Tuesday, December 04, 2012

November 2012

With 13 first-run movies screened, I believe November represents a personal record in the most number of feature films viewed in a single month, at least in recent memory. Naturally, my grades are all over the map, including very enjoyable movies I wasn't looking forward to, and crushing disappointments that I was truly excited about. Here's what I subjected myself to:

FLIGHT (2012)—Denzel Washington is one of the few actors in Hollywood whom you can always trust to turn in an Oscar-worthy characterization, no matter what kind of role he plays. Flight pairs him up with acclaimed director Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Cast Away, Forrest Gump), who for the past several years has focused on motion-capture films like The Polar Express, and it's very nice to have Bob back at the live-action helm. Whip Whitaker, the airline pilot played by Washington, is a national hero with a tragic flaw, and the film challenges the viewer to experience the darker sides of his nature. It's a long film, one that starts with an extremely intense first half hour, then slows down for a long character study. The movie requires a bit of patience, but the payoff (it got me a bit misty-eyed) is worth it. Special recognition must be given to John Goodman for his first-rate comic-relief character, while sexy Nadine Velazquez sets the screen on fire with an eye-popping nude scene right at the start of the film. I think Flight will ultimately make it onto my "movies I'd like to see again" list. (9)

WRECK-IT RALPH (2012)—As I sat watching this Disney cartoon, I realized that populating your movie with numerous video-game characters (both real and fictional) was a stroke of genius—an obvious variation on the famous Toy Story franchise. You get hulking behemoths (the title character) and action heroes rubbing shoulders with cutesy-funny icons like Q-Bert and Pac Man. There's a terrific cross-section of characters that will be recognizable to both kids and adults, and as with the best Disney movies, this one has something for all ages. The plot isn't anything terribly new or original—people must be saved and bad guys neutralized, just like in actual video games—but the dialogue is snappy, entertaining and funny. Wreck-It Ralph delivers amusement park ride thrills and ends with a sweet, sentimental chord that might make your eyes moist. My showing was prefaced with an extraordinary short cartoon called Paperman that does more with zero dialogue than full-length movies do with entire screenplays. (9)

SKYFALL (2012)—I am not a fan of spy movies, let alone James Bond. I am totally the wrong audience for this kind of picture; the few Bonds I've seen from beginning to end—and trust me, it's fewer than four—have totally confused and/or bored me. I rarely know what's going on or who's double-crossing whom, and the gadgets and gimmicks have never impressed me like so many others. By far the worst spy/Bond movie I've seen was the most recent one: 2008's Quantum of Solace, featuring Daniel Craig as 007. I was dragged along by a friend, and we both thought it was a crashing bore. The only reason Skyfall wound up on my radar at all was that the reviews were unusually strong. And while I have my quibbles about the movie, it's an undeniably suspenseful and entertaining piece of work. I appreciate that they've taken certain steps to tinker with the formula (although not by much), since I was never a fan of the original formula to begin with. The movie starts off with a breathless chase scene, followed by the usual sultry song played over credits with arty images, and then cascades from one thrill scene after another. All of my objections about this movie would be pointless to belabor, as this is basically a long cartoon with outlandishly far-fetched plot elements (i.e., the bad guy has an unlimited artillery and armies; people don't simply shoot and kill their prey when they have an opportunity, etc.). The formula has been altered in subtle ways, but many more of the cliches are intact. Still….it's a fun time, although about 20 minutes longer than necessary. Naomie Harris and Bérénice Marlohe make succulent Bond girls; nobody makes a better villain than Javier Bardem, and Ralph Fiennes is first-rate in a smaller role. Actually, all of the actors do a tremendous job, except for Craig, whom I find dull and singularly charmless. (8)

ANNA KARENINA (2012)—All the world's a stage…and director Joe Wright never lets us forget it by infusing his adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's novel with the annoying gimmick of placing his actors on a stage, framing them with a proscenium, flying the scenery in and dropping painted backdrops. That might have been a reasonable introductory conveyance, but after gradually turning Karenina into a real film with real outdoor scenery and traditional sound stages, he repeatedly reintroduces his little trick, even going so far as to turn the extras and background performers into a kind of Greek chorus, rubber-stamping paperwork in time or rhythmically kicking and posing. It simply didn't work for me. The effect pulls the viewer out of the story and becomes increasingly tiresome. The story shows how Anna (Keira Knightley) gets caught up in a triangle between ice-cold aristocrat husband Jude Law and pretty-boy Aaron Taylor-Johnson in 19th century Russia. Knightley, a truly gorgeous woman, is photographed from close-up angles that draw attention to her crooked lateral incisors—a lamentable decision. Law, formerly a young male hottie, is made up to look dark and severe; he plays Karenin with such unsmiling gloom that you wonder what could have attracted Anna to him in the first place. I haven't read the Tolstoy novel, but from what I gather, this version strips the book down to the bare elements of the story, tossing away virtually all of the political and ideological elements that made it relevant in its day. On the plus side, the costumes and music are outstanding, and Knightley remains one of cinema's most striking beauties. I'm curious to experience one of the many earlier movie versions of this famous novel. (5)

