Monday, December 01, 2014

November 2014

November was mostly a quiet month. As always, it brought a delicious Thanksgiving feast at the Newmans' house, as well as the first chilly days (my air conditioner tends to get shut off in November). My computer's hard drive got fried when we lost power for a split-second earlier in the month; I lost all of my third-party software, but have managed to bring myself slowly back online at last. On the book side, I have now finished all but four Travis McGee mysteries by John D. MacDonald on audio, and am currently halfway through the new Stephen King thriller, called Revival. Working through my TV archives, I polished off Season 4 of Frasier (and am about halfway through Season 5), as well as the first couple of seasons of Kids in the Hall. Oh, and I applied for Obamacare. And that's about all I have to report. Here are the movies I saw in November:

NIGHTCRAWLER (2014)—I persuaded Joan to join me for this dark, creepy thriller about a handsome but sociopathic fellow (Jake Gyllenhaal) who breaks into the TV news business as a cameraman and succeeds by using highly unethical tactics. I believe the film captivated Joan as well as it did me; it seems to be a rare occurrence when we both leave the theater equally impressed by a movie. (9)

THE SKELETON TWINS (2014)—I had heard very positive reviews about this drama about grown siblings (Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, both formerly of Saturday Night Live), once quite close in their youth, but having drifted apart over the years. An attempted suicide by Hader's character lands him in his sister's care, and the story (what there is of it) unfolds in her home, with Luke Wilson as Wiig's affable and amazingly accommodating husband. The movie moves slowly but not too boringly; a scene where Hader and Wiig lip-sync Starship's '80s hit "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" is inspired fun. Not a great film, but reasonably entertaining, with excellent performances from the two leads. (8)

BIG HERO 6 (2014)—Like the 2004 Disney/Pixar superhero collaboration The Incredibles—has it really been 10 years since then?—Big Hero 6 is another astonishingly rendered and conceived animated confection, this one based on a Marvel comic book. Some of it has been Walt Disneyfied, of course, but that's not a negative; this suspenseful, funny and downright charming movie is one of the best I've seen all year, bursting with excellent characterization and surprises. (10)

INTERSTELLAR (2014)—Perhaps it was a mistake to see Interstellar immediately after the immensely satisfying Big Hero 6, but that's how the chips fell. For some reason, Christopher Nolan's big-budget science-fiction extravaganza was on my "Most Anticipated Movies" list for 2014, as I evidently forgot about how intensely unsatisfied I was with his earlier hits The Prestige, The Dark Knight and especially 2010's Inception. Chalk up another shattering disappointment from Nolan's imagination (he co-wrote this claptrap). A frightfully overlong mess in which very little makes sense, Interstellar does at least have some decent performances, but I think it will be a long time before I see another of his movies. The one silver lining is how much delicious fun you can have reading blogs with titles like "21 Things in Interstellar That Don't Make Sense." (4)

THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING (2014)—Cambridge student Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) meets and romances Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones); he makes historic advances in the field of physics but falls victim to motor neuron disease. The movie chronicles his battle with the disability but celebrates his successes in spite of it. It's a modest and educational dramatization of real-life events, most entertaining for Redmayne's incredible portrayal of the world-famous scientist. (8)

CHASE A CROOKED SHADOW (1958)—After a spate of new movies, I needed to escape to the past, and this oldie about an heiress (anne Baxter) menaced by a con artist (Richard Todd) pretending to be her dead brother was a nice diversion to yesteryear. There's an undeniable Hitchcockian quality to the movie, which plays with Alfred's classic themes of identity crisis. It also has a great surprise (although implausible) finale. Still...I enjoyed it. With the great Herbert Lom as a police chief, and an excellent guitar score by Julian Bream. (9)

ST. VINCENT (2014)—Tepid reviews kept me from seeing this Bill Murray comedy-drama, but a strong recommendation from Val Collins inspired me to give it a try...and bravo for her excellent advice! Yes, there is a saccharine, manipulative quality to this redemption story about a crusty old guy (Murray) who develops a friendship with the little kid who moves in next door; together they learn to be better people from each other. OK, so I bought the entire thing from beginning to end and had a tear in my eye by the time the end credits rolled. Sue me! Definitely one of the year's best, and a return to form for Murray. (10)

