Thursday, January 31, 2013

January 2013

I did not deliberately set out to try my Movie-a-Day experiment again, but I was able to fit so many in, it kind of worked out that way. Even if I'm not able to close out the year with 365 films under my belt, I've successfully completed 1/12th of the task!

The 31 movies I screened in January are an interesting mix of:

(A) movies I've always wanted to see (or have been curious about for a long time);

(B) newly released or recent films;

(C) impulsive, oddball selections;

(D) movies inspired by a recently seen title.

A typical example of this last category: My viewing of Unbreakable and Jackie Brown whetted my appetite for more Samuel L. Jackson; likewise, I have moved Betsy's Wedding, Inside Daisy Clover and Apollo 13 higher on my Movie Bucket List because of films I saw this month that featured Alan Alda, Natalie Wood and Tom Hanks, respectively. Unfortunately, it appears I awarded only three movies a "9" (outstanding) rating, and nothing was deserving of a 10.

I need more 10s in my life, damn it!

Here's my report card for January.

THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE BEGINNING (2006)—A Chainsaw virgin, I decided to prepare for the first major film release of 2013 (Texas Chainsaw 3D) by acquainting myself with the franchise. It all began with the low-budget Tobe Hooper original in 1974, followed by a sequel in 1986, a Next Generation sequel in 1994, a remake in 2003, a prequel to the remake in 2006, and finally this year's sequel. I opted to get my feet wet with this 2006 prequel to the remake, then watch the 2003 remake (bypassing the Tobe Hooper original altogether). It turns out to a pretty darn good slasher film, recounting the backstory of young Thomas "Leatherface" Hewitt and his cannibalistic family. The story really starts when a group of teenagers run afoul of R. Lee Ermey, the scarifying boot-camp drill instructor in Full Metal Jacket, here playing an even scarier version of his bellowing, short-tempered authority figure character, perfected as far back as 1978's The Boys in Company C. I have not seen more than a few slasher films in my life, but this is definitely the best of the bunch. (8)

SLEEPWALK WITH ME (2012)—I am still trying to get caught up on some of the 2012 releases I missed. I had high expectations for this one, because I love standup comedy and it's about a fictional stand-up comedian (inspired and performed by real-life comic Mike Birbiglia). Also, the movie won a lot of great reviews. While it has a couple of interesting ideas and the occasional laugh, I never completely warmed to his brand of funny…but it was nice to see Six Feet Under star Lauren Ambrose as his cuckolded girlfriend. (6)

THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (2003)—Back to the Chainsaw franchise. Ermey and Leatherface are back, terrorizing more teenagers (including hot-as-a-piston Jessica Biel). It's a standard slasher shocker; a decent production that is well (you should pardon the expression) executed. I think the prequel is slightly better. (8)

TEXAS CHAINSAW 3D (2013)—To my surprise, the big-budget sequel turns out to be a direct follow-up to the 1974 original, ignoring all other sequels, reboots and prequels. (I had not bothered to watch the original, but had skimmed through it and learned enough for this one to make perfect sense.) First of all, the 3-D process was pointless; I noticed only a couple of brief scenes that took advantage of the effect, so it might as well have been viewed in 2D. Second, it's a rather predictable and preposterous story, with a young woman inheriting an estate, only to learn she's Leatherface's cousin. Nothing special here, although it was a huge box-office success, so I presume more will be on their way. (6)

BLADE RUNNER (1982)—One of my ongoing New Year's Resolutions is to catch up on some of the iconic films I've missed over the years. This is one of the last of the "biggies." I don't know how this one slipped through the cracks, but now I can say I've finally seen the film Harrison Ford made between the second and third original Star Wars installments. It's a dark, bleak and violent look at Los Angeles during the year (HA!) 2019, when we've not only been to other planets, but have created "replicants" (biological robots) to work on them, effectively enslaving them. Some of these ultra-strong humanoids have come back to Earth to cause us harm, and Harrison Ford has been conscripted to stop them. But who's the real villain here—the slaves or those who have enslaved them in the first place? It's a theme that was re-used in last year's Cloud Atlas in one of that film's many stories. Blade Runner is more noir than I usually care for, but it's worth watching through all the steam and smoke and rain. No doubt it played much better 30 years ago—hilariously, so much of the so-called "futuristic" design and props on display already been rendered obsolete by today's standards, such as all the monochromatic computer screens that just make you roll your eyes. (Nobody carries any smartphones or Mini iPads because they hadn't been conceived in 1982.) This film exists in at least seven different versions; I watched "The Final Cut," which has forsaken the original voice-over narration and clarified some plot points that were apparently muddled originally. One of the film's major liabilities is the musical soundtrack by Vangelis, whose career was hot after Chariots of Fire, but it sounds embarrassingly dated and out of place now. (7)

A KISS BEFORE DYING (1956)—Digging even further into the archives is this movie based on a book by Ira Levin. Based on his 1953 debut novel (written 14 years before Rosemary's Baby), the film is a pared-down version of the book about a guy who murders his girlfriend after she gets pregnant, then woos his sister in order to get to their daddy's fortune and frames other people for the killing. (In the book, there was a third sister). It's an old-fashioned yarn, rather shopworn by today's standards, but interesting to see a rail-thin Robert Wagner as the villain, as well as Joanne Woodward as the girlfriend who gets bumped off. (6)

ARBITRAGE (2012)—Another movie from last year that got a bit of buzz for Richard Gere's performance. Here he's a financial wizard, the president of a hedge-fund company that's basically bankrupt. He cooks the books and is frantically trying to sell the company that his beautiful daughter is active in when a car accident causes his world to spin out of control. The main problem with the movie is that Gere is way too arrogant to be even a little likable, so it's hard to root for him as he uses his slippery nature to weasel his way out of a truly horrific situation he's caused for himself and his family. (5)

