Sunday, November 03, 2013

October 2013

This will probably be a slightly abbreviated entry, as I haven't been feeling great lately and it's uncomfortable to sit in front of a computer. Briefly, I have continued on my Alfred Hitchcock Presents journey; I have now made it almost all the way through Season 3, which comprises well over 100 episodes. I am continuing to enjoy the series very much. In addition, I've been working my way through Series 4 of Downton Abbey, currently airing only in the UK (fortunately, I know how to bootleg), as well as first-run episodes of Homeland, SVU, Simpsons and Modern Family. And yet, even with all of the TV viewing, I saw a respectable amount of movies this month:


GRAVITY (2013)—An exciting marooned-in-space adventure with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney grappling to survive after debris crashes into their space shuttle. Amazing direction and special effects enhance this edge-of-your seat thriller. (9)

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (2013)—Real-life story of the 2009 Maersk Alabama cargo ship hijacking by Somali pirates. Tom Hanks plays ship captain Richard Phillips. The movie is divided into two sections: the ship part, and the lifeboat part. Both are very interesting, but the second half does drag on a bit. Still, this is an informative and often terrifying drama. I was somewhat saddened to read several accounts by actual sailors who objected to the virtual canonization of the real-life Phillips on the basis that he dropped the ball and made several mistakes that might have prevented the attack. (9)

ALL IS LOST (2013)—Second terror-at-sea thriller gives Robert Redford a chance to showcase his acting talents with almost no dialogue. Stranded on a sinking sailboat in the middle of the ocean, he must use his wits to stay afloat—and alive. Very enjoyable, except for the ambiguous ending, which I despised. (8)

JACKASS PRESENTS BAD GRANDPA (2013)—Taking a cue from Borat, this is a series of Candid Camera type pranks with several scripted linking scenes to glue it all together. Some of it is very funny, some of it is just stupid, and a lot of it is a combination of both. Sophomoric but undeniably amusing. (7)

12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013)—Despite the avalanche of accolades, I found this movie excruciating to watch, as it's torture porn of the worst sort—far worse than Saw, Hostel or Human Centipede. And yet people are applauding this unbelievably violent, ultra-sadistic movie as if it were The Godfather. Ugh! Nobody hates slavery more than I do, but this was so brutal I wanted to vomit. Some marvelous acting saves it. (7)

THE DIRTIES (2013)—"Found footage" comedy-drama about a pair of bullied high-school kids who decide to make a movie about their dilemma...and then one of them starts to imagine them as the new Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. A little too self-indulgent for my tastes, but it does have a jolt of an ending. (6)


THE ATTIC (1980)—I always enjoy Ray Milland, especially when he went slumming on TV shows and in horror movies like Frogs. This is from that second phase of his career, a lurid thriller about a woman (Diary of a Mad Housewife's Carrie Snodgress) and her grouchy, wheelchair-bound father (Milland). It's sort of a latter day grand guignol story along the lines of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Sort of trashy, but very watchable and the two leads are great, especially Snodgress. (8)

DARK PASSAGE (1947)—Jay Steele and I caught this mystery at Palo Alto's beloved Stanford Theatre revival house. Humphrey Bogart stars as a prison escapee who sets out to prove he didn't commit the murder he was sent up for; Lauren Bacall tries to help him. The gimmick of this movie is that you don't see Bogie's face for the first 40 minutes or so. I never realized how gorgeous the young Bacall was. The movie is entertaining but more than a little farfetched. Co-starring Agnes "Endora" Moorehead. (8)

WISH YOU WERE HERE (2012)—I continue to chip away at my "2012 Movies I'm Sorry I Missed" list with this mystery involving two Aussie couples who vacation in Cambodia...and only three of them come back. What happened to the one missing man is the secret that isn't revealed until the violent ending. It's a movie that plays around with a non-linear format (i.e., lots of flashbacks), but it's fairly well done. It definitely kept me guessing. (8)

WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN (2012)—Second of three that I missed last year. "Unique" is the first word that comes to mind about this drama about a couple (Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly) whose newborn son grows up to be a dangerous sociopath (Ezra Miller). Lionel Shriver's novel makes a compelling and sometimes frightening drama that explores the "nurture vs. nature" aspect of the sociopath and how his total lack of empathy for others breaks the family apart. It's a flashback-laden affair that grows in tension, leading up to a nail-biting finale. This movie kept me thinking for a couple of days after I screened it, and I consider that quite an achievement for a movie—few others get under my skin in that way. Only debit: how did homely Swinton and Reilly have such great-looking kids? (9)

