Wednesday, January 01, 2014

December 2013

After November managed to pass without a single movie viewed (owing to both an extended sickness and the fact that I was continuing to binge-watch old episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents), I hoped to make up for it in December. (Side note: as of this writing, I am rocketing toward the end of Season 6 of Hitchcock.) I think I did a respectable job catching up with first-run movies, especially since I took a two-week vacation, cruising the Caribbean and spending time in South Florida with friends and family. Interestingly, of the 12 films I screened in December, fully half of them were inspired by real-life individuals. Must be Oscar season! Here's what I saw:

THOR: THE DARK WORLD (2013)—I enjoyed the first Thor very much, and subsequently had high hopes for the sequel. As it turns out, some of it is enjoyable...but as a whole, I felt it fell far short of the original. Watchable but not memorable. (7)

FROZEN (2013)—Here's a very pretty, very tuneful Disney animated adventure featuring the great Josh Gad (Broadway's The Book of Mormon) as a hilarious snowman. Extremely slick and polished, aided by the music of Robert Lopez (another alumnus from Mormon). Disney makes the most of its stellar cast, which includes Idina Menzel (Broadway's Wicked) and Kristen Bell. (9)

NEBRASKA (2013)—Director Alexander Payne's first four major-release pictures (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt and Sideways) were superior comedy-dramas—satirical, searingly funny and full of oddball characters and pathos. 2011's The Descendants, while enjoyable, didn't quite reach the heights of those earlier films, and that's also true of this latest effort. Filmed in beautiful, stark black-and-white, it follows older-than-dirt Bruce Dern and his son, Will Forte of Saturday Night Live, on a road-trip from Montana to Nebraska to collect the $1 million Dern erroneously believes he's won in an advertising sweepstakes. Along the way, we meet various friends and family members who do and say some interesting and/or amusing things, but it seems a bit like watered-down Schmidt to me. Still, any Payne film is automatically better than most movies. (8)

AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013)—Christian Bale, unrecognizable under a weird wig and with 40 extra pounds on his gut, plays a forged-art dealer in the 1970s who, after running afoul of the Feds, works out a deal with them to catch various other lowlifes (i.e., mayors and Congressmen) via bribe-acceptance flim-flammery, reminiscent of the famous ABSCAM sting operation. Bradley Cooper, with hideous curly hair, is a hot-tempered FBI guy who manages to let himself get pulled a little too closely into these con games; Amy Adams is Bale's partner in crime; and Jennifer Lawrence, in her best role so far, is Bale's greedy, chain-smoking wife. At 138 minutes, the movie goes on way too long; despite strong critical reviews (and a few nicely played scenes), it's often very draggy and feels bloated. However, when Lawrence is onscreen, the movie springs to life. (6)

HER (2013)—Spike Jonez's latest is a sci-fi romance that casts Joaquin Phoenix as a fellow who, in the not-too-distant future, explores his computer's new operating system—an "artificially intelligent" being (think HAL from 2001, only voiced by sexy, smoky-voiced Scarlett Johannson). This OS is so real that the two engage in the equivalent of phone sex and gradually develop a "real" relationship. But, as with the very best science fiction, new technology often yields unexpected and horrifying ramifications. The cast does a terrific job in this futuristic story, which seems entirely too plausible. (9)

SAVING MR. BANKS (2013)—Who doesn't love Walt Disney's version of Mary Poppins? P.L. Travers, that's who. The cantankerous creator of the Mary Poppins books was evidently dead set against the "Disneyfication" of her creation, and this movie brings to the screen (by Disney, no less) the clash between Travers and the studio as they try to secure the rights to the character. As Travers, the always dependable Emma Thompson accurately portrays the ornery, constantly displeased author…but despite a halfhearted attempt to soften her toward the end, she's entirely too much of a Negative Nelly to win my heart. The infusion of numerous flashbacks to explain her current mood are all rather awkward and don't do much to serve the narrative—I still wanted to kick Travers in the face. Featuring Tom Hanks as Walt Disney. (6)