THE MASTER (2012)—Watching this yawnfest was, as I told Joan as we walked out of the theater, akin to walking on glass in my bare feet. Although the are two fine performances by Phillip Seymour Hoffman (as a psychobabbling L. Ron Hubbard-like cult figure) and Joaquin Phoenix (as a boozer with anger-management issues), the movie is a resounding, 138-minute bore in virtually nothing happens and all of the characters are varying degrees of loathsome. Taking place in 1950, we watch the irredeemable Phoenix—filmed in frequent close-ups that magnify the unsightly upper-lip scar he was born with—misbehave in the Navy, lose his job as a photographer and mumble out of the left side of his mouth. By and by, he falls under the spell of writer Hoffman, who proceeds to mindfuck him via a series of exercises and tests as he lays the groundwork for a "spiritual movement" called The Cause, which encourages people to recall their past lives. There's a bit of drama here and there, such as when Phoenix wrecks a jail cell, but much of the film is devoted to capturing pointless, ponderous exercises like the one where Phoenix is forced to walk back and forth in a room feeling and describing the walls and windows. Meanwhile, the film itself attempts to mess with the viewer's head by adding layers of ambiguity—check out that party scene where Hoffman warbles and all of the female attendees are suddenly and inexplicably naked. The movie is also saddled with one of the most annoying soundtracks of all time (by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood) that made me want to rip my hair out, stuff it into a pillow and move to Belgium. The only thing keeping me from walking out of the theater was the hope that one of the main characters would be killed horribly. No such luck! A complete waste of time. (2)

SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012)—Bradley Cooper (his hair shorter than I'm used to seeing) is prematurely sprung from a mental facility, still reeling from the trauma of having caught his wife cheating on him and attacking her secret lover. Since his wife has a restraining order against him, he plots to win her back and so strives to demonstrate that he has his shit together, which he unfortunately does not. In a welcome reworking of the traditional rom-com formula, Cooper meets a pretty young woman (Jennifer Lawrence) with some issues of her own, and the two of them slowly forge a friendship. Will it lead to something more? You don't have to be Nostradamus to figure that out, but part of the fun is the scenery on the road to the inevitable—the movie is populated with interesting characters, likable in spite of their flaws, including Robert DeNiro as Cooper's superstitious, football-obsessed dad, and Julia Stiles as a beautiful but shrewish wife. (Only the presence of Chris Tucker, playing a friend of Cooper's, felt like a bit of an afterthought.) The movie has a feel-good message and an uplifting if predictable ending. Connie recoiled by a perceived aroma of "We're mentally disturbed! It's all so funny!" But aside from a line here and there, I didn't find a lot of the mental-illness aspects terribly funny, nor do I believe they were intended to be uproarious, exactly. I do think this is an example of a mainstream-movie version of an indie-type picture, but as much as I have enjoyed indie pics, a lot of them (i.e., "Away With Me") are horrendous. Happily, this one mostly gets it right. Full disclosure: This film had the advantage of being viewed immediately after two in a row that I did not enjoy, making it seem even better by comparison. (8)

TWILIGHT: BREAKING DAWN, PART 2 (2012)—Oh, Twilight. Remember back in 2008, when you were just a movie about two crazy kids falling in love? The fact that one of them was a vampire just added to the fun. But here we are, five movies later, and the love I had for Part One of the franchise (which I liked enough to sit through twice!) seems like a distant memory as the emphasis has shifted from character to hair, makeup and lazy characterization. None of the subsequent chapters in this teen-fantasy saga has come close to resonating with me quite the same way; though each installment contains a good scene or interesting idea here and there, parts 2-4 have consistently suffered in comparison to the original. Now here comes the finale—Part 2 of Part 4, if you're inclined to keep count—in which newly vamped Bella (Kristen Stewart) and brooding husband Edward (Robert Pattinson, who is absolutely brilliant in the area of looking at people without emotion) deal with the fallout of having a "half-mortal, half-immortal" baby, Renesmee—a concept that makes about as much sense as a half-pregnant woman. Those mysterious royal vampires, the Volturi, are really pissed off by the presence of a vampire baby, as it is apparently against the rules for some reason. (Used to be that vampires just drank blood and turned into bats; now they glitter and have a rule book that makes chess seem like tic-tac-toe. What's more, they each have impressive superpowers, including super-strength, prognostication, protective shields, ability to inflict heat/pain, etc.—they have more in common with The Avengers than Dracula.) Anyway, the entire movie is essentially an incidental setup to a huge showdown scene with the Volturi, "who come dressed for battle like they're being photographed for a Dutch Masters cigar box," as critic Mark Ramsey hilariously observed. The finale prominently features those unconvincing CGI werewolves that have long been the weakest visual element of this series, as well as a series of howlingly fake-looking decapitations. Breaking Dawn, Part 2 lacks any sense of subtlety or nuance, which I guess is perfect for kiddies but maddening for grownups. Since the love-triangle plot is now irrelevant, muscular wolf-boy Jacob is around exclusively to remove his shirt and act protective; one of the movie's few truly interesting ideas is the "imprinting" contrivance in which Jacob psychically links with the child Renesmee, although this is never explained on film as well as it is (I assume) in the novels. Despite the movie's vapidity and Lifetime movie-caliber performances, it can be trashily and campily entertaining—I never really hated what I was seeing, though I was rarely intrigued. Stewart may not smolder, exactly, but she's pretty enough, and the filmmakers have found an uber-adorable tot to portray Renesmee, although looking adorable is all she's called to do in this picture (she only has one or two lines of dialogue). By far my favorite thing in the movie is the beautiful and striking closing credits sequence, presented in spectacular monochrome and played over Christina Perri's stirring pop masterpiece "A Thousand Years" (from Breaking Dawn Part 1). The song comes closer to achieving an "epic" feeling than the whole movie does. (7)