THE TORTURED (2010)—I liked the setup: After a couple's young son is kidnapped, tortured and killed by a psychopath, they decide to kidnap the killer and get revenge by torturing him. But it turns out there's very little satisfaction in watching a psycho get tortured, and even the dimmest viewer will figure out the twist ending long before the film's conclusion. How disappointing that I chose to watch this over so many more worthwhile selections on my must-see list. (4)

NOT FADE AWAY (2013)—A pointless, meandering mess. In the late '60s, a group of young musicians form a band, explore romance and smoke cigarettes, not necessarily in that order. The film wants to capture the love of rock and roll (the soundtrack is wall-to-wall oldies), so director David Chase dresses up his cast in period clothes, litters the streets with authentic automobiles, and drops references to Vonnegut, Martin Luther King and, of course Mick Jagger. There's precious little story and a laughable non-ending ending that caps the main character's boring 10-minute meander around the streets of Los Angeles. I was paralyzed with boredom from beginning to end; film's one saving grace is easy-on-the-eyes Bella Heathcote, an Australian doing a perfect American accent. Otherwise, exceptionally boring. (2)

DON'T DRINK THE WATER (1994)—Woody Allen's farcical 1966 debut play (filmed in 1969 with Jackie Gleason) became a TV movie in '94, this time with Woody directing and starring—I suspect he was "slumming" in order to finance more ambitious big-screen efforts from this timeframe, such as Mighty Aphrodite and Deconstructing Harry. Not surprisingly, Woody and his cast of TV sitcom actors (Julie Kavner, Michael J. Fox, Mayim Bialik) fit their characters like gloves in this zany tale of a family trapped in a U.S. embassy behind the Iron Curtain, accused of being spies. It's just the kind of nutty, slapdash, gag-filled movie Woody used to make, and it's fun to see him in full schlemiel mode again. (8)

EXPERIMENT IN TERROR (1962)—Director Blake Edwards is best known for comedies like The Great Race and the Pink Panther series. But before his career took that direction, he actually made some serious dramas, such as 1962's Days of Wine and Roses. That same year, he made this psychological thriller, with Ross Martin as a ruthless killer who tries to force innocent teller Lee Remick to rob her own bank for him. Glenn Ford heads up the FBI team to hunt him down and stop him. What once undoubtedly played as an edge-of-your-seat thriller seems hopelessly dated today, with loads of bumbling mistakes made by the G-men; it's also way overlong at over 120 minutes. Although it mostly plays like a B&W episode of Dragnet, there are a few tense scenes that made somewhat of an impact. My favorite subplot had to do with a Chinese woman (Anita Loo), whose hospitalized son has a surprising connection to the bad guy. Overall, though, this was a bit of a slog. (6)

POT O' GOLD (1942)—I had started and rejected at least three movies before popping in this old Jimmy Stewart offering (released the year after The Philadelphia Story and five years before It's a Wonderful Life). The film was inspired by a 1939 radio show—the first big-money giveaway program. This comedy-romance starts off a lot like It's a Wonderful Life, with Stewart playing an aw-shucks dreamer following in the shoes of his not-very-successful father, who was in business for love, not money. Along comes his golden opportunity to make big bucks…but it's not really in his nature to go in that direction. (Sound familiar?) But where It's a Wonderful Life went off in an often more serious (and supernatural) direction, this one is really a musical, with lots of people playing in a band and singing in shows—even Jimmy's character sings one song, although it is obviously not his voice. Paulette Goddard is the love interest; it's all very broad and silly, almost like an episode of I Love Lucy. I wasn't really expecting this to be a musical—I had abandoned In Search of the Castaways immediately before watching this exactly because there were all of these unexpected songs in the way of the story. Pot o' Gold would have been considerably more effective as a straight comedy: there are enough farcical elements and wisecracks for it to have worked as such. Stewart called this his worst movie, but it's probably worth at least a (7).

THE CHILDREN (2008)—How do you battle a seven-year-old girl with a bloody knife in her hand—especially when she's your own daughter? That's the most interesting aspect of The Children, a British horror movie presents two families (joined by two grown sisters) with a bunch of adorable moppets spending the holidays together in a remote cabin…and then, inexplicably, the kids fall victim to a mysterious illness that turns them all into homicidal maniacs. Because Village of the Damned (1960) is my favorite movie, I am naturally curious about all movies about evil kids. This one is a twist on the usual slasher film, where your own brood is suddenly the enemy. Intriguing premise, and there are some suspenseful scenes, but the movie lets us down with a lot of violent payoff scenes that are shown in a blink of an eye, leaving you to wonder, "Hmmm, what just happened?" Aside from the sometimes clumsy direction, I am always hyper-sensitive about snowbound scenes that are betrayed as obviously man-made because the actors don't have any "fog breath"; in this one, you see fog about a quarter of the time, which for me only magnifies the problem. (6)

UNBREAKABLE (2000)—After the international success of The Sixth Sense, director M. Night Shyamalan re-teamed with star Bruce Willis for this supernatural tale that's sort of The Dead Zone meets Superman. Bruce plays a dude with some kind of superpower—and exactly what it that is proves to be the focus of almost the entire movie. Shyamalan tries hard to recapture the magic of his recent success: as in The Sixth Sense, Bruce is finding it difficult to reconnect with his wife; there's a small boy who looks up to him, a scene where Bruce plays a big part in resolving a terrible crime, and a surprising twist ending. Unfortunately, the ending rubbed a lot of people the wrong way—it's rather preposterous and yet at the same time perfunctory. The movie never seems to know if it wants to be a drama, a mystery, a sci-fi story or a thriller, and ultimately ends up as a superhero origin story for a franchise that never got off the ground. I wasn't as enthralled by this picture as much as The Sixth Sense; it's an adequate time killer but might have been better titled Unremarkable. First of several Samuel L. Jackson films I selected this month.(6)

THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT (1955)—Quatermass was a recurring British sci-fi serial (i.e., miniseries) beginning in the 1950s. After the first six-part serial was broadcast in 1953, the story was condensed and filmed as a movie in 1955. The pattern was duplicated for two additional series in the 1950s and one more in the '70s. I decided to get my feet wet with the first movie, in which a scientist, Prof. Bernard Quatermass (Brian Donlevy), investigates creepy goings-on after a three-man rocket crew returns to Earth with only one of the original astronauts. It is, of course, outrageously dated by today's standards, and it's much more of a monster movie than what you could call science-fiction. Even boiled down to 90 minutes from what originally aired in six parts, it still drags a bit. There are a couple of tense moments, but today the film is more of a curio than anything else; American Donlevy seems out of place among his British co-stars, and he's weirdly unlikeable. Still, I might check out the second film in order to bridge my way toward the much-beloved third movie in the series, generally acknowledged to be a sci-fi classic. (6)

THE D.I. (1957)—Jack Webb was best known as Sgt. Joe Friday, the cop character he debuted on the radio in 1949 before launching a tremendously successful TV series. He steps out of his famous monotoned character's shoes to inhabit a much louder one: Sgt. Jim Moore, a drill instructor who must whip his maggots into Marines in eight weeks of boot-camp hell. He is about as terrifying as the best movie D.I.s, including Lou Gossett Jr. in An Officer and a Gentleman, Darren McGavin in Tribes, and R. Lee Ermy in Full Metal Jacket. As in all of these films, there's one problem soldier that the D.I. has an especially tough time transforming into a true soldier; here it's Private Owens (Don Dubbins), who's burdened by a few personal problems. Based on a 1956 episode of the TV anthology show Kraft Theatre, the story has been slightly expanded to include a little love story for Jack, presumably to make him a bit less hard-edged. (Jackie Loughery, his real-life wife at the time, plays his girlfriend.) For some reason, I have always found these boot camp movies particularly compelling. This one's in black and white, and produced and directed by Webb. (8)

A NEW LIFE (1988)—I was passionate about TV's M*A*S*H and of star (and sometimes writer-director) Alan Alda, so when the series neared the end of its run and Alda started to do movie work, I was delighted. He started out as a wonderful comic actor in other people's films (Same Time, Next Year), then as a writer-star (The Seduction of Joe Tynan) before the triple-hyphenate credits started rolling in, beginning with the fabulous The Four Seasons in 1981. With that film, I was convinced we had a new Woody Allen on our hands, and I remember daydreaming about all of the great Alan Alda films that would come. But it was not to be. His next film (the mediocre Sweet Liberty) wasn't until five years later, and he only made two films after that: A New Life (1988) and Betsy's Wedding (1990), which effectively ended writing and directing career. Alda would become a great character actor on TV (The West Wing) and film (Tower Heist, Wanderlust and, ironically, various Woody Allen films), and it's great to see him onscreen in anything—I've even enjoyed both books he's published. The completist in me felt I should see even his final box-office bombs, beginning with A New Life. Unlike his previous films, A New Life has the feel of a TV-movie, and although it breaks no new ground and doesn't sparkle with the usual Alda wit, it's enjoyable enough as a romcom. Alda and wife Ann-Margret split up and find new romances, navigating the unfamiliar late-'80s dating scene somewhat precariously. (Their respective new loves are the very attractive Veronica Hamel and John Shea, respectively.) Seeing "Hawkeye" with head full of bushy grey hair, a greying beard and puffing on cigars takes some getting used to. Certainly worth a look for Alda fans. (8)

QUATERMASS II (1957)—Like the first Quatermass movie, this is about some gunk originating from outer space that threatens all of mankind by snatching our bodies and other creepy stuff. Standard B&W sci-fi horror nonsense, barely distinguishable from the first movie, and Donlevy isn't getting any more likable. (Fortunately, he gets replaced in #3.) (6)

MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE (1999)—There's that unmistakable prickle on the back of your neck when you realize that what you're watching is the millionth Big Lie movie. This romantic adaptation of Nicolas Sparks' novel is, confoundingly, yet another in the seemingly endless permutations of the "You lied to me!" plotline, featuring Robin Wright Penn as a researcher who tracks down Kevin Costner as the author of the titular bottle messages because she thinks it'll make a good story in her newspaper (which it does). Predictably, she falls in love with him, and he finally starts to come out of his shell after suffering the loss of his first wife. Will their love survive his finding out about her fabrication? Contrived, cliched and preposterous as it all is, it's well put-together and totally worth watching if you're in the mood for slumming, which I find I often am. Paul Newman plays Costner's dad, and he's terrific as always. Penn and Costner are both a tad ineffectual and less than totally charming, but do well enough. (8)

