good I'll get back to you, but for now it's a pass.
50/50: Adam is a young man who finds out that he has cancer and must deal with its consequences. Sounds like an "Inspired by a true story" made-for-TV movie, but this film really works ... and it's mostly thanks to the excellent performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. There are moments of great humor, sadness, anger and joy... and most of these moments feel right, they play with sincerity and little sense of manipulation. JG-L doesn't carry the weight alone, Angelica Huston as his mom and Seth Rogan as his best friend both help out a lot, and there's even a surprising performance by Anna Kendrick (as Adam's inexperienced therapist) whom I haven't seen since "Up in the Air" (OK, she's been in a few dozen Twilight movies, but for some reason I missed all those).
Absurdistan. This German-Russian production is a lovely little film... it has the feel of a simple old folk tale and has some of the charm and humor of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's films. Basically, we have a retelling of Lysistrata set in a fictional middle-eastern country. Lazy men who won't fix the town's water supply are subjected to a sexual boycott by their wives and lovers. The nexus of this tale is a young couple, deeply in love since childhood, who get caught up in the crisis on the eve of their wedding.
Act of Valor: After producing a film for the US Navy, directors Scott Waugh and Mike McCoy decided to follow it up with a realistic action film about the Seals. After receiving the Navy's blessing and enthusiastic support, they began production. But once underway, they shifted directions... it was decided that only Seals could realistically play Seals, so the film's staff of technical advisers suddenly found themselves drafted as actors (under orders from their Navy superiors, who probably realized that the film had the potential to be a 90 minute recruiting film). And that single act sent the film in two directions. On the one hand, parts of the film are just plain awful... these guys can't act worth a damn, and every non-action scene where we see them interacting is stiff and devoid of emotion. The fact that much of the writing is jingoistic and cliched doesn't help either. On the other hand, we can be grateful that these conversational scenes are relatively few... much of the film shows the Seals in action, and that stuff is just amazing, probably some of the best combat scenes I've seen in a fictional film. It is exciting, realistic, tense, and tightly choreographed. Lots of practical effects... one thing the Navy has lots of is ordinance, so why bother with CG? The technical details are spot-on ... those little errors and impossibilities in films like Hurt Locker, things that make you smile or scoff and yank you out of the film are glaringly absent here... these scenes are mesmerizing. Visually stunning too... digital SLR's were used (for their small size and versatility), and there are lots of POV and OTS shots that draw you into the action. This feels real... it's like a documentary in some respects, except that it's better, because it's not a collection of whatever shots combat photographers were able to grab, it's carefully-planned to put the viewer in whatever place he needs to be to most effectively see what's going on. Unfortunately, when all is said and done, we are left with the fact that Act of Valor is really two distinct films... a really bad propaganda/recruiting film, and a really good action film. Overall I'd say that the action portions do tip the scale toward a reserved recommendation... provided you like action films to begin with. Otherwise, it's a pass.
Alice is a modern retelling of Alice in Wonderland, presented more as sci-fi than fantasy (which stands to reason since it was a two-part miniseries from the Syfy Channel). The Queen of Hearts (Kathy Bates, in an Emmy-nominated role) plays the tyrannical despot of a society that kidnaps humans and keeps them enslaved, tapping and distilling their emotions to produce various essences that keep her subjects in a constant state of bliss and apathy. Kind of an interesting twist on the original story, suitably dark but with touches of humor as well.
Argo: Affleck's reputation as an actor has taken some serious hits after his promising start in Good Will Hunting. Occasional shots at writing and directing also were (mostly) disappointing, but Argo is a film to be taken seriously. A taut and mostly true account of the rescue of four Americans trapped in Iran by CIA agent Tony Mendez, this film has pretty much everything you could want in a political thriller. I won't get into the details of the story, but suffice to say that the film holds up well against the best fictional offerings of the genre from the likes of LeCarre, Clancy, Ludlum and others. Directing a film like this can't be easy ... balancing action, backstory, character development, faithfulness to real events and suspense. I can't help but respect someone who can do all that and star in the film at the same time ... there are only a handful of actor/directors who can pull this off and they seldom do it this well. A lot of folks were upset that Affleck was passed over for a Best Director nomination at the Oscars, but perhaps the voting members paid hm back by giving Argo the Oscar for Best Picture. One could argue all day whether the film really deserved it, but I don't think there's any doubt that this is a film worth seeing.
The Artist: A pleasing film in many ways ... not just for its respectful homage to silent films, but also it's wonderful cinematography, charismatic leads, and the story ... which may seem a somewhat routine love story on the surface, but was also an interesting look at the choices we make when faced with inevitable change. It's also a nice period piece ... technical details (architecture, interiors, costumes, automobiles, movie sets and filmmaking equipment) were accurate and immersive. I'd be glad to watch this one again.
Away We Go: Nice romantic comedy, but with a twist... it's about a couple who are already in love, already pregnant, and who are casting about looking for a good place to settle and raise a kid. After already having moved to a new town be near Burt's parents, they find themselves alone when said parents suddenly move to Belgium for a couple of years. Thus deserted, they embark on a road trip... to visit friends, relatives, etc... hoping to find a city or town where they feel welcome and at home. Sounds kind of sappy, but there are some talented actors here who make it work... John Krasinski (The Office), Catherine O'Hara (SCTV), Maya Rudolph (SNL), Allison Janney, Jeff Daniels, Maggie Gyllenhal, and others. In overall tone, the film reminds me quite a bit of "About Schmidt," a film where comedy and drama met in a pleasing way in a story that was a bit saccharine but worked because of the eccentricity of the characters and the sensitivity of the actors who played them. Here, we care enough about the two leads to identify with them and to see the world (and those weird people around them) thru their eyes, with a mix of wonder, amusement and terror, as they look to find a safe haven in which to raise their child, and in the process discover the very essence of 'family.' Worth a look... the film has its flaws, but it's a fun ride to a pitch-perfect ending, so I think at the least you'll be glad you spent the time, at most you might have some of your faith in humanity restored.
The Battle of Algiers: This classic 1966 war film (directed by Italian Gillo Pontecorvo, but financed by the Algerian government) paints a surprisingly balanced view of the conflict between the French and Algerians in the bloodiest colonial war in history (estimated 500,000-1,500,000 dead). The film concentrated primarily on the earliest portion of the war (1954-1957) taking place in the city of Algiers, with a short epilogue dealing with the 1960 protests that led to Algerian independence. The film has a distinct documentary feel and with the exception of Jean Martin who played the French Colonel, the principle cast was made up entirely of non-professionals. In fact, the leader of the Front de Libération Nationale, El-hadi Jafar, was actually played by the real-life FLN leader (and later Algerian Senator) Saadi Yacef, upon whose memoir, Souvenirs de la Bataille d'Alger, the film was based. The impact of the film cannot be understated... the cinematography, acting, screenplay, music and sound all contribute to a remarkable sense of realism that makes the viewer feel they are witnessing events as they happened. This is undoubtedly one of the best war films ever made.
Battle Royale: One of Japan's highest-grossing films, but banned in many other countries, may not be for all tastes. While it does fall way short of the silly awfulness of Japan's bloodbath genre films like Robogeisha or Tokyo Gore Police (and in fact it should be stated that this film is not a member of that genre), it does get a bit violent in places. The story itself strongly parallels "The Hunger Games," which is why this film is experiencing a bit of a resurgence right now. A ninth grade class of 42 is kidnapped and sent to an island to fight to the death ... sort of Lord of the Flies meets Ten Little Indians. The reason why this is done is just too silly for words (something about a solution to the degeneration of today's youth in regard to respect for adults, tradition and hard work), but regardless of how it sounds, the film itself works pretty well. There's a nice cross-section of personalities, from smart to kind to popular to aloof to nerdy (plus a couple of ringers from previous Battles), and quite a few characters are given shorthand backstory snippets so that they become more than cardboard cutouts ... or should I say shooting-gallery ducks. I can't really explain why this story works, but in some strange way it does, so if you can handle the subject matter, I'd check it out.
Beasts of the Southern Wild: I was impressed with the trailer, as well as the very long list of awards for this first film from young director Benh Zeitlin (well, not so young really, he's 30 ... but he looks about twelve), and I couldn't wait to see if this film lived up to all the expectations. Filmed for a little over a million dollars with mostly untrained local residents of the Louisiana Bayou (where the film takes place), and a crew composed mostly of the director's friends and family, this is a real gem of a movie. It's a drama tinted with dreamy elements of fantasy (or fable?), and centers on a young girl who simultaneously deals with the destruction of her little town ("The Bathtub") and her father's illness. Six year old Quvenzhané Wallis is really the centerpiece of this film ... her performance goes beyond remarkable and it's worth watching the film just to see her. The great writing, locations and cinematography are just icing on the cake. This is one of those films that I know I'll be recommending a lot.
Beginners: Writer/Director Mike Mills gives us this partly autobiographical tale of a young man's struggle to deal with his life's numerous twists and turns. Told in a non-linear fashion, we see Oliver (Ewan Macgregor) deal with the death of his mother, conflicts with his girlfriend, and acceptance of his gay father and his much younger lover. Slow in places but quite effective thanks to some good writing and solid performances ... Christopher Plummer won an Oscar for his portrayal of the father, and there was also some good work from Goran Visnjic (E.R.) and Melanie Laurent (Inglorius Basterds) was excellent. At times sad and poignant, but ultimately hopeful.
Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: John Madden's film begins with seven British retirees ... we are introduced to them one at a time and learn that they all have personal and financial problems that require drastic solutions. Then see them discover the lovely (in the brochure) Marigold Hotel in exotic India that offers wonderful accommodations for seniors at a bargain price. The reality of course is that the hotel is falling apart and the exuberant young owner (Dev Patel, from Slumdog Millionaire and The Newsroom) has no idea what he's doing (though he is certainly anxious to please). Thousands of miles from home with no way to return, the guests resolve to make the best of it ... to varying degrees, of course. All of the story threads are interesting, if somewhat predictable, but in the end it works rather well. Partly because of the magic of the location ... as in the film "Outsourced," the vibrant character and history of India and its people make the film visually irresistable. The other thing that works is the amazing collection of acting talent that anchors this film ... Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson (Michael Clayton), Bill Nighy, Penelope Wilton (Downton Abbey), Maggie Smith and others, a diverse and believable group of characters who each pull you into their various story threads and make them matter.
Black Narcissus: This is the story of a group of nuns sent to start a convent in an old temple in the Himalayas but find themselves seduced by a culture they are not prepared for and don't understand. Considered very risque after its release in 1947, it's now hopelessly dated and overwrought. Still, the film's well worth seeing simply for the cinematography by Jack Cardiff... like his earlier work in The Red Shoes, this is a visual feast that compensates for a somewhat ponderous story. I won't go so far as to recommend that you turn the sound off while you watch it, but I would definitely recommend putting this classic on your list.
The Bourne Legacy: Intense action and intrigue are givens in the Bourne series and this one lives up to the franchise for the most part, at least in those respects (though it does fall short a bit in other areas). The film is not a sequel or reboot, and in fact takes place at the same time as the last Bourne film ... the government, certain that Bourne is going to make their operation public, does what damage control they can by shutting down The Program and eliminating not only the remaining agents but their medical handlers. Unfortunately, one agent and one doctor slip thru the cracks and thus begins a chase that takes them halfway around the globe. If you want to just follow the chase, no problem ... the film will easily keep you on the edge of your seat. But if you really want to understand what's going on, you'll need to watch closely and remember all that we've seen in the previous Bourne films, all the while keeping in mind that the government agency that runs this whole thing has plots within plots and contingencies for contingencies. Even Roger Ebert, when reviewing the film, totally missed one key character at the end because he wasn't paying enough attention. In the end, this one's not up to the standards of the previous Bourne films, but as spy thrillers go it still delivers enough action and suspense to be worthwhile. My primary complaint is that we should have been given just a bit less action and a bit more character ... we never really get to know Cross the way we did Bourne. Granted, spies are supposed to be inscrutable, but a certain amount of sympathy and understanding would have made audiences more anxious to come back for the inevitable next film.
Brave: I love animation and I seldom find Disney/Pixar films disappointing. Brave pleased me on a number of levels, but I can admit up front that it's not Pixar's best film to date... even so, I think it deserves better reviews than I've seen from most critics thus far. First off, it's visually beautiful, from the very first scene... the background landscape in Scotland is presented in almost photographic clarity and realism, in places it can take your breath away. The story is entertaining and presented some interesting moral lessons in a way that wasn't heavy-handed or overly sentimental. It was also an interesting departure for Disney ... animation fans are very familiar with the way mothers are treated in Disney films ... they usually get killed off early or are absent altogether (evil stepmothers don't count). In this case, Mom is not only present, she's a critical part of the story. While daughter Merida is a wonderful role model for every girl/woman who ever struggled for independence and identity, mother Elinor reminds us that the bonds we have with our parents are the result of unconditional love and devotion, regardless of how they might manifest. In the end Mom might be wrong, but she still loves you and it's important to remember that "finding yourself" mustn't be accomplished at the expense of that love. I know this sounds heavy ... but trust me, this film has it's light-hearted moments as well, and it manages to shift gears between them quite deftly... part of it is the writing, but I think a lot of it is because of the wonderful characters... nuances of facial expressions in computer animation are improving constantly and Brave raises the bar here (take a look at the three-tiered reaction in young Merida's face when her father gives her her first longbow for her birthday ... surprise, awe, delight, all in a little over a second). Hand in hand with the animation quality is the voice talent... adult Merida is a standout, voiced by Kelly Macdonald (Boardwalk Empire), but Billy Connolly and Emma Thompson are also good. Rounding out the cast are Craig Ferguson, Robbie Coltrane (Hagrid in Harry Potter), Kevin McKidd (Rome, Grey's Anatomy). Not an instant classic like Toy Story or Wall-E, but still worth seeing.
Bride Flight: Three Dutch mail-order brides flying to New Zealand to meet their future husbands cross paths with a young man named Frank who changes each of their lives. Told partly in flashback and partly many decades later as they meet at Frank's funeral. The film is beautifully told and rather haunting. Understated and well-acted mostly by Dutch actors I was unfamiliar with (I only recognized Rutger Hauer in a small part as the elder Frank). Though the plot has a few remarkable coincidences that would be at home in a Dickens novel, most of the story unfolds beautifully and with an emotional weight that makes us ponder our own lives and how each decision we make can affect us for the rest of our lives.
Bridesmaids : I wasn't really expecting something this crude and flat. Don't get me wrong, I liked The Hangover, and this was very much a female version of that... but from the beginning of the film things just didn't click, and by the time I got to the point where I liked a few of the characters enough to care, it was too late. Overall, I'd say it was OK light entertainment but I would compare it to recent Saturaday Night Live... just not enough good moments to make it worthwhile. I'll say this though, it was pretty cool seeing Chris O'Dowd from "The IT Crowd," (though what the producers expect us to make of a state trooper from Scotland, I don't know).
Cadillac Records : A fairly interesting fictionalized history of Chess Records, narrated by Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer). Fans of the music of this era will probably be able to separate fact from fiction and fill in the blanks (like the near-total absence of Leonard's brother Phil), but for everyone else this will probably be an enjoyable and informative 109 minutes about Chess Records and the colorful personalities that recorded for them (primarily Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, Etta James and Chuck Berry). The hardships endured by black musicians during the period covered here (mid-40's-late '60's) as their music made it's way into the mainstream are perhaps a bit underplayed in this film, but there's enough here to give you a sense of the importance of Chess Records in the crossover. Plus, the music (most of it recreated) is just amazingly good. Beyonce's cover of "At Last" brought tears to my eyes (that's on the plus side. On the negative side, "Smokestack Lightnin' immediately brought up visions of the Cialis commercials and only reminded how much I loathe companies who appropriate a popular song and play it so much that you never again associate the tune with anything but their product). Besides Beyonce and Cedric we've got Adrian Brody as Leonard Chess (one of his better roles) and a really capable cast of supporting players. Check this one out, it's not bad.
Carlito's Way: This 1993 classic crime drama from Brian de Palma tells the familiar story of a reformed criminal trying to get out of the business. Most of it is fairly predictable, including the ending, but it's still worthwhile for the unusually understated performance by Al Pacino. Not many shouts or grimaces here, he's cool and quiet, almost a younger 'Lefty' Ruggiero (in the film 'Donnie Brasco) before life beat him down and took away his hope. Pacino and a few good supporting players are the main draw here... as I said, the story is pretty predictable, and the factual flaws are many (for those who care about that sort of thing). Almost none of the songs played in the nightclub had been released in 1975, Riker's Island Barge had not opened yet, and then there's that infamous escalator shootout where Pacino pumps 15 shots out of an 8 shot Beretta. But who's counting? I mean it's still the climax of one of the tensest and most exciting chase scenes ever, all the more impressive in that it takes place almost entirely on foot. For all it's flaws, this is definitely a film worth seeing, or seeing again.
Cars 2 . Cars may have been my least favorite of the recent Pixar releases, so to say that the sequel is about the same is probably faint praise. Yes, the animation is incredible, and there are excellent voices from Michael Caine, John Turturro and Larry the Cable Guy... but otherwise this probably isn't worth going out of your way to see.
Casino Jack: It's not a documentary, nor is it a 'ripped from the headlines' fictional tale with phony names, but a reasonably accurate portrayal of lobbyist Jack Abramoff and the financial scandal surrounding him. Overall, it works pretty well... a bit episodic, and in some spots it's downright boring, but I guess that's the nature of the beast ... real life rarely has the pacing of a well-written screenplay. Spacey plays his part with adequate measures of charisma and slime, which pretty much allows us to see in a fairly convincing way how the real-life Abramoff pulled off all the crap he did and how it all came falling down around him. A nice but not exceptional last film from the prematurely departed George Hickenlooper, who is probably best known for his documentaries (most notably, Hearts of Darkness, about the making of Apocalypse Now).
Cedar Rapids: I didn't want to like this movie (it's about insurance salesmen, for god's sake), but you don't always get what you want. Tim Lippe (played by Ed Helms), is an unbelievably sheltered and naive young man who is sent to make a presentation at an insurance conference in Cedar Rapids. This guy has never been on an airplane, in fact it's possible he's never even left town, so Cedar Rapids might just as well be New York City... from the moment he strikes up a friendly and clueless conversation with the hooker lurking at the front entrance of his hotel, you know he's going to get eaten alive. Three fellow conference attendees (played by John C. Reilly, Anne Heche and Isiah Whitlock Jr.) round out the ensemble that makes this little comedy work. Reilly is supposed to be a scoundrel but is really just a loud buffoon with a good side, Heche is a normal middle class wife and mother who gets this one chance each year to let loose, and Whitlock is a friendly and kind man who hasn't come to terms with his homosexuality. There's an absurd nature to the humor, with a somewhat serious moral tone beneath it all that is sincere and believable without being overbearing... in its best moments it's not that far away from Fargo. Oh, and there's also a couple of good supporting turns by Stephen Root and Sigourney Weaver.
Chico and Rita: A beaten-down old man who shines shoes on the streets of Havana trudges home to his small apartment. As he pours a drink and stares out his window over the rooftops, a classic jazz song by Chico and Rita comes on the radio. Suddenly it is the early 1950's and the old man is the young and handsome jazz pianist Chico, and he's just laid eyes on singer Rita for the first time. So begins this beautiful and poignant animated love story about two musicians who fall for one another but must endure the pitfalls of fate, history and each other's conflicting feelings. Beautifully told, beautifully animated, and some wonderful music. Nominated for Best Animated Feature at the 2012 Academy Awards, this is a lovely and touching little gem that is worth seeking out.