LIFE OF PI (2012)—One of Chinese director Ang Lee's biggest hits in the USA was Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Twelve years later, he is back with another tiger—namely the one from Yann Martel's supposedly unfilmable story about a shipwrecked boy who winds up in the same lifeboat as the ferocious beast. Perspective is everything: I saw Life of Pi the same day as the Twilight finale, and it's interesting to me that both movies attempt to render animals via CGI, and the difference in quality is astonishing: Breaking Dawn's wolves look comparatively cheap and SyFy Channel-ish compared to Richard Parker, as the Bengali tiger is affectionately named. The special effects are astonishing, even viewed in 2D (I switched theaters after surmising that the 3D glasses were hindering, rather than amplifying my experience). Life of Pi is a beautiful, moving and incredibly rewarding experience for viewers of all ages—one of the year's best! (10)

THIS IS 40 (2012)—Although it doesn't open until Dec. 21, I got my hands on a screener of Judd Apatow's latest comedy, a semi-sequel to Knocked Up in that it follows up on the characters played by Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd. In the film, both hapless indie record-company exec Rudd and better half Mann (Apatow's real-life wife) try to figure out how their respective companies are hemorrhaging money—and both deal with their daddy issues. (Albert Brooks gets all the best one-liners as Rudd's father, while John Lithgow provides welcome presence as Mann's dad.) This well-written comedy suffers from Apatow's reluctance to edit—this is a 134-minute comedy that desperately needs to be well under two hours—and if the crass potty humor could be excised, the length would be simply perfect. (Even the film's poster shows Rudd on the toilet.) Megan Fox is perfectly cast in a small but pivotal role. I'll award this film an (8), but if I get a chance to trim the scenes I didn't like, my version would easily rate a 9.

THE IMPOSSIBLE (2012)—Another advance screener (also out Dec. 21) is a real-life disaster movie that recreates the horrific 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, which killed nearly 280,000 people in Indonesia and surrounding countries. The Impossible focuses on some vacationing tourists (Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts) enjoying a fancy Thailand resort when the giants waves wash them away, along with their three sons. The special effects are so good that you'll wonder how they were able to achieve such realistic shots, and much of the resulting carnage is hard to watch. The family survives the initial impact but are separated—most of the movie is about their efforts to find each other. Though the movie is entertaining in a disaster-film sort of way, there's not much of a compelling script here, and although I felt bad for the characters, I never felt like I got to know them at all. (7)

LINCOLN (2012)—Every year, a movie strikes a universal chord with filmgoers that somehow fails to connect with me—it's the Slumdog Millionaire effect. Director Steven Spielberg trades in his Indiana Jones / E.T. hat for his more serious persona to tell the story of how our beloved 16th president successfully got Congress to pass a constitutional amendment to ban slavery. Tech production values, including scenery and makeup, are first-rate, as is the characterization of Daniel Day Lewis—he is more convincing as Lincoln than as Daniel Day Lewis. But the film is a two-hour bore and never engaged me. I realize I am in the vast minority; I guess I just enjoy Spielberg's dinosaur movies a lot more than his historical epics. (4)

THE SESSIONS (2012)—Wow! I caught this at a free Paramount screening, not having the motivation to see it for actual money, and was enormously impressed by the superb humor and scripting in this real-life story of how Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes), confined to an iron lung, seeks a sexual surrogate (Helen Hunt) to introduce him to the world of carnal pleasure. When the two come together in what is supposed to be a clinical capacity, though, emotions inevitably come into play. Even the secondary characters score big in this gentle story, including Moon Bloodgood and William H. Macy. At times, Hawkes reminded me so much of Roddy MacDowell that it was creepy! (9)

THE BAY (2012)—Director Barry Levinson, perhaps best known for movies like Diner, Good Morning Vietnam and Rain Man, inexplicably turns to the found-footage genre with this eco-thriller that suggests a hybrid of Contagion and Paranormal Activity. Something Extremely Bad is happening on the coast of Maryland, where people start to drop like flies after developing revolting giant blisters all over their bodies. What is causing this unsightly and terrifying phenomenon? A budding young broadcast journalist tries to get to the bottom of it as her local townsfolk puke blood, scream and keel over dead in the streets at her feet. The subject matter may not be as deftly handled as Contagion, but it's a corker of a horror movie, for those who liked movies like 1984's Impulse and 1995's Outbreak, but think they needed to be somewhat more grotesque. One particular scene, set aboard a boat, actually made me jump out of my chair! (8)

Friday, November 23, 2012

October 2012

Despite the new TV season being in full swing, I made a point to recover from last year's mediocre movie-going activity by really throwing myself into the cinema. Some of that was due to Joan making herself more available on the weekends; also, Irene invited me to a couple of screenings as well. Interestingly, I saw nothing on DVD except for The Apartment with Jay, which I had previously seen. Here were the new movies I saw in October:

LOOPER (2012)—The latest time-travel adventure stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a guy charged with assassinating people sent back in time from the future…and who must ultimately kill off his future self (Bruce Willis). If you think too much about the premise, it really makes no sense whatsoever, but it's a reasonably fun time at the movies nonetheless. Emily Blunt gives the picture a boost as the young mother of a very "special" boy. (8)

THE PAPERBOY (2012)—Pete Dexter's Florida-based novel becomes a boring mystery tale featuring Zac Efron, Nicole Kidman, Matthew McConaughey and John Cusack as four totally repellent people mixed up in the muddled story of a murdered policeman. Kidman pees on Efron in one of cinema's most bafflingly unnecessary beach scenes. The whole movie is unengaging; it seems crafted to show Efron in various stages of shirtlessness. Kidman tries to smolder with a Southern-fried accent and only partially succeeds. (4)

END OF WATCH (2012)—Here's a more suspenseful (and more violent) version of the TV show Cops. That doesn't sound like much of an endorsement, but this tale of two policemen (Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Peña) who develop a close friendship while battling gangstas is a raw, edge-of-your-seat thriller that marvelously demonstrates how ballsy and brave our men in blue are. (9)