QUATERMASS AND THE PIT (1967)—For some reason, Hammer Films took nearly a decade to adapt the third Quatermass TV miniseries into a film (it was retitled Five Million Years to Earth in the U.S.). Fortunately, American actor Brian Donlevy has been replaced as the good professor; unfortunately, they've replaced him with Scottish actor Andrew Keir, who isn't much of an improvement. I remember being interested in this movie because of co-star Barbara Shelley, so lovely in my favorite movie, 1960's Village of the Damned. This is the first time I've seen her in color (she's a redhead!); it's also the first color Quatermass film. As usual, mankind is threatened by weird forces from outer space…the twist this time around is that it's from alien forces that have been buried underground for millions of years. The impact of the creepiness factor has weakened over the past 40+ years, and lots of the special effects are appallingly bad by today's standards (particularly the papier-mâché aliens). There a few tense scenes and a some interesting ideas, for sure, but this is only marginally an improvement over the earlier Quatermass movies. It might be interesting to try to watch the original 1958 serial. (7)

JACKIE BROWN (1997)—I recently realized that I had seen every feature film directed by Quentin Tarantino except for this one. As it was the follow-up to his blockbuster Pulp Fiction, I'm not exactly sure what kept me away from it 15 years ago; it appears to have won considerable acclaim and was a box-office hit, and re-teamed QT with his Pulp star Samuel L. Jackson. It could be that I felt I wouldn't have appreciated its homage to star Pam Grier's "blaxploitation" movies like Coffy and Foxy Brown, none of which I have seen. But I've been curious about it for some time, and especially after seeing Django Unchained last month (co-starring Jackson, natch!), it was finally time to put this on at the top of my must-see list. It turns out to be a serviceable crime drama with an exceptional cast that includes Robert DeNiro, Michael Keaton and Bridget Fonda, who has been greatly missed onscreen since she retired a decade ago. These performers, along with the deliciously evil Jackson, help lift the movie to above-average status, but while some of the trademark QT touches (i.e., unexpected violence, morbid humor) are in place, the movie is simply too long. That's a rare complaint from me for Tarantino, whose movies are generally long, but deservedly so—Kill Bill was so lengthy that it had to be split into two films! Jackie Brown in a two-hour movie that goes an extra half-hour too long, with too many belabored scenes where nothing happens. (The interminable opening credits, apparently a tribute to The Graduate, show Grier at an airport being whisked along a standing conveyor belt, Dustin Hoffman style.) I liked much of the movie, but grew tireless during some of the draggy scenes. Now that I'm up to date with Tarantino, I feel like checking out more Samuel L. Jackson movies I missed, such as True Romance and Freedomland…maybe even Snakes on a Plane! Note: I think what I'm going to remember about this movie in years to come is DeNiro's final confrontation with Fonda, which is horrifying and hilarious at the same time! I miss's a shame she left the business. I've already started to collect some of her other movies after enjoying her in this. (7)

UNTHINKABLE (2010)—Here's a direct-to-DVD thriller starring Samuel L. Jackson, the epitome of a movie I watched because of a previous one—my "domino" viewing habit at work. Jackson was so good in Jackie Brown, I wanted to see him at work again. In Unthinkable, he's a professional torturer called in by the U.S. government when an American Muslim terrorist hides nukes in three U.S. cities. The criminal is in custody…now what? The film explores the effectiveness of torture, balancing Jackson's no-holds-barred techniques with soft-hearted FBI agent Carrie-Anne Moss's rants that torture is not effective. Both sides make their point in what is ultimately a fairly gripping picture; the answer to the eternal question, "Does the end justify the means?" may not be answered definitively, but it does a good job of illustrating the question. Much of Unthinkable teeters on the unbelievable and hokey, but I was never bored. (8)

AGAINST THE WALL (1994)—Another Samuel L. Jackson movie from the archives! Airing on HBO only seven months before Pulp Fiction hit theaters, Sam is featured in the true-life story of the Attica prison riots of 1971. Kyle McLachlan, in his post-Twin Peaks years, is a young and naive guard at the prison where conditions and morale were deplorable, leading to the takeover of the institution by the convicts, while Jackson and Clarence Williams III play radical black Muslims who lead the revolt. The movie is more educational than entertaining; it's a real downer but did paint a chilling portrait of what went down at the correctional facility in New York. Interestingly, the movie was directed by the once critically praised John Frankenheimer, famous for having helmed Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May, Seconds and other famous films from the 1960s; sadly, Against the Wall never truly rises above TV-movie quality. (7)

THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP (1943)—A deservedly long (2 hrs., 36 mins.) comedy/drama/war film that spans four decades in the life of Major General Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey, whom I enjoyed last year in I Know Where I'm Going). The ultimate Englishman, he participates in three major wars, falls in love a couple of times, and makes a lifelong friend in German soldier (Anton Walbrook). Deborah Kerr gets to play three different roles in three different decades! It's a grand old movie, in dazzling Technicolor, and often has the feel of another British film—This Happy Breed (1944), which also spans many years during wartime in Britain. Livesey gives a bravura performance, aging before our eyes very convincingly. This is one I'll want to see again in future years. (9)

THE TERMINAL (2004)—I have adored so many films starring Tom Hanks (The Green Mile, Toy Story, Forrest Gump) and so many directed by Steven Spielberg (E.T., Close Encounters, Jurassic Park) that you may well wonder how I could have missed this nine-year-old comedy-drama. My excuse: I probably dislike—or at least find mediocre—more of their work than I enjoy. Hanks in particular seems to be clueless sometimes about choosing parts (hello, Larry Crowne!). But despite mixed reviews, I decided to take a chance on this film, in which Hanks plays a European tourist with poor English skills and a huge problem: an uprising in his (fictional) country has made in impossible to either fly back home or enter the USA. So he becomes stranded at the airport and somehow manages to make a life there, even somehow gaining employment and snaring a romantic prospect (Catherine Zeta-Jones). The movie's obnoxious villain, a U.S. Customs official, is wonderfully played by Stanley Tucci, while Zoë Saldana, Chi McBride and other great character actors round out the excellent cast. This is an inspirational and moving film, another home run for Hanks and one of Spielberg's most satisfying efforts. (9)