Chocolate: I'm no a connoisseur of martial arts films, but this one's impressive. Zen (JeeJa Yanin) is a young autistic woman who has the uncanny ability to absorb precision fighting skills by watching martial arts movies on TV. When her mother's treatment for cancer hinges on collecting family debts, she and her cousin take it upon themselves to track down the deadbeats who owe them money. What's impressive about the film is not the plot but the talented star, Jeeja Yanin, who must be the toughest woman in Thailand. She holds a third degree black belt in Tae Kwan Do and also seems to have a natural ability to pull off the complex choreography required to make this type of film convincing... I don't see too much here that was done with wires, high-speed camera or other tricks, it looks like good old-fashioned martial arts training and precise timing. And that perception seems to be supported by the outtake reel that plays at the close, showing some of the really harsh falls, missed kicks, spilled blood and hospital visits.
Chronicle : Interesting sci-fi and character study about how three teenagers cope with newly-gained telekinetic powers. Low budget, but it's not about flashy effects, more about how we deal with choices. Worthwhile.
Cloud Atlas: This excellent adaptation of David Mitchell's book (by Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer) is probably one of the best films I've seen in years. The book tells six stories in an unusual way ... the each tale is presented in chronological order, but only the first half is told at first... then the latter part of the book finishes each story in reverse chronological order, so we end up back where the book started. The film takes a different track... all six tales are intercut, and since all of the actors play multiple parts, we have familiar (and not so familiar, depending on the makeup) characters that anchor us as each tale progresses. Still, it is a long and complex film, one that you really have to pay attention to. In spite of this, the story remains entertaining, suspenseful, inspiring, riveting, but unlike many films these days it does demand something of the viewer, and this may be the reason that reviews of this film have been all over the map... this is a case where you have to make an effort, if you sit down in that theater seat and expect to be entertained in a passive manner, you'll be confused and disappointed. Personally, I fall firmly into the camp of folks who love it... it's definitely the best film I've seen this year, and perhaps in several years. This is the first time in recent memory that I walked out of a theater after seeing such a long film (it runs just short of three hours), and I wanted to turn right around and see it again. In the film there's a piece of music, the Cloud Atlas Sextet, and though it is not a constant thread thruout (it really only plays a part in a couple of the stories), I think it establishes a commonality between life and music ... this film really is like a symphony, where a simple theme is explored, modified, expanded, each movement building on the last until you realize that the theme is not so simple after all. I loved this musical complexity, all the layers, the wonderfully diverse characters and the questions they posed... but I also loved the way it made me feel. I'm not sure quite how to explain this ... 'life affirming' sounds way too easy, too simplistic... the film communicated something to me on an intensely personal level and it's probably going to take me a while to figure it out. And to tell the truth, when any form of art leaves me with something to savor and figure out, I'm grateful.
Come Out and Play: This is a horrible remake of the 1976 Spanish film "Who Can Kill a Child?" Instead of English Newlyweds visiting a Spanish Island, it's American newlyweds visiting a Mexican Island. In any case, the story's the same... the town seems deserted at first except for a few kids, but then it becomes apparent that all the adults are dead and the kids are responsible. I'll admit the "malevolent kids" theme has some promise (Village of the Damned terrified me as a child), but it's all wasted here. In fact, Children of the Corn was a better film than this one... and that should tell you all you need to know.
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind: Quite an interesting first directorial effort from George Clooney, this pseudo-biopic is from Chuck Barris' book revealing his life as a CIA operative/game show host. Interspersed with interviews of folks who knew him (playing themselves), they lend an interesting almost-credibility to a story which is presented as true but is so outlandish that one pretty much has to consider it a nice gag on Barris' part (but who knows? ;-). At any rate, it's a fun story with a sort of cult-film appeal, and as such might be worth a look.
Confidence: Interesting con movie, provided that all you're interested in is the con. Lots of good actors (especially Dustin Hoffman) but in spite of the nice cast and the satisfyingly complex story, there's just something missing here. Probably dread. That's it, there's no real sense of dread ... you are never really afraid for any of the characters. Maybe the story is so tight and well-choreographed that we just ride along with the certainty that nothing bad's gonna happen to any of these guys. Which is odd because at the very start of the film, we see Vig on his knees and somebody's pointing a gun at his head ... Vig begins to tell us the story in flashback. Yet even though we see our hero in mortal danger right in the first scene, it still doesn't get our heart racing. So if all we've got here is "The Sting" without any adrenaline, is there really any reason to watch this? Well, like I said, there's the cast. And there's also a nice sense of style in the photography and art direction (I'd call it something like "Neon-Noir"). Maybe that's not enough to make it memorable, but it's a nice diversion.
Contagion: Disaster films are not one of my favorite genres. I think the reason is simple, it's that the makers of these films never seem satisfied to stick with the shock and horror of the disaster. Well, maybe it's that those market-savvy producers just don't believe that the average audience will be satisfied with just the disaster. So they toss in a trite sub-plot ... a guy thrown back together with his estranged wife, or protecting his kid, or two young people finding each other and falling in love (with their first kiss at the most insane time imaginable, when they're about to get flattened by a building or swept away by molten lava). Often, one stupid sub-plot just isn't enough, we get a half-dozen or more, as in the Poseidon Adventure or The Towering Inferno (all cast with fading stars or well-known character actors), to the point that the disaster itself loses all meaning, it's just a generic threat and the real question is how many of these folks are going to get thru it alive.
Contagion is different. It is a harrowing, almost clinical look at the way a pandemic might blanket the earth. It's not a documentary by any means, but it certainly feels like one in places and that makes it all the more frightening... the science is solid, the events believable, and while we may identify with or become invested in some of the actors, they are never at the front of the story. This is a timeline account of a runaway disaster, unadulterated by sentiment, coincidence, pathos, or personal involvement and it's all the more frightening because it could really happen.
The film did pretty well with the critics when it came out, but didn't really take off with the public... probably because there are no car chases or explosions (and no love stories... could it be that those producers were right?). Whatever the reason, I think this film deserves a look... it's a true modern-day horror story with a very realistic feel... I think they really did their homework with regard to the biology, emergency management and so forth. It's probably one of the best films in this genre, certainly more effective than something like Outbreak or Earthquake, it's probably closer to films like Testament or China Syndrome.
Conviction : Hilary Swank puts herself thru law school to free her imprisoned brother. From a true story, fairly well done. Lots in common with Erin Brockovich, but darker and edgier.
Cool Runnings: I can't believe it took me almost 20 years to get around to watching this film. I guess I don't have to tell you it's about the Jamaican bobsled team, and I probably don't have to tell you that 'based on a true story' should be interpreted quite loosely ... about the only things that are true is that it is about Jamaicans, a bobsled, and the Olympics. There are some fun scenes and some interesting characters, but it plays like what it is ... a Disney live action film. Which means "safe," "predictable," and "sentimental." But it's not awful, and is probably worth watching at some point.
Cronos: Not to be confused with Chronos or Kronos, this is Guilermo del Toro's first film and has many of the same qualities that mark his later work (Pan's Labyrinth, The Devil's Backbone). Not for all tastes, but certainly worth a look. It's about an antique dealer who obtains a 400-year old device that can grant eternal life, but at a price. Yes, it is a vampire film, but it's different from every other vampire film I've ever seen.
The Dark Knight Rises: In spite of all the hype preceding the release of the final part of Nolan’s Batman trilogy, I went to see it with intentionally lowered expectations just in case. For the most part, the film was very good. About an hour of it was shot with Imax cameras, and those scenes were remarkable in terms of depth and detail. With the exception of a few glaring faults, the story itself was reasonably exciting if not exactly credible. Like the last two, it was quite dark and faithful to the spirit of Frank Miller's re-imagining of Batman as a troubled individual… which is sort of how Bob Kane started him out in the late '30's ... the 50's comic code and that awful '60's TV series pretty much ruined what was originally a very interesting character. Back in the day, Superman was the guy for truth and justice, but Batman would just as soon toss a bad guy off a skyscraper as leave him for the police. Frank Miller's reboot of the character 25 years ago really added (or rather restored) some dimension, conflict and nuance to him, and the writer/director Christopher Nolan really translated those qualities to the screen nicely. If it’s marred by anything, it’s the numerous implausibilities and plot holes, and the unsatisfying resolution of the Bane character.
Visually, the film was impressive ... Nolan resisted studio pressure to shoot in 3D, and the film benefited greatly from that along with the Imax footage. It was rich and detailed, and consistent with the look of the previous two films. Overall atmosphere was dark of course, but it was a natural dark with a realistic color balance ... the film didn't look over-graded as so many modern films seem to be. Anne Hathaway was pretty good as Catwoman, and Tom Hardy as Bane was excellent ... the curious and contradictory mixture of a musclebound juggernaut who reminds you of Vin Diesel, yet speaking with an intelligent (if malevolent) refinement, like a Sean Connery or Jeremy Irons. Same great supporting players as the previous films too ... Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman. And Joseph-Gordon Levitt, a young actor who is doing some really nice work. All around, I'd say The Dark Knight Rises would be a great movie to see, regardless of how you feel about comic-based films ... this one transcends the genre.
Dark Shadows: Perhaps a bit better than most reviews give it credit for, but it does have its problems, mainly sloppy writing. The subplots are not handled well, characters get ignored for long periods and then we're expected to care about them when they appear out of nowhere. While director Tim Burton has been prone to mis-step of late, I lay most of the blame here on screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith (I see he is listed as the screewriter for a plannned Beetlejuice sequel, I hope Burton reconsiders). I will say that the diverse cast (Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter, Eva Green, Chloë Grace Moretz, Bella Heathcote) all seem to pull their weight, and there's enough good gags to provide some interest. I've always liked the horror/comedy subgenre (which Burton usually does well) and the early-70's nostalgia (and music) adds to the charm. While the film is worth a look, I was expecting so much more ... the basic premise and the talented cast gave this film the potential to join the ranks of Young Frankenstein, Beetlejuice and Ghostbusters, but it missed by a such a wide margin it leaves you wondering what the heck Burton was thinking.
The Day the Earth Caught Fire: This apocalyptic British sci-fi film is about the aftermath of coincidental twin nuclear tests by the US and Soviet Union that disrupt the earth's axis and send the planet toward the sun. Surprisingly fresh, literate and relevant, it's quite different from most of the Saturday matinee sci-fi being produced at the time. The story follows a successful editorial reporter (Edward Judd) who is plummeting into drunkenness and despair following a bad divorce. He's barely hanging on, bolstered by his friend and coworker (Leo McKern), but a chance meeting with a switchboard operator (Janet Munro), plus the impending disaster, cause him to reexamine the worth of his life. Beautifully photographed and snappily scripted, and making excellent use of stock footage and matte paintings, the film gives us a terrifying portrayal of the unfolding disaster, one that is surprisingly effective, probably because of its similarity to some of our current ongoing environmental problems. There's also a fairly accurate and realistic look at the newspaper business in the early 60's, and in fact the overall atmosphere of the times is fairly rich throughout... no problem suspending disbelief here, it all feels quite authentic, and that's what makes it such an interesting and engrossing film.
Deadgirl. A couple of high school losers open a rusted door in the basement of a long-abandoned hospital and find a woman chained to a gurney. She is still alive, and it doesn't take them long to figure out that she's a zombie. In any other zombie movie, the next move would be obvious... you kill the zombie before it gets loose or bites somebody. But not here. These guys have no friends and are total pariahs at school so they figure that a zombie is probably the only ass they're ever gonna get ... which is why they decide to keep her as a sex slave. Unintentional hilarity and grossness ensues. Sorry, I don't think I can recommend this film on any level, in fact I don't know what the hell I was thinking when I ordered it.
The Debt: I still haven't seen the original Israeli film but this version from sporadic director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) and screenwriter Matthew Vaughn (Stardust, Kick Ass) plays pretty well. It's a parallel tale, the first one about three Mossad agents sneaking into East Berlin in 1965 to capture a Nazi war criminal, and the second story about the same folks in the present day when the true account of the details of their mission begin to come to the surface. Helen Mirren is great as always, so is Tom Wilkinson and Ciaran Hinds. Not up to the level of the best espionage thrillers, but most definitely worth looking at, even if you're not a big fan of the genre.
Defiance: Another fictionalized film from a real-life story, this one about the Bielski brothers in east Poland (now Belarus) who formed a resistance group of Jewish escapees in 1941. They hid in the deep forest for over two years and eventually numbered over 1200 individuals. Since I was totally unaware of the Bielski group before seeing this film, I was fairly engaged by the story, never knowing until the very end if they would survive or perish. After a bit of research, it appears that most of the details are fairly accurate ... and the cast (Daniel Craig, Liev Schrieber, Jamie Bell) pulls it off pretty well. A few technical problems (weapons errors, like the burst radius of grenades, plus a few obvious things like no visible breath from the actors in subzero winter) are either major or minor nitpicks, depending how fussy you are... but in general it's probably worth a look.
Delhi Belly: What can I say about this hilarious film? It's probably the first time that I've seen a caper movie based on the intertwining plot elements of diamond smuggling and stomach distress. Filmed in India with an English-speaking Indian cast, we follow a trio of roommates as they get in over their heads when a package of smuggled diamonds entrusted to one of the guy's girlfriends gets lost. Blending elements of 1930's farce with contemporary humor and tinted with the foreign locale and culture, this film refuses to fit neatly into any category, having a charm and personality all its own. I started out thinking it was just kind of odd, but then went along for the ride and ended up having a great time. A real delight.
The Descendants: Oscar-winning screenplay from Alexander Payne (Sideways), sourced from the Kaui Hart Hemmings novel forms the basis of this beautifully-toned film about a man whose life is falling apart ... an unfaithful wife now in a coma, a complex land deal with no easy solutions, and everywhere he turns are people who want something from him. Contrasting this is the stunning beauty of the land ... one of the Hawaiian Islands, a portion of which is in his stewardship. George Clooney gives an understated and insightful performance here, one that earned him a Best Actor Golden Globe. The story is depressing in places, but a few comic moments and Clooney's sensitive portray keep the film from coming off as melancholy. All in all, it's well worth the emotional investment.
Django Unchained: This film about a bounty hunter and an ex-slave has about as much to do with slavery and the prewar south as Inglorius Basterds had to do with WWII and the Holocaust, but we don't really care because this is classic Tarantino... we know from the first scenes that we're in for an exciting ride filled with violence, irony, suspense and humor. Buddy film, road film, exploitation film, quest... he blends them all and tosses in the usual film references and homages, and it all works... the film is nearly three hours long and it doesn't drag for a moment, each scene is is there for a reason, and if there are a few plot holes here and there we really don't mind because Tarantino satisfies us at every turn. As touchy a subject as slavery is, he never falters ... the scenes of brutality are heart-wrenchingly grave, yet the humorous scenes still work, as when the hooded riders (we can't really call them Klansmen since the Klan did not exist until five years after the film takes place) pause before a midnight raid to argue and complain about how badly their hoods were made. Story elements that are absurd and over-the-top to the point of being surreal still seem to make sense, and this tone reminds me a bit of parts of one of my favorite films, Little Big Man, which also juxtaposed bizarre humor, wicked irony and inhuman brutality to get it's point across. I don't think this film will disappoint, even for those who don't consider themselves Tarantino fans.
The Dog Problem: Great little indie comedy starring Giovanni Ribisi, a talented and effective actor when he gets the right part ... and this is the right part. His character is a depressed, directionless, and financially broken writer, the author of a successful novel (one that he doesn't like), and he's been unable to write since. After a year of therapy five days a week, his therapist (Don Cheadle) advises him to get a dog when he can no longer pay for his sessions. Here begins the heart of the tale, alternately sweet, sad and funny, recounting his journey toward some semblance of normalcy. The supporting players work pretty well... the film's director and writer Scott Caan (playing his best friend), plus Lynn Collins, Sarah Shahi, Kevin Corrigan and Mena Suvari. Some plot holes and a few predictable scenes don't really detract from the film, mostly because Ribisi is so believable and sympathetic. Not a great film, but it's fun and will leave you feeling good.
Dream House: Daniel Craig, Naomi Watts and Rachel Weisz star in this mystery thriller about a house with a history. The film has it's problems, notably a weak screenplay, but I can't really get into that too much without spoilers. The fact is, quite a few films of this genre suffer from similar flaws and in the end you either like them or you don't. Flaws or not, there are some capable actors here as well as a few nice little plot twists that might make the film worthwhile if not memorable.
Donnie Brasco: I'd never had a chance to see this 1997 film all the way through, only bits and pieces while channel surfing. It's a mob drama taken from a true story, along the lines of Goodfellas, and while it is nowhere near the film Goodfellas is, it is still very good indeed. Johnny Depp plays the title character, an FBI agent who works his way up the ladder in the Bonano family in what must have been one of the longest undercover operations in history by a single individual (six years). The story itself is intense, exciting enough to send you to the computer to find out how much of it was true (quite a bit, actually). While Depp's story is compelling and tense, it is actually one of the supporting characters who provides much of the film's appeal. Al Pacino's performance as Lefty Ruggiero, a loyal but aging soldier, really reaches out to the audience ... there is a sense of desperation tempered by resignation and loyalty that I found endearing and pitiful. Pacino is to be given a lot of credit here for crafting a character that one feels sorry for even when you know he's a vicious sociopath (he admitted to killing 26 people over the years). Also notable is the reliable supporting actor Michael Madsen (Reservoir Dogs). Director Mike Newell's work is spotty (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Mona Lisa Smile), but I have to give him credit for this, which must be his best film by a good margin.
Easy A: Cute teen comedy has several things to recommend it, not the least of which is its star, Emma Stone a young actress who was memorable in Zombieland and The Help. Ashamed to admit that she spent the weekend alone, she makes up a story about losing her virginity to some unknown college student, and most of the film deals with the repercussions of someone overhearing and repeating the dishonest tale. Honestly, I was a bit puzzled by how some of this played out... one would think that the whole premise would have been more convincing if it had been set in the early 60's... I mean is it really such a scandal these days for a southern California high school girl to lose her virginity? Oh well, be that as it may, the story has heart and Emma makes it convincing. Not bad.
El Bulli: Cooking in Progress: Ferran Adria and his world-renowned restaurant in Portugal are portrayed in this verite documentary that is nicely styled but a bit distant and markedly short on substance. The camera follows Adria and his staff for a year as they cloister themselves to develop the year's new menu, then open the restaurant to an anxiously waiting public (whom we never get to see... the camera stays in the kitchen). We sort of fend for ourselves here, absorbing what we can... there is no real effort to explain the philosophy or method of what Adria does, and Adria himself comes off as distant and passionless (which, if other sources are to be believed, is a very misleading portrayal of the man). The film is atmospheric and the pace is very relaxed in spite of the sometimes frantic rush in the "kitchen laboratory" where all these dishes come to life. But it's that very life and energy of this unique food that is missing in the film ... the tone is moody, somber, and monochromatic, and in fact the still photos of the 30 dishes that play just before the end credits are probably more compelling and inspiring than the film itself. Anthony Bourdain did at least two shows on Adria that were much more interesting than this, I'd recommend seeking them out instead.
Electric Shadows: This lovely Chinese film from a first-time director has it's flaws... some very improbable, almost fairytale-like coincidences and perhaps too much dialog from child characters with marginal acting ability... but there's a lot to recommend it as well. A young bicycle deliveryman is assaulted by a young deaf woman, who is then arrested for the crime but somehow convinces the man to look after her fish while she's incarcerated. Once in her apartment, he discovers the woman shares his obsession with movies, and as he reads her diaries he discovers details of her life that reveal that this is not the first time their paths have crossed. This films works on several levels: As a coming of age tale, as an interesting view of China's history as it struggles with the end of the cultural revolution, and as a beautiful and touching homage to movie-lovers which has received (deserved) comparisons to Cinema Paradiso. This film's definitely worth tracking down.
Escape From Planet Earth: A pair of alien brothers are trapped at Area 51 by an American General bent on destroying the universe. I really love animation but this film didn't do much for me. Has a few good moments but the story is fairly predictable and childish, and it doesn't have much to offer aside from some really nice-looking 3D animation.