ARGO (2012)—True-life story of how a half-dozen Americans are rescued from a revolutionary Iran during the famous hostage crisis of 1980. The filmmakers take plenty of dramatic license, but the result is a crisp and suspenseful retelling of a secret operation that barely went off. Director-star Ben Affleck proves he deserves the hyphen. (8)

THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER (2012)—Director Stephen Chbosky adapts his novel with a stellar cast that includes Logan Lerman, Emma Watson and Paul Rudd; it's sort of bizarre cross between Fast Times and Ordinary People. Lerman is a high-school outcast who struggles to make friends after some personal setbacks…and learns how to deal with his troubled past. This excellent comedy-drama is the first major release for Chbosky; it became a sleeper hit, deservedly so. (9)

CLOUD ATLAS (2012)—A sprawling, impossible-to-categorize semi-epic mixes science fiction, historical drama and comedy in three hours of some of the most dazzling—and confounding—images and storylines ever committed to celluloid. Stars Tom Hanks, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, Halle Berry and Jim Sturgess appear in six tenuously connected tales—and playing numerous roles—that span five centuries. There's a drama involving a stowaway slave on a ship back in 1849, an investigative journalism thriller in 1973, a Blade Runner-esque sci-fi adventure in 2144, and so on. Like Love Actually, each of the stories are put in a blender, and the film's three different directors (including the Wachowskis) hit "puree." Thus, the action often flips around so fast that we'll see only a couple of lines of dialogue from one century before hurtling ahead 200 years for three lines of dialogue in the future. Fortunately, there's a kind of logic to the madness, as the stories all complement or comment on each other in some way or another. I had three gripes about the movie: first, some stories are needlessly bloated and could have benefited from some judicious editing. Second, the gimmick of Hanks and company in numerous roles proves entirely too distracting at times—too often you're taken out of a story by thinking, "Hey, that's Tom Hanks in different makeup! Third, the post-apocalyptic "distant future" episode is a bit draggy, and the conceit of having a mutated version of English will have you rolling your eyes. Still, it's a one-of-a-kind movie that kept me thinking long after the closing credits; repeated viewings can only help you appreciate all that's here. (8)

PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4 (2012)—The first installment in this horror franchise was innovative and genuinely shocking. And it earned Paramount Pictures such a huge return on his minuscule budget that a sequel was inevitable. Lo and behold, Part 2 repeated the original's success. Now, four films in, the scares are still there, but the originality is long gone. Even so, these haunted-house movies never promise more than they deliver—we know what we're getting going in, so it's hard to complain when they keep giving us what we expect. But it sure would be cool if the upcoming Part 5 fucked with the formula, just a little. Part 4 stars uber-adorable Kathryn Newton. (8)

SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS (2012)—Here's an offbeat and quirky black comedy for people who enjoyed Fargo. Sam Rockwell (Moon) shines most brightly as one of several off-kilter wackos populating the story of a dognapping ring. The always fascinating Christopher Walken and Woody Harrelson (as a deliciously psycho crime boss) help lift this amusing crime caper to the "must-see" circle. (9)

SINISTER (2012)—Researching his next book, true-crime writer Ethan Hawke ill-advisedly moves his wife and daughter into a house where some Very Bad Things happened...and, well, you don't have to be Nostradamus to figure out what happens next. A fairly by-the-book shocker that mostly delivers what you bought your ticket for. (8)

FRANKENWEENIE (2012)—Tim Burton's stop-motion remake of his own 1984 live-action short is designed to remind you of past successes like The Nightmare Before Christmas, but despite a terrific cast and some lovely black-and-white photography, I never really fell in love with the director's love letter to Frankenstein and other monster movies of his youth. Perhaps my expectations were too high, or maybe I just wasn't in the mood for it—many embraced it as delightful, but my mind wandered for much of the proceedings. The last 15 minutes are, admittedly, a nice payoff. (6)

BIRDEMIC: SHOCK AND TERROR (2010)—Three of the stars of Mystery Science Theater 3000—now known collectively as RiffTrax—once again lampoon a shitty horror movie for laughs, and once again, the laughs pile up fast and furious. Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett heckle the so-awful-it's-hilarious Birdemic, easily one of the worst films ever made. Fortunately for the audience, their live (and completely ruthless) commentaries turn a turkey into a triumph. A nice follow-up to Plan 9 From Outer Space and Jack the Giant Killer, also fed via satellite from Nashville to theaters nationwide as part of Fathom Events. (9)

FUN SIZE (2012)—Here's that rare cinematic offering: a smutty movie fill with age-inappropriate humor aimed squarely at Nickelodeon-watching kiddies. Disguised as a cute Halloween gagfest, Nickelodeon has loaded up this alleged comedy with toilet-bowls full of bathroom humor and sex and pedophile jokes, with enough lessons on How Not to Behave for a dozen movies. The problem is that very little of the aforementioned is funny, and most of it is downright unfunny, illogical and brain-numbingly awful. It must be said, however, that star Victoria Justice (of Nick's series Victorious) is cuter than any button ever made, and it's quite easy to get lost in her eyes—even when she's sniffing her kid brother's feces or dancing like a dork in the street. Joan said this was very likely the worst movie she's ever seen, but that's just because she missed Beasts of the Southern Wild. (3)