AMOUR (2012)—This is 2012's big, acclaimed foreign film, the major Oscar contender and winner of London Critics Circle Film and Golden Globe awards. Written and directed by the Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke, but starring French actors, the movie focuses on the longtime marriage of two retired music instructors, now in their 80s. Georges and Anna are having breakfast one morning when she briefly appears catatonic, the result of a blockage in her carotid artery. Surgery is unsuccessful and she experiences a stroke, and progressively loses more and more functionality while her husband struggles to take care of her. So no, it's not a comedy. It's a painful, depressing and often agonizingly slow-moving picture, with several scenes deliberately directed at a snail's pace, the camera lingering interminably on a character for a full minute with no action (for example). There really is really only the smallest scrap of a story here, but the elderly couple are heartbreakingly by Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, the latter of whom withers convincingly into her woeful state. It's a sad movie, for sure, but not one that particularly moved me. (7)

MAMA (2013)—It's truly incredible how many different variations of a ghost story have been fashioned. This version starts off with a truly riveting event that leaves two small girls alone in an isolated cabin…with seemingly no one to take care of them until they are discovered in near-feral state—two Nells for the price of one! This creepy and suspenseful horror film was co-produced by Guillermo del Toro, who brings his unique touch to director Andres Muschietti's remake of his own Spanish-language short. Jessica Chastain—virtually unrecognizable as the same actress in Zero Dark Thirty—plays a punkish musician who must care for the girls after their discovery, and that's a mighty tall order considering the supernatural forces at work here. The movie maintains a brisk pace until the final ghostly confrontation, which goes on about five minutes too long. But that's a slight quibble; this is an entertaining, well-conceived, perfectly constructed chiller that contains images bound to haunt me for years to come. (9)

PARKER (2013)—A den of thieves headed up by Jason Statham conducts an elaborate robbery of a county fair. When Statham declines to contribute his share of the bounty to fund their next big swindle, he is shot and left for dead off the side of a road. He survives, and the film becomes his revenge against his would-be killers. Jennifer Lopez somehow gets conscripted into helping him. This is a lively but extremely violent crime caper with lots of shooting and more than the usual amount of gore; Statham is shot, knived and beaten but somehow never bleeds out. (One of the fights shows a knife going all the way through his hand…OUCH!) A fun and fitfully suspenseful time-killer. (8)

SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS (1961)—Back in the 1920s, handsome Warren Beatty and gorgeous Natalie Wood are high-school kids in love. What could possibly go wrong? How about agonizing sexual repression and mental illness to kick things off? Beatty, a basketball hero, wants desperately to screw Wood, but although their lust is mutual, she's been raised as a "nice girl." So, when Beatty's apparently uncontrollable urges lead him into the arms of another woman, Wood goes on a manic-depressive rampage, nearly gets raped, attempts suicide and at one point lies in a hospital nearing catatonia. The movie also demonstrates how both teens' parents are involved in this star-crossed romance. Beatty and Wood, both in their early 20s and passing themselves off as teenagers, are very good in their roles, but more entertaining are the film's cornucopia of hilarious euphemisms ("Maybe you need to find…another kind of girl," i.e., loose; "She had to have one of those awful surgeries," i.e., abortion). Splendor in the Grass is soapy and competently directed by Elia Kazan, but it contains a less-than-satisfying conclusion and left me with way too many unanswered questions. (You wonder: Has Beatty never heard of masturbation?) Still, it's worth watching for the sheer, perfect beauty and dynamic acting talents of Natalie Wood, whose West Side Story was released the same year, and for Pat Hingle's portrayal as Beatty's dad, Ace. It's also cool to see Sandy Dennis and Phyllis Diller making their silver-screen debuts. (7)

LADY FOR A DAY (1933)—Apple Annie, an aging Times Square street peddler (May Robson), is about to meet the daughter she hasn't seen in years, but there's a complication: in her letters, Annie has fibbed, telling her daughter that she's rich. Enter Dave the Dude (Warren William), a tough-talking gangster who thinks Annie brings him good luck when he gambles, so he tries to help by dressing her up as a Baroness in order to pass her off as the genuine article. Will it work? This is a Frank Capra movie, so you know there's bound to be some farce and sentimentality in the script. Indeed, there are some laughs in this pleasant comedy, but it isn't exactly top-tier Capra. (The following year brought him numerous awards with It Happened One Night). (7)

THE LOST PATROL (1934)—I close out the month with John Ford's World War I saga about British soldiers lost in the Mesopotamian desert and getting shot at by Arabs who are always behind a sand dune but never actually seen. The film starts with a dozen soldiers; one gets shot and killed at the very beginning, and after that, they go down, one after another. (This is one of those old movies where lots of people get shot, but they just fall down, with no visible wounds.) It's a pretty grim affair, but paints a gritty picture of what fighting this war was like overseas. Boris Karloff has a nice non-horror showcase role as a soldier who's a religious fanatic and slowly becoming unglued. (7)

Friday, January 18, 2013

Most Anticipated Films of 2013

For the fourth year in a row, I am devoting an entry in my movie blog to upcoming releases that I'm particularly excited to see in the year ahead. As always, when I look back at the previous year's column, it's embarrassing to see projects I once looked forward to, but that turned out to both critical and commercial washouts—and not only that, they weren't very good! Hard to believe that only a year ago, I thought I might actually enjoy The Woman in Black, The Hunger Games, The Cabin in the Woods or Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. Each of these had the promise of being entertaining, if not culturally significant, but none of them was exceptional in any way. Meanwhile, why had I failed to anticipate truly worth movies such as Life of Pi, Your Sister's Sister, Silent House, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, End of Watch and Compliance? Why weren't those titles on last year's list? (To my credit, at least I was never excited to see Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.)

