Monday, July 29, 2013

July 2013

Although I took the trouble to visit the local cinemas about 10 times this month, I barely paid any attention to home releases because I rather suddenly decided to start working my way through five seasons of the old Twilight Zone TV series. (As of this writing, I've made it through nearly three seasons—a fairly respectable chunk.) This was the month I sold more than 200 issues of Hot Boat Magazine from my personal collection for $400+, digested the thrilling and seductive musical oeuvre of Rihanna, and planned an early August cruise with members of my family. I also managed to crack the screen of my fourth-generation iPad. Here's what I saw in July:

FRANCES HA (2013)—Having sufficiently enchanted me in her 2012 film Damsels in Distress (as well as her performances in Greenberg, To Rome With Love and Lola Versus), my hopes were high for Greta Gerwig's latest effort, which she co-wrote with director Noah Baumbach. Filmed in New York in gorgeous black and white, this comedy-drama can scarcely help reminding one of Manhattan, but thematically it's also a lot like the HBO series Girls, and even features Girls co-star Adam Driver. As with Damsels and Lola, the film traces Gerwig's loss of self-respect and self-esteem as bad things pile up, but it's all followed by a resurgence/redemption by the end. All three films in the trilogy mix comedy and drama in a very satisfying way. (9)

MONSTERS UNIVERSITY (2013)—Despite a wonderful score by Randy Newman, I was not a fan of the original Monsters Inc. by Disney/Pixar. Now, 12 years later, here comes a tardy prequel...and it's vastly more entertaining and engaging than the original. Thanks to Joan for encouraging me to see it with her. (9)

THE WAY, WAY BACK (2013)—Sort of a mashup of Meatballs and Adventureland, The Way, Way Back is a boyhood coming-of-age story with Liam James as a kid who has to put up with his mother's vile boyfriend (Steve Carell) during a summer-vacation trip to a beach house, among other assorted annoyances. Then he stumbles onto a job at the local water park, run by Sam Rockwell, who changes his life for the better. Rockwell is a comic genius, doing a variation of Chevy Chase's character in Caddyshack. It's not a perfect film, but there's enough good material in it to make it a very enjoyable summer treat. (8)

THIS IS THE END (2013)—One of the biggest hits of the summer, This Is the End give us comic actors Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel, et al., playing themselves in an "apocalyptic comedy" that has the guys hunkered down in James Franco's mansion dodging demons and hellfire after the Rapture. Some of it is undeniably funny (a scene involving Emma Watson is roll-on-the-floor funny in its inappropriateness), but a lot of it is gross and the whole movie is probably much funnier to people who have seen Pineapple Express, which I have not. (I had no idea who stars Jay Baruchel and Danny McBride even were). The movie is a sophomoric crowd-pleaser, but I am not the target audience. (7)

STORIES WE TELL (2013)—Actress Sarah Polley definitively proved her savvy directorial chops in the charming 2012 movie Take This Waltz, featuring Michelle Williams, Seth Rogen and Sarah Silverman. Her new movie, Stories We Tell, is a documentary about her family, with extensive interviews with brothers, sisters, her father, et al. The ostensible subject of the film is Polley's colorful mother, who is revealed to have cheated on her father before her death from cancer. This inevitably leads into an investigation into who Sarah's biological father might be, and the results are quite surprising. The movie relies heavily on phony "home movie" footage, so we're never really sure of what's real and what's not, but the story is real enough, so it doesn't matter that much. The interviews and the intrigue are fascinating to watch, and this is just one more reason to keep your eye on this important storyteller. (8)

UNFINISHED SONG (2013)—There are plenty of bittersweet movies about old people coming to grips with the inevitability of life's final bow, and the importance of living life to the fullest, regardless of what your age is. Unfinished Song, starring Terrence Stamp as the grouchy husband of ailing sweetheart Vanessa Redgrave, is one of these movies. As corny and manipulative as it is, I totally fell for this British import (called Song for Marion in the UK). There are a couple of tiny plot points I felt could have been better handled, but this is a tearjerker of the first order, magnificently played by Stamp, and with a delightful performance by lovely Gemma Arterton as a choir director. (9)