A ROYAL AFFAIR (2012)—It's hard to imagine a movie more unlike Fun Size. Filmed largely in Sweden and Czechoslovakia, it tells the true story of a young Danish king, Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) and his 15-year-old bride, Caroline (Alicia Vikander), a British import who soon comes to realize that being a queen is no walk in the park when the king turns out to be a childish jerk. Enter the King's new best friend, the handsome Dr. Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen), a Liam Neeson-ish radical who the queen flips for…and who uses his friendship with the king for his own political ideals. It's all rather Shakespearean—in fact, many of the Bard's quotes are thrown around for good measure—by which I mean, it's a romantic, dramatic and tragic story. Acting, direction, costumes and locations are all first-rate. I had the good fortune to attend a screening hosted by the director and star (Alicia), both of whom I met and chatted with after the movie. The beautiful 24-year-old Alicia (a Swede) happens to be featured in both this Danish-language film as well as in the upcoming Anna Karenina, in which she plays Kitty. (9)

Saturday, October 06, 2012

September 2012

With the new TV season in full swing, various work obligations, weekend trips to Las Vegas and San Jose, respectively, and the loss of my movie companion, I saw only three new movies in September (and watched nothing from my vast film archives). Here's hoping I can make up the difference by year's end. Here's what I saw:

ROBOT AND FRANK (2012)—In the not-too-distant future, an aging cat burglar (Frank Langella) is given a "helper robot" (voiced by An Education's Peter Sarsgaard) by his son (James Marsden) after the old man starts to lose his memory and his motivation. A relic from the past, Langella at first resists this technological marvel—it can wash dishes, fold laundry, prepare dinner and hold a decent conversation. None of that means a thing to Langella...until he realizes that the robot might be conscripted to participate in less legitimate tasks. This is a science-fiction film that Isaac Asimov would have relished, and thought it moves a trifle slowly and is ultimately too long, the patient viewer will reap rewards from its quiet (and very human) story. The robot is superbly manipulated and brought to "life." (8)

THE WORDS (2012)—The cast, which includes lovely Zoe Saldana, attracted me to this drama; fortunately, I saw it while visiting Las Vegas, before I had the chance to get scared away by the universally poor critical reviews. Co-written and co-directed by Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, it tells the story of a failed novelist (Bradley Cooper) who discovers a WW2-era manuscript in an old briefcase that's so good he can't resist taking credit for it. Naturally, it becomes a huge bestseller...and then the real author comes into the picture. Not only does the viewer of the movie get to experience some of the story-within-the-story, but it turns out that Cooper's story itself is the plot of a novel by another writer (Dennis Quaid). If this sounds complicated, it's because I'm not explaining it as deftly as Klugman (nephew of Jack Klugman) does. This is a film with numerous layers, and while it admittedly doesn't make a point with an appreciable impact, it tells a marvelous story—three in one, in fact! This is one of my favorite movies of the year, despite the unfair critical drubbing it received. (9)

COMPLIANCE (2012)—Back in the 1970s, there was a TV-movie called The Tenth Level that told a fictionalized version of the real-life Stanley Milgram obedience research story, in which subjects were manipulated into doing inhumane things simply because they were instructed to. Similarly, Compliance is the fictionalized version of a real-life obedience story "ripped from the headlines," as they say. Based on the true story of a prank phone caller (posing as a cop) who successfully persuaded the manager of a McDonalds restaurant to strip-searching an employee, this is a movie to make you squirm in your seat as you see the terrible action unfold beyond the mere strip search. It's made all the more chilling when you consider that these events actually occurred pretty much the way the screenplay lays it out. It's hard to watch, but equally hard to look away. Ann Dowd is terrific as the manager who is tricked into doing something reprehensible, and Dreama Walker (of TV's Don't Trust the B in Apartment 23) is sympathetic as the innocent and doe-eyed employee. Not to be missed. (9)

Monday, September 10, 2012

August 2012


HOPE SPRINGS (2012)—Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones play an aging married couple who don't have sex anymore (his choice, not hers). In a last-ditch attempt to bring the spark back into their relationship, she persuades him to attend some couples-therapy sessions with Steve Carell, who has published a book on the topic. (In retrospect, I wonder why they didn't just read the book.) This is a gentle but effective romantic comedy for people over the age of 30, its leads performing flawlessly but practically upstaged by the brilliant stunt casting of funnyman Carell in a straight role with nary a punch line. (9)

 PARANORMAN (2012)—What looked like an enjoyably macabre stop-motion treat turns out to be from the folks who made the feeble Coraline and not the infinitely superior Corpse Bride. There are a few chuckles, to be sure, but the movie is, like its predecessor, a resounding bore. (4)

 CELESTE AND JESSE FOREVER (2012)—The good news is that this indie romance-comedy stars its writer, Rashida Jones (of TV's Parks & Recreation), who is quite fetching and can be very funny as well. (I've been a fan since she co-starred on Boston Public as a teenager, and more recently on The Office.) The bad news is that it's an overlong, unfocused and mostly pointless mess of a film, charting the post-breakup relationship of Celeste (Jones) and her longtime BFF Jesse, played by Andy Samberg of Saturday Night Live. The pair are totally believable as a career woman and a terminally unemployed artist, respectively, but since the movie insists on kicking off with the dissolution of their marriage, that doesn't give the story very much room to grow. There are some funny and well-conceived scenes, but it's not enough to warrant a recommendation. Mostly it's just about how Jones has no problem moving on after their breakup—that is, until Jesse suddenly (and quite unintentionally) has a new romance and important responsibilities thrust upon him; then she turns into a jealous blithering idiot. In the film, Jones is cast as a professional trend analyzer who's supposed to be a genius at making sensible conclusions from small details, but who doesn't even realize that an important work-related logo contains a depiction of a penis (which everybody else does). Meanwhile, Jesse is supposed to be an artist, but we're given no sense of the kind of art he creates—we're never given any examples of his talent, assuming he has any. (6)