Last year, I singled out 20 films I was eager to see in 2012 (with an additional 19 relegated to the "Also on My Radar" section. This time out, there are so many films I'm eager to see (44 at last count, with an additional 15 "On My Radar") that it might have been simpler to just list the movies I'm not excited about—i.e., anything involving zombies or that contains any combination of the following words: Hunger, Games, Fast, Furious, Night, Museum, Hobbit, Smurfs, Anchorman, Tyler or Perry.

Since there are so many titles this year, I've divided them up into genre-specific categories. I don't know why there are so many more movies I'm psyched to see in 2013 as compared to 2012; perhaps it's because I did a much more thorough job of researching upcoming releases. One thing is for sure, though: I know from experience that many of these titles will ultimately garner lukewarm reviews, nullifying my interest level in a way that ultimately led to my snubbing Safe House, The Cold Light of Day, Dark Shadows and The Odd Life of Timothy Green in 2012.

Sequels continue to spew out of Hollywood in record numbers, which should come as a surprise to nobody—if a movie's a hit, might as well keep the franchise going. Even when the franchise has died (Star Trek, Texas Chainsaw Massacre), people always seem to be down for a reboot, which is what's going to happen with Superman this year. And so, I kick off the 2013 list with the spinoffs, remakes and follow-ups that keep the studios in the black...

TEXAS CHAINSAW 3D—A young woman travels to Texas to collect an inheritance; little does she know that an encounter with a chainsaw-wielding killer is part of the reward. Reboot/sequel to the 1974 horror classic. To prepare for this 3D gorefest, the first movie I watched in 2013 is the 2006 prequel Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning. No joke. (Jan. 4) UPDATE: Saw it, nothing to write home about.

OZ, THE GREAT AND POWERFUL—A stage magician is hurled into a fantasy world, and must use his wits to stay ahead of three enchantresses who have plans for him. With James Franco as Oz; also starring Mila Kunis, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff. Prequel to The Wizard of Oz, presumably; this will have to suffice until somebody does a film version of Wicked. Are they even working on that yet? Come on. It's a no-brainer! (March 8)

CARRIE—A sheltered high school girl (Chloë Grace Moretz) unleashes her newly developed telekinetic powers after she is pushed too far by her peers. Remake of the 1976 Stephen King thriller. (March 15)

MACHETE KILLS—The U.S. government recruits Machete (Danny Trejo) to battle his way through Mexico in order to take down an arms dealer who looks to launch a weapon into space. Sequel to the 2010 action movie. With Jessica Alba, Michelle Rodriguez, Sofia Vergara, Vanessa Hudgens—there's four reasons to see the movie right there! (April 11)

IRON MAN 3—Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) uses his ingenuity to fight those who destroyed his private world and soon goes up against his most powerful enemy yet: the Mandarin. Second sequel to the 2008 comic-book adaptation. (May 3)

STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS—After the crew of the Enterprise find an unstoppable force of terror from within their own organization, Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) leads a manhunt to a war-zone world to capture a one man weapon of mass destruction. Will he be Khan? Or Gary Mitchell? One thing's for sure: He's played by Benedict Cumberbatch. Sequel to the 2009 franchise reboot. With Zachary Quinto and the irresistible Zoe Saldana. (May 17)

KICK-ASS 2—The costumed high-school hero Kick-Ass joins with a group of normal citizens who have been inspired to fight crime in costume. Sequel to the 2010 comic-book adaptation. With Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Chloë Grace Moretz. (June 28)

SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR—The town's most hard boiled citizens cross paths with some of its more reviled inhabitants. Long-awaited sequel to the 2005 Frank Miller graphic-novel adaptation, again directed by Robert Rodriguez. With Mickey Rourke and Jessica Alba. (Oct. 4)

PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 5—I'm going to go out on a limb and conjecture that this will be about people living in a haunted house who record videos of the ghosts. The fourth sequel to the 2007 smash, and almost certainly not the last. (Oct. 25)

THOR: THE DARK WORLD—Thor (Chris Hemsworth) battles an ancient race of Dark Elves led by the vengeful Malekith who threatens to plunge the universe into darkness. Sequel to the 2011 comic-book adaptation Thor, as well as 2012's The Avengers. With Natalie Portman. (Nov. 8)

MAMA—Annabel and Lucas are faced with the challenge of raising his young nieces that were left alone in the forest for five years.... but how alone were they? From executive producer Guillermo del Toro. (Jan. 18)

THE ABCs OF DEATH—A 26-chapter anthology that showcases death in all its vicious wonder and brutal beauty. Love those anthology flicks!
(Feb. 28)

THE HOST—A parasitic alien soul is injected into the body of Melanie Stryder. Instead of carrying out her race's mission of taking over the Earth, "Wanda" (as she comes to be called) forms a bond with her host and sets out to aid other free humans. Now that Hollywood has finished filming all of her Twilight books, it's time to plunder Stephenie Meyer's only other full-length work. (After this, I assume they'll option the rights to her short story "Hell on Earth." Don't laugh—plenty of movies have been fashioned around short stories by Stephen King, Ian Fleming and many others. William Hurt is the only actor in The Host whom I've heard of. (March 29)

OBLIVION—Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) is a drone repairman stationed on Earth. Living in and patrolling the skies from thousands of feet above, his soaring existence is brought crashing down when he rescues an attractive female stranger from a downed spacecraft. Based on the graphic novel by Joseph Kosinski, who also directed and co-produced. (April 19)

