Tuesday, May 06, 2014

April 2014

TV continued to compete for the attention I would normally be giving to the movies in April. In fact, I was able to binge-watch a couple of limited-run series in their entirety this month: Christopher Guest's Family Tree (featuring his much-imitated mockumentary style) and the HDNet two-season comedy show Svetlana, starring Iris Bahr. Even so, I found time for the following nine films—only one of which proved to be entirely satisfying.

MR. PEABODY & SHERMAN (2014)—A great-looking cartoon with excellent voice characterizations that nonetheless fails to live up to the memory of the charming and massively less expensive 1960s original (as seen on the Bullwinkle and Rocky TV series). All of the tiresome modern-day trappings are here, including the toilet joke every five minutes on the dot. The first half of Peabody is reasonably diverting, but the second is too frenetic and nonsensical for my tastes. (5)

UNDER THE SKIN (2014)—I like science-fiction. I love Scarlett Johansson. So the pairing of the two sounds like a match made in Heaven, especially as this film marks the first time Johannson has appeared nude in a feature film. Unfortunately, the film is a hugely boring and repetitive mess, with virtually no story except that Scarlett is an alien stalking and killing humans in Scotland. That's it. There's nothing else, and not even her nudity can warrant wasting a minute watching this headache-inducing tripe. (2)

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (2014)—With a delightful, lighthearted trailer preceding its release, Grand Budapest had all the earmarks of a fun and quirky Wes Anderson outing. (I am not a big fan, but I did enjoy his 2012 Moonrise Kingdom). Whatever else it is, Budapest is a masterpiece of color and set design, and it contains a winning lead performance by Ralph Fiennes as the concierge of a famous old hotel. The first half of the film was precisely what I was expecting, with some wonderfully droll set pieces and one of the meanest screen villains I have ever seen; however, the plot becomes too convoluted and dramatic in the second half, causing me to lose interest. While it's a pity Anderson could not sustain the movie's energy and exuberance, it's one of the best-looking movies I've ever seen. (6)

OCULUS (2014)—A horror movie about a haunted mirror. Writer-director Mike Flanagan gives us an ingenious setup: a brother and sister in their 20s attempt to destroy the creepy mirror that caused a family tragedy when they were kids (and that has apparently been killing people for more than a century). Their stories from both time frames are explored via intercut flashbacks, which often works extremely well. Regrettably, the movie is about 20 minutes longer than it needs to be, with some subplots and characters that add nothing to the drama—a recurring problem in a lot of these horror movies. Still, there's a fairly good chiller in here somewhere. (7)

AFFLICTED (2014)—A found-footage horror movie about a couple of backpackers who travel to Europe and film everything for their website. Things turn bad very quickly when one of the friends gets bitten by a vampire and begins an awful transformation. In keeping with this month's theme, only about half of what's here is enjoyable. (6)

IN YOUR EYES (2014)—Zoe Kazan, a somewhat goofy-looking but not unattractive actress, is a young woman playing at romance within a particularly farfetched supernatural movie conceit. That's the basic premise of 2012's Ruby Sparks, and also the plot of this movie, which was written and produced by Joss Whedon of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame. In this movie, the two lovebirds share an unexplained telepathic connection, chatting with each other without needing a cell phone from different parts of the country. While the screenplay contains some of Whedon's trademark witty dialogue, any individual episode of Buffy contains more romance, suspense and comedy than In Your Eyes. Not released to theaters, but as a digital download. (7)

FADING GIGOLO (2014)—None of April's fantastical story elements (haunted mirrors, time-traveling dogs, telepathic soul mates, savage vampires and organ-harvesting aliens) could have prepared me for the most farfetched plot yet—the idea that smoldering Sofia Vergara would need to pay homely 57-year-old John Turturro for sex. I'm sorry, but we have to draw a line somewhere! Because there's a unwholesome plot about a "sexy" older man coupled with a much younger woman, it's no surprise that Woody Allen appears in the film, although he merely plays the pimp that sets up the unlikely gigolo with his clients. Despite this laughable premise, the movie is not completely horrible; about 40 percent of it actually works, especially the scenes featuring Woody, who delivers the best performance with his trademark one-liners. (The movie was written and directed by Turturro.) Unfortunately, Turturro has a fondness for long, boring montage sequences, and there are three interminable ones here that totally destroy the flow of the picture. Vanessa Paradis is memorable and touching as a Jewish widow ravaged by loneliness, and who finds comfort in Turturro's gentle touch. (7)

ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW (2013)—Here's the first of two movies released last year (but recently released on DVD). This one gained notoriety by being almost completely filmed—in secret—at Disney World and Disneyland. When a guy and his wife take their young kids to Orlando's iconic amusement park, strange and creepy things start to happen. Shot in black and white using ordinary-looking Canon cameras (in order to avoid getting caught), the film (by writer-director Randy Moore) is a wildly mixed bag: it seems to take turns being intriguingly weird and annoyingly weird, with odd recurring characters, surreal hallucinations, horrifying special effects and two superb child actors. It never quite rises above being a novelty item, although its monochromatic stangeness recalls Eraserhead in the hands of a slightly less demented auteur. While not a great movie, you can't help but admire its originality, which boldly separates it from most Hollywood fare. If only it had been as good as its wonderful poster! (7)

OLDBOY (2013)—Spike Lee's remake of the 2003 South Korean thriller is intense, even riveting. It's also so gruesome at times (one torture scene in particular is so off-putting that I had to stop looking at the screen entirely). Josh Brolin stars as an ad man who is inexplicably kidnapped and held prisoner in a room for 20 years while simultaneously framed for the murder of his wife. Then his mysterious captor suddenly releases him and orders him to figure out why he was locked up, or he'll kill his now-grown daughter. The always-excellent Elizabeth Olsen tries to help Brolin in his quest, and it's a grim but suspenseful ride. Hardly what we're used to from Spike Lee; apparently he delivered a much longer version that was edited down by the studio against his will. In any case, Oldboy proves to be the most enjoyable movie I saw all month, with great performances (including Samuel L. Jackson, playing himself as usual) and a zinger of a twist ending. (8)


Helen said...

Just thought I'd mention that the original Oldboy (2003) is a South Korean film, not a Japanese one.

I enjoy reading your blog...been reading for a few years now!

Brett said...

Yikes! I'll fix that. Thank you so much for reading! I had no idea anybody else was even aware of this blog.

Morgan Allie said...

Nice reviews on these movies! I have been reading through some of your post and I think I can take your word for your ratings. Can't wait to see more!