AKEELAH AND THE BEE (2006)—Before she blossomed into the drop-dead gorgeous star of films like Joyful Noise, Keke Palmer played Akeelah, a young black girl with an incredible talent for spelling. Naturally, this middle-school kid is far more mature than most of the adults in her family and school community. But then, I suppose the writers had to build some conflict somewhere beyond "I before E except after C." Palmer is pitch-perfect as the kid who, against all odds, rises through the ranks of the various spelling competitions. Also nice to see Curtis Armstrong (of Revenge of the Nerds and Moonlighting fame) as the school principal, as well as Laurence Fishburne as the girl's coach and mentor. It's a warm, reasonably involving drama with a satisfying payoff. (9)

July 2012


BRAVE (2012)—Pixar unveils its first female lead, but her story is as creaky as they come—it's a predictable variation on the Beauty and the Beast fable. Nevertheless, the film is a work of art, a gorgeously animated piece, and the heroine, a 10th-century Scottish lass named Merida, is dynamically rendered and great deal of fun to watch. (9)

MAGIC MIKE (2012)—A diverting piece of romantic malarkey that offers the gals some naughty male striptease action and Channing Tatum as the main hunk in the spotlight. As Connie pointed out, Matthew McConaughey's strip joint owner/emcee is the role he was born to play, and he chews the scenery with every bare-chested fiber of his being. Cody Horn plays the object of his affection, and for me, she is the most interesting and attractive element of the film, whose poster criminally doesn't even give her billing along with its five male stars. She should have a talk with her agent. (8)

BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD (2012)—Critics pulled out every superlative in their vocabularies to praise this indie drama about a little black girl trying to survive intense and very trying times deep in the bayous of Louisiana. But to me, it was an amateurish, unfocused and above all depressing mess, painful to watch, not least because of dizzying and shaky camera movement, which typically does not bother me. Some likened its story and characters to Faulkner, and while I suppose that's an apt comparison, the production values, substandard direction and occasional fantasy elements turned me off completely. (3)

SAVAGES (2012)—A compelling action/drug movie featuring two brainless leads whose shared (!) girlfriend gets kidnapped by a Mexican cartel when a major buyout deal goes south. Worth it entirely for the no-holds-barred performance of Salma Hayek as a drug lord with unresolved mommy issues. You can sit and pick apart the plot holes in this movie all day long, but that's part of the fun of the film, directed by Oliver Stone in pure apolitical, full-on entertainment mode. (8)

THE AVENGERS (2012)—One Captain America, one Hulk, one Thor and two Iron Man films at long last digested, and I was finally ready to screen this super-superhero movie that brings them all together working in tandem (and sometimes pitted against each other). Unfortunately, it doesn't pack the punch of its predecessors—even Captain America was a better assembled and ultimately more enjoyable movie. In fact, the only one of these films I enjoyed less was The Incredible Hulk, and since that character is featured in The Avengers (albeit played by a different actor—the third consecutive chap, in fact, to essay this particular role), it's a reasonable assumption that he is the "weakest link," strong though Hulk may be. As written and directed by Buffy the Vampire Slayer wunderkind Joss Whedon, there are, naturally, flashes of visual genius and a number of truly funny one-liners (most of them delivered by wisecracking Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man), but too many superheroes spoil the broth in this one. They really need to get rid of the Hulk, who wavers too much between pure, unpredictable anger at everyone, and impassioned hero to only the Good Guys. This is the one time where it's not smart to go green. (6)

THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES (2012)—Where The Avengers had a budget of $60 million, this documentary was certainly put together on a comparatively microscopic budget, and while you shouldn't really compare apples to oranges, Versailles is the far more riveting of the two. Director Lauren Greenfield follows the lives of two wealthy socialites: David Siegel, the aging timeshare billionaire, and his former beauty queen wife, Jackie, whose tasteless, cleavage-exposing attire itself is worth the price of the movie ticket. We follow these unimaginably wealthy people as they set out to build Versailles, the biggest and most expensive single-family residence in the U.S., simply because they can afford to do so. (It's modeled, of course, on the famous French mansion, but conceived by rich people who still love to eat at McDonalds.) When the national financial catastrophe occurs, though, they find themselves at a crossroads and suddenly unable to continue funding the project (or even live precisely in the manner they previously had.) In one brilliant scene, David berates his family members for leaving the lights burning when nobody's home. The movie will leave you outraged, befuddled and laughing your ass off—sometimes simultaneously. It's a minor masterpiece. (10)

DAMN YANKEES (1958)—Douglass Wallop's 1954 novel The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant became a successful Broadway musical in 1955, so this hot property was a natural for a film. It's the famous Faust story told in a baseball setting, featuring Ray "My Favorite Martian" Walston as the devil, making a pact with Stephen Douglass to become baseball hero Tab Hunter while Gwen Verdon ("Whatever Lola Wants") struts smolderingly in her career-making role. Actually, for as sexy as Verdon's character is supposed to be (at least in 1950s terms), I wasn't remotely attracted to her. But the movie is plenty of fun anyway—I'd spent the previous week getting to know all of the show's songs via iTunes, so seeing them performed in context was a real kick. I have never seen Walston less than perfect in anything he's ever been in. (8)