PACIFIC RIM—When an alien attack threatens the Earth's existence, giant robots piloted by humans are deployed to fight off the menace. Looks like Transformers cross-bred with Cloverfield. Directed by Guillermo del Toro. (July 12)

ELYSIUM—Set in the year 2159, where the very wealthy live on a man-made space station while the rest of the population resides on a ruined Earth, a man takes on a mission that could bring equality to the polarized worlds. Starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster; from District 9 director Neill Blomkamp. (Aug. 9)

GRAVITY—Astronauts attempt to return to earth after debris crashes into their space shuttle, leaving them drifting alone in space. With Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. (Oct. 18)

ENDER'S GAME—70 years after a horrific alien war, an unusually gifted child is sent to an advanced military school in space to prepare for a future invasion. Starring Harrison Ford, Hailee Steinfeld, Ben Kingsley and Abigail "Kit Kittredge" Breslin. From Orson Scott Card's popular novel. (Nov. 1)

7500—Passengers aboard a flight across the Pacific Ocean encounter a supernatural force. Originally slated for release in 2012; starring Jamie Chung, Amy Smart and Leslie Bibb…wow, I want a ticket on that flight! (TBA)

SIDE EFFECTS—Steven Soderbergh directs a prescription-medicine thriller starring Rooney Mara, Jude Law, Channing Tatum and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Even if the movie blows, you gotta love the poster. (Feb. 8)

SAFE HAVEN—A young woman with a mysterious past (Julianne Hough from 2011's Footloose) lands in Southport, North Carolina where her bond with a widower (Josh Duhamel) forces her to confront the dark secret that haunts her. From Nicholas Sparks's novel; directed by Lasse Hallström (Chocolat, Cider House Rules, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen and the previous Sparks adaptation of Dear John). (Feb. 14)

STOKER—After India's (Mia Wasikowska) father dies, her Uncle Charlie, who she never knew existed, comes to live with her and her unstable mother (Nicole Kidman). She comes to suspect this mysterious, charming man has ulterior motives and becomes increasingly infatuated with him. From acclaimed Korean director Chan-wook Park of Oldboy fame—a film that is currently being remade by Spike Lee (see below). (March 1)

SPRING BREAKERS—Four college girls who land in jail after robbing a restaurant in order to fund their spring break vacation find themselves bailed out by a drug and arms dealer who wants them to do some dirty work. With James Franco, Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens. Supposedly chock full of sex and perversion! (March 5)

DISCONNECT—A drama centered on a group of people searching for human connections in today's wired world. Starring Jason Bateman, Alexander Skarsgård and Hope Davis. (April 12)

NOW YOU SEE ME—FBI agents track a team of illusionists who pull off bank heists during their performances and reward their audiences with the money. The awesome cast includes Jesse Eisenberg, Morgan Freeman, Isla Fisher, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson and Michael Caine. (June 7)

WHITE HOUSE DOWN—A Secret Service agent is tasked with saving the life of the U.S. President after the White House is overtaken by a paramilitary group. Starring Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, James Woods and Maggie Gyllenhaal. (June 28)

OLDBOY—An everyday man has only five days and limited resources to discover why he was imprisoned in a nondescript room for 15 years without any explanation. Spike Lee directs Samuel L. Jackson, Josh Brolin and Elizabeth Olsen. (Oct. 11)

NEBRASKA—An aging, booze-addled father (Bruce Dern) makes the trip from Montana to Nebraska with his estranged son (WIll Forte) in order to claim a million dollar Publisher's Clearing House sweepstakes prize. Director Alexander Payne's follow-up to The Descendants. (December)

NON-STOP—An air marshall must spring into action aboard an international flight. With Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore and Downton Abbey's Michelle Dockery (woo-hoo!). (TBA)

AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY—The Weston family overcomes certain differences when their alcoholic patriarch goes missing. John Wells directs the adaptation of Tracy Letts's Pulitzer Prize-winning play. The all-star cast includes Benedict Cumberbatch, Ewan McGregor, Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep, Juliette Lewis, Dermot Mulroney, Sam Shepard and Chris Cooper. (TBA)

56 UP—Eighth in the remarkable Michael Apted-directed series (beginning with 7 Up) that chronicles the lives of various British people beginning at age 7 and revisited every seven years hence. These aren't kids anymore! (Jan. 14)

MOVIE 43—This all-star anthology comedy film (in the tradition of Kentucky Fried Movie, The Groove Tube and Amazon Women on the Moon) was filmed in 2010, went through some title changes, and is finally being released in January. The amazing cast includes Halle Berry, Elizabeth Banks, Kristen Bell, Leslie Bibb, Gerard Butler, Richard Gere, Hugh Jackman, Jack McBrayer, Chloë Grace Moretz, Naomi Watts, Kate Winslet, Tony Shalhoub and many more. At least SOME of it has to be funny! (Jan. 25)

THE TO-DO LIST—Feeling pressured to become more sexually experienced before she goes to college, Brandy Clark (Aubrey Plaza) makes a list of things to accomplish before hitting campus in the fall. With Andy Samberg, Bill Hader and Clark Gregg. (Feb. 14)

ADMISSION—A Princeton admissions officer (Tina Fey) who is up for a major promotion takes a professional risk after she meets a college-bound alternative school kid who just might be the son she gave up years ago in a secret adoption. With Paul Rudd. (March 8)

THE INCREDIBLE BURT WONDERSTONE—Las Vegas, Nevada magician Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) as he attempts to reunite with his former partner Anton Lovecraft (Steve Buscemi) to take on dangerous street magician Steve Gray (Jim Carrey). Co-starring Olivia Wilde, Jay Mohr and Alan Arkin. (March 15)