The Expendables: This film was kind of fun. I'll admit to a certain weakness for straight-forward (I'll use that phrase instead of 'simplistic') action films, especially when they have a bit of comedy mixed in, and this one fits that description. A group of 'experienced' (let's not say 'over the hill') mercenaries get involved in the usual mix of two-bit generals, corrupt government spooks, night raids, explosions and exotic weapons (Atchisson Assault's AA-12 automatic shotgun, complete with grenade rounds, is showcased nicely here). Overall, you don't expect much from a film like this but I have to say that it played better than things like "Commando" or "True Lies" tho perhaps a bit less intelligent than "Red." For the most part I liked it and I'm looking forward to the sequel, which adds Jean-Claude Van Damme and Chuck Norris to the already heavy cast of action film notables.
The Extra Man: Odd little film about a displaced aspiring playwright (promising young actor Paul Dano) who moves in with a highly-eccentric older man (Kevin Kline) who makes his living (barely) by escorting older widows. There is so much here to like ... the story, the humor, the locations, and the excellent supporting cast ... but somehow the film didn't connect. It had all the interesting traits of one of Woody Allen's many character films, including the vivid NY atmosphere... and yet it remains a bit distant and bland. I'll say this though, Kline is excellent and perhaps his performance alone is reason to check the film out.
Five Corners: Two seemingly unrelated sets of characters play out their stories in the small Bronx neighborhood of Five Corners. First time screenwriter John Patrick Danley (Moonstruck, Doubt) grew up here, and his childhood memories paint a vivid picture ... the setting becomes almost a character unto itself (picture the back yard in Rear Window expanded to a couple of city blocks). The main story is about a psychotic man (John Turturo) released from prison and his interaction with the folks who put him there (Jodie Foster and Tim Robbins). It's not all that simple though... like Moonstruck, the story is flavored with many unique individuals and quirky little side plots. A bow-and-arrow murder, kidnapped penguins, and riding on the tops of elevator cars ... odd, almost surrealistic details that flesh out the story in a unique and colorful way, making this a film worth taking a look at. A few plot holes here and there, but still entertaining. But see if you can find the new remastered version (DVD or Blu-ray), the original release DVD really leaves a lot to be desired... not only is it pan-and-scan but the transfer quality is poor.
Flight: It's been ages since Robert Zemeckis has given us a live action film (12 years to be exact... Cast Away). Unfortunately, this isn't a stellar directorial effort. Most of the film's effectiveness comes from a good screenplay and from Denzel Washington's excellent portrayal of a self-destructive pilot who saves a plane-load of people but then can't save himself from the investigation. It's a great tale... the flight scenes are harrowing, the investigation is tense, and Whip Whitaker's wreck of a life is heartbreaking. There's a lot of story here to interest us, but the film as a whole doesn't really take flight (sorry), and I think that's the director's fault. If you've got a superior story and a superior actor and a good supporting cast, then it's the director's job to see to it that it all makes it to the screen... that it is all photographed and edited in such a way that you present the viewer with more than a routine narrative. I'm not saying that it's a bad film, it's not. When I got to the end I was in awe of Denzel's acting and I had a lot of sympathy for the character, and I felt that I had seen an interesting and stimulating story. But it's not one of those films that touched all the bases and made me want to see it again.
Flipped. Don't know if I mentioned this one last time. It's a charming coming-of-age romantic tale told Rashomon-style. I have to admit I'm a sucker for these sorts of stories told from children's point of view... occasionally one will strike me as saccharine and manipulative, but for the most part I get suckered from the get-go... Hearts In Atlantis, Stand By Me, The 400 Blows, Whale Rider, To Kill a Mockingbird ... somehow the world seems so intense and emotionally vivid when seen thru the eyes of children, and if the story takes place during the era when you yourself were a child, the hook is all the more easily set.
From Up On Poppy Hill: Scripted by Hayao Miyazaki and directed by his son Goro. In the broadest sense, this film retains the charm and personal touches that we've come to expect in a Miyazaki film, but it's obvious that Goro does not yet have the deft hand that his father has. Facial expressions are a bit broader, some of the animation moves are a little stiffer, the background mattes a tiny bit less detailed... overall it feels a bit closer to mainstream anime than Hayao's work. Still, it has the Myazaki touch... There's a emotional weight to the storytelling and a level of period detail that transcend the kid-movie theme (trying to save an old run down student clubhouse) and the film pulls a few strings that you don't have to be Japanese to appreciate, primarily the nostalgic tugs of a bygone time when Japan was in transitional turmoil (1963), along with the pain and innocence of being young. We also get filled in on a bit of history that's not generally known in the west. Sailors of the Japanese Merchant Marine were conscripted at the end of WWII to repatriate troops, and when the Korean war broke out the US military assumed control of the fleet and used them for troop transport and supply. Quite a few sailors (including the father of Umi, the girl in this film) lost their lives, though there has never been any official accounting of the number of lives lost nor has the US or Japanese government ever even acknowledged their existence. The story begins with Umi raising signal flags in front of the seacoast boarding house where she lives, flags that she has been raising each day for ten years to guide her father home. Every day, a young boy on his father's tugboat raises flags to answer her, but she never sees them because by that time she's gone inside to prepare breakfast for her grandmother and the boarders before going to school. The story is primarily the interaction of these two characters who attend the same school and get involved in trying to save the clubhouse ... until they discover a personal connection that threatens their relationship. The story is sweetly told, and there were a few spots along the way where you might feel a lump in your throat. The US version is voiced by Sara Bolger and Anton Yeltsin, along with Christina Hendricks, Aubrey Plaza, Gillian Anderson and many others. Overall, this is quite a nice film... Goro continues to grow as an animator, it's probably only a matter of time before he fills his father's shoes.
Get Smart: I expected this one to be hideously awful, partly because I didn't enjoy the original TV show that much and partly because I've come to expect films derived from 60's TV comedies to be almost universally bad ... remember The Flintstones? Lost in Space? My Favorite Martian? Yogi Bear? It may be damning with faint praise, but Get Smart is a step above the aforementioned. No, it's not a great comedy, but I was pleasantly surprised... it was predictable in places, and lord knows it had it's share of jokes that fell flat, but on the plus side Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway were actually pretty good (and I'm not a Steve Carell fan), and the better gags made me laugh enough to make me feel like it wasn't a waste of time. I wish Nate Torrence and Masi Oka had a little more screentime, and I thought it was a shame that Patrick Warburton only had one small scene at the end. There were a few funny film references (including a pretty hilarious take-off on the laser scene in Entrapment) as well as a couple of nice political digs. For those who like slapstick and inane humor, I think you could take a chance on it... Get Smart definitely isn't up there with Airplane! or The Naked Gun, but it has its moments.
The Ghost Writer (The Ghost): This creepy little political thriller by Roman Polanski follows an unnamed writer (Ewan McGregor) who is hired to edit and polish the autobiography of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), now living in the United States. The writer's predecessor died under mysterious circumstances and it soon becomes evident that the Prime Minister is hiding something, which in turn may put the writer's life in danger. The dark, twisted plot elements leading us in multiple directions, the moody music, tense direction and interesting characters all combine to form a sort of contemporary version of Chinatown, though this story is shaded in the cool blues and greys of the northeastern seacoast rather than the warm yellows and reds of Los Angeles. All told, The Ghost Writer's not as good as Chinatown, but then few movies are. It's still a good Polanski film though, and it's worth your time.
God Bless America: Bob Goldthwait's irreverent dark satire on modern America has more than it's share of problems and at times is hard to take (which, if you've seen Goldthwait's standup routines, should come as no surprise), but thanks to a couple of good leads (Joel Murray from Mad Men, and Tara Lynn Barr in her first feature), and an appealing premise, it's not too difficult to get on board in spite of the film's flaws. We meet Frank, an everyman who is repulsed by the meanness, inconsideration and superficiality around him. He's pissed off by most of the same things that bother a lot of us... reality TV, talent shows for the talentless, shock jocks, religious weirdos picketing gay soldiers' funerals, Fox News... but he hasn't really reached his limit, instead he just slogs his way thru life, coping with the morons at work, an ex-wife and daughter who don't like him, and noisy neighbors who keep him up late. His breaking point comes when he loses his job and discovers that he might have a terminal illness. Intent on suicide, he decides to precede his departure with the dispatch of some of the people he finds most annoying, people whose absence would make the world a better, or least more peaceful place. In the process he meets a disenfranchised teenager who convinces him that he's on to a good thing and he really needs to shelve the suicide plans. After getting off to a good start, the film kind of runs off the rails ... we really grow fond of our two leads in spite of the reprehensible things they're doing and we know that there's really no good end for this Bonnie and Clyde couple. Goldthwait gives us a good front end, a so-so middle, and an ending that's just silly. Still, it has its moments.
Going Postal: Based on Terry Prachett's 33rd Discworld novel, this nice little Brit TV movie could pass for a film by Terry Gilliam or Jean-Pierre Jeunet... witty and off-beat humor, visually stylish, more than a bit surreal. Richard Coyle plays Moist von Lipwig, a con-artist who is caught and pressed into service reviving the Ankh-Morpork postal service that has fallen on hard times since the development of Clacks (a sort of a bizarre cross between telegraphy, teletype and semaphore). Third in a series of Pratchett Discworld films from Sky Broadcasting (preceded by Hogfather and The Color of Magic), this one's probably the best. BTW, it's a standalone story, no need to see the other two films first.
Gravity: Most of my film viewing is at home so on the rare occasion when I get out to the theater, I try to choose carefully. This one seemed like a no-brainer, it's the kind of film that's right up my alley. It's a sci-fi disaster tale about a space shuttle accident and was directed by Alfonso Cuaron who directed Children of Men and that alone would have been enough to get me in the theater (misgivings about the suitability of Sandra Bullock in the lead role aside). I have to say, it was a great film in many ways... I liked it and had a good time, but in the end I wasn't crazy nuts about it. Direction was great but the straight linear nature of the disaster story didn't give me much to chew on... of course that's the nature of the genre, no real fault of the director or screenwriters. It was certainly exciting and suspenseful, and the action was well choreographed from a visual standpoint (I'm trying to avoid the use of the word 'cinematography' here, since there was so much pure CG). Scientific/technical elements were pretty well handled... there were flubs and implausibilities, but nothing serious enough to make me step back. Well, maybe a few... right at the beginning (just after the first accident) Matt shouts to Ryan that she needs to detach from the arm because he'll have too much trouble tracking her. So why would it be easier to track a single space-suited human by itself than that same human attached to a 50 foot Canadarm? Then when she did detach, centrifugal force shot her away with quite a bit of velocity, and yet when she had reached down to undo her tether, it was totally slack (it was stretched tight in the long shots that preceded it). Those were the only things that I remember taking me out of the story for a second, otherwise most of it was solid enough to keep me involved. I liked the way they handled the sound... I was worried by all the explosions and stuff I had heard in the main trailer, but all that was gone in the film... good job.
Tech stuff aside, there were a few 'human' things that bothered me... I thought it was very odd that senior shuttle member Matt, after seeing his crews' personnel files and training with them still didn't know where Ryan was from or that she had lost a child. Also, there's a scene involving some parachute cord (trying to avoid spoilers here) that is ludicrous, at least based on the behavior I would expect from an experienced and well-trained pilot/astronaut. I believe the writers could have figured out a more plausible way to get the storyline to where it needed to be.
Overall, it was a pretty tense film, I could see it again. I thought the 3D was used very well but I still have major problems with the technology, primarily the light loss from the filters... the screen was WAY too dark for me, at least in the theater I saw it in. Lighting in space is extremely contrasty, most of this harsh crispness was gone... in fact the video trailer I watched online looked better than what I saw in the theater. I will be so happy when the film industry's infatuation with 3D is over.
The Grey: A fairly tense film for the most part, but one that was disappointing overall. Filled with improbabilities and plot holes, it was hard to get involved in the story because of the many slap-your-forehead moments. Among the offending elements were the weapons errors (an experienced hunter discards a hunting rifle simply because of a broken stock and improvises bang sticks with shotgun shells instead), the ignorance of basic rules of survival (leaving the plane was incredibly stupid ... there were parts of the fuselage that were far more defensible than the forest they retreated to), and finally, just about everything that was said about wolf behavior (even by Ottway, the supposed 'expert') was blatantly wrong. This was not a realistic man-vs-nature or man-vs-predator film, in the end I think it had more in common with "Congo" or "Snakes on a Plane" ... it was just silly.
Green Lantern: I'm a long-time comic fan (more Marvel than DC, just so you'll know) but this film didn't get me all that excited... Green Lantern was never one of my favorite characters and I'm not a fan of Ryan Reynolds. The film pretty much lived down to those expectations ... the effects were nice enough, but other than that it was disappointing. Predictable story, trite and corny dialog, and the implausible Parallax never seemed all that threatening. It seemed like the comedic moments (and Reynold's portrayal of Hal Jordan) really got in the way here. I guess it was the writers and producers who are mostly at fault on this one, the problems I see seem to exist at a very basic level ... and I know the director who gave us 'Reilly: Ace of Spies' and 'Casino Royale' is capable of more.
Hanna: I read a few so-so reviews of this film, a lot of them writing it off as a workable action/spy thriller, and didn't hear any positive buzz from my friends, so my expectations were lowered from my first encounter with the trailer many months ago (which made it seem quite interesting). Overall, I think the trailer gives a better account of the film than the reviews. The premise was intriguing and the execution was interesting, a sort of Ridley Scott meets Luc Besson sort of thing. Quite a few (mostly forgivable) plot holes, none of them major deal-breakers... for the most part you can float along with the story pretty well, improbable as it may seem at first. What we have is a borderline sci-fi tale about a young girl raised by her father (in a totally isolated tundra wilderness cabin) to be an assassin. Her one mission: Avenge the death of her mother. Dad seems pretty capable himself, ex-spy or some such thing, so why doesn't he do the deed himself rather than send his little girl to do it? Well, turns out the gal is the product of a super-soldier genetic engineering project so she's actually much more suited to the task, and we don't get far into the film before we see just how capable she is.
Does she sound a bit like Hit Girl from Kick Ass? Well, yeah, the parallel is there, but here it's not played for laughs (in spite of her age, she's probably got much more in common with La Femme Nikita than Mindy). The serious tone makes her abilities far more chilling... and it also makes her sad and pathetic, since the poor kid had to learn about art and music from an old encyclopedia while the bulk of her time was spent becoming a weapons and martial-arts expert. When she finally gets out in the world and bumps into some kids her own age we really feel sorry for her, we see her social ineptness and huge knowledge gaps... in that respect, this film makes an interesting statement about the inadequacy of home schooling when performed by any family with an agenda, be it religious, survivalist, racial supremest, whatever. But you don't get the chance to ponder the issue for long... pretty soon Hanna's vulnerability begins to tell and we become terribly afraid for her... we know that the people who are after her will eventually realize just how dangerous she is and will simply resort to overpowering her with numbers.
Her initial return to 'the world' from her wilderness home lands her in a secret facility in Morocco. After an amazing escape early in the film she makes her way to Spain and eventually Germany. Locations are really used to exceptional advantage here, the scenery and photography are high points of the film. The overall look is stylish... nicely shot and edited, it has a very nice flow in most places....slower scenes are done in a somewhat atmospheric and creative way, you don't feel like you're waiting for something exciting to happen. Also, the overall progression suits the narrative... like Koyaaniqatsi, the film gets more frenetic and surreal the closer she gets to civilization. Scenic 'travelogue' shots turn to urban oppressiveness and an almost Clockwork Orange-like atmosphere of confusion and menace.
Like the Bourne films, MI, or the newer Bond films, the story doesn't stand up if you examine it too closely... but it does take you for a great ride. And since our protagonist is a young girl instead of an experienced spy (even though she's not exactly helpless), the film pulls a few emotional strings and pulls you in a bit deeper than it otherwise might if we were watching Matt Damon, Tom Cruise or Daniel Craig. Hanna is played by Saoirse Roman, who showed promise in "The Lovely Bones," and is riveting in this... there's a quiet maturity in her acting that is reminiscent of the early work of Leelee Sobieski and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Her father is played by Eric Bana, another quiet and understated actor (The Time Traveller's Wife, and Ang Lee's "Hulk"). Hanna's target (and rogue CIA operative) is played with a wicked edge (but an unfortunate come-and-go southern accent) by Kate Blanchett. In sum, I think this film's worth checking out. Like Joe Wright's other work (Atonement, The Soloist, Pride & Prejudice), there's more here than the story, he makes good use of film as a visual medium, producing something that's probably interesting to watch even with the sound off.
Haywire: OK, here we have a nice martial arts knockabout from Stephen Soderberg that shows a bit of intelligence and expands the genre if not actually redefining it. A retro soundtrack that has way more in common with 60's and 70's TV crime dramas than contemporary cinema, some very intriguing and off-beat pacing, along with a charmingly unpolished (almost indie film) look all combine to make this something very different, and I mean that in a good way. A solid cast (Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Ewan MacGregor and others) support the relatively inexperienced but talented Mixed Martial Arts phenom Gina Carano. Not your usual martial arts film by any means, and for that alone it's worth a look.
The Heat: OK, let me say that my wife loved Bridesmaids but I wasn't all that impressed, so when the director (Paul Feig) followed it up with another comedy, this time a cop/buddy pic, I was ready to run away. But I actually like this film better... Sandra Bullock is the uptight FBI agent who gets partnered with crude Boston police officer Mellissa McCarthy, and while it really seems like McCarthy's film at first, Bullock's understated performance gradually draws your attention... she's more than just the straight man in this comic pair. There's some really good gags here, and overall story's not bad either. Maybe it's me, could be I just like cop pics better than bridesmaid pics. Or maybe Feig just went at the story from a smarter angle this time... or maybe writer Katie Dippold (MadTV, Parks & Recreation) had a better handle on the material than Kristin Wiig (who didn't have any significant previous writing credits before Bridesmaid's). Or maybe we've got more time for character development since we're spending most of our time with the two leads.... we get to know them better and they aren't as cartoonish. Whatever the reasons, the film's fairly funny and it's not a bad time.
Hereafter: This Clint Eastwood/Stephen Spielberg film didn't get great reviews but I'll give it credit for handling the aspects of what happens after we die with a bit more respect than I'm used to seeing. Only reservations I have in recommending it are that the ending's a bit disappointing and the pacing is a bit slow and the running time is long ... of these, only the ending was really of any concern ... the pacing and running time actually suited the film and are probably going to play just fine for anyone who approaches this as a quiet character film and not a paranormal suspense drama. As usual, Matt Damon anchors the film in a remarkable way ... this guy always seems to be able to add a bit of warmth and credibility to the material he's given, in much the same manner as Gregory Peck once did (though perhaps Peck accomplished it in a somewhat more genteel and dignified way, Damon is more of an Everyman). Also noteworthy is French actress Cecile De France who hasn't appeared in many English language films but may be worth looking out for.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: This DVD was my third viewing and I have to admit I'm softening a bit. I liked it well enough in the theater (I saw it in a 3D 48fps version and an Imax 3D conventional frame rate version) but I had more than a few misgivings regarding Jackson's decision to split this 300+ page book into three parts. I have to admit though, this was an enjoyable and entertaining film and it didn't drag a bit, so I'll keep an open mind regarding the next two parts. An Unexpected Journey both reunites us with cherished characters from the Lord of the Rings films and transports us to an earlier time in their lives... this might seem incongruous but it actually works, in the same sense that many Hitchcock films do when they present the viewer with knowlege that the characters themselves do not possess. We're not smug, just invested. Overall, the tone is different than what you might expect if you've seen or read LOTR... Tolkein wrote the Hobbit as a children's book while LOTR was more of a historical epic. Both are quests, yet the Hobbit has a gentler and more intimate feel, one that draws us in but does not disconnect us from the grand and legendary aspects of the whole. Most enjoyable for me was Jackson's delicate blend of tense and stimulating action, sentiment, fantasy and humor. Some of this he owes to Tolkein of course, but you have to admire the way he holds your interest for nearly three hours in what is for the most part a fairly linear tale (no parallel story lines as in LOTR). This is a great film, I'm really looking forward to the next two parts, and to the extended version of this one, which should be out in a few months.