THE INCREDIBLE HULK (2008)—I was not a fan of the original Marvel comic book (it debuted in 1962), or of the popular 1977 TV series starring Lou Ferrigno as the Hulk, nor did I see Ang Lee's 2003 film adaptation, Hulk. The only reason I bothered with this 2008 reboot was to better appreciate this summer's aforementioned The Avengers movie, populated by vastly more entertaining (yet admittedly less smashy) superheroes. There's a one-dimensional Army bad guy (virtually unrecognizable William Hurt), a pretty love interest (Liv Tyler) and a boring big green guy. The movie watchable but not terribly compelling; barely three weeks later, I can hardly remember any of it. Hulk certainly does smash a lot of stuff, though. As Bruce Banner, Hulk's alter ego, poor Ed Norton was replaced by Mark Ruffalo for The Avengers, and both have done far better work elsewhere. (6)

HALF NELSON (2006)—Ryan Gosling plays Dan, a high-school teacher with a secret: he's a coke addict. And although he seems intelligent and has a loose, freewheeling teaching style that keeps his inner-city students at least awake, he (idiotically) gets high in the school locker room and is caught by one of his female students, Drey (Shareeka Epps). The awkward moment actually helps Dan and Drey form a bond resembling something like a friendship, but irony rears its ugly head when Dan becomes protective of Drey when it is revealed that certain members of her family circle are involved in the drug trade. Get it? Because he's into drugs too! It's only a matter of time before impressionable Drey will become involved in drugs herself…or will she somehow avoid the mistakes of the adults around her? That's the question posed by the movie, and although there are a number of solid performances (highlighted by Epps), I would have been happier with a bit more drama and a more satisfying resolution. (7)

Monday, July 02, 2012

June 2012

Now that the 2011-2012 TV season is over, I'm able to draw more heavily from my bottomless archive of old flicks. This month I was, however, able to squeeze in all 10 half-hour episodes of HBO's "Girls," which I watched while sick in one five-hour block. This month, I also dragged my friend Anna to see a Woody Allen double feature of Love and Death and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex. Here's my report on what I watched in June.


SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN (2012)—Comparisons to the year's first live-action Snow White movie, Mirror Mirror, are inevitable. While I wasn't 100 percent enchanted by that retelling of the famous fairy tale, the sweet personality of Lily Allen as the sweet heroine enhances the earlier film's stature in my mind. Kristen Stewart, who hit just the right note of sullen teenage angst in the original Twilight, is completely without charm. That's no doubt because Huntsman’s filmmakers are going after the existing Twilight audience, and the cynical calculatedness of it all detracts from the movie. Pulling ideas and special effects from seemingly dozens of other films and TV series, from Braveheart to Lord of the Rings, and ultimately hobbles itself from a distinct lack of originality—I really don't need to see another magical person sucking the life force out of a victim's mouth (à la The Green Mile and Buffy the Vampire Slayer) one more time. Show us something new, for God's sake! It's unlikely, though, as producers are reportedly hoping to turn this into a franchise as well. What this Snow White needs is more Bashful, which is why I couldn't resist inserting him into the poster. (6)

SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED (2012)—Good reviews got me interested in this offbeat story of a weirdo (Mark Duplass) who places an odd classified ad looking for someone to time-travel with him. A pretty young reporter answers the ad, intending to write up his story in her newspaper. What's that? Someone lies to another person, falls in love and then the lie is revealed? Yes, God help me, it's THAT plot again. The film is virtually carried on the shoulders of star Aubrey Plaza (of "Parks and Recreation" fame), but it proves to be too much for her—it all starts off a little too silly and ends up beyond preposterous. (4)

PROMETHEUS (2012)—A semi-prequel to the Alien series, this is another scary, suspenseful space epic with some multidimensional human characters and some very nasty extraterrestrials. Add to the mix a splendid Michael Fassbender as an android with unknown motives, and Swedish actress Noomi Rapace (of the European Dragon Tattoo films) doing a convincing British accent and essentially filling the shoes of Alien's Ripley character. The movie was impressive, mysterious and downright scary enough to warrant my seeing it twice—once alone, once with Joan. (9)

TO ROME WITH LOVE (2012)—The latest from Woody Allen's "Let's film in Europe!" tour. It's been a bumpy ride, with an output that has been alternately derivative (Match Point), smoldering (Vicky Cristina Barcelona), silly (You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger), forgettable (Scoop) and surprisingly profitable (Midnight in Paris). But for my money, the funniest is Woody's latest, which sews together four different tales, one starring the writer-director himself and two of them performed in Italian. I am admittedly a fan of portmanteau films, having devoted a large part of my movie-watching time in the last three or four years to chasing down as many old ones as I can find. This one makes a terrific addition to Love, Actually and Paris Je T’aime, two splendid examples from modern times. I liked To Rome With Love even more than the mega-popular Midnight in Paris, my only slight quibble being that the segment featuring Allen belabors its modest punchline. Still, it's a very enjoyable piece of work. (9)

SEEKING A FRIEND FOR THE END OF THE WORLD (2012)—Not a very enjoyable piece of work is this apocalyptic romance, its plot having been virtually lifted from the 1998 Canadian film Last Night, featuring Don McKellar and Sandra Oh as people discovering true love in the final hours of the planet's existence. This version starts the normally reliable Steve Carell (Crazy, Stupid, Love) and Keira Knightley (from the aforementioned Love, Actually) as mismatched strangers whose unsteady union may be the most boring romance ever captured on celluloid. In this movie, scenes of rioting and desperation alternate with others in which people carry on in ordinary fashion, cutting the grass or going to work as usual. Amid the dullness, there's one very funny joke involving a spider bite, but that was about it for me. Amazingly, Joan liked the movie a lot—one of the rare times she has enjoyed something considerably more than I did. (2)