THE BIG WEDDING—A long-divorced couple fakes being married as their family unites for a wedding. This remake of the 2006 French film Mon Frère se Marie (2006) stars Robert DeNiro, Diane Keaton, Katherine Heigl and Robin Williams; from Bucket List director Justin Zackham. Pushed back from 2012. (April 26)

ABOUT TIME—As he goes through life, a young man who can travel through time learns his unique gift can't save him from the sorrows and ups and downs that affect all families, everywhere. A romantic comedy starring Rachel McAdams and Bill Nighy; from Four Weddings and a Funeral director Richard Curtis. (May 10)

FADING GIGOLO—Fioravante (director John Turturro) decides to become a professional Don Juan as a way of making money to help his cash-strapped friend, Murray (Woody Allen, in a rare acting-only job). With Murray acting as his "manager", the duo quickly finds themselves caught up in the crosscurrents of love and money. Co-starring Sofia Vergara and Sharon Stone. (TBA)

BLUE JASMINE—With a typical dream cast that includes Cate Blanchett, Alec Baldwin, Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Emerson, and comedians Louis C.K. and Andrew Dice Clay, Woody Allen will release his 45th directorial effort, said to be a comedy. I know Steven Reule will be lining up for this one! (TBA)

UNTITLED NICOLE HOLOFCENER PROJECT—A divorced woman who decides to pursue the man she's interested in learns he's her new friend's ex-husband. With Catherine Keener, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini. From the director who gave us 2010's sublime Please Give. (TBA)

FROZEN—A mountain climber and a young girl named Anna (Kristen Bell) journey through snowy peaks and dangerous cliffs to find the legendary Snow Queen and end the perpetual winter prophecy that has fallen over their kingdom. From Walt Disney Studios. (Nov. 27)

WALKING WITH DINOSAURS 3D—Two brothers wanting to follow in their father's footsteps leads to a showdown in the Arctic North. Live action 3D shoot in Alaska and New Zealand. Inspired by the 1999 BBC TV series. (Dec. 20)

PARKER—A thief with a unique code of professional ethics is double-crossed by his crew and left for dead. Assuming a new disguise and forming an unlikely alliance with a woman on the inside, he looks to hijack the score of the crew's latest heist. With Michael Chiklis and Jennifer Lopez. (Jan. 25)

A GLIMPSE INSIDE THE MIND OF CHARLES SWAN III—Roman Coppola (son of Francis Ford Coppola) directs Charlie Sheen, Aubrey Plaza and Bill Murray in a story of how a graphic designer's life slides into despair when his girlfriend breaks up with him. (Feb. 8)

SNITCH—A father (Dwayne Johnson) goes undercover for the DEA in order to free his son who was imprisoned after being set up in drug deal. (Feb. 22)

DARK SKIES—Otherworldly forces disrupt the lives of the Barrett family (led by Keri Russell and Josh Hamilton). (Feb. 22)

UPSTREAM COLOR—A man and woman are drawn together, entangled in the life cycle of an ageless organism. Identity becomes an illusion as they struggle to assemble the loose fragments of wrecked lives. From Primer director Shane Carruth. (March)

OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN—A former Secret Service agent works to prevent a terrorist attack on the White House. With Gerard Butler and Morgan Freeman. (April 5)

AFTER EARTH— After a crash landing, a father and son explore a planet that was evacuated by humans 1,000 years earlier. Second sci-fi actioner from director M. Night Shyamalan (after 2010's The Last Airbender, which I enjoyed). (June 7)

RED 2—Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren, Mary-Louise Parker and John Malkovich reunite for a sequel to the 2010 comedy-thriller, which I quite enjoyed. Anthony Hopkins and Catherine Zeta-Jones are on board this time out as well. (Aug. 2)

YOU'RE NEXT—Home invasion / revenge thriller. (Aug. 23)

GETAWAY—Brent Magna (Ethan Hawke) must get behind the wheel and follow the orders of a mysterious man to save his kidnapped wife. (Aug. 30)

TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE—After a New York state citizen is kidnapped and sold into brutal slavery, and made to work on a plantation in Louisiana in the 1800s, he desperately struggles to return home to his family. With Michael Fassbender, Brad Bitt, Paul Giamatti and Alfre Woodard; based on the book by Solomon Northup. (Sept. 6)

PRISONERS—A Boston man kidnaps the person he suspects is behind the disappearance of his young daughter and her best friend. With Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal. (Sept. 20)

PARANOIA—Adaptation of the Joseph Finder thriller about an entry-level employee at a powerful corporation who finds himself occupying a corner office, but at a dangerous price: he must spy on his boss's old mentor to secure for him a multi-billion dollar advantage. With Harrison Ford, Gary Oldman and Richard Dreyfuss. (Oct. 4)

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS—Real-life story of the 2009 Maersk Alabama cargo ship hijacking by Somali pirates. Tom Hanks plays ship captain Richard Phillips; Catherine Keener is also on board. (Oct. 11)

THE WORLD'S END— Five friends who reunite in an attempt to top their epic pub crawl from 20 years earlier unwittingly become humankind's only hope for survival. Co-starring Rosamund Pike; director Edgar Wright's follow-up to his brilliant 2010 film Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Oct. 25)

DON JON'S ADDICTION—The journey of a contemporary, porn-addicted Don Juan-type as he attempts to become less selfish. Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who also wrote and directed) and Scarlett Johansson. (TBA)

That's a whole lot of movies to be excited about...and yet, as I do every year, I can't help wondering which movies will be among my favorites in 2013 that I don't know anything about as I type these words. If only I could know in advance which of the films above aren't worth my time, and only stick to the really good ones!