BEFORE SUNSET (2004)—1995's Before Sunrise was a charming little love story about a young American guy (Ethan Hawke) and a young French woman (Julie Delpy) who meet on a train and spend a romantic evening together in Vienna. Nine years later, writer/director Richard LInklater reunited the couple for what the viewer assumes is going to be a second one-night stand. The first movie ended with the pair planning to meet in Europe a year later; in Before Sunset, we find out that didn't happen, but fate has brought them together again. Not much happens in either movie, except the couple emotionally bonding as they chat about life, religion, family and love. I missed the sequel when it was first released, but now that Linklater has apparently decided to turn this into his own personal Up series, I decided to check this one out in preparation for the third in the series. (9)

BEFORE MIDNIGHT (2013)—And again, nine years later, here we are again with Hawke and Delpy. This time out, we learn that romance finally did take root, and we join them on a vacation in Greece. This film differs from the first two in one important way: for the first half, it follows the basic walking-and-talking pattern of the first two movies, but in the second half, our lovers start arguing—and it turns into one colossal clash that threatens to tear them apart for good. It's a bittersweet affair, but compelling. Looking forward to the next one in 2022! (8)

STILL MINE (2013)—Perhaps I was still tingling over the geriatric romance of Unfinished Song, and took in this second old-people drama while I was still in the mood. (It didn't hurt that reviews were uniformly excellent.) James Cromwell, so fine in the TV series Six Feet Under, as well as movies like Babe, The Green Mile and The Artist, deserves this starring role as a Canadian carpenter who's caring for a wife (Genevieve Bujold, absolutely perfect) slowly succumbing to Alzheimer's disease. He decides to build her a smaller house on their large piece of property so he can better take care of her…and becomes entangled in a lot of legal red tape from the local building commission. It's a tender, moving and serious piece of work—the anti-summer movie. (9)

BLUE JASMINE (2013)—The latter third of Woody Allen's directorial career has been spotty, with disappointments like Hollywood Ending, Anything Else, Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Cassandra's Dream and Celebrity missing the mark so disastrously that one mourns the genius that produced classics like Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, Zelig and Stardust Memories. On the other hand, despite a rough patch, the Woodman has rebounded in recent years—I've enjoyed his last five movies, even if none of them stand with his best work. Happily, Blue Jasmine is an unqualified success, a comedy-drama that features, at its center, a truly bravura performance by Cate Blanchett as the wife of a Bernie Madoff-like financier (Alec Baldwin) whose life begins to crumble after he's sent to jail and is revealed to be a cheating louse. Superb performances are also turned in by Bobby Cannavale, Andrew Dice Clay and the always-dependable Sally Hawkins (who, like Blanchett, is a British actress doing a thoroughly convincing American accent). I will want to see this film again. (9)

THE HEAT (2013)—The Heat is a raunchy summer comedy that I attended with a friend who wanted to see it. Rotund Melissa McCarthy—whom I enjoyed as part of the ensemble Gilmore Girls cast between 2000 and 2007—has become a popular star of both the small (Mike & Molly) and big (Bridesmaids, Identity Thief) screens. Her specialty has gone from second-banana characterizations to very broad, profane, physical comedy, scoring big laughs from the hoi polloi with her bellowing, extended-middle-finger shtick. In this buddy comedy with Sandra Bullock, she plays the pit-bull undercover cop to Bullock's prim, know-it-all FBI agent as they team up to bust up a drug-smuggling ring. It would be a lie to say I didn't laugh occasionally, but there's no escaping the fact that this is a contrived, calculated variation on an old formula, perfected by Eddie Murphy in 48 HRS. (7)

Monday, July 01, 2013

June 2013

The TV season officially over, I can devote more attention to the movies. Amazing to me how many of these I never even heard of a mere month ago. But things suddenly pop up on the radar, and I need to satisfy my curiosity in a hurry. It also never ceases to fascinate me how certain actors unexpectedly pop up in different films I view in the same month, as Alexander Skarsgård and J.K. Simmons did in June. Here's what I sampled this month:

THE EAST (2013)—Described as an "eco-thriller," this film gives us pretty Brit Marling as a (married) private eye for an intelligence firm who successfully infiltrates a group of anarchists bent on bringing down big businesses that are busy polluting the environment, producing dangerous prescription drugs, et al. The twist is that once she becomes tethered in their organization, she comes to sympathize with their mission (and, of course, fall in love with the group's leader, played by Alexander Skarsgård). Ellen Page is riveting as one of "The East" (as they call themselves), a woman who is revealed to have a very personal connection with one of the CEOs she plans vengeance on. It's watchable and engrossing, but also flawed, and the movie glosses over a number of plot machinations that deserved clarification. Still, not bad. (8)

WHAT MAISIE KNEW (2013)—Henry James' 1897 novel about the young daughter of divorced and irresponsible parents proves its enduring relevancy 116 years later with this modern-day version, featuring Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan. Moore, playing a sort of Stevie Nicks-ish rock star, and Coogan, as a British art dealer, take turns neglecting their child (Onata Aprile), whom they also use as a pawn against each other. Each also takes on a younger and more attractive lover (The East's Alexander Skarsgård and Joanna Vanderham, respectively). It's a very simple story, though the parents' infuriating behavior really makes you cringe. (8)

THE GOOD DOCTOR (2012)—Continuing to catch up with some of last year's movies I missed, here's Orlando Bloom as a British med student working at a Southern California hospital—and slowly proving himself to be a liability in the field of saving lives, to put it rather mildly. For reasons that are a bit bewildering, he starts to treat an attractive young high-school patient (Riley Keough, Elvis's granddaughter) and then deliberately keeps her sick—presumably to keep her coming back to the hospital, but also because he just loves to play God. The title is intended to be ironic, as the adventures of this sociopathic medic become increasingly creepy. An interesting thriller; the great J.K. Simmons is wasted in a small role. (8)

IT'S A DISASTER (2013)—Every so often, a small indie comedy comes along—one that's not too quirky and contains an excellent cast—that restores my faith in the cinema's funny bone. It's a Disaster has good company in the "apocalyptic comedy" genre; last year's terrible Seeking a Friend for the End of the World and this summer's hit This Is the End are two obvious recent examples. To be fair, though, Disaster isn't really about the end of the world—just the (likely) end for people in the city inhabited by Julia Stiles, David Cross, America Ferrera, etc. Four couples gather for a brunch when a series of dirty bombs apparently are set off in various cities in the U.S. How the eight friends react to the news—while continuing to interact with each other about their various personal problems—is the charm of the movie. Cross is typically hilarious, while the females (especially Stiles and Ferrera) are lovely to look at; the film also contains a great punch line. Director Todd Berger gives himself an amusing cameo as a neighbor in a frightening yellow suit. (9)

COLLABORATOR (2012)—This is another movie from last year that I was sorry I missed. It's essentially a two-person movie: Martin Donovan is a writer held hostage by an unhinged neighbor and childhood friend (David Morse) whom police are looking for, apparently in connection with some kind of shooting. The idea here is that the two men, who come from very different economic and political backgrounds, learn from each other during what is obviously a very tense situation; they talk about a wide range of subjects, and their revealing interaction is the heart of the movie. Interesting concept, but I didn't care about either man enough to be totally engaged. No longer sorry I missed it. (6)

DARK SKIES (2013)—This came and left theaters so fast back in February that I had to wait for the DVD release. Keri Russell and Josh Hamilton are parents of two boys; out of nowhere, the family finds itself threatened by strange, possibly supernatural forces, such as flocks of suicidal birds inexplicably diving straight at their house. A kind of Paranormal Activity situation unfolds, with lots of creepy things happening…but reliable J.K. Simmons eventually arrives on the scene with an unexpected and alarming diagnosis of the situation. Pretty nifty horror/sci-fi flick, ideal for late-night viewing. (9)