Holy Motors: This fantasy film breaks away from conventional narrative storytelling but doesn't quite qualify as surrealist ... there is more here than symbolism and dream imagery. Directed by Leos Carax, the movie is insane and at times confusing but you'll definitely find a story here. The bulk of the film follows Oscar as he is chauffeured around in a limousine (decked out inside as sort of a theatrical dressing room) to perform seemingly unrelated contracts... a beggar woman, a motion-capture dancer, a mad kidnapper, a father to a shy teen girl, a hired killer... after each task (a couple of which appear to cost him his life) he returns to the limo and his dedicated driver. I'm not sure this is one of those films you are supposed to be able to figure out ... or at least that's what I'm telling myself since I seem to hit a brick wall each time I try. I guess if it has to be about something, it could perhaps represent our modern society's expectation that we play roles to satisfy others, and very often we make our way through this life either not knowing who we really are, or if we do, never showing that inner self to those around us. Not for everyone, but I have to say that in spite of the fact that my film tastes usually lean more toward the conventional than the avante garde, this is one I definitely want to see again.
Hugo. Not much I can say about this film that hasn't been said already in reviews and by friends who have seen it... one of the best films of the year, taken from a book that I am extremely fond of, brought to the screen by one of the most talented directors alive. Some of the story revolves around early film history, specifically Georges Melies, and the fact that Scorsese is so involved with film history and preservation probably makes him the perfect person to tell this story. Perhaps the only director I'd rather see interpret this material (because of the quirky nature of the story, the automatons, and the French setting) would be Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amelie, The City of Lost Children). But I'm not complaining... Scorsese did a wonderful job and this is about as perfect a film as one could possibly wish for... it practially glows with an inner life of it's own. So see it. And if you haven't read the book, please do.
The Hunger Games: I'd label this film as entertaining and well-crafted, and while I may have been expecting more, what I got wasn't bad. The most serious flaws are what's left out ... the backstory and the inner thoughts of our lead character, two of the things that made the books so engaging, are both missing. Nor does the film attempt to repair the myopic and severely-flawed premise of the books ... the idea that twelve sparsely-populated districts, each of whom has a 'specialty,' (farming, fishing, technology, etc.) are held in servitude by one fabulously wealthy Capital City and form a socioeconomic system that somehow functions. We are led to believe that District Twelve is a poor mining district, supposedly somewhere in Appalachia, but when the Reaping is held, all we see is a pitiful gathering of less than a thousand individuals ... are we expected to believe that this is the only inhabited community in a district area of millions of square miles, and that they alone support the energy needs of the entire Capitol? All that aside, the story works well enough ... I was able suspend disbelief to a sufficient degree to accept the basic premise of the film (which I found far more plausible than the one in Battle Royale, the Japanese film that The Hunger Games is sometimes compared with). Solid performances from many of the actors and weak ones by others lead me to suspect a rather light (or inexperienced) hand by director Gary Ross, but the story itself moves along at a reasonable pace, and additional scenes (like inside the Gamemaker's control room) replace some of Katniss' exposition in the book. The action, once it gets going, is fairly well-choreographed, and the cinematography (by Tom Stern, who shot Mystic River and both of Clint Eastwood's Iwo Jima films) is notable. I would recommend this one, with a few reservations.
Idiocracy: From Mike Judge, writer/creator of King of the Hill and Beavis & Butthead comes a film that is silly and repulsive yet a bit frightening at its core. Luke Wilson and Maya Rudolph star as the reluctant participants in a military experiment that goes wildly awry and they wake up 500 years in the future. The film's prologue prepares us for what to expect: Human evolution no longer functions since there are no predators to "thin the herd," and in most cases it is the dumbest members of society who produce the most offspring. When Joe and Rita wake up, they are surrounded by idiots... society is on the verge of collapse, illiteracy is rampant, the President of the United States is a retired professional wrestler turned rap star. Joe, who was chosen for the experiment because he was average and expendable, is now literally the smartest man on the planet. The film has it's moments... mostly sight gags involving commerce and mega-corporations, some of which seem lifted directly from Wall-E. The rest of it is weak and predictable. In spite of that, there's a serious theme here that is hard to ignore... as absurd as this film is, you can't help but wonder if this is really where we're headed.
The Illusionist: This is a poinant and emotional tale, written by Jaques Tati (and like most of his stories, told in near silence) and directed by Sylvain Chomet, the talented animator who also did "The Triplets of Belleville." At first, I was a bit disappointed with this film by comparison... Belleville is about bicycles after all, it was hard to resist the wonderful caricatures of Merckx, and Poulidor, as well as the dead-on satire of bike racing in general. Belleville also moved along at nice pace... The Illusionist is much slower and more subtle. I'm not sure if the overall atmosphere and pacing was inherent in Tati's story or if Chomet applied the effect as a tribute to Tati, or a bit of both, but once you adjust to the gentle nature of the characters and settings, this film opens up in a really lovely way.
I'm a Cyborg But That's OK: Director Chan-wook Park's other films are more action-oriented (Oldboy, JSA, Lady Vengeance) so this may seem a bit unusual for him. It's an odd fantasy, vaguely reminiscent of Amelie, about a young woman who has been placed in a mental institution for attempting suicide (in reality, she thinks she's a cyborg... she had cut her wrist, inserted a wire and plugged it into a wall outlet in order to recharge herself). She slowly wastes away due to her refusal to eat, and she makes friends with a young schizophrenic thief (effectively played by Korean rock star Rain) who looks after her and tries to bring her back to reality without disturbing her fantasy (for example, he fakes an operation to insert a rice-digesting module in her back so that she can eat). Aside from a few cultural references that some may find a bit hard to comprehend, the majority of this film is delightful, infused with a beautiful warmth that makes it very worthwhile. Give it a chance, there's a really nice film here... inventive, funny, touching and romantic.
Impostor: So-so sci-fi tale that is mildly suspenseful and entertaining. Held back by some awkward scripting and directing, a low budget hidden by the mostly dark sets, but bolstered by the wonderful Phillip K. Dick story that is at the heart of the tale. Gary Sinise plays Spencer Olham, a highly-placed defense scientist who goes on the run when the government gets wind of an alien plan that suggests that he has been replaced with an explosive cyborg. Undetectable and not self-aware, there is no way to prove whether he's the human or the weapon so the government plan is to kill him to be on the safe side. There are quite a few plot holes, especially at the end, but the typically Dickian paranoia and dark human elements make the story work reasonably well. Sadly, the directing and screenwriting wasn't good enough to produce a film truly worthy of the source material... too bad Ridley Scott or Stanley Kubrick couldn't have gotten their hands on this one.
In a Day: A nice indie film from first-time director Evan Richards is more than it seems. What it seems at first is a simple story about a young man and woman hanging out together for a day, but it turns out there's a bit of a mystery at the root of it all. Nothing all that heavy, mind you ... but still an interesting tale, told with sensitivity and gentle humor. Like many indie films, what wins you over are the honest performances and the film's sincere heart. I thought the ending a bit rushed, but overall the film worked fairly well and was worth the time.
Inside Job: A startling documentary ... while it won't really tell you anything new about the recent global financial meltdown, it's presented here in a coherent timeline format, interspersed with interviews of some of those responsible (most of whom, even at this late date, remain arrogantly ignorant that they ever did anything wrong). It's probably too maddening for any rational person to watch without a handful of Prozac and a blood pressure monitor.
Interview : Steve Buscemi directs and stars in this tense and mildly claustrophobic film about a serious political reporter who is forced to interview a young, self-absorbed and incredibly popular soap opera star. Naturally, it begins as a total train wreck, but as things get going the film shows us that there's a lot of depth to both these characters. So what happens, they stop hating each other and fall in love? Well, I'm sure that's what would happen in an American film, but this is film was originally from Dutch Director Theo Van Gogh (and writer Theodor Holman, who did both screenplays), so let's say that things will probably be less predictable and formulaic. This one is worth a look.
Ip Man and Ip Man 2: These are a couple of historical dramas that play fast and loose with historical fact. But unlike many of these types of films (where changes are made to provide a 'sellable' story, or to shorten or clarify the narrative, or to make filming easier), here we have a somewhat unique situation ... Ip Man, one of the early proponents of martial arts (and mentor of Bruce Lee later in life) is a cultural icon in China, a man whose status is nearly legendary ... stories about him are told and retold, with little regard for truth (much like George Washington and his cherry tree in this country) and so it's natural to expect to see the same in these films. And in the end, it's not something we should fault the writers for because it is these very legendary (and at times almost magical) aspects of the story that makes these films work. That, and the very charismatic lead performance by Donnie Yen, who plays Ip wonderfully ... reserved, compassionate, and dedicated, but also human (in particular, Yen's protrayal of Ip's struggle to reconcile his commitment to martial arts with his love and devotion to his family was sensitively done). The fight scenes are well-choreographed and while they are a bit more conservative (read: "believable") than what we see in many Asian martial arts films, they are no less exciting. The first film takes place before WWII, the second one picks up where the first leaves off... the first is the better of the two, but I think both are worth watching.
The Isle : OK, if I tell you that this film is from the same director who did "The Bow" and "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring," then I probably don't have to tell you that it's moody, bizzarrely erotic, light on dialog, beautifully shot, and has a lot of water.
It's Kind of a Funny Story: Charming comedy about a teenager who is about to commit suicide but instead checks himself into the psyche ward at a local hospital. The youth wing is temporarily closed so he is placed with the adult population and it is here he begins to put his life back in order. There's a serious and touching side to all this, but warm humor and quirky supporting characters keep this from getting too heavy. While the story may not be all that accurate in its portrayal of the mentally ill and the doctors (and medical bureaucracy) that care for them, it works well enough to keep us involved in the story and by the time the end rolls around you'll probably care about most of these folks. Maybe a little too sentimental in places, but still worth a look.
It! The Terror From Beyond Space : This is one of your typical '50's space yarns, done on a low budget and well before anyone but sci-fi fans knew enough about space to catch the many flubs (like both doors of an airlock being open at once). Some of the lines are priceless ... like when the guy bails out of the ventilation system after encountering the alien and yells to his pals, "Get out of here ... get a head start!" As silly as the idea of a headstart is in the confines of a tiny spacecraft, it's not as silly as what comes later, when they start fighting the creature with hand grenades and (I swear to God) a bazooka. Oh yeah, the other great line was when the doc examines one of the dead crew: "... every bone in his body is broken. But I don't think that's what killed him."
James Bond : Yeah, over the last six weeks I rewatched, in order, 22 James Bond films (all the Eon Productions titles, I'll catch up on Niven's Casino Royale and Connery's Never Say Never Again some other time). Overall, I have to say that Connery made a great Bond and Roger Moore was unreservedly awful. Brosnan was OK, but too wimpy, Dalton had a dark edge that was kind of interesting, and Lazenby was much better than people give him credit for, but he was only in one film so he never got to grow into the role. Of all the films before the reboot, the best one without a doubt is From Russia With Love ... it was probably the most faithful adaptation of a Fleming book, plus it offered an unforgettable performance from Robert Shaw. As for the reboot, I know this may upset purists, but I think Casino Royale is probably the best Bond film so far and Daniel Craig is the best Bond. While Quantum of Solace was not as good, I feel that both Craig films work really well, for several reasons. First, they dispense with a lot of the winking chauvinism and slapstick gags that ruined (and dated) so many of the earlier films. They also dialed back the gadgetry, which, while an essential component of the Bond film, were getting more outlandish and unbelievable. All in all, we get a more believable spy yarn, less comedy and more action/suspense. Most importantly, Bond is less of a cipher ... we get some sense of the human being behind the secret agent. Don't get me wrong, Bond films will never be character films, and it's important to remember that one of the reasons the Bond character works so well is that he's a man of mystery ... but we still want to know what drives him and what haunts him (consider Batman ... without any knowledge of his parents' brutal murder, what would this character's obsession with crime mean to us?). In the past, we never got any sense of the person ... granted, Bond lost his new bride at the end of On Her Majesty's Secret Service, but this is the one small scrap we get of Bond's private life, and it's only alluded to once or twice in passing during subsequent films. On the other hand, while the reboot Bond remains mysterious, there's a big difference here ... we definitely see hints of the person beneath, we see some backstory, and we come to understand how an individual would want to commit (and possibly sacrifice) his life to such a thankless job, for reasons that transcend patriotic devotion.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi: This has to be one of the best documentaries produced this year and I hope it gets some recognition when the Oscar nominations come out. While it is very well-crafted, most of the merit of the film is in the person of Jiro, an 85 year old Japanese chef who runs a small but very exclusive sushi restaurant in the Tokyo subway. But please be aware that whatever feelings you might have about sushi are immaterial ... because this film is not about the food, it is about life. It is about dedication, honesty, self-worth, patience and the ability to see every single day as a fresh chance. It is a glorious affirmation of the creative process and a wonderful wake-up call to any of us who to strive to be ... better.
Joe Vs. the Volcano: Well, it took over 20 years but I finally got around to seeing this. Part fractured fairy tale, part satirical morality play, but maybe neither... this is a hard film to categorize. At times it's playing like a sweet and simple romance, at other times it's got the surrealistic bite of a Terry Gilliam or Jean-Pierre Jeunet film. Whatever it is, I liked it. Tom Hanks plays a destitute and ineffectual everyman who finds out that he's only got a few months to live. He takes an offer from a rich industrialist who (and I feel silly even writing this) wants to pay him to go jump in a volcano on a south sea island to appease the god of the island's inhabitants so that they will give him mining rights to a very rare mineral that his company is in desperate need of. The idea is that he's gonna die anyway, so why not go out in style and live the life he's never been able to afford? Hanks accepts the offer, and here begins our tale... he encounters unique people, tropical storms, death and destruction, and all of it timed in such a way as to present him with valuable lessons about what life is really supposed to be about. A voyage of self-discovery, yet one that will end all too soon with his inevitable death, either from his disease or the volcano. There are some interesting lessons here, all of it presented in a humorous and magical way... but parts of it don't work and the parts that do are easy to misunderstand. Like Moonstruck (which was written by John Shanley, same guy who wrote and directed this film), you sort of have to buy into the character and appreciate that his newfound awe and inner peace are a natural result of his own altered perception of life... not just his own life but that of all the people around him that he sees clearly, now that his fear of living is gone. Granted, the film still has its weak moments, bit I'm still very glad I got to see it after all these years... it's charming and silly, and maybe a bit magical.
Jumper : Nice little film about a kid who can create his own wormholes and jump from place to place ... whether it's to the top of the Great Pyramid at Giza, or to the other end of the couch to reach the remote. The film moved along nicely, and benefited greatly from some nice location shooting all over the world, as well as the presence of Samuel L. Jackson as the NSA bad guy. This won't make anybody's list of great films, but it does have it's good points so overall I'd give it a recommendation. I'd really kinda like to see a Japanese anime remake... it's that kind of film.
The Killers: An Earnest Hemingway short story is the basis for this 1946 classic film noir. It begins with the murder of a gas station attendant in a small town and then moves on to the victim's backstory as his life is pieced together by a determined insurance investigator who wants to know the real reason why he died. The story is great, no getting around that... but what sets this film apart is the presentation. Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner are both magnetic, you can't take your eyes off of either of them. The film is beautifully lit and shot, with scene after scene giving evidence to what a wonderful medium black and white can be in the right hands. The editing and score are excellent as well (both nominated for Academy Awards). This is one of those films that you vaguely remember from late night TV, ruined by commercial breaks, that takes on a whole new life when you find a good quality print and see it uninterrupted.
Kill the Irishman: Director Jonathan Hensleigh is no Scorsese, but this fact-based tale of Cleveland's Danny Greene has so much in common with Goodfellas that it could be considered either homage or ripoff, depending on how charitable you feel. But even if it's the latter, I'm still not holding that against it, it's a good film in its own right and manages to stick reasonably close to the facts (with notes of authenticity added by real-life news broadcasts and interviews from the period). The most notable misrepresentation is the physicality of Greene himself, who was 5' 10", not the 6' 4" of Ray Stevenson (Rome, The Book of Eli). But it works... since Danny Greene was a charismatic, larger-than-life character who fancied himself a Celtic warrior, it is reasonable that there's an heroic nature to this film's portrayal of him and an epic tone to the story in general. A few scenes don't ring true, and there's a strong episodic quality since there's so much ground to cover (and a lot of characters to keep straight), but overall it works.
Kingdom of Heaven: Like Braveheart, this is a historical drama that is reasonably sound in the broad strokes, while the details range from fanciful to ludicrous. Granted, this isn't supposed to be a documentary about the Crusades, and the simple truth is that most screenwriters know that historical fact doesn't always play that well on the screen (for example <spoiler here> Balian and Sybilla going home to France and turning Richard III down he passes thru on his way to the Holy Land all makes for a picturesque ending, but in real life Sibylla stayed married to Guy and died of disease in the siege of Acre, while Balian took Richard up on his offer to take another crack at Saladin). Still, for all its flaws, the story as told here is reasonably satisfying, and may intrigue you enough to do some research after watching it to see where it strays. History aside, the film has a lot to recommend it ... Ridley Scott has always been adept at finding a nice balance between character, story and visual appeal. There's a sense of style here that is typical Ridley, hearkening back to his very first feature film, The Duellists, and while it's not as powerful as his period masterpiece Gladiator, it still has a lot to recommend it.
Knowing . This is an interesting supernatural thriller with a premise that will probably remind you of some of the more successful Japanese suspense films of recent years. A time capsule containing children's drawings of the future is buried in 1959 by the administration of a newly-opened elementary school, and dug up in 2009. Amongst the drawings is a page of numbers submitted by one disturbed schoolgirl, numbers which turn out to be detailed predictions of disasters ... the date, death toll, and latitude/longitude. All of them have come true over the past fifty years, all but three, whose dates are still in the future... and upon that hangs the rest of the tale. This is not a big-budget film, and it does have its flaws... but I recommend it because the story is fairly deftly-told and it probably will keep you guessing right to the end.
Koyaanisqatsi: I had a chance to revisit a nice Criterion HD version of this, one of my favorite documentaries. The detail is remarkable and for anyone who never got to see this in the theater, it is worth tracking down. Unfortunately, it is not a full-on digital restoration ... there's some frame judder, a few scratches and quite a bit of dust on either side of the reel splices. Still, it's way better than the DVD version. The film itself is remarkable ... there's not a word spoken but the visuals speak for themselves, a moving statement on the relationship of man to the world, and all the more affecting without the preaching and statistics one usually encounters in documentaries on the environment. The message is clear ... too bad mankind still isn't paying attention.
J Edgar: Long-time FBI director J. Edgar Hoover went from a nationally respected hero to a man feared and hated by those in power, to being the butt of endless cross-dressing jokes... but there's no arguing the fact that he was an interesting individual and as such he seemed destined at some point to be the subject of a biopic. The question was, would it be respectful or salacious, tedious or revealing, honest or caricatured? When I first heard about the film when it was in production, I definitely had my doubts. Eastwood had a notable success as a biopic director with Bird, but his track record lately has been disappointing. Then when I found out that Leonardo DiCaprio would be playing Hoover, my only response was "Huh?" After seeing it though, I have to say that DiCaprio is probably the best thing about the film... his performance is controlled and respectful, giving us a glimpse of a man who hid everything from the world and probably himself as well. The rest of the film seems a bit aimless however... with a person as enigmatic as Hoover and a performance as restrained as DiCaprio's and a real-file character like Hoover who is so clouded with rumor and legend, I think it's up to the screenwriter and director to give us a story that, if not leading us around by the nose, at least sheds some light on the lead character. Here we have a story that's strong on events and chronology but short on insight. Still, it's not a bad story and it does leave you with a tiny bit more respect and sympathy for Hoover than you might have started with.
