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)

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