EDEN (2013)—I was inspired to check this out after seeing the trailer. The film is based on the true story of Asian-American Chong Kim, a victim of human trafficking. In the movie, she is known as Eden (Jamie Chung), a Korean girl who is kidnapped from her family and forced into a life of prostitution. Over the course of a year, though, she uses her wits to gain the confidence of her deranged, drug-addicted captor (Matt O'Leary) in order to plot her escape. Sheriff Beau Bridges (playing O'Leary's ringleader dad) is another great bad guy at the center of the action. Superbly written and directed, the movie contains a lot of suspense and a satisfying finale. (9)

BURNING PALMS (2010)—Inspired by the sight of drop-dead-gorgeous Chung in the previous movie, I sought this poorly reviewed anthology film on the basis of both her and equally bewitching co-stars Zoe Saldana and Rosamund Pike. Given my intense attraction to these lovely ladies—and the fact that I'm a sucker for multiple storylines—I knew the experience couldn't be a total disappointment. With a kind of graphic-novel framework, Burning Palms has been described as Creepshow meets Pulp Fiction, and that's a fairly accurate description of it, even if the movie isn't quite as good as either of the ones it hopes to evoke fond memories of. Like Cloud Atlas, the stories have tenuous but not particularly critical connections to one another. Of the five tales, we get: (1) Pike as the girlfriend of a man who is revealed to have a terribly disturbing affection for his daughter; (2) Chung as a woman who can't get an embarrassing odor off her finger; (3) Peter Macdissi and Anson Mount as gay lovers who adopt a strangely silent young girl from Africa; (4) Lake Bell as a free-spirited nanny to some boys who plot against their Hispanic maid; and (5) Saldana as a meek rape victim who tracks down her attacker and does something unthinkable to him. The stories are meant to push the boundaries of political correctness, good taste and decency, and on that score it succeeds beyond your wildest dreams. While one reviewer on IMDB said that these five stories "will make you to want your time back," I found them to be good, trashy fun. Perennial Coen brothers favorite character actor Jon Polito has a small but very amusing role as a pharmacist. (8)

APOLLO 13 (1995)—Every month, I try to squeeze in at least one major film I missed throughout the years, and since I started keeping this blog, I've managed to cross a lot of them off the list, including A Clockwork Orange, Papillon, Bridge on the River Kwai, A Night at the Opera, Picnic, and so forth. It's rather humiliating to admit that I saw the 2011 found-footage horror movie Apollo 18 before finally getting around to watching Ron Howard's classic filming of the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission from 18 years ago, but least I can now say I've seen it. For those who haven't: Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon are on the way to the moon when technical issues force them to abort. Panicking NASA technicians (including Joe Spano and Clint Howard, Ron's brother) struggle to bring them home, while grounded astronaut Gary Sinese tries to work out a solution to the problem. A tense and suspenseful ride—and an educational one. Was no doubt even more effective on the big screen than on my Macintosh. (9)

REGARDING HENRY (1991)—Somehow I missed this crowd-pleasing story when it was first released; I assume it was because reviews were less than enthusiastic. Harrison Ford is an arrogant, unlikeable attorney who get shot in the head during a robbery (by NYPD Blue's John Leguizamo!); after the healing process, he's reborn as a nice guy. The movie doesn't spend an inordinate amount of time dealing with Ford's convalescence and rehabilitation, preferring to fast-forward straight to his ironic transformation. It's all a bit unbelievable, a trifle corny, and perhaps forgettable…but it's a decent time passer. Annette Bening is Ford's supportive wife; the legendary Mike Nichols directed. (8)

LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN (1945)—Gene Tierney dumps lover Vincent Price to marry her new flame, played by Cornel Wilde. For the first half hour or so, everything goes swimmingly. You wonder: What's the twist? Where's the conflict? Then the conflict appears: Tierney is 17 different kinds of crazy! Thoroughly enjoyable drama that brought lovely Jeanne Crain (who plays Tierney's sister) to my attention—I'll be looking for more of her movies soon. (9)