The Lady: I expected a bit more from this biopic about Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi. Given the charismatic nature of the real-life lead character, the political intrigue and turmoil in Burma at the time... it seems like it would have great possibilities. Especially with Luc Besson at the helm.... we know he loves to do films about strong, independent women in conflict (La Femme Nikita, The Fifth Element, The Messenger). Unfortunately, something's missing here... I don't know whether it's because Besson focuses too much on her marriage, or whether Besson's primary experience as a writer/director/producer of action films somehow prevented him from figuring out how to make 15 years of house arrest seem interesting, but I had a hard time feeling the real emotional impact that I know is in this story. Two things did stand out... Michelle Yeoh is excellent in the lead, and Besson made some great use of Thai locations... this film's beautifully photographed and has a wonderful atmosphere. I really admire Besson as a director but in this case I think he should have stuck to producing and picked someone who had more of a knack for this sort of thing. That said, I'm not going to recommend that you give the film a pass... it's worthwhile for the rendition of the factual elements of the story, Yeoh's performance, and the lovely cinematography.
Lady Snowblood: In the pantheon of vengeance tales, this 1973 Japanese film ranks high. The inspiration for Tarantino's Kill Bill, Lady Snowblood is the story of a woman literally conceived to avenge crimes against her dead mother ... acts that occurred before she was born, committed by people she has never met. The film performs an interesting balancing act ... the backstory, the training, the search, the assassinations ... nicely-paced interleaves and flashbacks that allow us to grow increasingly sympathetic to the main character, and develop genuine concern for what will become of her once her job is done, given the single-minded and self-destructive nature of revenge. The film has some beautiful cinematography and art direction, details that don't really jump out at you but add to the atmosphere. The weak point are fight scenes which are poorly choreographed by today's standards, and dated by the 'blood spray' style developed by Kurosawa in Yojimbo and Sanjuro (and overdone by just about everyone who's used them since). Still, this is a great film.
Le Quattro Volte: This wonderful film may not be for all tastes ... it is almost completely visual (no dialog) and for those used to modern editing techniques it may seem slow-moving. It explores life in a small mountain village in southern Italy, and it has three main subjects, each examined in turn ... an old man, a young goat, and a cedar tree. The locale is wonderful, a poor but peaceful place where life appears to go on as it always has ... aside from a few modern hints, a paved road, an electric light, the story could be taking place hundreds of years ago. Even though it takes place in the present day, the sound cues are timeless ... we hear no radios or TV, no airplanes overhead... just the bleating of goats, a dog barking, wind in the trees, and the occasional sputtering of an old overworked truck. You pay attention, much as you would if you were an actual visitor to this lovely town, picking out details and relationships and getting caught up in things that seem strange or interesting, and you feel yourself relaxing and slowing down as you adopt the pace of this new world around you. What you get in this film is life, not a story, so it's sort of up to you to decide what is going on, to experience it and decide for yourself if it has any meaning. I'm not sure everyone has the patience or the inclination to get involved in this sort of film, but for those willing to give it a chance it will be a rewarding experience.
A Life Less Ordinary : A black comedy from Danny Boyle which, while not his best work, does seems typical of his style. That is, he's not in the least reluctant to take chances ... when things work you appreciate his talent, and when not successful you're glad he at least made the effort to try something different. The story itself is a bit cliched and drags a little in places, but at its best it is an offbeat tale with a good heart. It's also aided by a great cast who, in spite of the rough spots in the script, usually make you laugh and leave you feeling pretty good. Cameron Diaz and Ewan MacGregor play a spoiled rich girl and a recently-fired custodian who inadvertently become hostage and kidnapper. Actually, it's not so inadvertent, as they are in reality the assigned 'clients' of a couple of angels (Holly Hunter and Delroy Lindo, who have been tasked with getting them together or else). The story proceeds in an twisty, absurd manner that plays effective homage to the screwball comedies of the '30's, and is supported by a generous roster of character actors (Ian MacNeice, Stanley Tucci, Maury Chaykin, Tony Shaloub, Dan Hedaya, Ian Holm). The film does have it's problems... but overall it's fun. Be sure you check out the two epilogues that play thru the closing credits.
Life of Pi: Everyone was asking the same thing... how do you make an interesting two hour movie that takes place in a lifeboat? Well, it's possible... Hitchcock did it. OK, to be fair, his only ran 96 minutes and there were nine characters. Maybe it's more appropriate to compare the film with Cast Away ... that one was even longer and it's just a guy and a soccer ball (as opposed to a guy and a Bengal tiger). Be as skeptical as you like, but check out this film... most everyone I know who has seen it ended up leaving all their negativity and misgivings in the theater. Simply put, we have a young boy and a tiger (the only survivors of a cargo ship transporting the boy's family and their zoo animals) told in flashback by the now-grown boy. Ang Lee and the book's author Yan Martel do such an amazing job of presenting a story that is part coming-of-age, part buddy film, part survival tale, all presented in a context that has deeply spiritual undertones, presented in a glorious and ultimately life-affirming way but without being the least bit preachy. I'm really looking forward to seeing this one again.
Like Crazy: Interesting romance that doesn't pander to teenagers or housewives and doesn't trivialize or sentimentalize relationships... it deals honestly with the emotional conflicts brought about by both the random things that life throws at us and the conflicting emotions that people feel when they're in love but still too young to take commitment seriously. It stars a talented and promising pair of actors, Felicity Jones and Anton Yelchin, as two students who meet and fall in love, then have to deal with the consequences of a long-distance relationship when one of them has to return home to England. The film and also benefits from excellent performances by Jennifer Lawrence and Charlie Bewley who play the temporary love interests who come along to complicate the lives of the principals. I've heard that the director gave the actors only general instructions for critical scenes and then allowed them to improvise. I can believe this, the film has an honest and spontaneous feel that feels fresh and really suits the material.
Limitless : Interesting story about an aimless but promising writer whose listless life takes a turn when he obtains a drug that provides him with incredible drive and focus. His life turns around temporarily but the drug's side effects as well as the danger from unsavory types trying to uncover the source of his supply end up leaving him in a more precarious position than he was before.
Looper: This one is on my list of top ten favorite films of 2012, but I guess I knew that it would probably end up there as soon as I saw the trailer. I've always been a huge sucker for time travel films and this one doesn't disappoint. There's a great story here (two great stories actually, one of which is not even hinted at in the trailer) and some good acting. It's well-paced and has enough nice twists to keep you pleasantly surprised throughout. There's a bunch of stuff I could say about this cool little film but I'll keep it short and just recommend that you see this one for sure.
Mama: My daughter was so anxious to see this one, this kind of horror film is right up her alley. Missing for years, two feral children are found in an old house and brought back to civilization with a ghost (Mama) in tow who had been caring for them all that time in her own severely warped way. Guillermo del Toro produced this one, but unfortunately did not direct ... so the film does not have the visual splendor and wicked edge that graces so many of his films. Instead, this one's pretty average for the most part ... frightening in places, and the actors work the material pretty well (even the two kids), but there's just not enough here to elevate it above the run of the mill ghost story.
Man on a Ledge: As caper films go, it's not bad but overall there's not a whole lot to recommend this... some of the situations are genuinely tense and there are a few nice surprises, but working against it is its overall predictability and some pretty cartoonish characters that lack nuance. Overall, there was not much here to hold my interest. Not exactly a waste of time, but it's it's not something you'll want to see more than once.
Man With a Movie Camera : This classic silent film is a montage of independent scenes that combine to give us a portrait of modern life in the Soviet Union in 1929. Combining views of three cities (Moscow, Kiev and Odessa) it plays as a sort of Matryoshka doll, beginning with sequences inside the theater in which the film will be shown, which invite us to become a member of the audience, then showing us a filmmaker as he goes out to conquer the world (and we continue to see him intercut thruout the rest of film), then we see our story, showing the city as it wakes up, goes to work and retires to play. A manifesto in the opening titles proclaim this to be an experimental work without words, title cards, or script, but this simple statement is much more than that ... it is a declaration of war on the narrative film. Director Verlov was part of the "Kinocs" or "Cinema Eyes" group, which sought to protect the purity of cinema as an art form by insulating it from all work derived from the stage or literature ... in other words, paring it down to the documentary form. Like still photography, they felt cinema deserved the right to develop as an autonomous art form. Man With a Movie Camera was shot without a script of any sort ... shots were collected and the director's wife organized them into a sort of database and proceeded to edit. In spite of the seriousness of the Kinocs' declaration, the film is not without humor ... the intrepid filmmaker is shown lugging his camera from place to place, often filming in dangerous situations with a determined abandon that is almost Keatonesque. Cheesy film posters appear in the film here and there to remind us of what we are rebelling against, and of course the communist ideology gets its plugs as well when we see young, robust, socially-conscious workers juxtaposed with the self-absorbed (and often drunken) bourgeoisie, and in one scene we even see a pretty young flower of the proletariat in a shooting gallery plunking away at a Hitler caricature (which is quite interesting to see in a film produced a full four years before the Nazis seized power). This is one of those films that stands well on its own but also begs foreknowledge... while it probably needs to be seen several times just to appreciate the marvelous cinematography, special effects and editing, it should also be seen at least once after doing a bit of research on Verlov and the Kinocs, as well as on the socio-political climate that existed in the Soviet Union at the time. Highly recommended.
Mao's Last Dancer: Dancer Li Cunxin's autobiography gets an excellent translation to the screen from Bruce Beresford (Tender Mercies, Driving Miss Daisy). It begins by intercutting Li's arrival in the US from China with scenes from his childhood where he is taken from his rural family and sent to ballet school in Beijing. We see the point immediately, that you don't have to go to another country to experience culture shock... and by time the the two stories catch up with each other, we begin to understand the source of inner strength, integrity and desire for self-fulfillment that drives this young man. The story is richly emotional, and it doesn't play like the usual defection/political asylum story... we see the shades of grey on both sides, and we see the real human costs of his decision. Li is played by Chi Cao, a talented dancer in his own right, and though this is his first film he performs the role well (and of course the dance sequences are spectacular). Supporting cast includes Bruce Greenwood, Kyle MacLachlan and Joan Chen (who is not in many scenes, but is remarkable). It gets a little rushed and choppy toward the end, but overall it manages to avoid many of the biopic pitfalls and is a pleasure to watch.
Map of the Human Heart : This curious story about an Inuit boy who is taken from his home (to a clinic in Montreal to be cured of tuberculosis) and eventually grows up to become a bombardier in the RAF. There are quite a few strange coincidences in this film as his paths cross with various individuals (one in particular), enough to give it a somewhat Dickensian feel in places. Actors Jason Scott Lee (The Jungle Book) and Anne Parrilaud (La Femme Nikita) try hard, but one gets the feeling that (just as in his later film, What Dreams May Come), director Vincent Ward just isn't able to pull this off, even though his heart seems to be in the right place.
Marilyn Hotchkiss' Ballroom Dancing and Charm School: This flawed romantic comedy scores points for it's charm. Talented Scottish actor Robert Carlyle (The Full Monty, 28 Weeks Later, and the series Once Upon a Time) plays a depressed baker who has never recovered from his wife's suicide. While out making deliveries, he happens upon an auto accident where a dying man (John Goodman) begs him to keep an appointment he made 40 years earlier with a childhood friend. At this point the story divides into three parts ... Carlyle comforting Goodman in his last moments, Goodman's flashbacks explaining how he came to make the date, and Carlyle's experiences after he keeps the appointment at Marlilyn Hotchkiss' Ballroom Dancing and Charm School. Not everything works here ... the premise is highly implausible to say the least, and plot holes abound, but if the film has anything, it has heart ... and in the end this makes it a rather satisfying story. Director Randall Miller (Bottle Shock) seems to relate the story capably enough, but frankly I'm not sure a better director could have done much more to make this story believable. In the end, I think most of the films' effectiveness comes from the sparkling cast (Carlyle, Goodman, Marisa Tomei, Mary Steenburgen, Donnie Wahlberg, Miguel Sandoval, Adam Arkin, Sean Astin, Sonia Braga), who give the film enough character and sincerity to pull you along.
Margin Call: This film probably would be an average Wall Street yarn if the details of the story didn't come so close to describing how the 2008 crash actually went down. It takes place in a single brokerage film over the space of 24 hours and in fact it even plays a bit like a season of 24, just without the stolen nukes and automatic weapons. Instead of Islamic terrorists we're given a thinly-veiled Lehman Brothers and it's presented as an apocalyptic tale, the kind where we know that all the worst things are going to happen and no one will be able to stop it. Zachary Quinto, Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Demi Moore, Paul Bettany and Stanley Tucci all do a great job of portraying brilliant and successful movers and shakers who watch helplessly as their lives fall apart. It's an exciting and engaging story, objectively told, with no moralistic ending like Stone gave us in Wall Street... we just get to see everything crumble, and we don't need to be told what the final repercussions will be because we all had to live through it.
Marwencol : In April, 2000, Mark Hogancamp was brutally beaten outside a bar in Kingston, NY. After nine days in a coma and six weeks in the hospital, he was released with severe brain damage that left him physically incapacitated and with almost no memory of who he was before the attack. He learned to walk and to write again, but when his insurance ran out there was still a long way to go. He discovered his own means of recovery by building a virtual world in his back yard, a 1/6 scale WWII-era Belgian village called Marwencol, where he and everyone he knew (even his attackers) were represented in the form of various dolls. He played out stories, real and imagined, and photographed them in great detail. Eventually, his work became known and he was offered a show at a gallery in NYC, and the latter part of the documentary details the ensuing conflict to give up the safety of Marwencol and deal with the real world that had been so threatening to him. This is an amazing film, one that lets us meet all sides of Mark ... the outsider artist, the recovering invalid, reformed alcoholic, confused victim ... all done with honesty and sensitivity. A very moving story with a marvelous ending. BTW, you can see his work at marwencol.com.
A Matter of Life and Death (Stairway to Heaven): A romantic comedy/fantasy about an RAF pilot (David Niven) who is shot down ... but owing to a heavenly mixup, ends up alive when he should be dead. He is made aware of the error and is told he has a few days to prepare an appeal ... meanwhile, his conversations on the subject are diagnosed by his doctor (Roger Livesey) as delusions brought about by a brain injury. The writing and the performances are deftly handled... throughout the story we're allowed to believe that either the supernatural or medical scenario could be true. The icing on the cake is the incredible look of the film... rich and breathtaking three-strip technicolor and masterful photography by Jack Cardiff. Whether you believe in the supernatural or not, it's hard not to be charmed by a film in which "the other side" smells like fried onions.
Max Manus: This interesting biographic war film is about one of the organizers of the Norwegian underground. He is captured by the Germans, escapes and fells to England where he receives special training and returns to Norway as a saboteur. His status in Norway is legendary, sort of their Sergeant York or Audie Murphy... the difference is that this film doesn't give his exploits the patriotic treatment, instead we are allowed to see his flaws, and more importantly we see the human side of him that reacted with such pain (and guilt) each time he lost one of his friends. This film explores the determined side of heroism... not the instant decision to jump on a grenade or charge a machine gun nest, but a day-after-day struggle in the face of hopeless odds and constant self-doubt. I don't know enough about the Nlorwegian resistance or Manus' life to know how accurate the story's details are, but what's here is pretty emotional and inspiring, though it does drag a bit in spots.
Me and Orson Welles : This Richard Linklater film succeeds in a couple of ways... it's a nice period piece, an engaging coming-of-age film, and a reasonably faithful portrayal of Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater on the eve of their first success, a hugely-successful 1937 production of Julius Caesar (which is considered one of the dozen or so most significant renditions of the play, and still holds the record for the longest-running production of this work on Broadway). Welles is played by Christian McKay, who had some experience playing Welles in a one-man show ... and herein lies what I consider the film's most serious problem. McKay plays Welles in all his brilliant, insufferable, charismatic and egotistical glory, and his voice is so dead-on perfect that you can close your eyes and swear it's Welles ... but much of the impact of Orson as a wunderkind, his freakish genius and his precocious rise to fame, is lost on us because Welles is being played by a 37 year old actor (who looks older than 37) when he was only 22 at the time the film takes place. But overall I have to say this is a smallish point ... the film is incredibly faithful in other ways. As far as the history goes, any film buff is going to love the rich atmosphere of Welles and his inner circle and will find few factual errors to fault. It also displays a warm reverence for the art of theater and what it takes to put on a play ... and the parts of the play that we get to see are excellent (set design, music, costumes, etc., were taken from notes of the original work... the director went to considerable effort to make the filmed portions of the play faithful to Welles' original production). As far as the coming-of-age part of the story goes, that's nicely done as well. Zac Efron plays Richard, a stage-struck 17 year old who skips his high school classes to become a part of Welles' group, and soon falls under the spell of Sonja (Claire Danes). The two parts of the story blend very harmoniously, and there's also a nice balance between the two, which makes it fairly easy to allow yourself to just go where the story takes you.
The Mechanic : An entertaining action film with some nice twists and turns told with a sense of detachment ... performances are understated and the cinematography is unusually stylish for the genre. There more plot holes and improbabilities than I like to see ... for example, it's hard to believe that contract killers who pride themselves on anonymity can do job after job without even wearing gloves. Or how a busy city is suddenly free of pedestrians or witnesses of any sort when the big hit goes down. Granted, there's a certain amount of this stuff that you're supposed to ignore in a movie of this type, and I like the genre enough to be able to play along ... but still, there were enough problems here to be of some concern, so overall I'd have to rate this one as a nice diversion, but nothing special overall. And now that I've seen them both, I think I'd probably prefer the 1972 original if I was going to watch one of them again.
Meet Monica Velour : The most startling thing about this film is that it only rated a 5.7 at IMDB. I was both charmed and amazed by this little gem. Charmed because of the sweet silliness that rode the line perfectly, never straying into the saccharine or farcical. Amazed by the jaw-dropping performance by Kim Cattrall as an aging porn star fighting her past, her present, and her ex (and trying to get custody of her little girl). Dustin Ingram channels Napoleon Dynamite as a geeky kid obsessed with things too bizarre for a guy his age ... 30's jazz, 70's films, and ... an 80's porn star named Monica Velour. Comparisons have been made between this film and Napoleon Dynamite, and I can see the basis for that, though honestly, I like this one better. Don't get me wrong, I did like ND, there's just something about MMV that connected a bit more (with me anyway). I'd like to give this one a strong recommendation.
Melancholia: This unique and moving film comes from Lars von Trier (Breaking the Waves, Kingdom Hospital) and you can tell it's a very personal film, supposedly arising from his own treatment for depression. It begins with a very unusual montage of stills and slow-motion clips ... Kristen Dunst with birds falling out of the sky around her, a garden with a sundial casting two shadows... hints of the story we are about to see: A planet is on a collision course with Earth and all of its inhabitants are doomed. The film is in two chapters ... the first, a wedding, is ominous and uncomfortable. People who do not yet know about the disaster seem self-absorbed yet distracted, while the bride Justine (Dunst) seems to have some premonition about what is to happen which causes her to sink into a depression and pretty much run the wedding off the rails. The second chapter picks up a few months later when the threat of destruction has become universally known, and this part of the story deals in a more intimate way with the immediate family (Justine, her sister, brother in law and nephew). The emotional struggles throughout the film are reinforced by the hand-held camera work and disturbing green film grading and the depth of the actors' performances. Von Trier treats the story as a quiet drama, relentlessly recording the psychological breakdown and ultimate resignation and acceptance as the rogue planet proceeds along its collision course with Earth. There are none of the usual sci-fi elements here ... no explanation of the planet or where it came from, no attempts to blast it out of the sky, no frantic rush to save the species with a hastily-constructed ark. Just a simple story about one family dealing with the inevitable.
Men In Black 3: This film redeems the franchise. If you liked the first one, you should like this ... and it will give you an excuse to forget about the second one. In addition to the MIB premise (aliens walk among us, unknown to the public thanks to the thankless efforts of a covert government organization, the Men in Black), we add a nice time travel yarn with some hippie-era humor thrown in as well. I gotta say, just the sight of James Brolin doing Tommie Lee Jones makes this worth watching. Emma Thompson is a welcome addition, and Jemaine Clement as the bad guy is a standout. As for the story, well, I won't burden you with any details, let's just say that it's fun, it builds nicely, and the ending is worthwhile for anyone who has grown fond of the two lead characters.