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS (2013)—The Coen Brothers are totally unpredictable. Their films waver in quality between the classic 1996 Fargo and the unwatchable A Serious Man from last year, which bored me silly. Inside Llewyn Davis doesn't offer the savage action of Fargo or the inspired nuttiness of The Big Lebowski, but much of it is amusing in a way that is uniquely Coen—such as when Llewyn, a folk singer, sits down with an iconic record producer (F. Murray Abraham), who patiently listens to the guitarist perform a wonderful tune and then deadpans, "I don't see a lot of money here." That may be the funniest line I've heard in a movie this year, yet it's also sad and brutal. The plot of the movie might be stated as: "Homeless Chicago-based folk singer meets weirdos and struggles to stay warm and earn money." As a result, the film contains a great deal of awkward humor, which definitely appeals to me. Nothing about Llewyn except for his music is appealing—like Saving Mr. Banks, it's a movie saddled with a central character who is almost completely unlikable—but the constant misery the Coens put him through is something verging on magical. (9)

PHILOMENA (2013)—The true story of Philomena Lee, a woman whose child was forcibly removed from her and sold off by the Catholic church. Now, some 50 years earlier, she joins forces with a journalist to track down her son. Alternately funny, sad, ironic and shattering, Philomena is a touching film that challenges and surprises the viewer. As Philomena, Judi Dench is her usual magnificent self, and Steve Coogan turns in another excellent performance, close on the heels of What Maisie Knew. (9)

THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013)—You don't expect Martin Scorsese movies to be particularly funny, but although Wolf could most accurately be described as a comedy-drama, I laughed during this movie more than most straight-out comedies. Although it has a length of three hours, it moves fairly briskly. It has a lot of fun satirizing its drug-abusing, sex-addicted, corruption-obsessed stockbrokers. Led by Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill, this cautionary tale (inspired by the true story of Jordan Belfort wallows in their wretched excesses, which turns out to be good news for viewers of this movie. Featuring knockout Aussie actress Margot Robbie as Leo's love interest…can't wait to see her on screen again. (9)

DALLAS BUYERS CLUB (2013)—Like American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street, this is yet another drama based on the story of a real-life hustler who ran afoul of the law. Matthew McConaughey (who does a cameo in Wolf) stars here as Ron Woodroof, a Texas lowlife who's diagnosed with HIV and who eventually starts distributing illegal medicines to other sufferers of the virus. We see a very repellent, homophobic side of Woodroof at first, but as time goes on, we gradually begin to see how his plight humanizes him—most strongly epitomized by how his relationship with a transgender character (Jared Leto) evolves. It's a sad picture—not entirely to my taste, but it's gotten universally good notices. (6)

THE PAST (2013)—My main reason for wanting to see this—other than the fact that reviews have been phenomenal—was because it stars dreamy French actress Bérénice Bejo of 2011's The Artist. (Coincidentally, Jean Dujardin, the male star of The Artist, cropped up in The Wolf of Wall Street, which I had seen only the day before.) In The Artist, Bejo played a sweet, adorable, nurturing, goody-two-shoes sort of character; with her role in The Past, nobody is going to accuse her of being typecast. Indeed, I am not sure I would have even recognized her in The Past, in which she plays a troubled, spiteful, chain-smoking, double divorcee. Moreover, she is made up to look significantly less beautiful than she appeared in The Artist. The Past (Le Passé) tells about how Bejo and her Iranian husband (Ali Mosaffa) reunite to finalize their divorce, while her new flame (Tahar Rahim) must deal with his own spouse, who is in a coma following an attempted suicide. During the course of the film, numerous family secrets are unearthed and hurt feelings come to the surface, so there's no end of drama as these three characters intervene (along with children from various marriages). It's a searing and emotional drama populated by characters we care about and want to see healed. I already want to see it again. It's something just short of a masterpiece. (9)

YOU'RE NEXT (2013)—A large family gets together when some killers wearing animal masks start to pick them off, one by one. This is a standard slasher movie with one genuinely surprising twist in the middle, but not much else. I feel like I've seen this movie before. It has a few good moments, but I'm stunned that it has a 75% (!) positive rating on the Tomatometer. (7)

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