JAKE'S WOMEN (1996)—Neil Simon's acclaimed 1990 comedy was made into a TV movie six years later with Alda reprising his stage role. I'm a fan of both Simon and Alda, so I was bound to check this out eventually. It's full of the trademark Neil Simon gags, and Alda is his usually hilarious self. He plays a writer separating from his wife (Anne Archer) and struggling to come to grips with the death of his previous wife (Mira Sorvino). Much of the unfolding action is played out in the form of Alda conversing with characters, both alive and dead, in his mind; occasionally real people appear "on stage" with the imaginary ones as Alda tackles his inner demons. It's a clever conceit, and most of the time it works. With Julie Kavner and Lolita Davidovich. (8)

MAN OF STEEL (2013)—The latest reboot of the Superman tale—and the first movie not to contain the word "Superman," an all-too-obvious attempt to copy the success of the Dark Knight series. Henry Cavill stars in what is basically a remake of 1980's Superman 2. It was a free screening, and the popcorn was not bad. I'm getting a bit bored of these superhero movies where invincible guys beat each other up for 30 minutes at a stretch while buildings topple on top of them but neither one gets hurt. (6)

THE LADYKILLERS (1955)—Still working my way through the cumulative film credits of Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers; here's one that features both comedic geniuses. Guinness and four associates plan a heist, little realizing that his sweet old landlady will prove to be a major fly in the ointment. Very funny, very cute…love this kind of stuff. Tom Hanks apparently remade this in 2004. (9)

THE KITCHEN (2012)—Another indie comedy—more of a comedy/drama, actually—that completely takes place in the kitchen of a house owned by Laura Prepon (of TV's That '70s Show) during her birthday party. Her sister (dreamy Dreama Walker), lover, friends, roommates and various partygoers flit in and out; secrets are revealed, people are sprayed with fire extinguishers and so on. It's a small, not very important movie, but never boring—especially when Prepon and Walker are on screen. (8)

GUYS AND DOLLS (1955)—In anticipation of watching my beautiful and talented adoptive nieces in a stage version of Guys and Dolls, I quickly memorized the score and watched the movie, so that I could follow what was going on up on their stage. As with many Hollywood versions of stage musicals, several of the songs have been excised, and three new ones put in their place. An adaptation of some short stories by Damon Runyon (which I also managed to read this month), G&D is a fun story loaded with famous songs ("Luck Be a Lady Tonight," "Bushel and a Peck," "Sit Down, You're Rocking the Boat"); the movie version is draggy in parts, and features the oddball casting of Marlon Brando in a singing role (hardly what he was known for). It's too long, for sure, but fitfully entertaining. (8)

WORLD WAR Z (2013)—I'm not a zombie fan, but Joan offered a free screening at Paramount, so we checked it out. Turns out I'm still not a zombie fan. (6)

THE INCREDIBLE BURT WONDERSTONE (2013)—With a promising cast headed by Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi, Alan Arkin, Olivia Wilde and Jim Carrey, and with a magician theme, I had high hopes for this springtime release…until it flopped amid lukewarm reviews. Still, I thought I would check it out, now that it's available on DVD. Low expectations paid off in spades: this is a fairly funny movie, with enough sight gags and one-liners to keep me satisfied from beginning to end. There's one scene toward the end involving Carell and Buscemi that I would have cut or rewritten (it's pretty stupid compared to the rest of the movie), but it's worth enduring; I laughed pretty consistently otherwise. This is a simple redemption story, well performed by its leads, and there's a nice part for the recently deceased James Gandolfini as well. Once again, Olivia Wilde proves she is one of the most adorable leading ladies working in film today. (8)

EUROPA REPORT (2013)—This outer-space adventure had a magnificent and compelling trailer, but the film itself doesn't live up to it. Sound familiar? A team of scientists head to Europa, Jupiter's moon, to look for signs of life. It's not spoiling anything to say that what they find isn't nothing. Like 2011's Apollo 18, this is another "found footage" movie with astronauts encountering numerous problems on the way to a heavenly body, notably sheer terror. The movie is beautifully photographed and technically brilliant, but there's very little character development to make us actually care about anybody. What we're left with is a variation of the old slasher-movie genre, with members of the crew getting killed off one by one. Some of it is fun, but overall it's not  really worth the voyage. Great visuals and effects, though. (6)