Mirror Mirror: Tries hard to be fun but when all is said and done, it's pretty lame. There's a good basic story here (a fairly nice twist on the traditional Disney/Grimm tale we're all familiar with), and it's one that kids will probably like... but most of the humor doesn't work very well and the directing is weak. I really felt sorry for Lilly Collins ... she shows a lot of potential and this could have been her breakout film but at this point in her career she doesn't have the chops to rise above the weak material. Julia Roberts and Nathan Lane are both talented and experienced, and as such they fared better (not having to rely so much on a capable director), but you can still sense that they are struggling. The one and only area in which I feel the film succeeds is in its visual appeal... this is where director Tarsem Singh really, well, sings. Like his previous films The Cell and The Fall, we see vibrant colors, meticulously detailed costumes and sets, and breathtaking compositions... this guy missed his calling, perhaps he should have been an art director or cinematographer and left working with screenwriters and actors to someone else.
Mission Impossible IV: Ghost Protocol . More of the same, but better than the last. In fact, maybe the best of the series. I was disappointed in the first, for reasons I can't quite recall all these years later, I liked the second (mostly because I always thought Thandie Newton was really hot), the third was a good enough action film but suffered in comparison to Daniel Craig's reboot of James Bond that came out at almost exactly the same time. So why does IV:GP work better than the others? Honestly, I'm not sure I can say without watching them all together. It's got the same tired improbabilities and goofy gadgets, the action scenes that pull you along while asking you to forget that all this could be accomplished so much easier in some other way ... but really, all that was true of the TV show, wasn't it? I guess the thing to do is just flip your neocortex on hold and enjoy the ride.
Mr. Nobody: In 2092, humans have achieved immortality, so it is a major news event when the last mortal man is dying of old age. Asked to recount his life, he finds that he can't... he clearly remembers multiple lives, going back to when he was nine years old, standing on a railroad platform and faced with making an impossible choice. Schrodinger's cat, string theory, time travel and the butterfly effect all play a part in this amazing and wonderful story... it is serious, whimsical, sad, delightful, challenging and emotional. One could describe this non-linear fable as "Cloud Atlas," but about a single individual. Or perhaps "Amelie" meets "Slaughterhouse Five." Or maybe it is just one of those films that defies description, that you simply have to see. Simply put, it had me off-balance when I began watching it, but at the end I knew it was one of the most interesting films I'd seen in recent memory and I understand why it got a ten minute standing ovation when it premiered at the Venice Film Festival. It's a rare thing to find a film that provides us with so many strong and clear emotional resonances while simultaneously challenging us with just as many questions about how the consequences of our decisions determine our place in the universe. The incredible story is supported by beautiful cinematography and a wonderful music track, making it a film that will linger in your mind long after you've seen it.
Murder By Death: This '70's comedy has it's rough spots, but who could resist the premise? A group of folks are invited to a lonely old house for "dinner and a murder," and they get both. Then it appears that they themselves are to be killed off one by one, a la Ten Little Indians. Sounds a bit corny and routine, but the interesting part is that these folks are all famous detectives, or at least parodies of them. Nick and Nora Charles, Charlie Chan and his son, Hercule Poirot, Sam Spade and Miss Marple. As if that isn't enough fun, the cast is amazing... Eileen Brennan, Truman Capote, James Coco, Peter Falk, Alec Guinness, Elsa Lanchester, David Niven, Peter Sellers, Maggie Smith, Nancy Walker, and Estelle Winwood... plus James Cromwell in his first film role. The direction isn't all that great but Neil Simon wrote a pretty funny screenplay and overall it's silly and quirky enough to be fun.
Oblivion: I've got a long list of sci-fi films that are kind of mediocre but are still nice escapist fare (mostly due to great special effects) so they remain guilty pleasures which I keep rewatching. I think Oblivion may end up as one of these. It's an interesting enough story, one with quite a few (mostly forgivable) plot holes, one that is redeemed by some really beautiful sets and art design (which favors more practical effects than we're used to in this mostly-CG age). Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) and his partner Julia (Olga Kurylenko) repair the giant machines that are harvesting energy from the earth's oceans to power a refugee ship to Titan, one of Saturn's moons. The Earth is a wastleland following an alien invasion... all its survivors have been placed in stasis, orbiting the earth in a giant ship called "Tet," until the Titan colony is ready for habitation. Unfortunately, Jack's job isn't exactly routine... his repair efforts are hampered by scavenging aliens that still roam the earth, and his sleep is disturbed by dreams he does not understand. Still, the end is in sight, he just has to endure a few more weeks and then he can go to Titan with the rest of the refugees. This is when things begin to fall apart... Jack discovers that things are not what they seem, and perhaps he needs to reexamine the job he's been tasked with. I have to say, the story has some very interesting twists... the fact that some of them were a bit predictable really doesn't detract that much from what is basically a fairly good sci-fi adventure, and what is really a very nice looking film. This is director Joseph Kosinski's second effort and it's better than his first (Tron Legacy). Worth a look.
Our Idiot Brother: This one will probably make you feel good... I got more than a couple of smiles out of it on a day when I really didn't feel much like smiling. Paul Rudd plays an honest, naive and friendly guy... one who's well-meaning but not all that bright. In fact, as the film opens, Ned gets busted for selling weed to a uniformed police officer (because the officer told him he was going thru some really hard times and needed a lift). When he gets out of jail he ends up living with each of his three sisters while he gets back on his feet. Unfortunately, they each have their own problems and since Ned's not the kind of guy who can tell a lie, convincingly or otherwise, he just ends up making all their lives worse. Rudd plays the part perfectly, we know that he's not really that stupid, he just means well and he thinks that deep down everyone's as nice as he is. And of course we're behind him all the way, I think most of us would like to believe that someone could retain such a sense of childlike innocence into adulthood. At any rate, it all works pretty well, and some of the credit has to go to the great casting of his mother and sisters (Shirley Knight, Zoe Dechanel, Emily Mortimer, Elizabeth Banks) ... it's a combination of this ensemble effort and some pretty nice writing that gives the film it's endearing quality and makes it warm-hearted but not saccharine.
Pacific Rim: I enjoyed this film quite a bit, but I love sci-fi and great CG Efx, so I guess that's to be expected. First let's get the effects out of the way... this is a beautifully-crafted film, full of rich detail that will take many viewings to drink in. It's an incredibly dense environment, one of those films that begs to be seen on the big screen over and over again (yeah, this is one will really let you nurture your inner Star Wars Nerd). As for the cast, we've got some fairly interesting characters (played by Idris Elba, Charlie Hunnam and Rinko Kikuchi) possessed of a bit more depth that we usually see in big action blockbusters. The main downside for me was that some of the editing was a bit rushed... too many cuts in places where a longer shot would have worked much better, and I'm not just talking fight scenes but even in relaxed scenes where people were conversing. I noticed quite a few places where the film could have benefited from a little breathing room where the eye could wander a bit and drink in the surroundings or capture the nuances in an actor's facial expressions. How about the plot... well, it's strictly Saturday matinee stuff, creatures from beneath the earth's crust are out to destroy the world and it's up to an outnumbered band of soldiers piloting a handful of outdated robot-mechs to save the planet. It's all great fun though... you've seen similar stories in any number of fifties sci-fi films (many of them Japanese) but that doesn't matter ... director Guillermo del Toro's sense of style that served him so well in Pan's Labyrinth comes to the fore here, allowing the film to transcend some of the stereotypes with lavish scale and rich atmosphere... which means we're not just sitting in our seats impatiently waiting for the monsters to show up, we're enfolded and enthralled by what's in front of us. And at it's most basic level, this is pretty much what going to the movies is all about.
Paranorman: A great blend of old and new animation styles, Paranorman uses stop-motion and some computer enhancements to create the same sort of jaw-dropping visuals we saw in this crew's previous film, Coraline. The basic story seems lifted from The Sixth Sense but with enough differences to keep it from seeming derivative. Like Cole, Norman sees and talks to dead people. But he makes the huge mistake of telling everyone and now he's shunned and mistreated by the whole town, including his own family. This doesn't seem to bother him as much as it should, mainly because all the dead people treat him pretty well, plus he's got a couple of friends who stand by him ... an eccentric uncle and a young neighbor who is equally reviled by their schoolmates. Norman comes to find out about the New England town's potential destruction (from a curse cast by a witch that their forefathers burned at the stake centuries before), and all his warnings go unheeded. The writers seem to do a nice job of balancing humor with a genuine "Take Shelter" sense of foreboding and helplessness. It drags a bit in places but overall it's a worthwhile film.
The Passion of Joan of Arc : When you watch a long string of contemporary films, then treat yourself to a beautiful black and white print of a Golden Age film, like The Maltese Falcon or How Green Was My Valley, you are reminded of just how beautiful the medium of black and white can be, and how color can sometimes be superfluous, or even a distraction. In some respects, the same could be said of sound... there's an elegant simplicity to a film without dialog or sound effects, a purely visual experience with perhaps only a musical score, a story told with movement, expression and composition ... ballet on film. The Passion of Joan of Arc is a beautiful silent film from French director Carl Dreyer that is a tour de force of simplicity and minimalism. The story is unembellished (taken mostly from actual transcripts of the trial, which still exist) and the sets and furnishings are almost unbearably stark ... when we are allowed to see them that is, for the director forces the physical world out of the frame almost entirely, concentrating instead on the torsos and heads of his players, letting the story unfold in the primal language of facial expression. Joan is surrounded by a sea of expressive characters, some sympathetic, most threatening ... and the faces are as memorable and full of character as the cast of a Fellini film. But for all that, Maria Falconetti is the blazing star around which they orbit. It takes only a moment to forget that she is nearly twice the nineteen years that Joan claims to be at the beginning of the film, after that we don't care about that or any other details of Maria the actress, because that's how quickly she becomes Joan. I've seen several references to this work as the single greatest performance on film by an actor. I'm not sure if I agree, but it is easy to see how someone could defend such an opinion without much effort ... she is magnetic and the camera seems to expose her very soul. The story is heart-wrenchingly told, and whether there are other actresses who could have played the part as well really isn't the point... this is truly a once-in-a-lifetime performance, one that you shouldn't miss.
Point Blank: Not the '67 Boorman film with Lee Marvin but a 2010 French crime drama film that pays a respectful homage to the 1981 post-realist French film Diva (even giving us an excerpt from the same opera, La Wally). The story revolves around a male nurse who gets involved in a conflict over an injured safecracker in his care, between some corrupt police (who want to kill the guy) and the safecracker's partners (who want to rescue him, and kidnap the nurse's pregnant wife to get the nurse to help). Things snowball quickly, soon the nurse and safecracker are on the run from both the corrupt police and the honest police. Lots of interesting twists and turns, most of it pretty believable. Like Jules in Diva, Samuel is caught in the middle of several conflicts and has little or no understanding of any of them. All he knows is, he wants his wife back. Overall, an intense film, nicely done.
Prometheus : Most of the negative comments I heard about this film when it was released were from folks who were expecting another Alien film. While it does take place in the Alien timeline, it's only loosely connected to the franchise. Most would agree that it does have moments of tension and action, but in many respects it is a thoughtful, introspective film that pays homage both to the spirit of Stanley Kubrick and to the premise of "2001: A Space Odyssey" (that life on earth has been influenced by extraterrestrials). This is a film I'm going to want to watch again soon. I know I've mentioned this in the past, but Ridley Scott has an amazing cinematographic style ... from the very first shot you become part of the world that Ridley creates, and it is in films like this that I become aware of what a sucker I am for a visually rich film ... in fact, I freely admit to admiring a number of 'lesser' films, like The Cell, simply because they look so good. But in this case, the film is about more than the visuals ... there's a very interesting story, and some intriguing performances including a respectable one by Noomi Rapace, and an amazingly nuanced one by Michael Fassbender (that will probably put him on the Oscar list). I do have to point out the film's flaws, most of which were improbabilities of the common-sense variety (seriously, who reaches out to pet an unknown life form like it's a puppy?). But in the end I was able to forgive those niggles... simply because they were details, while the basic premise of the story was sound and intriguing. I think this one's definitely worth your time.
The Purple Plain: Popular in Britain but not well known in the US, this 1954 film stars Gregory Peck as a Canadian pilot serving in Burma during WWII. Depressed and near suicidal after the death of his wife in the London Blitz, he's distrusted by his fellow fliers and considered dangerous. But when his cargo plane goes down behind Japanese lines, his two companions find that he's not so anxious to die after all. Peck's performance is solid as usual, and the convincing rendering of wartime Burma lifts this film far above the typical back-lot war yarn. Worth a look.
Redemption: Jason Statham is ex-special forces, a war machine who killed too often and is now broken and drunk, a deserter living on the streets in London. Whatever he did was bad enough that the military wants him ... whether it is to court martial him or just make him disappear is never made clear, but we know he has to lay low, right from the very first scenes shot from a drone scouring the streets from the air. Statham doesn't strike me as a great actor (granted, I haven't seen a whole lot of his films) but he actually does pretty well here in spite of some weak plotting that drags both him and the film down. Badly beaten by a street gang, he lands in a vacant loft condo and seizes the opportunity to assume the owner's identity and turn his life around. He becomes a sort of avenging angel, his violent nature tempered somewhat by his relationship with the nun who runs the local soup kitchen for the homeless. The film's main conflict deals less with his street battles than with the question of whether any number of good deeds can make up for the horrors of his past, and whether or not it will catch up with him one way or another, either from his own tortured soul or from the government that is still out to get him. The film tries hard to balance it's sincere moralistic aspects against the usual action film narrative, but it's just too clumsily done to succeed. Still, genre fans might find it worthwhile nonetheless.
Red State: Kevin Smith described his (somewhat heavy-handed) film as horror, but it's more of an action film that riffs on Waco and religious zealotry in general. If you saw Dogma, you know that Smith's got a thing about religious nuts but this film takes things a step further, eliminating the humor and satire and giving us a rather one-dimensional but perhaps sadly accurate rendering of the extremist mindset that we've seen in real life in folks like Fred Phelps. Just as one-dimensional is the cover-your-ass portrayal of the higher-ups at the ATF, who order everyone (women, children and hostages) killed so there would be no witnesses to their mishandling of the assault. Michael Parks gives an eccentric but effective performance as the nutball preacher, and John Goodman as the on-site AFT agent in charge who is caught between his orders and the simple reality of the situation, is good as well. Melissa Leo, who's usually pretty respectable actress, seemed to overplay her role as the preacher's faithful daughter but still had a few good moments. Overall, not a strong recommendation for this one but it's not a complete thumbs-down either.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes: Not a remake or a reboot but a prequel, and a good one at that. A vastly better film than the Burton remake (and for that matter all the other POTA films except perhaps the original). It does have it's problems ... for example Will and Caroline do not struggle nearly enough with the ethical implications of what they are involved with, Steven Jacobs' actions as the head of the company are laughable, and there are some improbable feats by the apes (like jumps from four story windows and so forth), but for the most part there is a pretty entertaining story here. There's also some good work by the cast ... John Lithgow is great as usual (playing Will's father who is stricken with Alzheimers) and there is a standout performance by Andy Serkis as Caesar ... like his Gollum in Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, it makes us wonder once again where we are to draw the line between human performance and computer animation. Finally, the film does a fairly nice job of giving us a believable backstory for the first film (how the world came to be populated by intelligent apes and how humanity died out with the exception of a few primitive survivors). I really enjoyed this film and hope it does for the Apes franchise what Daniel Craig and Casino Royale did for Bond. No spoilers, but where this film ends I can easily see another interesting story or two between this and the first Apes film.
The River Murders: Ray Liotta tries his best but he's surrounded by some pretty bad acing from Christian Slater and Ving Rhames, plus a story that is so contrived and predictable that there's no way you'll be anything but bored (OK, maybe repulsed). Skip this one.
Robot And Frank: The trailer made this one look like fun... a sci-fi film about an old retired cat burglar who is given a robot as a caregiver (against his will, apparently as an alternative to being sent to a nursing home). I was somewhat skeptical at first since it was the director's first film, plus I've never been all that fond of Frank Langella as an actor. Still, almost against my will I found myself drawn in by the gentle charm of this film. Like the children in Bradbury's I Sing The Body Electric, Langella is eventually won over by the robot ... not because of its nurturing attitude but because Langella quickly realizes that with the robot's assistance (and inability to distinguish right from wrong) he could easily return to his former profession.
Room 237: I was ready for a really interesting and insightful documentary on Stanley Kubrick and The Shining. What I got was a 102 minute collection of the weird expositions and conspiracy theories of a group of five certified lunatics. Still, the film was kind of fun for a while ... until it started to get too silly and boring. I'll never know how the director and crew managed to get these interviews without falling on the floor laughing. One guy is convinced that Kubrick was making an allegorical film about the holocaust, part of his proof being the repeated use of the number "42." Another guy swears The Shining was Kubrick's guilty self-imposed penance for helping fake the Apollo 11 moon landing footage. And so on. I got the feeling that there really was a point to all this, that it's not really a film about The Shining, but rather just a critical examination of how easy it can be for impressionable individuals to fixate on something and then fall down the rabbit hole. Regardless, I'd give this one a pass... if you're really curious about these nutballs, just visit their web sites for a few minutes, no need to lose an hour and forty two (my god, there's that number again!) minutes of your life.
Ruby Sparks: Quirky romantic comedies are fun, but too often they remain simple films that entertain but don't really distinguish themselves. Every four or five years, one comes along that I know I'll remember for a while and that I'll want to rewatch... a few years ago, it was 500 Days of Summer, a few years before that it was Train Man, and a few years before that it was As Good As It Gets. Each was a romantic comedy that was distinguished by an interesting twist or two and a good cast that got the story over its rough spots. Now I think I'm going to add Ruby Sparks to that list. Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, this is their first film in six years (since Little Miss Sunshine) and it's nice to see them back. The story is about a young and somewhat nerdy writer (Paul Dano) who wrote one wildly popular book which brought him immense wealth, profound loneliness and a crippling case of writer's block. His therapist challenges him to begin writing about a girl that he's been dreaming about. He complies, and one day the girl he's described so lovingly in his pages becomes real. I know this may sound familiar and contrived, but there's something here that really works. First there's Ruby herself, played by Zoe Kazan (granddaughter of Elia) who also wrote the screenplay ... not only did she turn out a nicely-tuned story, but she gives a really wonderful performance, we have no trouble at all believing that a creative and lonely young man would dream up a girl like this ... not drop-dead gorgeous, but radiantly cute, easy to talk to, with a free-spiritedness and down-to-earth charm. The story offers warmth and humor and delightful gags ... but there's also a bit of exploration into what we expect from both life and the people we get involved with, and how some of us try to alter both to suit our needs without considering that maybe we are the ones who need altering. Still, at heart it remains a fairly light and endearing story, one that will probably charm you whether or not you pay any attention to the questions it raises.
Safety Not Guaranteed: It begins with a classified ad in a newspaper: WANTED: Someone to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You'll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before. SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED. This indie film (made for under a million dollars) is director Colin Trevorrow's first feature film and as such I went in with modest expectations. What a delightful surprise it turned out to be. Deadpan actress Aubrey Plaza (Parks and Recreation) does her usual thing here to excellent effect, delicately balancing comedy and drama in nearly every line. Most surprising was Mark Duplass, who has the film's most difficult role as the 'time traveller' who may or may not be crazy. Low budget and simple production values don't get in the way of this film at all, it is all about the story ... and it's a such a good one. Good enough that I'm not going to say anything more about it, just go see it.