YOUR SISTER'S SISTER (2012)—Largely improvised (or so I read), here's an adult romcom that in turns surprises, moves and amuses. Jack (Mark Duplass, so annoying in this month's Safety Not Guaranteed) plays a fellow still grieving after his brother's death. His best friend Iris (beautiful Emily Blunt), who had dated the brother, offers up her Puget Sound cabin as a way for Duplass to decompress. There he finds Iris's sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt), and the movie takes off. Doesn't sound like much, but what follows is a sheer delight. At times, director Lynn Shelton's three-character comedy-drama seems like a filmed stage play, but the three leads are so likable that you never find yourself wanting more. (9)

TED (2012)—Mark Wahlberg (age 41) plays a Bostonian (age 35) who still loves his childhood teddy bear named Ted. The gimmick here is that Ted is inexplicably alive—and exhibiting all of the traits a regular Joe from Boston might have (smokes pot, makes lewd comments, is a bad driver, etc.). The film's basic conflict is that Mark can’t bear to sever ties with his best friend, grow up and be a responsible mate to his beautiful girlfriend, who's understandably growing tired of playing second fiddle to a stuffed animal. The special effects are extremely impressive, but not as impressive as the fact that by halfway through the movie, the audience has virtually stopped thinking of Ted as a special effect and has accepted him as a real character. There's lots of great jokes in writer-director Seth MacFarlane's shaggy-bear story, many of them of the pop-culture-reference variety that happen work very well on me; MacFarlane also provides the voice of Ted. I could have done with about three-quarters of the scatological jokes, but they’re worth putting up with for the rest. (8)


SINGAPORE (1947)—A VHS gift from Nancy (sister of Joan, my constant movie companion). In this noirish romance, Fred MacMurray plays a diamond smuggler in the titular country; during the war, he flees after his girlfriend (Ava Gardner) is apparently killed. Returning some years later to retrieve some jewels he left behind, he accidentally discovers that Gardner is still alive, but suffering from amnesia. Should MacMurray try to win her back from her new flame? The stars are all very watchable and the scenery is fun to watch, but the stars wear nothing like the costumes they've donned for the movie poster! Featuring U.S.-born actress Maylia in a role where she does a laughably bad Chinese accident. (8)

TOBY TYLER (1960)—A boy (Kevin Corcoran) whose adoptive parents treat him rather poorly runs away and joins the circus. There he meets a lovable chimp and adults who both protect him and try to take advantage of him. Based on a beloved children's book by James Otis Kaler, this Disney production of Toby Tyler is the quintessential movie about running away and joining the circus. (8)

ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS (1939)——I was thinking of seeing this at the local revival cinema during their recent Cary Grant film festival, but then I realized that I already had it on my hard drive. So instead of driving out and seeing it on the big screen, I lazily sat on my ass and watched it on my computer. Ha! It's the classic Howard Hawks-directed story of a small air freight company being run out of a bar and grill owned by Sig Ruman, delivering mail from an unmade South American country. Cary is in charge, and in between losing planes in bad weather and trying to recruit new pilots, he meets a pretty tourist (Jean Arthur) and deals with various staffing issues. It doesn't sound particularly enthralling, but the film is quite gripping and throws in some nice doses of comedy along with the drama. (9)

BROTHER ORCHID (1940)—It starts out like a typical Edward G. Robinson gangster movie, but after doing battle with a rival crime gang, Ed hides out in a monastery and actually starts to grow a soul. It takes a mighty long while to get to the point, but there's pleasures to be had along the way, including some enjoyable comedy bits. (One line about a vibrator had me doing a double-take—funny how slang changes over the years.) As Joan pointed out, the 1955 movie We’re No Angels (remade with Sean Penn in 1989) has some similar themes. (8)

LADIES IN RETIREMENT (1941)—Ida Lupino has a great job as head housekeeper in a lovely mansion owned by wealthy former actress (Isobel Elsom). Unfortunately, Lupino also has two crazily daffy sisters who are being ousted from their current digs. Desperate not to see them put in an asylum, she begs her employer to let them stay temporarily at the mansion. But the nutty sisters soon outwear their welcome, and are instructed by Elsom to leave. What to do? How about...MURDER? Based on the 1940 Broadway thriller, the film version is fun and kept me guessing till the end. And even after the film has ending, I'm still guessing about the somewhat ambiguous resolution. (9)

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER (2011)—I am determined to see The Avengers, but I hate seeing serials out of sequence. Unfortunately, I was only familiar with one of the superheroes' backstories (Iron Man), and The Avengers is about a whole bunch of superheroes. That means that in order to completely understand and appreciate The Avengers, I must get up to speed with the other characters in the "Marvel Universe." Step One was to view Captain America, starring Chris Evans as an aspiring WWII soldier who gets the laboratory treatment (by military scientist Stanley Tucci) that turns him into a super-strong soldier. He fights and of course defeats the very, very mean Nazi villain, who has some sort of otherworldly glowing cube that's right out of an Indiana Jones flick. The movie eventually explains how a guy from the 1940s can find his way into the present day in order to team up with the other superheroes. (8)

IRON MAN 2 (2010)—I greatly enjoyed 2008’s Iron Man, which succeeded largely because of Robert Downey Jr.'s delightfully comic performance as Tony Stark. Mediocre reviews kept me away from the sequel, but it turns out to be more of the same fun formula, with another despicable baddie (Mickey Rourke), this one in his own weaponized metal suit. Fortunately, I've already seen (and loved) 2011's Thor, so all that's left is The Incredible Hulk, which I'm about halfway done watching as of this writing. I sure hope all of this legwork was worth it for The Avengers! (9)