BIG MIRACLE (2012)—This is the true story (from 1988) of the effort to rescue three Alaskan whales trapped in ice. Former TV actors John Krasinski (The Office), Kristen Bell (Veronica Mars), Ted Danson (Cheers), Kathy Baker (Picket Fences) and Stephen Root (NewsRadio) join Drew Barrymore as some of the folks who try to save the whales. There's no real villain in this movie except for the very bad weather; the proliferation of TV actors—and the G-rated "family" type feel—make this feel a lot like a TV movie. And of course, since many of the scenes are obviously filmed in a studio, none of the actors walking around in 50-below freezing cold have any fog on their breath, which continues to be one of my all-time movie pet peeves.'s a hard movie to really hate. (7)

September 2013

By the end of September, I had finished watching the first two seasons of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which represents 78 episodes, or roughly 34 hours—the equivalent of 17 two-hour movies. It's been a fun ride; obviously the time I would have spent watching older movies at home has been dramatically compromised. Other TV shows also proved to be a distraction, as Dexter and Breaking Bad wrapped up their final seasons and other current series (Modern Family, Law & Order: SVU, The Simpsons and South Park) made their fall debuts. The bottom line is that I "only" made it to the theater five times in September. Here's what I saw:

SHORT TERM 12 (2013)—Despite some totally unnecessarily scatological talk near the beginning (which almost had me bolting from the theater), this turns out to be a compelling drama about teens battling various demons, including drugs and parental abuse, and trying to come to terms with these issues in a facility for troubled youths. Director Destin Cretton has expanded and recast his 2008 short film to bring his story to a larger audience, and it's a good one. (8)

LEE DANIELS' THE BUTLER (2013)—Forest Whitaker plays Cecil Gaines, a character based on the real-life story of Eugene Allen, who worked as a butler in the White House from 1952 to 1986, from Eisenhower to Reagan. The movie gives us a look at all the civil rights issues during these times, shows us glimpses of all the presidents during this time period, and provides a peek at Gaines' home life with wife Oprah Winfrey and two sons whose own lives are touched by racial tensions, politics and war. Some of it, like the actual goings-on in the White House, are interesting, but when the action shifts to Cecil's marriage with Winfrey, I got very bored. (6)

ENOUGH SAID (2013)—Writer-director Nicole Holofcener, who captured my attention with the 2010 sleeper Please Give, returns with a surprisingly conventional romantic comedy starring James Gandolfini (who died after filming) and Seinfeld's Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Holofcener has a wonderful ear for dialogue, and her film contains an acceptable amount of comedy and good performances from the leads (as well as from Toni Collette and perpetual Holofcener actress Catherine Keener), but it doesn't have anything like the originality or freshness of Please Give. Even so, it's much better than the average Hollywood romcom, clever without being truly exceptional. (8)

DON JON (2013)—I have always enjoyed Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an actor; he's very memorable in movies like 500 Days of Summer and Looper. Now he's back on screen as a triple threat—writing, directing and starring in Don Jon (originally titled Don Jon's Addiction), about a bartender who really enjoys watching porn on his computer. Even though Jon is fit and good-looking—and can get virtually any lady he sets his eyes on—for a variety of reasons he still prefers watching and masturbating to dirty movies over having sex with a woman. Then Scarlett Johansson enters his life. She's a beautiful blonde bombshell who becomes his first very real prospect for a long-term relationship. When she discovers his secret passion for all things X-rated, though, their relationship is threatened. Or did Jon just dodge a bullet? What's interesting about the film is where the story goes from that point forward, with the introduction of a character played by Julianne Moore (who is about 20 years older than Gordon-Levitt), and the revelation that aspects of Johannson's character may be more troublesome than Jon's interest in dirty movies. Don Jon held my interest throughout, and is one of the few mainstream movies that's honest about how and why men love to watch pornography without totally tsk-tsking it. Although she only has a small role, this is the third movie I've seen in the past two months to feature the gifted actress Brie Larson—although used sparingly in this film, she is remarkable in both The Spectacular Now and Short Term 12. Note to self: I still need to see Gordon-Levitt in Premium Rush. (9)

PRISONERS (2013)—This 2½-hour-long movie about a cop (always reliable Jake Gyllenhaal) who tries to track down two kidnapped little girls feels like 3½ hours and needs to be much, much shorter. It contains a respectable amount of tension, suspense and action, but it also meanders and contains way too many super-slow parts for my liking. It doesn't help that I had basically figured out the solution to the mystery about halfway through. A fairly good thriller that could have and should have been much better with more editing. Some people were complaining about the somewhat sly and subtle ending, but I rather liked it. Melissa Leo is a standout. (8)

Currently playing in theaters that I hope to catch in October: Rush, The Dirties, Gravity, Elysium and You're Next. And opening in the weeks ahead: The Fifth Estate, Carrie, Great Expectations, Captain Phillips and Machete Kills. They're all on my to-do list.