Sarah's Key : This film is two connected and interleaved stories, set 70 years apart. The first is about a Jewish family torn from their home in a working class Jewish neighborhood, the result of a French purge performed at the behest of the German occupation. The second is about a journalist (Kristin Scott Thomas) who is doing an historical expose article about the incident for a French magazine. In the process, she becomes obsessed with uncovering the fate of one survivor, a young girl who lived in the very apartment she and her husband are moving into (and which had been in her husband's family since the Jewish family left). Dickensian coincidences aside, this film has a lot to recommend it... the performances are sincere without being overwrought, and it really doesn't take long to get sucked in. Not all the characters are likable, but they do get in your head in a way that seems to happen more often in books than films ... and that should be praise enough.
Samsara: Ron Fricke returns with a sumptuous film ... five years, twenty five countries, five continents, shot in breathtaking detail on 70mm film. I love high resolution film/video but when I'm at home I usually take what I can get ... I don't often go out of my way to demand HD media. This time I did, and it was worth it. It's probably too late to catch this in the theaters which would have been the ideal place to see it, but at 1920x1080 at home it is still an amazing experience. If you've seen Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi or Fricke's Baraka, then you'll have some idea of what to expect here. If not, it's hard to describe in any way that can do it justice. Beautiful photography of land and people, shot all over the world, using time-lapse, soaring aerials, languorous closeups ... inspiring and sad, glorious and frightening. In the end, it is so much more than just great photography ... it shows us a world that is still beautiful, whether it is in the uncompromised grandeur of nature or the strange, repellent beauty of those places where man has created chaos and squalor. A world that's our home, for good or ill. This is one of the best films I've seen this year ... I am totally stunned that it has received no attention at all from HFPA or AMPAS. Criminal.
Saw : What happens when you take a great film like Se7en, water it down with some mediocre acting and replace much of the psychological tension with gore? You get Saw. I put off watching Saw for eight years ... and in that time we 'saw' the release of six sequels, reviews of which made me even less anxious to see the original. My natural suspicion of roman numeral films combined with my resentment of the fact that the studio had compared Saw to Se7en, which I've always considered an excellent film (to be clear, I don't mind when critics compare one film to another, but I get suspicious when the studio does it before the film is released). Saw does have it's moments ... a couple of nice twists, and a few good actors, in particular Danny Glover, Michael Emerson and Tobin Bell ... but the thing is, these guys are not the stars. Most of the screen time is given to a pair of actors whose names I don't remember and frankly don't want to, unless perhaps it is to avoid them in their future endeavors. They don't ruin the film but they definitely drag it down. Overall, it's a film I can recommend with reservations, but only for those who are fans of the genre... otherwise, I'd pass. Would I watch the sequels? Well, I did watch Saw II, and while I was encouraged to see Donnie Wahlberg in the cast, the film overall was worse than the first one. And according to IMDB ratings, the franchise goes downhill from there.
The Secret World of Arrietty: Produced, adapted and supervised by Hayao Miyazaki, this retelling of The Borowers is typical Miyazaki even though it was directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi. While there are a few versions of The Borrowers out there already (three prior films that I’m aware of), this one is superior to all of them, and is remarkably faithful to the spirit of the original book.
Having seen the Japanese version, I obtained the US (dubbed) release when it came out as well as the UK versions so that I could compare the two. I was expecting the US version to be better, since Disney/Lassiter usually put a lot of effort into these transfers. However, it already had a few strikes against it... first, the Borrower books are British so it just seemed like the UK accents would be a better fit. Second, UK Arrietty is voiced by Oscar-nominated Saoirse Ronan (Atonement, Hanna) ... how can The Disney Channel's Bridgit Mendler (Good Luck Charlie) compete? Well, she can't... Mendler is screechy, talks too fast, and is frankly kind of obnoxious. But it's not just her delivery, it's the lines... after sampling the first few minutes side by side, I was expecting a similar script, but not only is almost every single line different, there's actually a marked difference in the way the characters are presented. Most notably, the lines for US Arrietty are more snarky and sarcastic (in other words, typical US teenager), the UK Arrietty is more ... polite, almost old-fashioned. In spite of the modern cars we see at the beginning of the film, the overall tone the UK translators went for seems to be more faithful to the book (which was published in 1953). as well as to the Japanese version (which is more subdued and actually has fewer lines than the US version). So overall I have to say that the UK version is superior.
Seeking a Friend For the End of the World: I'm not sure what's worse, the impossible boomerang trajectory of the rogue planet in Melancholia or the sudden announcement in this film that the asteroid is arriving a week ahead of schedule ... how do screenwriters get away with astronomical errors that even a sixth grader would pick up on? Worse, how do they make it all the way thru the filming and editing process? But that and a few other technical goofs aside, SAFFTEOTW is really not a bad film. It's not the serious artsy drama that Melancholia was, it's a charming romantic comedy that develops some nice emotional pull as it progresses. All in all, I was pleasantly surprised ... especially by the two leads. I've never been a Steve Carell fan, but I have to say that whatever qualities make him annoying to me in his other work were absent for the most part and I managed to get behind the character he was playing here. As for Kiera Knightly, I always thought she had far more looks than acting ability, but this might be the best performance I've seen from her to date. If I had to find fault, I'd say that writer and first time director Lorene Scafaria could have tightened things up a bit, but that's a small point really... overall I have to give her credit for the fairly nice way she blends elements of satirical black comedy, apocalyptic drama and touching romance. From a filmmaking perspective, it's not in the same league as Melancholia or Another Earth, but it's not really meant to be ... we know going in that it's a lighter film (in spite of the inevitable ending), and if you accept it on it's own terms you'll probably enjoy it.
Seven Psychopaths: After seeing In Bruges, I was really looking forward to Martin McDonough's second film. Four years was too long a wait but it was worth it. Anyone who liked the first film will be pleased to find the same dark humor and quirky characters. It reflects the fine tradition of British crime comedies like The Ladykillers, with maybe a layer of Tarantino added. Colin Farrell stars, but he's the straight man, surrounded by a delightfully insane cast (Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Christopher Walken, Tom Waits, Harry Dean Stanton) and a plot that is so complex and convoluted that I won't even try to describe it here. But it all works... this is a film you really gotta see.
The Sicilian Girl: Rita Mancuso is an eleven year old girl whose father is killed in front of her eyes by the Sicilian Mafia. Six years later, the same thing happens to her brother. Breaking the code of silence, she goes to the police and is placed under witness protection as over a dozen Mafiosi are rounded up and brought to trial. Directed by Marco Armenta, the story is a dramatic retelling of his award-winning documentary about Rita Atria, "Diary of a Sicilian Rebel."
The Siege: This 1998 film was not well received on it's release ... it was criticized for two reasons, first for being a heavy-handed and jingoistic film about Arab terrorism in New York City that aimlessly morphs into a film about government oppression, and second for being too improbable in its premise. Well, the former is still pretty true, the latter not so much ... it's pretty creepy seeing this very familiar story unfold with the World Trade Center standing in the background in all the long shots. But prescience (or just coincidence) aside, there's really not enough here to save the movie ... it's simply your standard drama/suspense film that strives to entertain under the dual handicap of poor direction and weak writing. Denzel Washington almost makes it worthwhile with a nice lead performance, and Tony Shaloub is good as well, unfortunately they are usually sharing the screen with Annette Bening, an otherwise fine actress who is so horribly mis-cast in this film that we can only cringe every time she opens her mouth.
The Sitter: Promising director David Gordon Green was enjoying a nice reputation for making solid quirky films, transitioning nicely from smaller films like All the Real Girls and Undertow to the higher-profile Pineapple Express. I hate to say it, but this film has set him back significantly. Starts out as a fairly crude comedy and then crosses over to manipulative sentimental schlock near the end. The gags are hit and miss, the actors seem to be trying pretty hard (even the kids) but mostly it doesn't work. Gotta admit though, Sam Rockwell is always fun to watch.
Skyfall: The Bond franchise reboot continues to surprise me. Yes, Quantum of Solace was a disappointment after Casino Royale, but I still liked it so much better than the silly gadget and gag heavy cartoons that we were subjected to for years (decades?) before. It was as if Bourne came along and showed the Bond producers what a real spy film could be and made them realize how far they had diverged from Fleming's vision. Granted, Bond is not Bourne... after all, Fleming did write him as a womanizing, ruthless, debonair, hedonistic, rebellious spy... but he was never a cartoon, which is why the earlier films were the best... Connery always played the part with a wink, never letting you think that Bond himself was as silly as the situations the writers put him in. But along comes the reboot, with Daniel Craig, and the "Bourne Influence"... the slapstick is gone and the remaining humor is natural and subdued. But most of the story is serious... and the Bond who travels in it is a character we can believe in, sympathize with, and care about. He has a past, he has emotions, we want him to survive, and we wince when he gets hurt because we know that in these stories Bond won't get the crap beat out of him and then just put on a new suit to be ready for the next scene... this seems real. Let's keep it going, I like this. And note to Sam Mendes... you're a good director, how about giving us a film more often than every three years?
Something : Sofia Coppola's film begins with a lock-down shot of a black Ferarri going around in circles. This sets the stage for what many would probably label a slow, dull and self-indulgent film. Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) is a young famous actor, one who is not exactly self-destructive, but certainly immature and aimless. We get an inside look at the life of privilege that many actors lead, but we don't ever see him on the set ... instead we see him deal with all the peripheral drudge work of a star, things like photos shoots, interviews, getting his face cast in rubber for an upcoming film, looking in his rearview mirror to see if the press is following him. And of course there's the drugs, booze and sex. He doesn't appear to take any of it too seriously ... he dresses like a slob and sort of shuffles around looking not exactly bored, but just disengaged. Then his ex-wife has some sort of crisis and takes off, leaving him with their 11 year old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning). We are a taken a little off-guard by this girl, who is intelligent and quiet, a mature but innocent presence (that seems rather at odds with what one might expect from a modern southern-California child of wealthy parents). In the time they spend together, he can't help but get a look at himself through her eyes, and this is where the story gets interesting. If you can be patient, this film does have something to offer ... you just have to give it a chance. It succeeds because it's personal ... while not strictly an autobiography, several of the events and interactions were based on Coppola's own experiences as a child, and this gives the film it's grounding and believability (along with Elle Fanning's excellent performance).
Speed Racer: What a confusing film. Richard Corliss of Time Magazine put it on his Top Ten Films of 2008 list, most other reviewers were less complimentary. For good or ill, I really respect the Wachowskis and their willingness to take chances. They also have a great sense of style and I can honestly say without a trace of sarcasm that this film is filled to the rafters with style. Still, there were things that didn't work for me ... awkward, predictable, cartoony lines, usually forgivable in a film like this, didn't succeed the way they did in films like Star Wars or Raiders. Racing scenes that should have been exciting just left me cold ... no real sense of tension or danger, I never once was able to muster a bit of concern for the folks doing the driving or cared much about who was going to cross the finish line first. Finally, it was just too long. Still, it had it's moments ... between embarrassing performances (by all but a couple of actors) were some amazing visuals and a spectacular color palette ... if ever there was a movie that was tailor-made for an audience stoned on acid, this is it. From a technical standpoint ... the art direction, computer graphics, editing and overall look and style of the film, there are some interesting elements here and at some point I'll probably watch it again just to get a closer look (it's fast-paced and visually dense ... too much to really see in one pass). As for the story ... I'll be the first to admit, I never watched the TV show or read the books... so this may well be a wonderful homage, completely faithful to the spirit of the original. Perhaps a manga or TV series is what's needed to develop these characters to the point that you can work up some affection for them.... as it was, much of the time I found myself wishing that a bunch of Transformers (another show I never watched) would come along to trash the landscape and everyone in it.
Speed Racer: (alternate review). Let me say that I definitely have seen better movies. I won't say it's a terrible film, but I do think it is telling that one of the directors apparently changed his name AND his gender to disassociate himself from it.
Now I know there are those who disagree with me. Richard Corliss of Time Magazine named it one of his top ten films of 2008, and summed up his (mostly negative) review of "Cloud Atlas" with the words, "Put it this way ... this is no Speed Racer." You have to admire a man who is so consistent in his totally inverse perception of film quality.
But the core of the statement is correct, and so is its corollary ... "Speed Racer" is no "Cloud Atlas". It is also no "Rocky Horror Picture Show" (which had a more credible premise), it is no "Muppets Take Manhattan" (which had more realistic characters), and it is no "Battlefield Earth" (which had a better script), and it is no "Cars 2" (which had more exciting racing scenes). The only good things I can think of to say about it is that it was stylish, briskly-paced, and it didn't have the Olsen Twins in it.
Would it have been better if it wasn't over two hours long? Well, probably. Studies have shown that the human eye is not meant to be exposed to colors of such garish intensity for more than 108 minutes (which was the length of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" without the closing credits). Fortunately, I fell asleep halfway through it last night and had to finish it tonight, and thus I am hoping that the interruption prevented any permanent retinal damage. Though I should admit up front that I am attempting to write these words through a sparkly kaleidoscope of visual artifacts that I desperately hope will be gone by morning.
The Spy Next Door: I really like Jackie Chan ... he just seems like a nice guy. He's also got a genuine gift for comedy and he's a remarkable action choreographer and acrobat, even as he's gotten older. Yeah, he's been in some marginal films but still, those qualities always made him fun to watch. Unfortunately, there's just nothing that Jackie could do to save this film... it's awful in almost every way and by the time the end rolled around I was really embarrassed for the poor guy. The premise is dumb, the gags misfire, the plot is a mess, the supporting actors are incredibly lame, the sentiment is syrupy... I can't really think of any reason to recommend this one.
Star Tek: Into Darkness: I loved the first Star Trek reboot film, this one kind of left me cold. OK, lukewarm. Roddenberry's vision was left in the dust... no lofty themes, moral dilemmas or hope for the future. What always made Star Trek unique was the way Roddenberry challenged us, his stories made us reexamine the way we think about life and our place in the universe. But here there's just a predictable storyline, gaping plot holes, a nonredeemable supervillain, and total disregard for plausibility and the laws of physics... all of it held together by a non-stop pace that is supposed to keep you from thinking about it too much. In other words, it's exactly like an old James Bond film, but set in space. Hell, they even did the car-thru-the-narrow-alley gag from Diamonds Are Forever (but with a space ship instead of a Mustang). Some things just made me laugh out loud... like when Kirk is ordered to park just outside the neutral zone and target Khan on the surface of the Klingon home world with photon torpedoes. I mean really, it doesn't take an avid Trekkie to wonder why your home planet would be anywhere near the neutral zone, and even if it was, how the hell a photon torpedo could possibly cover interstellar distances... they don't have warp capability, which means that they might arrive in time to kill Khan's grandchildren. And that's just one example folks. Yeah, there's some great action and fabulous effects, not to mention some very capable actors, but it was all so silly that I was yawning by the second half. Plus I just want to say (without getting into spoilers) that even though this is a reboot and we know up front they are doing things from scratch, there's WAY too much messing with the canon... killing off a character that figures heavily in The Original Series, plus introducing one that they are supposed to meet for the first time in TOS. Not to mention the major can of worms opened by Khan's Magic Blood ... I guess this means that from now on nobody dies. Sorry, it all seems to disrespectful and sloppy to me. "Into Darkness" indeed.
Stone: A somewhat disappointing film from John Curran (The Painted Veil), about a prison parole review officer who is manipulated by a sociopathic arsonist and his alluring wife. Given the talent of the two leads (Robert De Niro and Edward Norton) and a surprisingly effective performance from Milla Jovovich, this film is curiously distant and unsatisfying. While it could have succeeded as a nice crime/suspense genre film or psychological thriller, the director and screenwriter (Angus McLachlan, Junebug) apparently want us to get inside the minds of these characters, so they give us quieter and more introspective pacing ... but the depth and nuance just aren't there to fill the void. So ultimately the film must rely mainly on the talents of its actors, and in this case that's not quite enough.
Sucker Punch: At first the film's campy and exploitative setting (hot women in a mental institution) makes you cringe, but this multilayered and surrelistic tale has a few interesting twists, some passable action scenes, and just enough visual style to make it interesting. While not nearly as flamboyant as the work of Tarsem Singh, the film does have similar richness in it's art direction and cinematography and that alone kept me a interested for a while. The alternate realities of the main character take some effort to follow at first... she's in an asylum but perceives it as a cabaret/whorehouse, and is further transported to various other realities via the trancelike state she enters when she dances. Most of the supporting cast is pretty bad, they really don't help sustain the illusion, causing most of the third-tier realities to have a decidedly videogame feel to them. Still, it has some interesting moments here and there, and it's not bad from a visual standpoint.
Sunrise: A song of two Humans : F.W. Murnau's film probably meets the definition of 'masterpiece' better than any other silent film with the possible exception of Metropolis. In terms of technique and craftsmanship, it is a tour de force ... shot in the German Expressionist style, the sets are stark and somewhat skewed, which serve the intended purpose of slightly disorienting the viewer, while not drawing undue attention as they do in Cabinet of Caligari. The cinematography and lighting are probably the best you'll see from the silent era, full of beautifully-framed compositions, several impressive tracking shots (including the longest one done up until that time), and several examples of the deep-focus technique that Citizen Kane would make famous. The story is simple but delicately-told, and the actors do such an amazing job that title cards are not really necessary (and in fact, aside from the early portion of the film there are almost no titles), and in the film trivia department, I believe this film holds the distinction of being the first movie in which a lead actor was shown shedding tears onscreen. This film is so heartfelt, so beautiful, so groundbreaking, it's really hard to come up with something bad to say about it, except perhaps Janet Gaynor's awful wig (it was important that the wife be a bit dowdy, so Janet's stunning auburn curls wouldn't do).
No spoilers where the story is concerned ... I'll just say that the first scenes, (plus some details I'd read about the story years ago) led me to expect a sort of "inverted" version of "A Place in the Sun." But the film has a few surprises in spite of it's overall simplicity. And to be honest, the film is not really about surprises anyway, it's more about the inner emotions of the characters, and in that sense I think the film resonates well.
It's sad and puzzling that Sunrise has not yet received the full-on digital restoration treatment that made the new version of Metropolis such a revelation (in terms of showing modern audiences the spectacular quality that was being produced at the end of the silent era), but in spite of this, and the fact that the original negative was lost, several fairly good versions do exist ... a pair of Movietone versions (from surviving prints) and a European version (which is in fact a completely different edit, and in spite of a few missing shots is superior to the Movietone version). Movietone was an early sound on film format, in which the symphonic score and some sound effects were recorded along a narrow strip on the film stock ... this was done inside the perforations which resulted in a portion of the image being cropped off on the left, so the European version actually has better framing (in addition to being both sharper and richer in tone). Both versions are available on a double-sided DVD from Netflix. If you don't have much experience with silent films, Sunrise would probably be the best place to start... this is a remarkable film that every movie lover should see.
Sweet Land: First feature from writer/director Ali Selim, this simple but endearing story follows the life of a mail-order bride from Germany who receives a mostly unwelcome reception from a Norwegian community in post WWI Minnesota. The story is interleaved (briefly, for the most part) with two other timelines... the death of her husband in 1968 and her own death years after that. The film has believable and sympathetic characters, a relaxed pace and some beautiful cinematography and an overall tone that is sincere, engaging and often humorous. Not a great film, but sweetly rewarding in its own way.
Swing Vote: This film might have succeeded with about a half hour trimmed off the top. The premise, while totally improbable and inane, is just stupid enough to echo the insanity of American politics as it exists in its present form, while the writers and cast put up just enough laughs along the way to make it mildly entertaining. Still, it doesn't really ring true... Kostner seems miscast in the part of the boozing, bumbling slacker who has alienated most of his friends and family. I never really got behind him the way I might have someone like Randy Quaid, Jeff Bridges, or Sam Rockwell. There were some good supporting players (Dennis Hopper, Kelsey Grammer, Nathan Lane, Stanley Tucci) and a couple of good gags but with a two hour run time I can't really recommend this one.