STONEHEARST ASYLUM (2014)—Based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe, this thriller stars Jim Sturgess as an Oxford Medical School graduate who travels to a creepy lunatic asylum to learn how to care for the inmates...but it seems that the inmates are already running the asylum. That's not really much of a spoiler, as it doesn't take an Oxford Medical School graduate to figure it out almost immediately (so why isn't it obvious to Sturgess?). Once there, he falls for a beautiful patient played by Kate Beckinsale—and what heterosexual male wouldn't fall for Kate Beckinsale? Ben Kingsley, Michael Caine and especially sinister David Thewlis are on hand to make the atmosphere as creepy as possible; it's about on par with the old Hammer Film shockers of the 1960s—not great, but acceptably entertaining if you dig that kind of thing. (8)

THE PIRATES! BAND OF MISFITS (2012)—From the folks who gave us the marvelous Chicken Run (2000), as well as the so-terrible-it-hurts Flushed Away (2006) comes another Claymation-like feature from Aardman Studios, this time about a band of pirates who set out on a seagoing adventure that involves a rare dodo bird. Co-directed and co-produced by Peter Lord (who co-directed and co-produced Chicken Run), this isn't quite as much fun as that perfect film, but it's pretty good, with a lot of exceptional animation, scenery and characters, as well as a healthy dose of gags. Hugh Grant supplies the voice of the Pirate Captain. (8)

FOXCATCHER (2014)—With Oscar buzz aplenty for Steve Carell in a rare dramatic role, I was excited to see this true-life story of John du Pont, the heir to a considerable fortune whose relationship to some wrestlers he coaches (Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo) takes some rather unexpected turns. Joan and I suffered through 134 minutes of stiflingly boring setup, which finally gets interesting in the final few minutes. Then, bang, it's all over. Through most of the movie, Carell is sedate and low-key, showing us signs that he is slowly (very slowly) losing his marbles. Watching interviews with the real du Pont after seeing the film makes you realize that Carell's characterization of him (including his annoying stop-start speaking style) is fairly spot-on, but there's really not enough in the script to engage the viewer—or, at the very least, us. (5)

SPRING BREAKERS (2013)—Director Harmony Korine's story of how a group of hot college-age girls plunge head-first into a world of drugs and violence is rendered in a much more "arty" style than I was expecting, with a lot of offbeat direction, repeated loops of dialogue and an overall "experimental" feel. James Franco, unrecognizable in cornrows and metallic grill, plays a rapping gangster who bails the girls out of jail after a drug bust and gives them an opportunity to really indulge in some unlawful activities. Lots of drug use, violence and nudity in this tale of debauchery in St. Petersburg, Florida, but it's rather unlike what I had been expecting. Interesting; doesn't really add up to very much, but a great showcase for Franco, whose bizarre performance makes this worth watching. As one critic observed, "If Michael Mann were take a lot of hallucinogenics and shoot a Girls Gone Wild video, it might look something like this." (8)

THE BABADOOK (2014)—Some movies fail to create a truly compelling story, yet do an extraordinary job in other areas. In the case of the Australian horror flick The Babadook—which ultimately is little more than Paranormal Activity meets The Shining—the filmmakers do an outstanding job in the areas of makeup, special effects, artistic direction and a general creepy feel throughout. Actress Essie Davis, as a widow trying to raise her troubled young son (Noah Wiseman), is superb, but I wish there had been more to the movie than a woman becoming possessed by a mysterious demon. I did enjoy the ending, and the children's-book-within-the-movie (also called The Babadook), as created by Alex Juhasz, is absolutely extraordinary—it's the best thing in the movie. (8)

DARK TOUCH (2012)—As with the previous entry, Dark Touch is a horror movie that creates a satisfyingly creepy atmosphere, but delivers even less than its predecessor in terms of story. Basically, an 11-year-old girl (Missy Keating), having been sexually and physically abused by her now-deceased parents, is understandably having some major trust issues with her new foster parents—plus, she has telekinesis (like Sissy Spacek in the fondly recalled Carrie, which this movie definitely ain't). Keating conveys sadness, confusion and fear extremely well, but the movie annoyingly raises more questions than it answers. (6)