Take Shelter : This moody and quietly disturbing film is about an impending climactic catastrophe that hasn't happened yet, and centers on the only man who knows it's coming. The question is, are we to believe that this man is prescient, or is he deluded? We are led in various directions by both subtle cues from the characters and actual events as they unfold. There's an odd pacing that is very restrained, vaguely evocative of Asian cinema, that keeps you a bit off-balance while making you want to look closer. This, coupled with the rather creepy lead character (Michael Shannon), creates an unusual film that keeps you engaged and wondering, right to (and in fact, past) the ending. This film from young director Jeff Nichols is interesting enough to make me want to see more of his work ... his most recent film "Mud" has gotten some good buzz so maybe this is a guy to look out for.
Tabloid: Documentary about a cute and charismatic beauty queen who was arrested in the UK for kidnapping a young Mormon missionary. A bizzarre and barely believable story (and yet ... it's true) told in an unusually campy, humorous style ... probably not like any documentary you've ever seen, in fact it plays a bit like one of Christopher Guest's mockumentaries. The interviews are real, but it's told in such an offbeat way you keep thinking that director Errol Morris is pulling your leg.
Ted: Mostly funny tale of a grown man whose teddy bear came to life when he was a little boy and it's been his best friend ever since. Family Guy writer/creator Seth Macfarlane seems to know exactly how far to push a joke, but he seems to enjoy taking it just a little bit further, maybe to sort of test our limits and make us ask ourselves why the heck we're laughing. For the most part, it works... Macfarlane does a great job voicing Ted (the bear) and Mark Wahlberg does a great job of playing an arrested adolescent with enough charm that we're not put off by him (which I probably would have been if they'd picked somebody like Adam Sandler to play him). Overall, a fun comedy ... might not be for all tastes, but I had a good time.
Terribly Happy : This Danish film falls somewhere between the Coen Brothers' "Blood Simple" and "Fargo" as a dark, brooding story with comedic undertones, the repellent kind that make you laugh and cringe simultaneously. Based on a novel that was in turn based on a true story, it is the joint work of two childhood friends that lived across the street from each other in a bleak rural town exactly like the one in which the film takes place. Novelist Erling Jepsin authors a tale about a uncle of his who beat and eventually murdered his wife, but was never arrested because the xenophobic townspeople covered up the crime for the sake of his young daughter (and the fear that it would attract outside attention). Director Henrik Genz takes this story and brings it to the screen through the eyes of Robert Hansen, a Copenhagen police officer who is temporarily assigned to village, following some sort of mental breakdown. He really doesn't belong there ... the creepy townspeople are like the characters in a Stephen King novel and he soon finds himself in over his head. The story unfolds in ways that are outlandish yet somehow believable.
Tetsuo, the Iron Man : This film is truly bizarre and I don't know if I can recommend it. It's imaginative and filled with incredible images, but much of the story is repulsive and hard to relate to.
These Amazing Shadows : This documentary on American movies focuses on the work of the National Film Registry, a government organization that is probably the only positive legacy of Ted Turner's misguided attempts to colorize films in the late '80's... the Registry was formed as a direct result of the outrage of film lovers who felt that someone had to have a hand in preserving film history before people like Turner messed it up. It began as a simple list ... 25 films a year, selected as being culturally, historically and artistically important. The list includes the obvious, like Citizen Kane and Casablanca, but includes the historical and the eclectic (the Zapruder film, numerous art films, and the 50's short, "Duck and Cover.") to the unusual and incomprehensible (Rocky Horror, and that little theater jingle ad, "Let's all go to the Lobby"). But since its inception, the NFR's role has expanded and they currently are involved in rescuing and preserving films that are in danger of being lost (their refrigerated vaults currently hold over 100,000 nitrate films alone). In the end, it's just a fascinating look at the art of film and I loved it. My only complaint was the length ... it runs 88 minutes, and it should have been twice that.
They Live: Professional wrestler Roddy Piper (whose name sounds more porn star than wrestler, but we'll let that go) and Keith David star in John Carpenter's fun sci-fi flick about a guy who picks up a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see the world as it really is ... subliminal messages everywhere, placed there by skeletal aliens attempting a non-violent takeover of the planet. The premise is neat, and our first few view of the aliens is genuinely creepy, but to enjoy this film you're really going to need to bring your sense of humor. Intentional or not, this film looks like it spent a few months marinating in a stew of really bad 1950's sci-fi films ... acting and writing are uniformly clumsy, camera work and editing are marginal, and in spite of the fact that it was made in 1988, it's got a real 60's-70's made-for-TV feel (remember The Invaders?). Still, it was kind of fun in some ways and I probably would have enjoyed it even more if my wife hadn't contributed an annoyed, "Why are we watching this?" every five minutes.
This is the End: It begins with an interesting idea... a group of Hollywood actors (all playing themselves) are trapped at James Franco's house when the Biblical Apocalypse descends upon the earth (well, we presume it's the entire earth, but perhaps God in his infinite wisdom just dropped The Apocalypse on Los Angeles). So much good stuff here to work with, but unfortunately it all falls apart pretty quickly, mostly because of the raunchy humor and actors who play things too broadly... it would have worked so much better if they had really played themselves (which, after all, is what they were supposed to be doing) instead of overworking it like a bad Saturday Night Live sketch. It's not a total loss, there really are some pretty funny moments... but it could have been so much more. Or maybe it is so much more, but I'm just too old to appreciate it.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy : This gloomy re-telling of LeCare's tale (not a remake of the Brit miniseries with Alec Guinness) has a lot to recommend it, assuming you can stick with it. It's a rather dense tale and following it depends a bit more on paying extremely close attention (or having read the book) than was true with the miniseries, which not only held your hand a bit more but also didn't prune the story as aggressively (for example, the non-existant portrayal of Smiley's wife Ann). While I think I liked the pacing of the miniseries better, I think this one's well worth a look, both for the very dark and atmospheric direction (by Tomas Alfredson who did Let The Right One In) and the remarkable cast ... John Hurt, Gary Oldman (as Smiley), Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds (Ceasar in HBO's Rome) and others.
Total Recall: When I heard about this film in the production stages I was pretty excited. I like the original a lot, but the story was a bit cartoony in places (not just because of Arnold, but the writing as well) and I was sort of looking forward to a darker, more suspenseful version, sort of a Total Recall meets Minority Report (or sort of like the original Phillip K. Dick story, "We Can Remember it For You Wholesale"). Unfortunately, that's not what we got. First, they rewrote the story around an unbelievably hokey premise (a tunnel thru the Earth ... really?), then set the stage in the most unimaginative and derivative way possible (yes, the damp urban decay surroundings were shamelessly lifted from Blade Runner), and simply removed any trace of charm or character development (I am not exaggerating in the least when I tell you that the first hour and ten minutes of this film is one long and relentless chase scene). What were the producers thinking? They could have had a real winner here. What's really criminal is we have a potentially great cast here that never gets to shine: Farrell, Beckinsdale, Biel, Cranston,and Nighy have done good work elsewhere but they are underutilized here, apparently hired as utilitarian plot-movers to get us to the next SFX shot. Here's some advice to the (inaptly-named) executive producer Len Wiseman... next time you want to spend $125 million remaking a sci-fi classic, don't write and direct it yourself, just hire somebody with actual talent and get out of their way.
The Tourist: This remake of the French film, Anthony Zimmer, is either a mildly pleasant diversion or a waste of time, depending on your mood. The story is written as sort of a genteel farce/romance/drama, perfect for a pair like Grace Kelly and Cary Grant. Here we get Angelina Jolie (who plays it cool... alluring but aloof), and Johnny Depp (whose gift for comedy lends a bit of quirky charm, but doesn't sufficiently invest us in the character). Don't get me wrong, I like both of these actors, but here they seemed a bit out of sync... a lamentable waste of talent. More wasted talent included the director, F.H. von Donnersmarck, (responsible for one of my favorite spy films, The Lives of Others), screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects), plus a number of fine actors filling out the cast. The problem is that nobody seems to be on the same page... the script seems to call for a humorous tongue-in-cheek approach, and the folks playing the French cops seem to get it, as do a few other characters. But the story seems to shift around too much in a way that throws us off balance. I'm not saying that a film can't cycle repeatedly from farce to drama to romance ... check out Stanley Donen's pair of '60's films, Charade (Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant) and Arabesque (Sophia Loren, Gregory Peck), they'll show you how it's done. I'd love to tell you exactly where this film went wrong but I just can't seem to put my finger on it.
The Tree of Life . This is a hard film to classify... sylistic and impressionistic, it is beautiful to watch but for me it just didn't establish the emotional connection that I believe the writer/director intended. Malick is undeniably talented, but I think his personal vision sometimes gets in the way of his ability to communicate with an audience. One specific problem I had was a pronounced disconnect between the child Jack (Hunter McCracken) and the adult Jack (Sean Penn). But in spite of the film's flaws, this 2012 Academy Award nominee for Best Picture is worth your time... there are some emotional moments that do resonate well, most of the acting is subtle and nuanced, and the visual impact of the film is stunning.
Two Family House : I had a lot of fun watching this low-budget nostalgic drama about a working-class couple struggling to make a life for themselves in 1956 Staten Island. The husband's a dreamer, while his wife is convinced that all his dreams will come to nothing ... and though she might be right, we still can't help but despise the way she undercuts and sabotages him at every turn. Some of the plot developments seem a bit improbable, but writer/director Raymond De Felitta insists that it is for the most part a true story (about his uncle). It's funny, sad, heartwarming, and in the end a bit sentimental but not overly so, especially when you realize that these are real people. In overall tone, the film has a lot in common with De Felitta's later film City Island, which I also enjoyed a great deal. Good performances by Michael Rispoli and Katherine Narducci (both from The Sopranos), Kevin Conway, and most especially Kelley MacDonald (Boardwalk Empire, No Country For Old Men).
The Vow: Based on a true story, this film follows Page and Leo (Rachel Macadams and Channing Tatum) as they struggle with the aftermath of an accident that left Page with no memory of their four year marriage. Good chemistry between the leads, and pretty fair support from Page's parents (Sam Neil and Jessica Lange), but for the most part this film succeeds only as a pleasant date film while avoiding the harsher realities of what the real-life couple must have gone through during this awful time (Kim and Krickitt Carpenter eventually fell in love again, remarried and had two children ... but she never did get her memory back). In the end, this is a pleasant enough film on its own terms but it doesn't really ring true... in fact it left me feeling a little disappointed by it's shallowness.
Waking Sleeping Beauty . This documentary tells the story of how Disney animation rose from the depths of near-extinction to meet and perhaps surpass the products of its golden age. It's a pretty complex story, but it is told with candor and care ... and it is really interesting to see the big guns of today as young interns and shaggy-haired nerds (after a roomful of kids are introduced ... Tim Burton, Brad Bird, Glen Keane... one turns to the camera and says, "What about the camera guy, who's running the camera?" a soft voice replies, "I'm John Lasseter..."). Great stuff.
Warm Bodies: I guess I'm just a sucker for a good love story... I swallowed this one hook, line and sinker. Yeah, it's got some weak plot points and situations that tax our ability to suspend disbelief, but this film has more than enough charm and humor tip the balance in its favor. I'd seen the trailer beforehand so I knew the rough points going in: A zombie eats the brain of a human which causes him to fall in love with his dinner's girlfriend. I was expecting a comedy, and the film does have quite a bit of humor, most of it quite good... but what I didn't expect was a tender (and in places even plausible) love story that works. More than that, it seeks to explore what makes us human and how it is our emotional connections that will redeem us in the worst of times (and really... what's worse than being dead but still walking around looking for people to eat?). As a zombie comedy, I'm not sure it will withstand repeated viewings as well as Shawn of the Dead or Zombieland, but as far as love stories between the living and the (un)dead go, it beats the hell out of any of the Twilight films. More than that, it's the perfect date movie... I mean what could be better than taking a girl to see a nice love story, while having the assurance that no matter how big a loser you are at least she gets to walk out of the theater with a guy who's got a pulse?
We Bought a Zoo : This film from Cameron Crowe plays a bit like your average family film, and has the episodic pacing that's typical of many adapted-from-a-true-story films. But overall, I'd say give it a go ... it stays out of the overly sweet and sentimental territory that plagues many films of this sort, and I think Matt Damon grounds the film a bit, allowing it to remain light but not shallow.
When Worlds Collide : Starring Richard Derr and the beautiful but underrated Barbara Rush, When Worlds Collide is one of my favorites of the period though you never seem to run across it on anyone's list of great sci-fi yarns. This is a classic end-of-the-world tale, one with a few holes in it but none the less believable and suspenseful. Produced by George Pal, and a rare directorial effort by noted cinematographer Rudolph Maté, this beautiful color film is unusual for the period. It has a few of the same cliches and corny dialog as its B&W b-movie brethrin, but there's an endearing charm to this film, as well as a brisk pace and a chromatic richness ... all of which produce an unmistakable family resemblance to Pal's production of "War of the Worlds" which would come just a few years later. This film is one of my childhood favorites, one I return to from time to time, and one which I don't hesitate to recommend to friends even though it's not considered one of the major 50's sci-fi classics. Give this one a try if you haven't seen it.
Which Way Home : Heartbreaking documentary about the plight of thousands of children (most in their early teens, but some as young as eight or nine) who make their way north from Central American to the Mexican border with the hope of getting into the US. Alone or in small groups, these kids hitch rides, hop trains, or walk... and the stories are incredibly heart-wrenching. The filmmakers don't take a scattershot approach and bombard you with statistics, they zero in on a handful of kids and try to follow them, with mixed results (some just disappear along the way). It's not an easy film to watch, but it deserves a look.
Wild Target: Here's a fun film... "The Lives of Others" meets "Bringing Up Baby." Bill Nighy (rapidly becomming one of my favorite character actors) plays a hit man on the verge of retirement after years (perhaps decades) as the very best in the business. His last target: A lunatic con artist (Emily Blunt from The Adjustment Bureau and Young Vicotria) who sold a fake painting to the wrong person and got caught. From about ten minutes in, these characters reminded me so strongly of David and Susan (Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn) in Bringing Up Baby that I found it almost impossible to believe that the homage was coincidental. I don't mean to suggest that this film is in the same class ... it definitely has its flaws and missteps, while Bringing Up Baby is pitch-perfect in nearly every way.
Nighy is particularly good, and his character is absolutely hilarious ... trained from infancy to enter the "family business," (mom and dad gave him a Beretta for his 8th birthday, and on the eve of his retirement mom gives him a scrapbook with press clippings of every person he's ever killed), and yet in spite of his sweet and nurturing family, Victor Maynard is not happy. Dad has passed away, mom is in a nursing home (and wants grandchildren), and he rattles around the family mansion alone, with no friends or hobbies, all the furniture covered in plastic drape (each evening he folds back two feet from the huge dining room table on which to set his plate, and chats with non-existant dinner guests... a sad but humorous caricature of Hauptmann Gerd Weisler). All that stands between him and a peaceful retirement is a beautiful (and crazy) young woman whose totally self-centered and impulsive nature touches something in him. Turning from killer to protector, he and Rose are thrown together and find themselves on the run from the inevitable backup team, hired to do the job Victor couldn't bring himself to do.
Also, there are a few interesting supporting players... apprentce hitman Rupert Grint, in one of his first non-Harry Potter roles, pissed-off art-buyer Rupert Everett (how often do you get to see two Ruperts in the same film?), and Victor's mother played by the esteemed stage actress Eileen Atkins (auntie Ruth Ellingham on Doc Martin).
In spite of some flaws, the film takes you for a nice ride ... several laugh-out-loud gags, good performances all around. A few serious plausibility lapses do stand out in a negative way (even in spite of the slapstick nature of the film), but overall they are forgivable. Beth, Sieren and I all had a good time with this one.
Woman in the Moon ("By Rocket to the Moon" in the US): A couple of subplots too many makes this film a bit overlong at 169 minutes. Still, Fritz Lang's 1929 silent film about man's first trip to the moon is interesting in many ways, not the least for it's reasonably accurate depiction of rocket travel that was quite amazing for the time... we see acceleration couches, weightlessness in free fall, accurate depiction of the gravity wells of earth and moon, as well as a multi-stage rocket, liquid fuel, an airlock, and the first use of the "countdown to blast off," (which supposedly Lang invented for dramatic effect). Granted, there's quite a bit here that we now know to be untrue, but considering that space travel was pure speculation at the time, they really got quite a bit right... so much so that when the Nazis began their rocket research program, they destroyed all the models and drawings from the film, and had all the prints withdrawn. As a film it doesn't compare to Lang's Metropolis, but for any fan of sci-fi it really is worth a look.
The Wrestler: Wrestling is all Randy the Ram can do. He's failed with everything else ... family, friends, finances, his health, any sort of regular life outside the ring. Now he's old and fading, but still idolized by fans and respected by fellow wrestlers. The film is shot in an almost journalistic style ... the camera operator follows Randy around like a documentary filmmaker, we see what Randy sees but we also see the sluggish gait and stooped shoulders of man whom life has beaten down. After some health problems stimulate a reality check, he finally reaches out to his estranged daughter Stephanie and to his stripper friend Pam. In each case we see potential and possibilities ... a chance that he'll do something right for a change, and maybe life will find a way to reward him with something besides rent money and a few cheers from strangers. Mickey Rourke does a masterful job of playing Randy and making us feel in our own heart and soul the importance of all those choices he made along the way and the ones he still has to make. He was nominated for an Oscar for his role, which he probably should have won. This is a tough film to watch ... it will break your heart, but it's worth seeing.
Your Sister's Sister: Given the female director and the title, this thing had "chick flick" written all over it, or so I thought. In reality, it's a quirky and intelligent comedy with some serious dramatic elements that are broad enough to appeal to anyone with a taste for indie-style character films. Jack's having a hard time dealing with the death of his brother so his brother's ex-girlfriend Iris offers to let him stay at her family vacation cottage so he can have some time alone to get his head together. When he arrives, he finds that Iris' lesbian sister Hannah is already there, also in need of a bit of alone time (to come to grips with her recent breakup). Complications ensue (that's putting it mildly) and when Iris shows up the story takes off, blending humorous elements with more serious explorations of how we deal with love and loss and loneliness. It's an offbeat film that's kind of hard to put in a box but overall it's pretty satisfying.
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger: Not one of Woody Allen's best, but the film offers some believable performances from some solid actors (Anthony Hopkins, Naomi Watts, Antonio Banderas, Gemma Jones, Josh Brolin). An older couple have gone their separate ways, the husband into the arms of a sexy gold digger and the wife into the equally greedy clutches of a fortune teller ... meanwhile, their daughter and her husband have serious troubles of their own. As in most Woody Allen films, the characters deal with their problems by talking about them and it is here that we see how sensitive and insightful people can be when it comes to other people's woes but how totally clueless they can be about their own. There's a nice mix of irony, humor, sadness and poignancy in all this, and if you enjoy Woody Allen's films you'll probably like this, but if you are an intermittent watcher, he's done this stuff better in other films.
Zero Dark Thirty: Excellent fact-based story about the hunt for Osama bin Laden that covers three distinct time periods... the anything-goes aftermath of 9/11 where suspected terrorists are mercilessly tortured for information, the post-detainment era when the CIA had to resort to clever intelligence gathering rather than brute force, and the final go-for-broke raid to get bin Laden. Jessica Chastain plays "Maya," the CIA agent who spent ten years gathering crumbs of information about bin Laden's mysterious courier, which eventually led to bin Laden's hideout, and it's her story that ties together the three parts of this film. Most of the film plays like a tense political thriller or spy novel, and the fact that most of it is true just adds to the tension. The final third, the night attack on bin Laden's compound, is exciting enough but so full of mistakes that it won't take a Navy Seal to pick apart. But then, anyone who's seen Hurt Locker knows that director Kathleen Bigelow isn't exactly a stickler for military accuracy or technical detail. Still, the attack works well enough within the context of the film and doesn't detract from the overall impact of the story. In the end we're left with a pretty good film that's exciting and fairly free of patriotic propaganda.